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Mushrooms

I made the decision to move to Brooklyn and train as a plumber as soon as the divorce came through. The high carbohydrate diet of pastas and pizzas didn’t rest well with me thanks to a gluten intolerance. An old history teacher once told me that intolerance is synonymous with racism, so I pushed against my nature and fought off the spectre of prejudice by consuming vast quantities of wheat-based dishes.

When not gripping the sides of my toilet seat between meals, I ventured out onto the New York streets. I head-butted stones above me in the hope of obtaining wealth or discovering a magical beanstalk. After several concussions, I became keenly aware of the limitations of the American healthcare system, and craved to spend just one night lying on a trolley in a corridor until a bed could be found for me in an NHS hospital.

I ate a red and white mushroom hoping it would make me grow to twice my usual size. The man who sold it to me said there was nothing else like it. I may have grown. I may have gained the ability to break stones with my head and survive a tortoise bite, though I can’t be sure. Instead, I was exposed again to the limitations of the American healthcare system and a curious stream of horrific waking dreams that haunt me to this day.

A fire fighter dragged me from a sewer pipe. I’d been stuck in there for a few days, but a homeless man raised the alarm. I explained I was trying to get to the Mushroom Kingdom, that Princess Toadstool had been kidnapped. The fire fighter laughed and told me the Princess was in another castle. I didn’t see any castles. He must have been working for Bowser.

It was the incident in the pet shop that led to my arrest. After jumping on three tortoises in an effort to eject them from their shells, a police officer yanked my right arm behind my back while his partner pointed a pistol at me – an actual pistol. I told them there might have been a 1up or a starman. I could have been invulnerable. I could have lived again.

The officers asked my name and I told them I was Super Mario. I told them Princess Toadstool was in danger, that they needed to release me so I could get to the Mushroom Kingdom and defeat Bowser. I said they should call Luigi if they didn’t believe me.

They told me to remove my racoon ears and place my hands above my head while they read me my rights and took away my tail.

Poor Princess.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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The Gibson Continuum

The sky above the port was Ernest Cline blue, buffering. I brought up my HUD and stepped into the Squid and Mashed Potato. The decor was all straight lines and battered sofas.

The barman had Bart Simpson hair and a Tim Curry smile. “What can I get you?” he asked.

“Just a beer,” I said.

“The Squid and Mashed Potato don’t do ‘just a beer’,” said a girl perched at the end of the bar. She wore Terminator mirrorshades and a Tank Girl tank top. She sipped her beer.

“We have our own microbrewery,” the barman said. “We’ve got a new beer on draught we call the Steve Guttenberg Project.”

“Fine,” I said. My HUD flashed as seventeen credits vanished from my account.

The barman pulled the wooden beer tap slowly as the glass filled with nut-brown beer. A Huey Lewis and the News song blared through the bar’s hidden speakers – not The Power of Love, the other one.

“Thanks,” I said. I pulled up a barstool with a warm leatherette seat and tasted the beer. It was okay.

“How’s the beer?” the barman asked.

“It’s okay,” I said.

I turned to the girl. She was reading one of those analogue books with the words printed on paper. “What are you reading?” I asked.

Neuromancer,” the girl said.

“Like Duran Duran?”

The barman smirked and rolled his eyes.

The girl closed her book. “What?” the girl asked. Her tone was short, impatient.

“I’m Kevin,” I said.

“Like that kid from Home Alone?”

I sighed and sipped my beer.

“Do you enjoy being confusing?” the girl asked.

I shrugged. “When I can.”

The girl smiled, her lips sex-doll pink, her teeth like chrome. “What do you do?”

“I’m a self-contained multimedia node: blogger, vlogger, vrogger,” I said. I reached for her hand to send her my channel, but she moved it away before I could touch her. “I’ve got a lot of followers,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. She reopened the book.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Oh,” the girl repeated.

“Why ‘oh’?”

“Because we’re all the same,” she shrugged. “We’re all multimedia nodes: doing new media, remixing old media, shifting paradigms. It’s always new. It’s always boring. It’s so 2020.”

“Oh,” I said. I snapped a video of her sighing over her book and posted it onto my channel.

“What’s the book about?” I asked.

The girl shook her head. “It’s cyberpunk. It’s about computers and cyberspace and stuff.”

“Cool, that’s what I’m doing my piece about.”

“What?” she said.

“Cyberpunk, speculations on a pre-singularity internet, that kind of thing.” I gave my best warm smile.

“And you’ve never heard of Neuromancer? Don’t you think you should have done some research first?”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, I’ve only just started,” I said.

The girl snorted.

I’d already got thirty likes on my video of the girl sighing over her copy of Neuromancer.

“Can I see?” I gestured to the book.

She passed me the book and I felt its weight. It bore the pallid elfin face of a woman with blank white eyes. “She’s got your hair,” I said, passing the book back.

“It’s the look I’m going for.”

“I take it you’ve still got your pupils, though?”

The girl lifted her mirrorshades to show her big manga eyes, Ernest Cline blue. I saved the image.

“Do you want to help me hunt ghosts?” I asked.

“Not really. What kind of ghosts?”

I sipped at my beer. “The ghosts of cyberpunk: Compuserve, MS DOS, Word Perfect, the information superhighway, Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Nokia 3210s, Bolt, floppy disks, the Millennium Bug, Hamster Dance, AOL CDs with thirty hours free internet. You know, cyberpunk.”

The girl sneered. “That’s not cyberpunk.” She touched my hand and sent me a barrage of content: Gibson novels; a guy with a green mohawk; a Nintendo Power Glove; Stephen Hawking saying something about space; a picture of Ronald McDonald wearing a Nazi uniform; the dog from Duck Hunt; a Commodore 64 covered in mud; a bag of amphetamine sulphate; the video to Wired for Sound by Cliff Richard; and wires – lots of wires.

I jerked my hand back as the opening lines to A Little Respect blasted through the bar. “This sums it up,” I said, gesturing vaguely to the hidden speakers.

“What does?”

“It’s all about erasure. It’s all about the traces of the past that linger, even if you think they’re gone.

“We’re just building on old foundations, but they’re not up to the task.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” the girl said. Her tone was flat, listless.
“It’s like Derrida‘s ghost is hovering at the sidelines, flickering in the shadows, sailing in and out weeks. He’s not here, he’s not there. He’s gone, but he’s still somewhere. Always out of reach, always slippery.” The girl hesitated, went as if to say something, then sipped her beer instead.

“You can’t see it, but it exists,” I said. I downed the rest of my beer and got up from my stool.

“Can I get you anything else? Have you tried the Mark Wahlberg salad?”

“No, what’s that?”

The barman grinned. “Inconsistent.”

I nodded at the girl and stepped outside. A semi-translucent DeLorean DMC-12 sped by. At 141.622 kilometres per hour, the car disappeared with a bright flash of electricity and dodgy special effects, leaving two parallel trails of ignited lighter fluid in its wake.

Accessing my HUD, I replayed the scene, but the DeLorean was never there. It was another ghost, another spectre, another mirage of my subconscious overlaying my subjective perception reality with outdated references: this wasn’t my nostalgia.

The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was now at almost a thousand likes. Things were looking up.

I turned and the girl was standing next to me. “Did you see that?”

“The DeLorean?” She shook her head. “No.”

“Oh,” I said. “Fancy getting something to eat?”

“Okay,” the girl said.

The ghostly triangle of a Star Destroyer rumbled above us.

“Now I know you can see that,” I said.

“I can see the ghosts,” she said.

Reality shuddered as my mind autosaved to the cloud. “Sorry, what?”

“The ghosts are getting brighter, more frequent. Don’t you think?”

I nodded. “But why?”

“Maybe that’s what you should do your piece about,” the girl suggested.

I shrugged. “Every time I rewatch a scene, the ghosts aren’t there. Look at this guy.” I gestured toward a semi-opaque T-1000 as it ran by with quicksilver flesh. “Now rewind.”

The girl waved a dismissive hand. “I know. I’ve tried it so many times, but they’re not real.”

“If they’re not real, how can we both see them?” I asked.

“Just because they’re not real, it doesn’t mean to say they’re not real.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”

“None of it makes sense.” I sighed. “Where shall we eat?”

“I know a place,” the girl said.

“Cool. Lead the way.”

The girl turned as she walked back into the Squid and Mashed Potato. “You need to try the Mark Wahlberg salad,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

We returned to our stools. I pulled up the image of the girl’s manga eyes for a second. Beautiful.

“You never told me your name,” I said.

“I know,” said the girl.

“Same again?” the barman asked.

I nodded. Another seventeen credits left my account.

“And you?” the barman said, turning to the girl.

“Same for me,” she said. “We’ll probably be ordering the Wahlberg salad.”

“To share?” the barman asked.

The girl shrugged.

“Do you see ghosts?” I asked the barman.

The barman glanced up as he placed a beer in front of the girl. “Like those?”

I turned to see four blocky, two-dimensional ghosts flicker past as they chased a see-through Pac-Man through the wall.

The girl and I exchanged glances. “Did it record?” I asked.

“They don’t, do they? They’re just echoes.” The barman frowned as he placed a beer before me. I took a sip. It was okay.

“Where do they come from?” the girl asked.

The barman shook his head then turned his back to us.

The girl sipped her beer. As she placed it down, the faint trace of her sex-doll lipstick remained on the rim of the glass.

“Maybe that’s it,” I said, gesturing to the pink smear.

“What?”

I reached over and picked up her glass. I held it up to the light and showed her the lipstick. “Semiotic ghosts,” I whispered.

“So?”

“It’s like the ghosts: They must come from somewhere – they must be some kind of residue. Do you see it?”

The girl sighed as she grabbed her glass back. “I see it,” she said. “I don’t see how it helps.”

The barman cleared his throat and placed a large bowl between us. He laid out a pair of forks and napkins.

“Thanks,” I said, reaching for a fork.

The salad smelt good. There was the scent of lemon and a vinaigrette dressing. I pushed my fork into an area heavy with leaves and a cherry tomato and took a mouthful.

“This is good,” I said.

“It’s okay,” said the girl.

I took another mouthful then spat it into my napkin. “That’s disgusting.”

The barman chuckled. “You don’t get consistency with Mark Wahlberg.”

I checked my HUD. The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was approaching seven million likes. I called up those manga eyes again for a second then watched the other end of the bar at a flickering ghost of Ralph Macchio working on his crane kicks.

“This is ridiculous,” I said. “There must be more to this. If I’ve learned anything, there must be some conspiracy, some evil corporation, NASA, the government, the CIA.”

The girl sighed and opened her book. “Maybe it’s David Icke, risen from the dead.”

“This is serious,” I said.

“This is stupid,” the girl said.

“Fine.” I rose to my feet and downed my beer.

The barman looked at me with a raised eyebrow, his Tim Curry smile still fixed. “You’re not joking about these ghosts are you?”

“No I’m not,” I said. I clenched my jaw as the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

The girl turned her back and picked around the tastier parts of the salad.

The first notes of Rush‘s Tom Sawyer blasted through the bar. “This is real isn’t it?”

“Of course,” the barman said. “Can I get you another beer?”

I shook my head then slunk back onto the stool. I held my head in my hands as the barman poured the beer. Seventeen credits left my account.

“I really thought you were joking about the ghosts,” the barman said.

“It’s okay. I just need to get my head around it.”

“It’s a bug with the latest update. They’re working on a patch. Don’t you check the newsfeeds?”

The girl laughed.

“Oh,” I said.

I checked my HUD and deleted the video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer. A dead channel, buffering.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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I’ve signed up for #NaNoWriMo 2016

I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to write my debut novel, Wizard of the Wasteland.

It is the first book in a post-apocalyptic series following the adventures of a reformed drug addict surviving in a hostile world. I’m thinking of it as being like The Road meets Breaking Bad.

You can follow my progress here or by following me on Twitter @jlcronshaw.

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Host

The tunnels around me are dark, dark. I yearn for the hum of the strip lights, the drip, drip of the pipes. It’s cold down here. I lie, weighed down by my sac as a dozen babies claw and writhe inside me.

It never used to be this way, but when the plague came we all changed. Those that survived were never the same. A new norm emerged.

I whisper to the children. They’re not my children. They grow inside me, but they grow from the seeds of men and women. I am not like them. I am a host.

The men bring me food and water. The women bring me stories and blankets. They fear me, but they need me. Like soil, they need me to grow their seeds. Through their worship, their reverence, I can still taste their fear, bitter on my tongue. They look upon me as something else, something neither here nor there: a host.

I’ve heard whispers in the dark of ‘necessary evils’ and ‘unfortunate realities’. Without me – without us – they cannot breed.

When they bring their offerings of sperm and ovum, I eat until I can eat no more. A desire to swallow the men and women, to tear them apart limb from limb – like a mantis extinguishing her mate – is only expunged by their restraints, their binds.

I know there are hosts like me who roam the tunnels and the wastes, feeding on their mates once the impregnation is complete. They aren’t like me – they are free.

There’s a tear in my sac. Amniotic fluid seeps around me, soaking my flesh. Men and women arrive. The first child is born a host. The child is cast to the flames.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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The Speed of Boredom

I hold the yawn in my mouth, swallow the boredom. I look up at the clock while the lecturer talks and talks. How can time crawl like this? I fall into my mind, dividing time into the objective and subjective, the measurable and the personal. Time dilates at the speed of boredom. A minute seems like five, an hour an eternity.

The thought occurs to me: what if I push the edges of my own subjective time? What if I strive for boredom? They say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. They say ‘live fast, die young’. I say slow down, make yourself a mug of warm milk. Live slow, live forever.

I walk home, take the blandest route. There’s no scenery, nothing of interest. The journey feels longer than it should. I gain several minutes.

Enthused by my revelation, I throw out all the things I love: my books (the good ones), clothes, videogames, movies, music, the wife.

I search online for videos that will extend my life; an hour-long documentary about the history of buses in Wolverhampton from 1972 to 1976 pushes me beyond the edges of boredom. I gain so much, so many hours squeezed into one.

My mum calls me. She’s telling me about her new decking. The temptation to hold my phone away from my ear is almost unbearable. But I think about all the time I’m accumulating. I ask again about Mildred’s hip replacement. So boring.

I tell her I’ve kicked out the wife. She’s not happy. She gets upset. This drama is eating into my life, accelerating my experience of time. I hang up, drop the phone in the toilet, flush.

The lights around the house cast interesting shadows on the walls. I take them out, flush them down the toilet.

There’s a knock at the door, loud and insistent. It’s the wife. She looks sad. She’s been crying. She says she’s worried about me, that I need help. I try to ignore her, turn her words into a drone. That way I’ll gain more time.

I sit in the dark for weeks, eating only crackers and custard creams. I read junk mail, copy the letters out into a notebook, catalogue their contents, make an extensive archive. I watch a video on YouTube about Belgian politics, but turn it off when it’s a bit more interesting than I’d predicted.

There’s a knock at the door. The wife’s back. She’s crying again. My mum stands next to her. She’s crying too. There’s a policewoman, a concerned-looking doctor and an ambulance outside.

I try to explain that they’re stealing my time. They don’t listen. They say it doesn’t work like that, that they can help me. I don’t need their help.

I focus on a beige patch on the wall when I’m strapped down in the back of the ambulance and smile. They can’t take away my time that easily.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Basilisk on a Yellow Field

I wore green on the day I performed my first kill. I stood on the edge of a large stone room lit by alchemical orbs casting soft white light across the faces of two dozen children as they danced to the drummers and pipers performing a traditional Ostreich folk song.

The adults looked on in their green finery. The men wore matching coats, tailored from silk. The women wore long hooded dresses in a darker green than the men. They were cut low along the bust and pulled tight at the waist, with wide skirts extending to the floor.

My dress was in the style of the other women, though, there was a hidden slit which allowed me to reach across with my left hand and easily grasp my blade, the Feuerschwert.

A red-faced dancer stared at me as she swayed from left to right, turning and twisting her hands in time with the music. I smiled, but my smile was not returned. There was fear in those eyes.

The Feuerschwert was cold against my skin. Though secured to my waist, I feared the ravenglass might cut into my flesh, bringing out its dormant power.

The scent of roasted pork hung in the air as I examined the revellers’ faces. I took care to note the features of each person in an effort to remember. There was a woman whose face sparked a memory when I saw her from the side, but when she turned to me with an unsure smile, it was clear we shared no recognition. Just one smile, just one nod of recognition was all I craved. Someone to tell me who I am – to tell me my name.

I moved left along the wall as the beat continued. Though the festivities were held in honour of Jorg Shultz’s fiftieth year, the Viscount had retired to his chamber during the final course of the feast. I stepped around a stone bust of my target, staring expressionless from a marble plinth, and skirted past a colourful tapestry that was fifteen feet across. It showed a knight bearing the Ostreich sigil of a black basilisk on a yellow field thrusting a lance into the belly of a green-scaled wyvern.

Reaching the end of the great hall, I slipped through a half-open door. The alchemical glow faded as I made my way along a bare stone corridor illuminated by wall candles. The handle of the Feuerschwert brushed against my side as my steps grew urgent. I found my way to a spiral stairway.

I ascended the steps until I reached a thick door in varnished oak. I placed my ear against the door and listened. Hearing nothing, I turned the handle. I held my breath, pulled up the hood of my dress, removed my shoes then stepped through the door.

The corridor was dark and the floorboards cold beneath my soles. A faint glow seeped out from beneath a door at the end of the passage. I reached into my dress, removed the Feuerschwert and felt a trembling as I held it my hands. Its ravenglass blade was a deep black, a much deeper black than than darkness of the passage.

I unhooked the skirt from my dress and freed myself from the corset, dropping them in a heap next to me. I stepped towards the door and teased its handle. My heart thundered in my chest as I pushed the door open.

A fire burned in a hearth at the far right of the room. Above it, a portrait of a long-dead Viscount looked on with a dark, vacant gaze. Thick green drapes hung in front of the windows overlooking the Braun Sea. I heard a shuffle to my right – it was Jorg Shultz. Our eyes met.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.

I said nothing and pricked the index finger of my left hand with the Feuerschwert. The Viscount’s eyes widened at the blade turned from deep black to a glowing red as it consumed the blood.

“Ravenglass,” he whispered, his eyes bulging.

I jumped back on my toes as he tipped his chair towards me. Jorg unsheathed a blade, longer and thicker than my own. With a fluid motion he rolled up his sleeve and sliced the blade across his left forearm. His blade too glowed red.

A wolfish grin rose beneath his thick blond moustache. Nobody had warned me about this.

My hands were slick with sweat. I danced on my tiptoes, feinted left, then right, trying to draw him into dropping his guard, to making a mistake.

“Who sent you?” he growled.

I shook my head. I was not going to answer him. How could I answer him?

He swung his blade in a broad vertical arc. I hopped to the right and stabbed forward with a twist of my wrist. He jerked his shoulder to the side. We both straitened up, regaining our stance.

We circled each other, his blue eyes locked with my own. I dived forward, struck the back of his leg. He let out an agonised scream as the blade hissed, its magic tearing through his flesh, burning him from within.

He swung and I moved to parry, but instead of the expected ricochet, his blade went through my own, like two jets of water crossing each other’s paths. His blade nicked my arm and I felt its fiery heat swell inside.

Neither of us were bleeding from our wounds, but I sensed Jorg’s pain as it spread through his body. He fell backwards, looked up at me in terror. “What do you want?” he managed. His words were weak, his breath shallow.

I stood over him. His blade returned to black as it dropped from his convulsing hand. I pulled my hood down and pushed my blade into his chest.

“It’s you,” he gasped. “What–.”

I pulled the Feuerschwert from his chest. “Wait,” I said. “Who am I?” I leaned down and shook him. “Please,” I pleaded. “Tell me who I am.”

But he was already dead.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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No Rehab for Wizards

I cut off one of my eyelids today. It was definitely worth it.

“Now why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” Mum asks.

I shake my head, tut. “So I can control manatees,” I say.

“And what do you want to control manatees for?”

I shrug and turn the volume up on Match of the Day. Mum never gets me. She was banging on the other day about how I need to go into rehab. “There’s something not right about you, boy,” she said. “You’re always chopping bits off yourself. It’s not right.”

I tried to tell her there’s no rehab for wizards. Magic always has a price: a sacrifice of flesh always has to be made. A chunk of skin off your arm will give you control of a mayfly, but what’s the point in that? At least manatees have got a half-decent shelf-life.

I was telling her the other day about these wizards around Birmingham way who kill dogs and badgers for their magic. I asked if she’d rather me do that. She just cried.

The thing people don’t realise about using animals is that if you want to take control of dog, you have to kill about thirteen or fourteen of them. And even then, you only get to control one of those shitty little yappy ones. Seems pointless to me.

When Mum had a go at me for lopping off my little toe a couple of weeks back, I made a joke that I’d sacrifice her if she carried on having a go at me. She cried at that as well, and I really only meant it as a joke. Thing is, though, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea.

I’d have to work out how strong the magic would be if I did it, though. I’m assuming it would be a bit like with the dogs. Kill a whole bunch of people to take control of a shitty one? I’d get in trouble for sure. But I’m thinking it’d probably count for a lot more if it’s your own mum. It must do.

I turn off Match of the Day and go upstairs.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Mum asks. “You’re not going to chop any more body parts again, I hope? What would your father say if he could see you now with all them bits hanging off?”

I turn back and smile. “I’m just going for a wee,” I say. “Stick the kettle on will you?”

When the kettle starts to boil, I reach behind the toilet and pull out my blade. I run my finger across its edge and grin as a small cut opens along my fingertip.

“Your tea’s on the hearth,” Mum says, shouting up the stairs.

“Coming.” I tuck the blade under my hoodie.

Limping back downstairs, I see Mum has put Eastenders on. “You don’t mind me watching this on catch-up do you?” she asks. “You’d turned your football off.”

“It’s fine,” I say.

I stand behind her and look down at her grey-streaked hair. I take the blade and bring it across her throat. She makes a weird gurgling noise.

I panic and run to the kitchen to grab some tea towels and kitchen roll. I try dabbing at the blood, but it makes a right mess.

Mum always said that when I started to get into one of my panics I should stop, take a deep breath, and have a nice cup of tea. So I sit down on the opposite sofa and sip my tea, my eyes half on Eastenders and half on my mum bleeding out all over her nice cream carpet.

If I let her keep bleeding, it will stop eventually. Then it will dry and be easier to mop up. I really don’t want to ruin any more tea towels, so it’s probably for the best to wait.

Then I remember: I’d forgotten to do the incantation. What a complete waste of time.

I turn Match of the Day back on. At least I still had my manatee.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Taking on the Ray Bradbury Challenge

I’ve decided to take on the Ray Bradbury Challenge. The Challenge is designed to encourage authors to improve their reading habits and write more short fiction.

Stephen King wrote that if you do not read, you have no business writing. Nothing has taught me more about the craft of telling stories than reading the work of others. My hope is that by committing to the Challenge, I’ll be a better storyteller as a result.

The Ray Bradbury Challenge is as follows:

1) Write a short story a week for 52 weeks.
2) Read a short story, a poem and an essay every day for 1,000 days.

I’m severely visually impaired, so I do my ‘reading’ either in an audio or ebook format. I usually read one or two novels and two or three short stories each week, but seldom read poetry.

To fulfil the essay requirement, I will count listening to podcasts such as TED Talks, seminars by the Long Now Foundation, Skeptoid, BBC World Service’s Witness, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 3’s The Essay and the like.

I will document my progress on this blog and encourage you to join me in this Challenge.

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King of the Trees

Emily was King of the Trees. A little boy gave her the title – he was King of the Train.

She didn’t know the species names. She called her tree Paramine. It was the big one in the centre. She sat in its branches and surveyed her kingdom.

The other trees were short and thin. They were no more than twigs strapped to stakes with black rubber ties. She called them Paranagents. They weren’t impressive, but this was her domain. This was her realm.

Her trees bore no fruit so she ate burgers and chicken wings left as offerings by passing visitors. They respected her.

She looked for monkeys, but there were no monkeys. She told a half-remembered joke to those who passed beneath her tree. Something about a monkey being stapled to a dead monkey. Emily laughed as she told the joke, but always got lost in the words. She gave no punch-line, only a statement of fact.

She shouted at those who refused to pay tribute or pledge allegiance. A man from the council told her she was trespassing. She told him she was the King of the Trees.

She wore a dress made of leaves and fast food wrappers, and wove sticks and ladybirds through her hair. When she wasn’t performing her royal duties, she worked as a receptionist. Her boss smiled at her and her customers smiled at her. It was a tattoo shop, so people thought she was being alternative. She wasn’t being alternative – she was King of the Trees.

The day came when the man from the council returned – this time with police and a court order. They did not offer tribute or pledge fealty. They told her a complaint had been made.

She told them to bend the knee and to respect her kingdom. They did not respect her.

Emily shouted and spat as the police dragged her away by the armpits. She told them she was King of the Trees. She told them her brother was King of the Moon and her mother was King of the Bears. But they did not listen.

They told her she could never step foot in that car park again.

Emily vowed vengence. Emily declared war.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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To Grip the Bright White Chains

Staring across the ocean waves reflecting a sky the colour of hung meat, Elsie thought about all the children she could save. She coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the smell of washed-up fish.

Elsie turned, as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. Elsie knew he was beyond saving.

The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the prez?” he said.

Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”

The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”

Elsie pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal,” she said. “If you want the caps–.”

“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his matted hair. He lay the items out on the mottled concrete. A smile crept over Elsie’s face.

“Real. Unopened.” Elsie knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”

The boy frowned as he groped inside his rucksack for several seconds, then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect,” the boy said. “It’s the best I could find.” He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint. Its bristles were uneven and some were missing.

Elsie placed the paintbrush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of plastic and a coil of blue rope.

The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before Elsie. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned and ran. Elsie shook her head and sighed as the boy descended a ladder and over the sea wall.

Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley uphill along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded houses.

She thought about the boy, about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most, then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death. The demand was there – the demand was always there. It was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.

Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway. She shouldered her way back through a gate and closed it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.

Elsie surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected her bed of chrysanthemums, the red and pink blooms swaying gently with the wind, their fragrance tickling her nose and bringing to mind memories of carefree, more playful times.

She walked over to her bench with varnished wooden slats and framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with images of leaves and twisting vines. The slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants climbing the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.

The tins were the finishing touch. Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever-open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.

Moving the tin over to the first pole, Elsie set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the top beam and decided she would paint them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.

Elsie rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. She knew her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung meat sky.

She approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than six.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.

The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.

“You’ll like it,” Elsie said. “I promise.”

The children exchanged furtive, suspicious glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.

“Okay, but if you try anything funny,” the boy said, patting a blade on his belt.

The children followed. Elsie opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden – their garden.

“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here,” she said. “If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”

“This is for us?” the boy said.

“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”

The children smiled. “What’s that do?” the girl said, gesturing past Elsie.

“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and for her to grip the bright white chains.

“Hold on,” said Elsie as she walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.

Elsie wiped a tear. It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Eating

Grandma was delicious. It was probably the paprika that gave her that extra bite. Her funeral was boring, but once the vicar had finished telling us about a woman he’d never met, the eating was wonderful.

It’s a tradition in our family to specify a recipe as part of your will. I’ve opted for a rosemary crust and three-bean salad.

To share yourself with your neighbours and loved-ones brings everyone closer together. It’s nice.

It’s when things get impersonal that I start to feel a bit weird about it. Take today: I had a great conversation with my cousin while we were working on the marinade. The last time we’d spoken was at uncle Jeff’s eating. He went for the full-on cajun-spiced, flash-fry. He was probably terrible for you, but he was so tasty. It was a real treat.

There was a woman who lived near my mother who died. She had no children or relatives. She was isolated, very lonely. It was sad.

Once the pathologist was done bagging and tagging, and the coroner released the body, she was sent in small parcels to the food-banks around the city. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but there’s something lost. It shouldn’t just be about recycling.

It’s like when there was the fire at that nursery. You couldn’t tell one toddler from another, and no one really wants to be eating some stranger’s kid. So they were shipped off to feed prisoners. I get that this is a good thing. I’m probably just being a snob, but I just find it a bit creepy.

I found out recently that my great aunt Maude is dying, and she’s opted to be stir-fried in walnut oil with garlic, chilli and ginger. I hope she hurries up: I love Chinese food.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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Introducing the Short Science Fiction Review.

The Short Science Fiction Review is a podcast dedicated to providing short reviews of short science fiction stories.

I will review short stories and novellas by a diverse range of authors, from the earliest scientific romance tales to new voices in the genre.

The authors covered will reflect my own tastes. I enjoy science fiction works that are thought-provoking, mind-bending, political, satirical, or explore an interesting idea, concept or piece of technology.

It is highly unlikely that I will review stories about monsters, dinosaurs, or zombies; hard, technical scientific concepts; or action/adventure.

All of the works reviewed will have been published in established magazines or anthologies. My aim is to make the reviews sufficiently free of spoilers.

I’d love to hear from other short story fans for discussion and recommendations. You can follow me on Twitter @jlcronshaw, friend me on facebook.com/jlcronshaw or follow my Goodreads profile.

You can subscribe to the Short Science Fiction Review on iTunes HERE.

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 104

Short story: The Cats of Ulthar by H. P. Lovecraft, listened to on the Drabblecast, from December 2016. Recommended.

Poem: Alone by Edgar Allan Poe, listened to through Librivox. Recommended.

Essay: How Can I Tell Right from Wrong, listened to on the BBC’s A History of Ideas podcast, from November 2014. Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 103

Short story: Conscience by Italo Calvino, from Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories. Highly Recommended.

Poem: The Lovers of the Poor by Gwendolyn Brooks, listened to on the Poem of the Day podcast, from December 2016. Recommended.

Essay: Indus Seal, listened to on the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, from February 2010. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 102

Short story: 1348 by Russell Hemmell, listened to on the Far Fetched Fables podcast, from November 2016. Highly Recommended.

Poem: The Snowstorm by Ralph Waldo Emerson, listened to on the Classic Poetry Aloud podcast. Recommended.

Essay: Why Orwell is the Supreme Mediocrity by Will Self, listened to on the BBC’s A Point of View podcast, from August 2014. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day101

Short story: Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey, from Wastelands (2008), edited by John Joseph Adams. Highly Recommended.

Poem: Tuning by Keith Waldrop, listened to on Poem of the Day podcast, from December 2016. Recommended.

Essay: Standard of Ur, listened to on the BBC’s A History of the World in a Hundred Objects, from February 2010. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 100

Short story: The Library by Ray Bradbury, from A Pleasure to Burn (2010). Highly Recommended.

Poem: Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn by Charles Wright, listened to on Poem of the Day podcast, from December 2016. Recommended.

Essay: We Need Nuclear Power to Solve Climate Change by Joe Lassiter, listened to on the TEDTalks podcast, from November 2016. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

The Ray Bradbury Challenge: Day 099

Short story: Myriam by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold, listened to on the Far Fetched Fables podcast, from November 2016. Highly Recommended.

Poem: I Will Be Your Grave by Tlotlo Tsamaase, listened to on the Strange Horizons podcast, from November 2016. Highly Recommended.

Essay: The Ghost Fighter of Pearl Harbour, listened to on Skeptoid 547, from November 2016. Highly Recommended.

What is the Ray Bradbury Challenge?

Samantha Murray – Of Sight, Of Mind, Of Heart (2016)

Samantha Murray’s short story Of Sight, Of Mind, Of Heart was published by Clarkesworld in November 2016.

Of Sight, Of Mind, Of Heart tells the story of a mother coping with her child going to war against alien invaders.

You can read this story for free on the Clarkesworld Magazine website or in their podcast.

Have you read it? What did you think? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

You can subscribe to the Short Science Fiction Review on iTunes HERE.