Conquest

Someone knocks on your door mid afternoon. Before this, you’d been sitting at your desk, watching Mad Men, eating a slice of peanut butter toast. You’re alone. You’ve been alone for a while, but you are more alone than usual. Someone is missing. But you put it out of you head, you put him out of your head and think about how much better life was when social interactions had more formal rules. You hear the knock a second time round. You get up to answer the door and he’s standing there.

You immediately become tense. He stares at the floor, speaks quietly.

We need to talk.

You’ve never been in a situation like this before. Usually, if you’re having trouble with someone, you avoid them for a while, sleep it off. But this is different, you live together. And despite ignoring his messages, and despite quietly brooding in your room all weekend, he’s come up to talk to you. To ‘fix it’. But you’re still angry. You want to slam the door in his face, but you know it’ll make him the victim. And you absolutely can’t have that. So you take a deep breath and shrug.

Fine.

He slinks inside. You take a seat at your desk, while he stands awkwardly, eyes downcast. He’s really playing up the ‘wounded puppy’ routine and you can’t wait to tear him down. For a second you feel like a queen. How a queen must feel when a peasant comes into her chambers, grovelling. You wonder if he’ll get on his knees. You wonder if you’ll ask him to. Order him to do more than apologise. Make him beg. Your mind wanders…

You realise that there must be a thin line between love and hate. At this point, you dislike him. You really do. But at the back of your mind you know how good things will be when the two of you make up. You’re momentarily torn. You want to strangle and then embrace him. Or the other way round. Or maybe both at the same time.

I’d like to apologise for my behavior on Friday.

He starts his speech while you remain stony faced. When he’s done, you don’t say anything. He looks surprised. Perhaps he thought this would be a lot easier. All he would have to do is say the words and you’d forgive. Because, at the end of the day, no one died. You’re here. He’s here. So kiss and make up, no?

Are you done?

What do you mean?

Because that’s not how I remember it.

Now for the part you’ve been waiting for. Rebuttals. Two people giving minute by minute accounts of the same night. You’ll say he was being off with you, he’ll say he was tired. He’ll say that he’s sorry you took it that way, you’ll say there was no other way to take it. You’ll say he was annoyed about something, and he was taking it out on you. He’ll say that maybe, yeah, he was annoyed, but he didn’t mean to take it on you, not on purpose anyway. You’ll go back and forth, neither of you telling the truth. ‘I want you to be who I want you be, all the time, in every situation, and when you’re not, I’m going to turn on you. Because I’m angry at myself. I’m angry at myself for projecting all my hopes and dreams onto yet another unsuccessful candidate.’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

You can’t say it. You can’t say it because you don’t know it to be true yet. In your unsophisticated mind, you think he is in the wrong, and you can’t understand his thought process, so you’ll just go back and forth until one of you, exhausted by the tension, gives in. But what he doesn’t know is that you’re made for this. This is your wheelhouse. Grudges, animosity, it’s how you’ve made it this far in life. You don’t feel alive unless your jaw is tensed, and your heart is thudding and your fist is clenched. Anger is something you understand. Affection is not.

So he gives in. But he doesn’t just give in. There are tears in his eyes and his voice cracks.

I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…I’m sorry for all of it. The reason I walked away was because I was upset, like I am now, about…about…

He never tells you why. He doesn’t have to. All your anger is gone at the sight of him crumbling, your quest for answers or domination, whatever it was, withers away as he turns from you. He is vulnerable. He is ashamed. He is scared. You know what that feels like. You can’t press him any further. You don’t want to anyway. You’ve never seen him look so small.

I…What can I- Are you alright?

He mumbles something. Calls himself an idiot. You tell him that he’s not. Your tone has changed. You’re softer, quieter. You want to comfort him. You never want to make him sad. You go over, wrap your arms around him. He grips you back, tightly.

I don’t want things to be awkward between us.

I know. I’m sorry.

And just like that, you switch roles. You don’t know it at the time, but he’s got you, just as tightly as his hands grip yours. And all he had to do was let his pretty blue eyes get glassy and choke up a little. You should have known. What kind of peasant is allowed into the Queen’s chambers? You have met your match.

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In My Dreams, We’re Still Screaming and Running Through the Yard

‘I’ve got light up trainers, do you wanna see them?”

She stood before me with her hands in her shorts’ pockets, her scabby elbows pointing out in right angles. The light summer breeze was rippling the Barbie t-shirt that she always wore, and flicking blond curls around her forehead. We must have been about 8 years old; yes, I distinctly remember a wad of Pokemon cards that kept falling out of my dungaree pockets. There were still wooden park benches on the green behind my block of flats and my grass stained Nikes hadn’t lost their peeling pink ticks yet.

When she spoke, I was completely dumbstruck. I repeated the words again slowly in my head: light up trainers. I still couldn’t believe it. Those shoes only existed on television, in the musical breaks between Fun House and Hey Arnold, my mother had said. If Alison owned a pair of these fabled shoes, then her parents must have performed some kind of incredible feat. Pulled them straight out of the television, or something. Because at 8 years old, I struggled to believe my mother could possibly ever lie to me. If she said those trainers were hard to get, then they were hard to get and Alison’s mum must have suffered very greatly to get them. So I definitely wanted to see them. I wanted to see them and touch them and smell them and then share the odyssey that these shoes had encouraged with my mother, in the hopes that she would also sacrifice her well-being to acquire them for me. Especially now that the likes of Alison had a pair. It’s odd actually, to think I had no concept of deception when I was younger, but knew exactly how pride worked.

‘Yeah, alright,’ I said eventually, still trying to process the information as Alison bounded back up the stairs of the tower block she lived in towards her flat. She slammed the landing door so fiercely in her excitement that she made me jump in mine. After a brief pause, and an exasperated warning from her mother, the sound of thudding footsteps echoed in the stairwell. She was so eager that she was jumping down whole flights of stairs. But not just jumping, flashing too, with dazzling pink lights where her heels had once been.

When she reached me, she began parading up and down, an ecstatic smile on her chubby, childish face. She pointed to the white trainers as she did so, to the floral accents, the neon Velcro straps, and of course the magic lights that twinkled on and off in time with her footsteps. It was as though I had stepped into the advert, and she was selling the shoes to me. Soon I was convinced that I needed a pair, watching her marching up and down, beaming with her large green eyes and toothy grin.

“They’re the best, aren’t they?” she exclaimed, jumping up and down and making her tight ringlets bob along with her.

“My dad got them for me when he went on holiday; he’s the best!”

Ah. So that explained it, to me anyway. They were foreign. Foreign was a place like Narnia, a place where anything could happen. Of course she’d got her shoes from foreign. I’d call my dad as soon as I got home and ask for a pair from his new home in foreign.

We raced around the green as she showed me all the things her shoes could do that basic, substandard trainers could not; illuminating a cartwheel, for example, so that when she spun around she glowed like a Catherine Wheel. Or brightening up a dance routine so that no one’s eyes were on the mediocre choreography; or dazzling the rope turners when she jumped so that she never got caught in the death trap of double dutch.

Finally, when she had exhausted these pursuits, we flopped down on the grass, staring up at the sky and searching for the sun that was warming our damp skin.

“You know what,” she said in her dream like, distracted, 8 year old way, “you can borrow my shoes whenever you want. Because you’re my friend. My bestest friend in the whole world, and we can share my shoes forever!”

She took them off then, and let me try them on. I remember being so happy. Almost a bit light headed with it. Not just because I had the best shoes I’d ever worn on my tiny prepubescent feet, but because I genuinely believed her. All we needed to be happy was each other and one pair of mega special trainers. We were about to embark on a multitude of adventures. There was scaffolding that had just gone up on the other side of the estate. We’d be flashing all over that soon. Bright eyed and young and overwhelmingly optimistic.


 

I saw her the other day pushing a pram along the pavement. I’d say I was surprised but it was bound to happen; none of my friends from home ever really moved away, we just never stayed in contact. I’d like to blame the pair of trainers for dividing us, but it was probably the pride. There is only so long that someone can put up with being put down. When I saw her, she looked old. Really old. Not just in a ‘it’s been 12 years so I’ve grown taller’ way, but in a life way. Her shoulders were hunched like they had carried a heavy load for a long time; her eyes were downcast like they had seen some trying times. Her curls were straggly, she was uncomfortably thin. The sort of things you can imagine when someone mentions the phrase ‘shell of a former self’. I barely recognized her, and she didn’t recognise me at all. Just swept past in that obnoxious teen mum way, face contorted into a grimace, bomber jacket flapping in the wind. The child wrestled with the safety grips of the chair.  I couldn’t really see, but I got the impression that she didn’t have those blinking trainers anymore.

 

Observation 151

41fc8b2c15c1269363d1f1975abd3215

Subject 2514

  • Subject has reached Stage Four of observation: A Game.
  • Subject has been docile throughout process and condition appears dormant, if not non-existent.
  • This is the last observation before subject is potentially struck off from register.
  • Subject is seated on the bed, reading, when Supervisor arrives.
  • She responds cordially to his small talk, but reveals nothing about herself despite pointed questions.
  • Supervisor asks Subject if she would like to play a game. Subject obliges and asks what game they will be playing. Supervisor states that she will pick it up as they go along. Subject seems tense for a split second.
  • Supervisor and Subject begin card game. Supervisor wins first round. Subject asks if the game they are playing is Snap. Supervisor says the game they are playing is the game that they are playing. He asks Subject if she would like to continue playing. She agrees.
  • Supervisor wins second round. Subject states that this was an illegal move. Supervisor insists that it was a legal move. Subject asks for a list of rules for the game. Supervisor states that the Subject will pick them up as they go along. He asks Subject if she wishes to continue playing. She hesitates for a moment but agrees to continue.
  • Subject thinks she has won third round. Supervisor tells her the move was illegal, and therefore he has won the round. Subject firmly asks him to tell her how her move was illegal or how he has won the round because of it. Supervisor states that the rules are obvious, if Subject is paying attention. He asks Subject if she wishes to continue playing. Subject takes a minute and through gritted teeth agrees to continue.
  • This goes on for eight more rounds, Subject is visibly growing more and more tense and angry. She slams her fist on the table, swears profusely and one point sweeps all the cards off the table. However, whenever asked to continue she agrees.
  • Subject has a hard time admitting defeat?
  • At the commencement of the twelfth round, Subject asks the Supervisor again for the rules of the game. Supervisor states that the rules are so simple, even a child could pick them up. Subject calls the Supervisor a cheat. Supervisor suggests that maybe she is just stupid.
  • Subject falls silent. Pulls herself to her full height and stares at supervisor. She says the following: You are the stupid one, coming into this room alone with me.
  • Supervisor asks her what she means. Subject continues to stare at him.
  • The rest of these notes are pieced together from eye witness accounts and surveillance footage.  Observation was disrupted by the following incident (See Appendix titled ‘2514 Overpowers Supvisor’).
  • At this point, on the tape, we notice that her eyes have changed from a dark brown, almost black, to hazel. She whispers something to the Supervisor, which, after viewing the surveillance footage, we believe to be a command to drop the cards he is holding. He does so.
  • She tells him to get up, according to what could be made out from the surveillance footage. The Supervisor does as he is told.
  • Subject tells him to run headfirst into the observation widow until, direct quote: Either the glass cracks or your skull does. He does so.
  • This entire exchange takes less than 30 seconds. Supervisor is running at the window for at least 2 minutes before we think to intervene.
  • When we enter the room and ask him to stop, he does not. It is like he cannot hear us. Attempts to get his attention are useless.
  • Against protocol, we address the Subject.
  •  She is nonchalant when we ask her what she has done. She shrugs and places the cards in neat pile before getting into the bed and facing away from us.
  • Security is called to restrain Supervisor, who at this point is bloody from the effort, but will not stop.
  • We attempt to engage the Subject again but she has fallen asleep.
  • Without empathy?
  • Supervisor is finally subdued, strapped to a stretcher. His hazel eyes appear vacant.
  • Observation is paused to attend to Supervisor.
  • Final Thoughts: As of now, we have no research on this manifestation of the condition. This is the first time we have seen anything like it. We are referring to it as ‘Submission of Will’ until we can study the subject further.
  • The board have signed off on keeping Subject 2514 for further observation.

The Visitor, Part IV

I didn’t get much sleep that night.

I’m being generous. I didn’t get any sleep that night. I didn’t do the traditional thing of tossing and turning. I just lay in my bed, poker straight, staring into the dark. It was like I didn’t want to sleep, and wouldn’t want to even if I could. I kept thinking about the old man.

The old man that wasn’t that old.

I’d given up on trying to recollect the hours I’d forgotten. They were lost now, that much I understood. But there was something in that exchange, there had to be. Some sort of clue. Something to show us how and when, maybe even why, that time was taken from us.

The old man. At first I thought he was unsettling because of how he spoke. How he seemed to not understand our answers or be able to follow the conversation. But now…his face. His face wasn’t right. His skin was taut, youthful, healthy looking. His hair was a solid mass of black. He was tall and, in his trendy suit, he cut a broad, toned figure. There was nothing to suggest he was old at all. But I’d been so sure of it. Maybe it was his slow, deliberate walk. Or maybe it was his shadowy eyes. Or maybe it was that he looked too youthful. Too artificial. Studied. Like he was an old man masquerading as something young.

I was pissed at myself for not getting his name. I was pissed at myself for not pressing him further. A man doesn’t just walk into an office by accident. He came for something and it seemed as though he didn’t get it.

Chaim Woodbine and Bethan Hardy.

Who or what did he want with them?

If they were his friends, why didn’t he ask for a forwarding address? If he was a client, why didn’t he ask for their replacements? He seemed sure that he’d gleamed all the information he needed from Ward and I. Had he come to make sure they were no longer there? Was he some kind of…hitman?

By the time first light streamed through my window, I had completely given in to the idea that the old man was an FBI agent undercover, who’s sole mission was to seek and destroy Woodbine and Hardy, who had used Ward and I to get information and then made us forget, Men in Black style. It wasn’t entirely implausible. But what had he possibly gathered from three hours of us seemingly going about our daily routine?

The next day was probably the most haggard I’d ever looked at work. I waited semi anxiously, semi excitedly for Ward to walk through the foyer so that I could tell him my theory.

But he never did. From my desk I could see shadows moving about in the post room. At times the door would swing open as someone else left or entered, and I would hear his muffled tones. By mid afternoon, I had figured out that he was avoiding me.

I could see where he was coming from. I was his only real link to the bizarre and random events of the day before. Avoid me and he could avoid it. But that didn’t suit my needs at all. I’m a talker. I need to talk things through. I’ve got an overactive imagination and the only time I can quiet it is when I’m talking, when someone else is talking to me and making sense.

So I opened my draw, chose a random item of stationery and shoved it in an envelope addressed to me. Totally out of company guidelines, but so was a weird man erasing my memories. That’s how I justified it anyway.

I called the post room. Much like I expected, it wasn’t Ward that picked up.

‘Hello, Post Room.’

‘Hi, I have a courier to go down.’

Ward’s supervisor, Mike, groaned.

‘I’ll be out in a second.’

I rolled my eyes at the hiccup in my plan but I was not disheartened. As soon as he took the parcel, I created another one.

‘Hi, I have a courier to go down.’

‘Another one?’ Ward’s desk mate, Fletcher, asked.

‘You know what the secretaries are like. Any excuse.’

He came out and took the package. So I made a third.

I called the post room. No one picked up. When the line cut off, I called again. No answer. I was calling a third time, when the phone was abruptly answered. There was a pause. And then Ward’s exasperated voice.

‘What?’

‘I have a courier to go down.’

‘I know what you’re doing.’ He said, quietly.

‘I’m trying to get a courier sent down.’ I replied, firmly.

There was another pause and then Ward sighed deeply and hung up the phone. An agonizing minute later, he stepped into the foyer.

He did not look haggard, like I did. More rugged, if anything. Like the stubble was a style choice rather then a drowsy oversight. If I hadn’t been up the night before myself, I wouldn’t have guessed he had.

‘Where’s this parcel then?’ He asked. He wouldn’t meet my gaze.

‘Why are you avoiding me?’ I asked, gripping the parcel in my hands.

‘Can I have the parcel or not?’

‘You’re going to have to talk to me eventually.’

‘If you won’t give me the parcel, I’m going to go back to my desk.’ He said and began walking away

‘I think I know what happened-‘ I started, l

Suddenly, Ward spun around and leaned over my computer screen.

‘No, you don’t!’ He spat. ‘If you did know, you wouldn’t be talking about it here!’

His fingers gripped the screen so hard his knuckles were white. I just stared at him.

‘Do you know something?’ I whispered. His eyes darted around the room.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘You do know something. Don’t you?’ I pressed. Ward opened his mouth.

A member of finance came stumbling through the foyer, with a tray of coffees. She glanced in our direction. Ward let go of the screen and straightened up.

‘Can I have the parcel, please?’ He asked.

I handed Ward the parcel and he walked away. For a while I sat stewing. How dare he freeze me out of his investigation? How dare he let me fester here, alone in the dark, while he had all the answers?

I had begun to type a strongly worded email when he came back, parcel in hand.

‘The address is wrong.’ He said.

‘What?’

‘The address is wrong.’

‘It can’t be. It’s my own-‘

He shoved the envelope at me. In between the lines that I had written was another message so small it was almost illegible. It read: Something happened to Woodbine and Hardy, and I think the company is involved. Unless you want something to happen to us, we have to stop looking for answers.

I looked up at Ward. He looked from me to the camera above us.

‘Oh right.’ I said, eventually. ‘I’ll get a new envelope.’

I tore the envelope apart and shoved the shreds in my bag instead of the bin. Ward saw the large roll of cellotape that had been inside and rolled his eyes, but he didn’t leave. I put it in a new envelope, wrote the address and handed it over. Ward took it with a slight nod and walked away.

I went back to my work. But every so often, I’d glance at the camera above me.

The Visitor, Part III

The first thing I noticed about the post room was that it was the only part of the office without any natural light. The wall lamps were dim and not far reaching. Parts of the room were completely dark.

‘Watch your step.’ Ward said, leading the way.

Parcels were neatly stacked in tottering piles. Despite his warning, I still managed to knock one over.

‘I’m sorry.’ I said, kneeling down to pick up one of many ASOS packages. My hands were shaking.

‘Leave it. I’ll worry about it tomorrow.’

So I stood up again, squinting to make him out across the room.

‘You can take Fletch’s chair.’ He muttered, sitting down at his desk.

I pulled the chair from the desk I was standing next to and pushed it towards Ward, taking care to avoid the stacks. I knocked at least 3 over.

‘Are you trying to make a mess?’

‘I can’t see anything!’ I snapped, frustrated. ‘And you’re no bloody help.’

Ward looked up in surprise.

‘I’m sorry.’ He said eventually. ‘I didn’t mean to snap at you. I guess I’m a bit…on edge.’

He helped me wheel the chair the beside him.

‘And you get used to the dark. We call each other moles in here, for jokes.’ Ward shrugged, suddenly embarrassed, ‘It’s stupid.’

An awkward silence followed. I was still annoyed at Ward for being so short with me. I didn’t want to be around him anymore. I just wanted to go home and, well, forget. As if that wasn’t already the source of my problems.

Ward logged into his account, drumming his fingers on the table as he waited.

‘I’m going to need you to close your eyes for this part.’

‘What?’

‘Hazel,’ He said, firmly. ‘I need you to trust me.’

I just stared at him.

‘This is really important. I could get in a lot of trouble. The less you know about it the better.’

‘What is it?’

‘I can’t tell you. To protect me and you both. Please. Just do this for me.’

His eyes pleaded with mine. I didn’t have the energy to fight him, and in a day of strange occurances, what was one more, really?

‘And this will help us get the CCTV footage?’ I asked, defeated.

‘Yes. This is how we get it.’

I closed my eyes. Soon after, I could hear furious tapping.

‘Okay. You can open them.’

On Ward’s computer was a live feed of a couple of the security cameras on our floor. Ward switched on his second monitor. More camera feeds.

‘Holy shit.’ I said in amazement.

‘Yeah.’

I had several questions. How and when and why did he have access to them, things like that. But I also knew Ward would flip his lid if I said even one of them.

‘That’s the foyer!’ I said, pointing at the second monitor.

Ward clicked on the camera and went through the log.

‘3 pm.’ He announced, when he found it. His finger hovered nervously over the button.

‘Play it.’ I urged, my voice wavering a little.

He clicked and I braced myself.

There was nothing but static.

‘Fast forward.’ I said, a little relieved.

More static. Static at 3:30. Static at 4. Static 5.

‘Go back to just before 3’

Ward rewound the footage. At 2:45, I was clearly visible, sat at the reception desk, typing at my computer. At 2:50, the same. At 2:55, I put my hair up in a ponytail and fanned myself. At 2:58 I looked towards the lifts. At 2:59, the picture gave way to static.

‘What the fuck?’ I said, almost in a whimper, mostly in a whisper.

Ward went back to 11 am, to 9 am, to the day before, to the week before. Everything was above board. The camera was working fine. Ward returned to 3 pm that day again. Static.

‘I’m going to be sick.’ I said.

Ward skipped ahead to 6. There was static for a few seconds and then the image cut to us. Looking at each other. After a short exchange, Ward typed on my computer and then-

‘Look,’ Ward said, pointing at the screen ‘I’m about to realise the time.’

‘And there’s me getting up to check the TV.’ I replied.

We turned to each, just as our past selves turned to each other on the screen.

‘So…we can’t remember the hours of 3-6. No one else can tell us that they saw us. The CCTV is fucked during that time period in particular and…we’re no closer to an explanation. I think we need to stop looking.’ Ward said.

‘What?’

‘We are going down a weird and baffling road and I don’t think either of us is equipped to.’

He stood up and hastily pulled on his jacket.

‘So- What? We’re just supposed to act like nothing happened?’

‘Well, how do we know something happened? We don’t actually know anything.’

‘We know we can’t remember the time passing and we know that no one, and nothing, has any proof of us even being around during that time! So the only logical explanation-

‘There is no logical explanation!’

‘What if something happened to us? Ward! What if something bad happened to us?’

‘Something like what?’

‘I don’t know. But don’t you want to find out?’

Ward picked up his satchel.

‘Ward, please.’ I pleaded, ‘Let’s just look at the other cameras.’

Ward looked around the room, shook his head and then sat back down.

‘We’re going to regret this.’ He said, ‘There is no way this ends well.’

He clicked on the post room camera. Everything seemed to be working order. It was mostly Ward eating alone.

‘We can fast forward through this.’ He said, embarrassed.

‘Is that an entire box of Krispy Kremes that you bought for yourself?’ I asked, even more puzzled.

‘I- My girlfriend is on a diet. This is the only- I don’t have to explain myself to you.’

He sped through. At 3 pm, the camera was working fine.

‘So maybe it’s just the Foyer.’ Ward mumbled.

He skipped to 3:10, to 3:20. Then at 3:30-

‘No. Please, no.’

Static. For the duration of 5 minutes. Then the camera cut back to an empty post room.

‘Maybe it’s a glitch.’ I said, a little reassured. But Ward has his hand to his mouth, holding his breath.

‘I collect the post at 3:30.’ He whispered, ‘I come back in at about-’

3:40. The camera jolted slightly this time and then the picture was replaced by static. Ward shook his head.

‘It’s us. We’re making the cameras glitch.’

The static lasted for another 20 minutes and then the camera cut back to an empty post room. Ward hurriedly clicked on the camera on the far side of the office. He skipped to 3:30. We held our breaths.

Nothing happened. The camera was fine. We watched our colleagues mill about.

‘You’re wrong.’ I said. ‘You must have-’

Static. Ward buried his face in his hands. After about five minutes, the camera cut back to the office. Nothing was noticeably different. Other than the fact all the post trays were all empty.

So, we had been there. Or at least, something had been there, doing our jobs. But we had no idea who, we had no idea why, and it felt like someone or something was deliberately trying to keep us in the dark.