Precious

As a straight, white, middle-class male, I didn’t encounter a lot of prejudice in life, but being dead is a whole different ball game. My friend, Dave, shivers with disgust when I sit next to him on his comfy old couch. I peer at his laptop screen.

“Not that bullshit again,” I say in response to an inane post on treasurehunter.com. “If the loot were in Brown’s canyon we’d have found it already.” In the old days, Dave would have chuckled and replied, “losers.” Now, clutching a blanket around his body, he looks warily in my direction.

“Please, please talk to me,” I say. But, he shakes his head with the puzzled expression of a mother panda whose cub has just sneezed.

Desperate, I transport to the office where I used to work and type a rapid reply into the forum.

“Dude, have you even read the fucking clues?” I return to Dave’s side the instant I press send. Being dead is not without its advantages. On seeing activity under my username, Dave gasps and covers his open mouth with a hand. But again, like an old guy with Alzheimer’s, he loses track and, with an air of embarrassment, moves his hand back onto the keypad. The conversation on the forum moves on, but everyone ignores my post.

My girlfriend or I suppose I should now call her Dave’s wife, wanders into the den. I stand close to her, and she shivers and holds the baby tighter in her arms.

“Hi, honey.” I say. Jen closes her eyes for a second, and I move closer, almost to kissing distance, and whisper, “It’s me, Paul.” With all physical sensation gone, emotions are all that’s left, and my hope is crushing me. But, when her eyes open, I see her determination to reconnect with her crappy, humdrum existence.

“You’re not on that stupid forum again?” she asks.

“Yeah.” Dave sighs.” Sorry.”

“We’ve already lost Paul to that wild goose chase. Give it up.”

It’s no wild goose chase. Dave and I have been working on interpreting the clues in Fenn’s poem since my first day as a resident in Montana. I’d watched Dave sitting on a bar stool, chewing on a pencil and reading a battered copy of Fenn’s autobiography. Occasionally, he scribbled on a folded map that was growing damp on the beer-sodden bar top.

”Where the warm waters halt.” I said. He looked up with narrow eyes. “Some folks think that means the treasure is at the source of Boiler creek,” I added with what I hoped was a guileless smile.

“Some folks will believe any simplistic bullshit,” he replied.

“Right answer,” I said and bought him a beer. We circled one another warily, determined to protect our dearest theories, but also desperate to share. We each gave a little, then a bit more, until five beers down the line, we were dissecting Fenn’s poem line by line. That weekend, we shook on a 50-50 split at the trailhead before embarking on our first joint treasure hunt in the Rockies. As with the many trips that followed, we scrambled up mountains, traversed narrow caves on our bellies, and slept under the clear Montana sky. While we talked constantly about the treasure, we never discussed what we’d do when we were rich. That was never really the point.

Dave stands up and takes the baby from Jen’s arms, presses his nose upon the little bald head and takes a deep breath.

My death wasn’t epic or heroic. It was just a stupid slip on slick, wet rock at the worst time. Afterwards, Dave and I stared at my battered body, and a profound sense of loss gradually overtook my animal panic.

Dave grabs Jen, and they clutch one another in a group hug with the baby.

“Screw the Fenn treasure,” he says. “Everything I need is in my arms right now.”

“No,” I shout. “You need the amazing sunrises, the trail beneath your boots and glimpses of black bears cubs on their first swim.”

The little family unit hugs tighter, and Jen cries happy tears onto her husband’s neck.

“We need the thrill of the hunt,” I whisper.

I transport to the trail and imagine feeling the stony path below my feet, and the joy of using muscles trained to hike for miles. The weak warmth of the glowing sunset acts as a balm to my aching sadness. I’m alone, but there is treasure to find.

Daisy Chain

“So, what does she look like?” I scan the carpark in a blind pretence that I won’t recognise her when she eventually arrives. However, Doug probably knows that I googled her straight after our first date, and have repeated this exercise on a semi-regular basis ever since.

“Oh, she’s hot,” he replies. This is true, and with joint custody of his daughter, she will never be out of his life. A nice comforting white lie would have been nice, but I should know better. A cruel smirk momentarily mars his beauty, and I glance down at my feet and spot a crop of daisies. This, along with the general ramshackle appearance of the picnic bench, shows that it has been a while since anyone sat here. However, we’ve been sitting here for almost an hour waiting for Doug’s ex-wife to drop off his little girl.

“Hot, but not punctual,” I say.

He checks his watch and rolls his eyes. “What can you expect from an artist?” 

He is indulgent, almost proud of her inability to conform to polite, adult society. 

“By the time we get home, it’ll be Olivia’s bedtime?  I don’t suppose she’ll have fed her?” I wish I could shut up.

“Stop trying to run Olivia and I like one of your projects.” 

Another conversational blow that leaves me winded due to his attack on both my profession and my position in our fledgeling little family. He takes his straw fedora off, fans his face with it and then replaces it tilted upwards towards the back of his head. By rights, he should look ridiculous in this hat, and I long to feel disdain for his pretentious affectation. But, my eyes are drawn to him with an admiration that makes me ashamed. He stares up at the sky, but he knows I am watching him.

“Take it easy,” he sings, and his style adds a certain swagger to the old Eagles tune. He looks at me and points. “Lighten up while you still can.”

“Show off,” I say, but I laugh. Somehow, I’m dating the cool guy who is the singer in a band, and the awkward, adolescent girl who lurks in the depths of my brain can’t believe her luck.

Following some careful consideration, I decide to be spontaneous and duck down to pick some flowers.

“What are you up to Clare Bear?” You can be sure he never likened his skinny ex-wife to a bear, but at least he is showing an interest.

“I’m going to make a daisy chain.” I put two daisies down on the scarred old table, and they point at him like a pair of little eyes while he processes this information. For an instant, I am back at school, sick with apprehension, waiting on the judgment of the cool kids. To ease my tension, I keep talking, “For Olivia,”

“Ah. Nice one,” he says as he pulls out his vibrating phone and reads the screen.

“Mike has got us a gig at the dog and duck.” He looks at me seeking approval because he is booked to sing cover songs in the local pub. 

I glance down at the daisy eyes on the bench and imagine they are judging him harshly.

“Sounds great,” I reply, embarrassed for him. Even the cool kids should grow up at some point, but it feels like I am in a relationship with a teenager. I pick more flowers and make a daisy chain while Doug announces his latest gig to his meagre band of social media fans. Just as I complete the last link, a small yellow fiat pulls up, and flustered, Doug’s ex appears from one door, and Olivia from the other.

“Sorry, sorry,” says the ex-wife.

“Hi Clare,” shouts Olivia and runs into my arms. Although she’s only been gone two days, I have missed her like crazy. I hug her small, compact little body close to mine and she plants a wet and loud kiss on my cheek.

“Hey little Livvie, I’ve made you a daisy chain,” I say.

She smiles with delight as I place it around her neck. Now, being with Doug doesn’t seem so bad.  

The Gamble


“Hey, honey,” said the stranger as he sat on the barstool.
Stan, a regular punter, looked up from his tablet expecting a famous Shirley Hanson put down. No one calls me honey, least of all when I’m behind my bar. The stranger smiled, and any idea of putting him down exited my head. It’s strange, but I felt like he saw the real me, and not a grey-haired, wrinkled and sharp-tongued landlady wrongly assumed to have a heart of gold. Also, this look wasn’t the lecherous appraisal I used to receive and didn’t miss.
“How can I help you?” I asked. Stan spurted out a mouthful of beer in surprise.
“A pint of Lager, and some company,” said the attractive stranger. “Get a drink for yourself.”
“Thanks.” I put two pounds into the tip jar and watched his back as he fed the rest of his change into the fruit machine.
Drying the beer spattered tablet with a handkerchief, Stan said, “The tracking app is working. Looks like your mobile phone is right here.”
I pulled the phone from my handbag and blushed at my stupidity. Stan laughed with his old man wheeze and, hating to appear foolish, I changed the subject.
“Can you drop this off at Jenny’s house?” I asked as I handed Stan the contents of the tip jar.
“I heard Dave was off the wagon again,” he said.
Nodding, I turned away to serve another punter, but I could sense the new guy’s eyes on me as Stan told him how kind I was. This is where that heart of gold bullshit comes from. However, thanks to Dave, most of Jenny’s household budget was in my cash register, so I wasn’t exactly a saint for helping her out with a few pounds.


The pub was quiet that night, and as we talked, the handsome stranger became Bobby. We didn’t exchange the usual pub banter of which I was heartily sick. Instead, we had a proper conversation, and I even shared my secret dream.
“In two years my savings will cover a small villa on the Spanish coast. I can’t wait to escape the dank Scottish weather.”
“Won’t you miss the pub, Shirley?” he asked.
“No way,” I answered, and told the miserable story of my sorry life.
“When I married Paul, I thought I’d escaped this dump forever. But somehow, my Dad conned or bullied him into buying the family business which condemned me to a life sentence behind this bloody bar.”
“Is Paul still around?” asked Bobby, and it thrilled me that I detected an anxious note in his voice.
“Oh, Paul soon realised his mistake. I’m not sure if it was the mistake of buying the pub or marrying me, but either way, he left.”
“Good. Who needs Paul.” Bobby held my gaze.

Infatuated, only a week passed before Bobby joined me after closing time in the flat above the pub. I was happy for about three days before he revealed his reason for leaving his hometown.
“I had some gambling debts. All I needed was some time to get back on a winning streak, but the kind of guys I owe don’t wait.”
“No shit,” I said. “Did you think they wouldn’t track you down when you moved here?” He couldn’t be that stupid.
“If you could just lend me the money, Shirley.” Ah, so he wasn’t that stupid.
I’d worked in the pub long enough to understand the consequences of not paying this kind of debt.
“Okay,” I said, waving goodbye to my dreams of Spanish sunshine.
Bobby grabbed my hand. “I promise I’ll pay back every penny”
“How?” I wondered to myself.

When Bobby left me, he took the money in my purse, my laptop, mobile phone and even the contents of the tip jar. His doomed and desperate plan to win enough money to pay me back was clear when Bones McArdle appeared in the bar hours after Bobby fled.
“Shirley.” He tipped his fedora and looked around the pub. He spoke quietly with the confidence that the world would strain to listen to his words. “Your Dad would be proud.” As if I cared, but I mumbled my thanks as life was easier if you complied with Bones’ expectations.
“Where is Bobby?“
“I don’t -” I started, but Stan interrupted me.
“Got it,” he shouted and held the tablet towards me in triumph.
“Bobby is there,” I said showing Bones the flashing cursor that represented my mobile phone.

Acting the Goat

I’m having one of those moments when I wonder how I got here, and I start to question my life decisions. The stuffed goat stares at me as I sit on my boss’ bed. It’s weird, but I find myself talking to the dead creature.

“So, you know my boss Francesca.”

It looks at me blankly, which shouldn’t phase me because it is a dead goat, but somehow I feel the need to explain further.

“Francesca is the one who shot you.” Perhaps this is insensitive, but, dead or not, he has the right to know the facts about his new roommate. It must be my imagination, but now its black face looks a bit longer, and his head seems to be angled more toward the floor.

When the delivery guy had carried the goat into the bedroom and placed it below the window, we’d both looked at the dead animal for about a minute. In the end, he’d shrugged and said, “That’s a weird place for a goat.” I had to agree, but it wasn’t the placing of the goat that disturbed me. Why Francesca wanted a reminder of the incident was beyond me.

“Your death caused a social media storm,” I tell the goat. “Francesca was the most hated woman in the whole of the UK.” It’s true, politicians, celebrities and the general public queued up to condemn the bloodthirsty American. People who’d never even seen a feral goat suddenly became passionate advocates of the herd’s right to roam the Ardnamurchan peninsula without enduring foreign fire. Personally, after accompanying Francesca on that trip, I considered the goats to be welcome to that wet, boggy and bleak corner of Scotland.

“See,” I say and show him the kill photo she posted. I know how crazy this sounds, but I feel compelled to explain the situation. I start reading some of the comments.

“Very brave, was the goat armed?”

“I hope that Goat’s brother rams you up the arse.”

“Even the first minister of Scotland joined in. She wants to ban goat hunting altogether.” I’m babbling now. Why am I desperate for the approval of a stuffed goat? The goat’s expression seems to change. He looks less forlorn than before, and I could swear that he now has his chin in the air in a way that seems almost proud. Maybe I am going mad.

“I spent an entire month answering hate posts and emails. Francesca decided to fight fire with fire, and a lot of people got hurt in the fallout.” I wasn’t proud of the rumours I started about some of the protestors.

“It’s tough working for Francesca,” I continue. “She wants all my time. I mean look at me waiting for a goat delivery on a Saturday afternoon.” My voice goes high pitched with emotion. The goat looks at me, and I hear the words, “Dry your eyes lassie, she killed me for fun.” In a gruff Scottish accent. However, I don’t see it’s black lips move over it’s visible and sharp bottom row of teeth.

“Trust me. It’s not just goats Francesca treats badly,” I protest, and the goat appears to turn his head to the side as if concentrating on listening.

“Nothing is ever good enough for her. Last week, she made me fire the cleaner for leaving a hair on the bath.”

The goat shakes his head.

“And, I missed Grandmother’s 80th birthday party because she couldn’t spare me for a single day. Granny might never see another birthday.”

The goat makes a “Tsk,” noise as if to indicate that I am pathetic.

“Most of all,” I say. “She makes me feel like crap every minute of every day, and I wonder if I’m just as bad as she is.”

“Aye. Well, we all make our choices,” says the goat. A stuffed goat is judging me.

Francesca arrives home and bounces into the bedroom saying, “Has my goat arrived?”

I feel the goat’s eyes upon me as I say, “Yes.”

“Get off my bed,” she says to me as she caresses the horns on the stuffed goat. It plunges a horn into the soft flesh of her upper arm.

“Ouch,” she says surprised at what appears to be her own clumsiness. I can’t prevent the giggle that escapes my lips and Francesca looks ready for one of her famous tantrums.

Clean

“Thanks, Johnny,” said Frannie’s mum as she touched his hand. Johnny felt bad because he’d always liked her Mum. By contrast, her Dad took his tea with a look of pure disappointment. There was a knock on the door and glad to get away from the disapproving old Bastard, Johnny rushed to open it. His relief was short lived as he was greeted by Frannie’s sister, Julie.
“Johnny,” she said. “You look awful.” Julie didn’t wait for an invitation and marched into the living room as if she owned the place.
“I told you this was going to happen,” she said to her parents. “I knew Frannie couldn’t stay clean.”
“You and me both,” replied her Father who had placed his tea, untouched, on the coffee table.
Johnny had never understood why Frannie put up with her Dad and Sister who’d never offered a single word of encouragement through her drug rehab.
“Frannie needs our help and support,” said her Mum.
“And, if she doesn’t come?” asked Julie.
“Then I’ll wait here until she does come,” she replied with quiet dignity.
Julie raised her eyes at her father who, a man of few words, simply shook his head.
Johnny’s instinct to protect Frannie rose up involuntarily, and he had to remind himself that she was now a complete bitch who deserved everything that was in store for her. “Don’t worry, she’ll come,” he said. Of course, she’d come. He’d told her he was planning a small get together for her birthday.
Another knock at the door heralded the arrival of Frannie’s two closest Triathlon buddies. They’d been unaware of Frannie’s unhealthy past as an addict until Johnny had brought them up to speed earlier that day. He still got the impression they didn’t entirely trust him. Who knows what Frannie had told them about her deadbeat boyfriend. He introduced them to Julie who would do a much better job at convincing them that Frannie was a mess.
“The worst thing is,” said Julie. “She’ll probably deny the whole thing.”
The triathlon buddies looked suitably shocked, but let’s face it, obsessing about swimming, cycling and running was hardly normal behaviour either. Sometimes, Johnny thought that Frannie was just channelling her addictive nature in a different, and quite frankly, boring direction. He, by contrast, still liked to have fun, and while he would have preferred to have fun with Frannie, he would make do with whoever was around. That wasn’t why she was kicking him out though.
“I still love you, but I’m not in love with you,” she’d said. Drunk, high Frannie had never spoken in pathetic cliches like that.
“Are you sleeping with your boss?” he’d asked.
“No. I just think we want different things from life now.”
Johnny just wanted their old life back.
“Stay in the spare room until you sort out a new place.” She was so fucking reasonable and seemed oblivious to his rage at being so easily discarded.
One more knock and Johnny admitted the boss on whom he’d focussed his jealousy. It was gratifying to see him devoid of his customary confidence as he moved awkwardly among the other guests. He owned the restaurant where Frannie worked as a chef, and somehow, she was unable to see that the creep just wanted to get into her pants. Well, perhaps he wasn’t so keen now.
“I can’t believe that Frannie would …” he seemed unable to finish the sentence, but luckily Julie was there to help.
“You better believe it. Same old, same old with Frannie.”
Everyone but Frannie had arrived. The general hum of judgmental, pseudo caring conversation stopped abruptly when they heard her key in the lock. She smiled at the sight of her friends and family, and this triggered a feeling of deep regret in Johnny. He wanted to stop this now and tell the truth, but he felt like he was choking. He hadn’t suffered a panic attack like this since his unsuccessful attempt to kick the drugs. To his dismay, the lies had developed a momentum of their own. Julie, of course, was first to speak.
“Frannie, we’re here to stage an intervention.”

Bite

We’re both running across the lawn, and very close to safety when I feel a sharp pain in my foot which makes me scream out loud. I increase my pace until we reach the house, and as I slam the door shut behind me, my girlfriend Isla shouts, “Bella.” I groan and mumble, “I don’t fucking believe this.” But, I open the door just wide enough for the yappy little dog to squeeze through. I close the door again, lock three bolts, lean my back on it and pant with exhaustion. Bella barks her high pitched, stupid small dog bark.

“Why did you scream like that?” says Isla.

“Let me see,” I say trying to act cool. “Perhaps because there was a pack of crazy, hungry zombies chasing me across the lawn.”

She looks at me with a sceptical expression, “That doesn’t normally make you scream. In fact, I’ve never heard you scream before.”

It’s true. I usually conserve all my energy for running when I’m getting chased by Zombies. I don’t yell, scream or swear as I’m struggling to breathe. I know they can’t move that quick, but let’s face it, I’m a big guy, and I wasn’t built for speed.

I try looking at my feet without moving my head, but I don’t have clown feet, so that doesn’t work. I push my back further into the door and move my feet out in front as if I’m just trying to get comfortable. I take a quick look, and I see a puncture in my left converse. I’m shocked to see a red tinge to the otherwise white material surrounding the hole. I tuck my feet back in as if this will prevent Isla from seeing the wound. This is based on the flawed logic that if I can’t see it then neither can she.

How long have I got if it’s zombie bite? Possibly, two, maybe three minutes at the most before I start foaming at the mouth. I’ve seen this happen often enough to know the script. Once the symptoms begin, I’ll be compelled to attack Isla. Obviously, I need to leave the house for her protection. Just then, I hear a Zombie fall against the door, and I scream again. I can’t go out there.

“More screaming,” says Isla.

She picks up her precious Bella and rubs her head in affection, but she never takes her eyes off me. I look at the dog’s sharp little teeth. Maybe it was the dog that bit me, after all, it wouldn’t be the first time that the nasty little rat had taken a nip. You know, I think it probably was the dog. Some zombies were lying on the lawn, but everyone says the sleepers don’t bite.

Just then the dog jumps from Isla’s hands and lands on my injured foot. I emit another embarrassingly high pitched scream and give it a little kick on the backside. Isla, of course, is furious. She stamps on my foot and shouts, ‘Leave Bella alone.”

All this extra pressure has made my foot bleed more, and I look at the blood stain in horror. Isla follows my gaze and covers her mouth in shock.

“It’s not what you think,” I say. Her eyes grow wide.

“It was the bloody dog.” I grab her by the shoulders. She shrugs me off and undoes the bolts. “Isla please,” I whimper. She opens the door and pushes me out. As I said, I’m a big guy and could easily overpower her, but her cold attitude has knocked the fight out of me.

So, I’m outside, and the indifference of the zombies lets me know that I am indeed infected. At the moment, I can still think, and the pain of how easily Isla discarded me is deep and raw. I open the letterbox and look into the house. Evidently, Isla has picked up the hateful dog again, and all I can see through my tiny peephole is the tiny dagger-like teeth in its open mouth. I spot the tell-tale foaming, and I bang on the door and shout, “The dog is infected. Throw it out quick.” I shout it again and again until I’m weeping, hammering the door, and repeating, “throw it out.”. Isla has time to save herself, but she doesn’t, and I hear her scream as Bella attacks. I realise that Isla couldn’t bring herself to sacrifice the dog.

Friends

Garret wasn’t what Susan expected. I could tell by the no-nonsense way she introduced herself that she feared he would be a spoiled brat. All the new nannies from the agency were the same. They start out a bit Mary Poppins assuming that the three-year-old son of a world-famous actress must be a little monster. Of course, he is a little monster, but they underestimate his acting abilities. I’ve seen it again and again. He clutched me, his supposedly beloved teddy bear, and looked at Susan with wide doe-like eyes. He allowed a single tear to overflow and track down his smooth, soft cheek.
“I want my Mummy,” he said.
I could see Susan’s heart melt, and the strict Nanny like figure was gone. She was a total pushover, and I saw that any hope for protection from her would be in vain.
“Poor baby,” she said. “Let’s make cookies.”
“Yaaaay,” shouted Garrett and tossed me onto the floor where I landed painfully on my nose. He stepped on me as he ran into the kitchen grasping Susan’s hand. Seriously, this girl didn’t have a clue. Garret plus cookie dough equalled total disaster. “It was going to end in tears,” I thought from my undignified position on the floor.

One hour later and Garrett stomped back into the bedroom. He kicked me into the air and shouted. “Stupid Teddy,” leapt onto his bed, lay on his stomach and started sobbing loudly.
Susan followed him in and sighed in an exaggerated fashion. She didn’t have a clue what to do until she spotted me sprawled on the bookshelf.
“Poor Teddy,” she said in a patronising fashion.
“Don’t bring me back into this,” I thought. “You made your bed.”
The problem is, being a teddy bear, I don’t have much self-determination. She was bringing me into her mess whether I wanted it or not.
“He wants a hug,” she said.
“No. I blooming don’t.” I thought.
“I don’t like Teddy,” said the charming Garrett, and the feeling was entirely mutual.
“You’ll make him cry,” said Susan. There was every chance he would make me cry, but not by ignoring me.
She picked me up, held me out, wiggled me from side to side and said in a gruff voice. “Please Garrett, I want a hug.” Evidently, that’s how she thought a teddy would speak. Idiot.
She walked towards him and thrust me into his face. He didn’t have the wide eyes of a Disney cartoon character now. He looked at me through narrow, calculating slits and breathed in that loud, snotty, way that he did after crying. This was the point where things could go either way. Given the autonomy, I would hide it out until it was clear that it was nap time. Then, if only I were able, I might hop over for a cuddle.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t napping time, and he took a swipe at my face before launching into another impressive crying fit. It was humiliating to be rejected like this, and I blamed the gormless Susan for setting me up for it. She let me go, and I fell onto the bed and watched her as she tried to think. She wasn’t very bright, so the effort brought a frown to her face, and she stuck her tongue out like a young child learning to write. I was relieved for her when, after what seemed like an eternity, the concentration left her face, and she smiled. My relief was short lived as, after rummaging in her backpack, she brought out a blue, stuffed, bunny rabbit. He was about the same size as me but his fur was luxurious, and he had great floppy ears. I started to panic. How could I compete with him?
Susan put on a cute, high-pitched voice for the Bunny. “Hey, Garret. I can be your new best friend.” This was madness. I was Garret’s best friend. I’d been there from the start. Let’s face it, where was the bunny when he was teething, and don’t even talk to me about the toilet training.
“Bunny is rubbish,” said Garret with a loud sniff.
“Too right,” I thought.
“I want Teddy.” He held me close.
Susan and the bunny left the room, and Garret and I had the best nap ever.