FOR YOUR SAFETY AND COMFORT, PLEASE KEEP ARMS, LEGS AND TENTACLES INSIDE THE CAR AT ALL TIMES
by Michelle Ann King
Katie found a table near the window, brushed it free of crumbs and spilled sugar, and sat down with her coffee and muffin. Rain lashed the glass, relocating some of the dirt and giving her a better view of a scrawny dog rooting around in the pile of black bin bags outside. An ambulance streaked past, followed by a convoy of police cars. The stray shot off with a chicken leg gripped in its jaws.
Lia slid into the seat opposite. ‘You’ll never guess what happened yesterday.’
‘Wait,’ Katie said, before her nerve failed. ‘There’s something I need to tell you, first. It’s about Owen.’
She twisted her paper napkin, scrunched it into a ball and unrolled it again. Her stomach clenched, and she took a steadying breath. She had to do this. Lia was her best friend, and she deserved to know the truth―however rotten that might be. And Owen Harris was pretty damn rotten. ‘He’s been―’
Lia waved a hand. ‘Hon, I’m sorry, but you’ve just got to hear this.’ She grinned and leaned back in her seat. ‘I found God.’
Katie stared at her. ‘I’m sorry, you did what?’
‘I found God. And I don’t mean I became a born-again Christian or anything, I mean I literally discovered the omnipotent creator of the universe. While I was doing that house clearance in Balham.’
Katie took a mouthful of coffee, burned her tongue and put it down again. ‘God,’ she said. ‘Actual, biblical God.’
‘I know. But it’s amazing what you can find tucked away in these places, sometimes. And that old lady was one hell of a hoarder. I wouldn’t exactly say biblical, though―we’re not talking about the old man in the flowing robes and long white beard. It’s more of a―well, a―’
‘A trickster coyote? A shower of gold? Alanis Morisette?’
‘No, no,’ Lia said. ‘Nothing like that. It’s more like… okay, remember my Great Aunt Doris, the one with all the tea cosies? Try to imagine a cross between her, that security guard who arrested us for shoplifting eyebrow pencils out of Superdrug when we were kids, and the Grand Canyon.’
Katie dutifully tried to imagine this. She failed.
‘And so it turns out that after creating our space-time continuum, It went to have a lie down. Justifiably, I think; I always need a bit of a nap after any DIY myself. It must have briefly woken up after a few billion years because It vaguely remembered dinosaurs, sharks and some kind of alien consciousness in a galaxy called the Gaseous Complex that we haven’t discovered yet, but then It dozed right off again. Until now.’
In the silence that followed, she picked up her cinnamon roll and took a bite.
Katie rubbed her forehead. ‘Lia, I―’
‘This is a bit stale,’ Lia said, and pushed the plate away. ‘I know what you’re thinking―it seems disrespectful to refer to God as It, right? I was the same at first, but what pronoun do you choose for a non-gendered transdimensional entity? English is so inadequate, sometimes. God didn’t seem to mind, though. It was pretty affable about most things, considering It’s just got up. I’m not half as easy-going myself, first thing in the morning. And then we―oh, hang on, that’s my phone.’
Katie sipped her coffee. It tasted burnt.
‘I’m going to have to love you and leave you,’ Lia said. That was the office, they’ve heard a rumour that there’s an original penny farthing at an antique dealer’s in Kentish Town, and I really want to get down there and check it out.’
‘All right. I’m working tonight, so wait up until I get in, okay? We still need to talk.’
‘Shit, sorry, yeah, you were going to tell me about someone. Owen, was it?’
‘Well, yes. Owen.’
‘Uh huh. And who’s he, then?’
Katie raised her eyebrows. ‘Owen Harris. Your boyfriend.’
‘Your boyfriend? The one you’ve been with for the last eighteen months? The one you’re talking about moving in with?’ She waited, but Lia just stared at her. ‘The one I keep trying to tell you is an arsehole?’
Lia shook her head, half smiling and half frowning. ‘Hon, I don’t know what you’re on about. I haven’t been out with anyone since Tom went to Australia.’
‘Stop it,’ Katie said. ‘I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but this isn’t funny. I’m trying to have a serious conversation with you, and you’re just―’
‘I’m not trying to be funny,’ Lia said. ‘Honestly, I’m not. But I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anyone called Owen Harris.’
Katie shook her head, picked up her phone and brought up the photos. ‘What’s wrong with you today? You turn up here talking all kinds of weird shit and―all right, look, here, this is his picture, we―’
She broke off. There were no pictures of Owen in the camera roll. Plenty of her, plenty of Lia, plenty of them together. But none of Owen.
She opened up the other albums, but there was nothing there either. Not from Lia’s brother’s wedding, when he’d got drunk and groped the other bridesmaids. Not from the pub’s Halloween night, when Katie had gone as a zombie and Lia and Owen as Buffy and Spike. No Owen, anywhere, in any of them.
‘I don’t understand,’ she said.
‘Look, maybe you―oh, here we go again.’ Lia picked up her phone. ‘Yes, yes, tell them I’m on my way right now.’ She got up. ‘Hon, I’m sorry but I’ve really got to go.’ She paused. ‘Look―take it easy, all right? Maybe ring Phil and tell him you’re sick or something, don’t go in tonight. I’ll see you later, okay? We’ll talk.’
She yanked her jacket off the back of the chair, grabbed her bag and threaded her way through the tables to the door.
Katie checked her phone again, but it still refused to bring up any pictures of Owen Harris. She put it away, pulled apart the remains of her cinnamon roll and let it fall on the plate. Sometimes she could see signs and omens in the pattern of cake crumbs, but not today. She ate it instead.
Lia had been right. It was stale.
By the time she got home from the Crown, Katie felt better. She’d thought about not going in, but that would have meant losing an evening’s wages. And a dose of normality, even if it did involve eight hours of listening to Phil moan about shrinking profits, the state of the economy and the evils of trade-stealing gastropubs, turned out to be exactly what she needed.
Maybe Lia knew that Owen was still seeing his ex, and she’d deleted the photos and engineered that strange conversation to avoid having to face up to it. A bit extreme, but that was Lia for you.
The flat was dark and empty. Also Lia for you. Katie made cheese on toast, seasoned it liberally with cayenne pepper and took it into her room. She sat down at the little desk and booted up her ancient computer. It clunked, whirred and eventually loaded up her journal file.
The cat yowled. ‘No, you can’t have any,’ she said, and removed its paw from her knee. ‘I don’t think cheese is good for you, and the pepper will make you sneeze.’
She scrolled to her last entry, the one where she’d made up her mind to tell Lia, written in the middle of the night because the anxiety wouldn’t let her sleep. It wasn’t there. She paged up, skimming through the words. A lot of entries were simply gone. Along with all the mentions of Owen from the others.
She sat back, staring at the screen. The cat scratched at her chair until she relented and gave it her last bite of cold cheese on toast. It tossed it up in the air, batted it down and ate it, then sneezed.
She scratched it behind the ears and it jumped onto her lap and kneaded her thighs with big, soft paws. Katie waited for it to circle around a few times and flop down.
‘Lia wouldn’t do this,’ she told it. ‘No way. She wouldn’t even open my journal, let alone start messing about with it.’ The cat gave a short chirruping sound, which she took as agreement.
She checked the photos stored on the computer, her emails and messages. No mention of Owen Harris in any of them.
‘What is this?’ she said. ‘What’s going on?’
The cat yawned. Katie stroked its long, smoky-grey fur, then put her fingers under its collar, turned over the name tag. ‘Marcel,’ she said, and it purred so vigorously she could feel it vibrating.
When had they got a cat, exactly?
She’d always wanted one; a big, tufty-eared Maine Coon just like this. But she couldn’t afford a purebred, and Lia was allergic.
Katie grabbed her phone and rang Lia’s mobile. ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘where are you?’
‘At Tom’s,’ Lia said, sounding surprised. ‘And I’m trying to cook dinner, so if it goes quiet it probably means my spaghetti is boiling over.’
‘Are you allergic to cats? Do they make you wheeze and come out in hives?’
‘What? No, of course not. I’d be in trouble if they did, considering how many times I wake up with Marcel asleep on my head.’
‘You were,’ Katie said. ‘You were allergic, really badly. It’s why we’ve never had any kind of pet other than a goldfish, and everything always has to be hypoallergenic. Up until today. And Tom? You’re with Tom? He went to Australia, two years ago. He emigrated.’
‘Okay,’ Lia said slowly. ‘And in what version of reality would that be?’
‘Yes,’ Katie said. She half-stood, and Marcel rumbled his disapproval. Claws hooked in her jeans until she sat down again. ‘Yes, that’s my point, exactly.’
‘Have you been drinking? Or reading existential philosophy again? You’re not making much sense.’ Lia’s voice became muffled. ‘Have you got any more oregano? This is nearly―oh, thanks.’
‘Think about it, Lia. Quantum entanglement. The Many Worlds theory. Convergent timelines. It all makes sense, now.’
‘Hon, what are you―’
Katie disentangled Marcel’s claws from her jeans and lifted him onto the floor. ‘Divine intervention,’ she said. ‘The beneficence of a merciful god, or a transdimensional whatever you called it.’
‘Oh,’ Lia said. There was silence on the line, except for a fierce bubbling sound.
‘We didn’t have a cat. You did have a boyfriend called Owen. Tom went to Australia. You said that yourself, in the cafe. Come on, you have to remember.’
More silence. Then Lia said, ‘You know, I think I do. Shit, I do remember that. My God.’
‘Yeah, well, you could say that.’
‘Okay.’ Lia huffed out a long breath. ‘Shit. Okay. Let me go and talk to It. I’ll explain. We’ll fix this.’
‘It’s there with you now?’
‘Yes. It’s experimenting with tentacles.’
The bubbling got fiercer. ‘Ah… I gave It my Lovecraft collection to read. Probably not such a good idea, with hindsight, but I was trying to get the dinner on.’ She sighed. ‘I am so the wrong person for this. It should have appeared to the Dalai Lama, or Nelson Mandela. Even Bob Geldof. At the very least, someone who owns a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. We―hang on―what, Tom? Shit. Okay. Hon, I’ve got to go. Something’s burning and It’s got a tentacle stuck in the Hoover. Look, leave it with me. I’ll come and see you at the pub tomorrow.’
‘Okay,’ Katie said. ‘Be careful. And don’t make any wishes or anything.’
‘Not even for rainbows and unicorns. And unplug the Hoover before you fiddle with it.’
‘I will,’ Lia said, and hung up.
Katie served Old Pete his fifth pint of London Pride while Lia settled herself on a stool.
‘So,’ Lia said, ‘I asked It to give me Owen back.’
‘You did what?’
‘Don’t panic, I don’t mean have him back to keep. You were totally right, he was a tosser. It was definitely a mistake, but it was my mistake―and my job to put it right. I wanted him back so that I could tell him to sod off.’
‘Good for you,’ Katie said. She poured two shots of tequila, put one in front of Lia and raised one herself. ‘On the house.’
Phil stopped polishing glasses and gave her a look. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I mean, on me.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s your pub, girl. If you want to let your mates drink your profits, that’s up to you.’
Lia frowned. ‘Your pub?’
Katie checked the gold-coloured plaque above the bar. It told her that Katherine Winfield, not Philip Arnott, was licensed to sell beers, wines and spirits to be consumed on the premises. The TV on the wall was showing the news, a story about the discovery of calorie-free blancmange.
Old Pete snorted and drained the last of his beer. ‘Well, that’s a waste. Who the hell likes blancmange?’
‘A correction to that last item,’ the newsreader said. ‘That was calorie-free chocolate, not blancmange. Which I’m sure is good news to everyone. And, coming up after the weather, we have Dr Amisha Patel with exercises for developing dexterity in your child’s prehensile tentacles.’
‘I think we might have a problem,’ Katie said.
‘Shit,’ Lia said. She sighed. ‘It means well, you know. It wants people to be happy. But I did try to explain that making mistakes is an opportunity for personal growth and that being free to fuck up your life is a fundamental human right.’
‘You might need to try harder,’ Katie said.
‘I think you’re right,’ Lia said. ‘I’d better go.’ She picked up her glass of tequila and held it to her lips, then put it down again. Gold highlights glinted in the liquid. ‘I don’t want this,’ she said.
Katie studied her own glass. ‘No. I don’t think I do, either. Maybe some coffee, instead?’
Lia scanned the rows of bottles on the shelves behind the bar. ‘Liver disease,’ she said. ‘Alcohol poisoning. Choking on vomit. Fights, accidents, drink driving. Lives ruined, money wasted. I never really thought about just how bad booze is, before. Did you?’
‘No,’ Katie said. She rubbed her forehead. ‘Lia, I think something’s happening. Something bad. I―’
Old Pete leaned across the bar, holding out a tenner. ‘Katie, could you please get me another elderflower cordial?’
Katie pressed her hands to her face and closed her eyes. ‘Stop it.’
‘What’s the matter, hon?’ Lia said.
‘Headache,’ Katie said. ‘Really bad.’
She leaned on the bar, her head down, until the pressure eased. She opened her eyes again. ‘Sorry, were you saying something?’
‘Yeah, I…’ Lia trailed off. ‘I don’t know, now. Lost my train of thought. What were we talking about?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Oh well, never mind. I’m sure if it was important, it’ll come back to us.’
‘I suppose so,’ Katie said, but she frowned.
The phone on the wall trilled, and Phil picked it up. He listened, then leaned across to the computer and opened up the bookings spreadsheet. ‘For fifteen? No, sorry, we’re booked solid until the third. Will that do? Okay, let me take your details.’
Katie watched him, then slowly looked around. The bar was empty, but the restaurant area was full. Smart waiters in black glided among the tables.
‘This isn’t right,’ she said.
‘What isn’t?’ Lia said. ‘Mmm, something smells good. Are you making another batch of your famous brownie pies?’
‘Totally calorie-free,’ Katie said, and shivered. She put her hand to her head. ‘Lia? I’m scared.’
‘What of?’ Lia handed her a tissue. ‘You have cocoa powder in your eyebrows.’
‘I don’t know,’ Katie said. She wiped her face. ‘But there’s something wrong. Really wrong.’
Phil finished the booking and put the phone down. ‘Oh, did you hear? That murder there was supposed to have been in Birmingham? Turned out to be a hoax. Murder, honestly. You’d think they’d be more careful about what they put on the news, wouldn’t you? Fancy frightening people like that.’
Lia looked at Katie with concern. ‘Are you all right? You don’t look well.’
‘No,’ Katie said. The restaurant interior was spacious and airy, big windows letting the light stream in―but it suddenly felt claustrophobic and oppressive, the air thick and hard to breathe. ‘I have to get out of here.’
She pushed through the big double doors and onto the street. The building occupied a sizeable part of The Strand, with a section of pavement seating marked off with flowerbeds in vibrant, blooming colour. The late afternoon sun shone warmly and people walked by in couples and groups, laughing and chatting. The air smelled of baking bread and chocolate.
Katie gripped one of the tubular silver chairs, fought off a wave of dizziness and stumbled to the road. She stepped off the kerb and every muscle locked, freezing her in place. A courier on a red motorbike flew past a foot or so in front of her, packages gripped in every tentacle.
The paralysis let go, and Katie fell to her knees.
Lia ran over and helped her get up. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I think so,’ Katie said. ‘But just then―I couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything. My legs wouldn’t work.’
‘Well, obviously,’ Lia said. ‘You weren’t looking where you were going. That bike would have hit you, otherwise.’
Katie stared around the sunlit street. ‘That’s not supposed to happen. This isn’t right.’
‘What do you mean? You think people should be allowed to have accidents? To get hurt?’
‘No, but―I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this. I think something went wrong.’
A butterfly landed on Lia’s shoulder. ‘What’s got into you?’ she said. ‘How could anything go wrong? Now come back inside, and stop being silly. You have customers.’
She led Katie back into the restaurant.
‘Oh, there you are,’ Phil said. ‘The coffee’s brewed, and the cinnamon rolls have just come out of the oven.’ He laid a tray out on the low table in front of the sofa by the window.
‘Thanks,’ Katie said, and they sat down. ‘So how’s the exhibition going?’
‘Excellent,’ Lia said. ‘I never realised there was such an interest in Victorian bicycles. How’s the new cafe coming along?’
‘Oh, really good. It was a bit of a challenge to get the metabolic conversion for the calorie-free brownies right, but we managed in the end. We’re going to be the first human business in the Gaseous Complex. It’s very exciting.’
‘That’s brilliant,’ Lia said. She took a bite of her cinnamon roll. ‘These are fantastic.’
‘Yeah. Everything’s great. It’s just…’
‘I don’t know.’ Katie rubbed her head. ‘Maybe it’s nothing, but―do you ever get the feeling that your life took a weird left turn somewhere along the line, and you never noticed?’
Lia glanced out the window, where her unicorn was chasing rainbow-coloured butterflies on the lawn. She shrugged. ‘Nope, can’t say that I do.’
Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She’s sold stories to a variety of anthologies and magazines, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Black Static, and her first collection Transient Tales is available in ebook and paperback now. See www.transientcactus.co.uk for details.