The Species Assimilation Unit – Mike Fox

Elijah grasped his fork tentatively and aimed it at his plate. Instead it scraped a jagged line in the varnish of the table top.

‘Oh Christ,’ he said. The joints in his chair groaned beneath his substantial bottom as he squirmed with humiliation.

‘Don’t worry, it could have happened to any of us,’ Ravi murmured reassuringly.

‘But it doesn’t happen to you,’ Elijah insisted . He peered mournfully at the tip of his trunk as though it had betrayed him. ‘Those opposable thumbs might just as well have been designed for a knife and fork. Proboscides have had millennia to develop fine motor skills, and frankly we aren’t up to it.’

‘We all have our challenges,’ Ravi said wearily. Suddenly his eyes showed only dismay. ‘At this very moment I can hardly restrain myself from shinning up that lamp stand and picking out the light bulb. And the cameras caught me last time so I’m on my final warning. I tried to explain that my ancestors had been doing much the same thing since before recorded history, but they said that was irrelevant.’

‘I realise it’s hard for everyone,’ said Elijah, ‘but no-one enjoys my table manners. The other day I got over-excited at a bowl of lettuce and sucked up the entire table cloth. On my first work placement too. I knew it was over in that instant. You must admit that an elephant’s trunk is poorly designed for most domestic applications.’

‘I can see it must be frustrating,’ Ravi conceded. ‘And I can see that as primates we’re rather more like them than most animals. But that in itself can create confusion. To be honest I think Darwin muddied the waters, and then the whole DNA thing made it worse.’ He reached absently for a banana, but forgot to peel it before taking a bite.

They all lapsed into silence with the exception of Abeo, a tiger just out of cubhood, who was purring involuntarily over the thought of cream with his pudding. He stopped when Johnson the wallaby gave him a gentle dig in the ribs.

‘Thanks, friend,’ he said. ‘It’s a difficult habit to break.’

They had all made strenuous efforts to get here, trotting, leaping or flying over hundreds of dusty or snow-frozen miles before braving seas in the flimsiest of vessels. For most of them this had been the worst part, although Olaf the polar bear had managed to stow himself in the rear of a refrigeration lorry, and so found the ferry crossing rather to his taste. But now, collectively, they asked themselves if it had been worth the effort.

Most of them had heard of the Species Assimilation Unit, but few had anticipated any particular problem in passing through. Elijah, for instance, possessed an advanced diploma in industrial haulage, as well as a proven record of delivery to inaccessible areas. Despite the climate, he’d expected to be a hit in the Western Isles. Ravi simply knew he could do better than most picking fruit in Kent. After all, he’d built a career from pretty well identical activities. Admittedly it might be tricky not to nibble a percentage, but surely his speed and agility would make up for that? Olaf, meanwhile, had envisaged a secure future as a lifeguard in Cornwall. Who else, he reasoned, would want the winter shift?

None of them, however, had reckoned on the criteria. The six-phase English grammar test was proving particularly humiliating. Before leaving their birthplace not a soul amongst them had felt prompted to learn parts of speech, let alone gerunds: why bother when often as not a roar or a bark or even a grunt would suffice? And as for the ‘evidence of allegiance’, neither had they thought to brush up on Tudor history, or nuances of characterisation in The Old Curiosity Shop. It was one stumbling block after another.

‘The inquisitors have no empathy,’ said Johnson bitterly. ‘Marsupials bounce. That’s what we do. No-one back home called it hyperactive attention disorder.’

‘You’re right,’ Elijah agreed. ‘They’re no more than speciphobes.’

There was a moody silence, then Ayo the zebra spoke up. ‘Still guys, we just have to face it – it’s one size fits all here. We’ll only be allowed to stay if we give them what they want.’

The silence became resentful. Ayo had proved a hit with the children in the nearby llama sanctuary and was confident a contract would follow. And it didn’t help that he kept banging on about how delicious he found the grass there.

Nocturnus, a western screech owl, kept his own counsel. For one thing everyone cringed visibly at the sound of his voice. For another, he had more or less been guaranteed a permanent position after a night security placement, having inadvertently foiled a burglary simply by exercising his vocal chords. He was pleased, naturally, but sensitive to the feelings of those still jumping through ever diminishing hoops.

The Unit was an implacable building, designed as if its whole purpose was to confound. Cameras perched everywhere, with ineligibility lurking in even the most mundane activity. Table manners, toilet habits, sleeping arrangements, even the viability with which you negotiated the stairs: all were under surveillance; all could be your downfall.

And, they unanimously agreed, the dress code stank. ‘Who needs a bloody onesie when you’ve been dressed in fur from birth?’ Olaf, referring to the standard compulsory issue overall, asked no-one in particular. He missed the Arctic air, and the muggy climate of Kent tended to inflame his rhetoric.

‘Or indeed feathers,’ murmured Nocturnus.

‘Or a decent hide,’ put in Johnson.

It wasn’t the same for everyone, though. Racehorses seeking entry met no hurdles, at least metaphorically. But then they were thoroughbreds. Not only that, they were actively encouraged to propagate – as if there weren’t enough of them already.

It just wasn’t fair.

They were forced to admit, though, that the south-east coast was getting uncomfortably crowded. Everyone seemed to head for it now. It existed in one of the few strips of climate that could still support multiple life forms, and had managed to remain neutral while wars broke out all around. And so the unit came into being. Someone, somewhere, had eventually recognised that every diaspora needs a destination. And now there were diasporas everywhere.

But there had to be terms and conditions. After all, these animals were aliens: they brought their own culture, their own way of doing things. Indigenous liberals argued that they could fit in by doing the jobs no-one else wanted, and, as refugees, they bought into this willingly. The problem was getting to grips with the mechanics of ‘fitting in’.

And the mentality of the inquisitors was contagious. It was difficult not to become critical of one another. More than once Elijah sensed a raised eyebrow as he squeezed his bulk in stages through an internal door frame. And Johnson’s habit of hopping around upstairs provoked overt criticism when the impact of his lower limbs made items fall off tables and shelves. Bickering had begun to break out, and open displays of disapproval grew more frequent.

Eventually Olaf spoke up. ‘Guys,’ he said, laying a huge paw on the table. ‘We’ve got to stop this. If we don’t we’ll be lost – I mean, who else is going to support us through the process? And if we don’t get through how can our wives and children hope to follow us?’

At that every animal began to weep silently.

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Olaf said, wiping a tear of his own. ‘I know the whole thing’s emotive. But I have an idea I’d like to put before you.’

‘Please do,’ Nocturnus sniffed. ‘I think we all feel in need of inspiration.’

‘Well,’ Olaf said, smoothing the fur on his chest, ‘it’s this. I’ve been doing some unofficial research at my placement, and I’ve overheard some interesting snippets. As a result I think I’m beginning to get a feel for how they do things here.’

The animals leaned forward attentively.

‘To make our position stronger I propose we form a cartel – apparently that’s what it’s called. I heard them talking about it yesterday. It works this way: first you compile a ‘skill package’ – and think of all the specialist skills we have between us – then you aim it a specific market, then you develop a thing called a “tender”, which just means a quote for a specified contract, and finally you quote lower than anyone else, and then you’re in. If it goes well it will mean we all get accepted at the same time.’

‘But mightn’t that make us a tad unpopular with the locals?’ Elijah asked. As an elephant his basic nature was conciliatory, at least where humans were concerned.

‘What choice do we have?’ Olaf asked. ‘It’s obvious their tactic is to pick us off one by one. But if we stand together and offer them something they realise they want, surely they’ll grab our paws off?’

‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.

Olaf inclined his head graciously. ‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘The best strategy, I’ve come to realise, is to appeal to their baser instincts. God knows there’s enough of them.’

‘What would we call ourselves?’ Johnson asked.

‘I’ve been giving that some thought too. It seems they like something vaguely positive, as long as it doesn’t actually mean anything. I propose “Beastly Solutions”. We can set up a training agency.’

Elijah waved his trunk triumphantly. ‘You’re a genius,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly what we’re designed to provide.’

There was a general clamour of approval.

Olaf had studied the speech patterns of the managers at his placement. ‘At the end of the day the reality is I think we’ve agreed a way forward,’ he concluded.

After that, each evening when they returned from their placements they sat together at the table and brainstormed. Olaf acted as chair, and between them they listed a formidable range of training modules they could feel confident of delivering:

hardcore fishing (‘seal methodology and beyond’), unmechanised lifting and handling (‘polar and equatorial applications available on request’), voice training for the timid (‘roar your way to confidence’), flight for beginners (‘including altitude reconnaissance and freestyle perching – no equipment needed’), and finally diet and terrain (‘addressing the vegan/carnivore debate – is it you or the landscape?’).

‘God knows, I feel empowered,’ breathed Johnson when Olaf read this back to them. ‘You’re right – when they hear this they’ll snatch our paws off.’

‘Or claws,’ said Nocturnus.

Olaf beamed at them. ‘There’s a very approachable personal assistant at my placement,’ he said. ‘She’s taken to stroking my fur. I’m sure she’ll type this up for us. After that all we have to do is submit it to the inquisitors.’

The following day, as hoped, he brought back to the Unit a neatly typed sheaf of A4 in a ring binder. The animals examined it and glowed with a sense of achievement. They all agreed that Olaf should have the honour of presenting it.

‘We enter this as equal partners, but you should be first amongst us,’ said Nocturnus.

‘Hear! Hear!’ the others concurred warmly.

They slept soundly that night, but were woken abruptly in the early hours by loud and repetitive thuds against the reinforced glass of their bedroom windows. Johnson, with a single bound, was first to check what was happening.

‘Christ, mates,’ he said, ‘it’s bloody vigilantes chucking things!’

Outside stood a spiteful-looking mob in dark anoraks and hoods. They held banners saying ‘Human Rights, Animal Wrongs’ and ‘Jobs for the Boys – and we mean Boys’.

Olaf came to the window. He put his paw on Johnson’s sloping shoulder and peered out over his head. ‘You have to wonder who monitors these cameras,’ he said. ‘Someone’s trying to stop us before we even get started.’

‘Best stay out of sight,’ said Elijah. ‘If they see you it will only inflame them.’

So they huddled together by the far wall waiting for the angry sounds to abate. After about an hour they heard the wail of police sirens.

‘Thank God, they’ve come to save us,’ said Nocturnus. Within a minute they heard a series of violent thumps and then the rending of wood, followed by heavy footfall up the stairs. A large police officer, with a face like a slab of steak, burst into the room.

‘Here they are,’ he shouted behind him, and quickly the room filled with his clones.

Olaf stood to address them. He clasped his paws together and spoke from the heart. ‘Thank you so much for coming to help us officers,’ he said. ‘We are in your debt.’

‘Help you?’ Steak-face exclaimed. ‘We’ve come to arrest you. Bloody agitators.’

The stunned animals hadn’t foreseen this. Their time in the unit had made them placatory, and as the police rushed towards them they put up no fight. They were handcuffed and chained and led through the protesters, who spat and swore at them, while the police looked only towards their vehicles. Within half an hour they found themselves in locked cages through which, at least, they were able to see one another.

‘This must be a mistake,’ said Nocturnus. ‘They can’t realise what’s really happened.’

Olaf looked deeply crestfallen. ‘I’m so sorry, my brothers,’ he said. ‘I led you into this. The whole thing is down to my folly.’

‘Don’t be…..’ Johnson began, but at that moment a tranquiliser dart whistled into Olaf’s side. His eyes clouded and he collapsed to the ground. More police appeared with a hoist, and he was loaded onto a cart. He managed to lift a weakened paw in farewell as he was hauled away.

Nocturnus began to weep in heartrending screeches, and quickly the others joined him. But one by one they fell silent as their captors returned, shot them with darts from close range, and dragged their bodies off.

They woke sometime later on a concrete loading bay by the sea, in what smelled like morning air, slumped together again in one enormous cage. A cargo boat stood alongside, and before they could gather themselves an official of some sort thrust a rough bundle of papers through the bars.

‘These are your deportation orders,’ he said. ‘You’re going to Bremerhaven – perhaps they’ll like you better there.’

As they were taking this in, the jib of a huge crane lowered towards the cage. A small group of dock workers came forward to attach it, and the animals were lifted onto the deck of the boat. Almost immediately the vessel raised anchor, and as it started to pull away Olaf looked back at the shore and began to sing quietly. It was a song he had learnt as a cub from his mother. The others, who knew the song because they had learnt it from their own mothers, gradually joined him, until they were all singing.

The dock workers stood silently at the quayside, looking out and listening to these strangely affecting cadences as they faded slowly into the sea. They realised something in those disparate voices, lifting in unison, was unusual, and found themselves leaning towards the water, as if to make sense of the dying notes. But, though they strained forward as the boat shrank into the horizon, the only sound that reached them from the far and growing distance, was the keening call of wild animals.

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart and Footnote. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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It’s the Little Things – Helen French

We moved to this village despite the warnings that the locals would never accept us. We moved because I fell in love with my house, with its thatched roof, small orchard and a river running through the grounds.

The neighbours are set far apart from one another. You could murder someone without being heard. But I’m not worried about murder.

I’m worried about getting home.

Tonight I had one too many drinks at the local pub, in a stupid attempt to fit in and perhaps it worked because most of those drinks were bought for me. Everyone was surprisingly generous.

But the problem now is that I can’t find my house. It’s as if it’s been stolen from the earth and I am doomed to spend the rest of my days searching country lanes, desperately looking for it.

I’ve left my phone at the pub – or it’s been stolen – so there’s no point calling anyone for help. I plod onwards.

Then I run.

Where the hell has it gone?

I find it at the edge of town, between a bridge I’ve never seen before and a huge oak tree that I don’t remember. But it is the building I know and love.

I know, because we replaced the door numbers when we moved in: 74. The flat bronze digits are shiny and new and exactly as I placed them.

But my key doesn’t fit in the door.

There’s no spare key under the mat, even though I put one there two weeks ago and have not moved it since.

I knock on the windows but my husband is in London on a work do and won’t be back until the early hours.

Nevertheless, a light goes on upstairs and I’m happy because someone is home! David must’ve come back early.

All the rest of the lights pop on like a firework show. Yes! I think, before realising it’s not possible for one man to switch them on so quickly.

Many footsteps dash down the stairs, but no one answers the door.

I run around to the side of the house and press my face against the window to the utility room.

Oh. Oh! There are tiny people in there, no bigger than knee-high, each holding even smaller knives.

I shout: “Get out of my house! I’ll call the police!”

The funny thing is, we’ve got double glazing, but I can hear the little things sharpening those knives. One of them looks a bit like Mr Avery from the pub, only smaller.

And is that Karen, the bartender? They’re all grinning with jagged teeth that look like they would be good for pulling meat apart.

I want to run but when I turn around the landscape has changed again. There are no roads at all.

I’m tired. I must be seeing things.

I look back through the window. Some of the things that I’m seeing… they see me.

They laugh. They hold up their knives. And the windows shatter.

Helen French is a writer, book hoarder, TV-soaker-upper, digital project executive and biased parent who grew up in Merseyside and now lives in Hertfordshire, UK. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her on Twitter at @helenfrench.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Velociraptors Are Just Big Chickens – David Alexander

‘Woah!’ said Ryan’s dad. ‘Look at the size of it.’ He stretched his arms out wide. ‘The biggest animal to ever walk the planet’.

It was bigger than Ryan had thought it would be, taking up three rooms, its tail poking into one and its head into another. But his dad was wrong. ‘It’s not the biggest animal ever,’ Ryan said, walking over to read the signs at the Diplodocus’s feet.

‘What was then?’ his dad said.

‘Argentinosaurus, probably.’

His dad looked up at the dinosaur’s pelvis, wide as a car. ‘Must’ve been pretty big.’

Ryan walked on to the next sign.

‘Still, no match for a Velociraptor.’ His dad said, digging his fingers like pretend claws into Ryan’s shoulders. ‘That’s the dinosaur you’d be, isn’t it.’

Ryan walked out of his dad’s grip. He noticed wasn’t wearing his wedding ring anymore. ‘No. They were too small,’ said Ryan.

‘What were?’

‘Velociraptors. They were only big chickens, really.’

‘So just like you then,’ his dad said. Ryan walked on. His dad didn’t understand. It would take a lot of strength, some courage, to overcome something this big.

‘So which one would you be then? This one?’ his dad asked.

‘No. Probably a T-rex.’

‘How come?’

Ryan shrugged. ‘The T-rex looked after their young.’

He moved round to the dinosaur’s front end and took his camera from his bag. He took one more picture and looked through all the ones he had taken that day on the camera’s little display. There were people, all shrunk by the huge skeleton, milling around and taking their own pictures; there was an elderly couple leaning on each other, a family trying to keep their kids in one place; people everywhere, but Ryan’s dad was nowhere to be seen. Ryan put his camera in his rucksack and put it on his back. Ryan walked over to the big, wooden doorway as the steady stream of visitors came and went.

When you think about it, big things fell all the time. One-hundred and fifty million years ago, this giant walked the earth. Hundreds, thousands, millions of them. They dominated every part of the planet for millennia, but then something happened. The Earth was rocked, and the dinosaur’s time was over. In one moment, giants were defeated.

Ryan stood by the door and waited, thinking how smaller things got the more you looked at them.

David Alexander has completed the English & Creative Writing BA at Newman University and begins Bath Spa’s Fiction Writing MA this September. David runs a monthly writing group and also created Newman’s creative writing magazine Newmag. His work can be found in (b)OINK and Ellipsis Zine.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Rural Delusion – James D. Reed

Typical day on the New Bastion Gazette paper route. Storm threatening. I go over the interstate bridge where I encounter a fucking wall of water. No time for the plastic bags I’m supposed to wrap the paper with: sixteen pages of rural news and gossip and junk brochures. On Sundays, the funnies and Lloyd’s Hardware tabloid. (Lloyd’s ponying up for this week’s pressrun.)

On these inclement days, I off-hand the rubber-banded newspaper into the customer’s mailbox instead of the tubes the Gazette wants people to attach to the post. I do this as a personal courtesy because the tubes often leak or are, worse, stupidly mounted cantilevered upward towards the clouds. Some customers will run out in the middle of a rain squall looking for the paper and in their hillbilly panic, notice it ain’t in the tube. Won’t bother to look in the mailbox. I get an ignorant note about a missing paper that isn’t missing at all. Some even phone Bob Tuttle, the circulation manger-cum-copy editor-cum managing editor-cum ad buyer-cum photographer, to complain; I catch Tuttle’s wrath that grates like a yapping Chihuahua.

The answer: face this like any other production-line job. Put in your hours. At the end of the shift, go home, uncork a beer and fire up a blunt.

After two months the customer stops have yet to become automatic. I grab a few extra copies and still come up short some days, long on others. I can’t count anymore: numerous doobies while adrift over township roads delivering the woeful local news.

I use my own vehicle on this route. The old Civic has developed sonic warps and squeals like its from outer space. Like I’m hauling an alien around with me, maybe a squirrel nesting in the engine compartment that, any minute now, is going to be yanked into the fan belt and eviscerated. There’s a floppy noise coming from a front tire. If I end the route this afternoon without this car collapsing on its springs I’ll consider myself blessed. But being paid to take a daily fifty-mile loop over county roads isn’t all bad, especially with herbal accompaniment. Rolling up the newspaper as well as the joints.

My loop consists of one-hundred twenty-six bucolic folk waiting on the daily delivery. Today’s Gazette’s all torn to shit from some mishap in Production. Upper right-hand corner of entire print run shredded. Tuttle tells us carriers to hand them out anyway, who gives a rat’s ass. I can’t understand how this rag operates. The feature stories are AP downloads. The balance is local chin-wagging, police briefs, farm reports. And a host of local ads, like from Mollie Albright’s daycare center, her father’s funeral parlor, bars and churches. The Gazette has you covered cradle to grave with a boilermaker in between.

Tuttle remarks that most folks read the paper for the obituaries. News of the recently deceased fills one entire spread each Sunday. New Bastion’s population adjusts downwards as they float away like fly husks. Last month, three of my customers passed, all old farts, during a two-week period, and I thought the Civic must be harboring a curse. I get paid by the route count, so these cancellations cut into my pocketbook. But nobody’s croaked recently, so things are brightening out here in the Ohio boonies.

I duel with school buses and farm implements on narrow roads, some less than fifteen feet wide. I edge gingerly onto the berm to let oncoming traffic by. Local yokels have this system worked out fine. If you lurch into the ditch, the other guy stays on the road and gets to wave at you. If you stay on the road and the other driver hits the ditch, you get to wave at him. But the person in the ditch under no circumstance waves back. It’s not a salute; it’s not even a wave of recognition. It’s a nonverbal salaam that nonetheless says “Hello there, moving object!” An entire pastoral ritual. Seems to be, as D.F. Wallace might say, the “broom of the system”.

My entire clientele is invisible; some sort of pooky-dooky result of weed ingestion. I never see them; they cannot see me. Cars and rusted trucks straddle graveled lanes leading back to farm houses so far from the roads I travel that if there were actual people at the windows I couldn’t see them from this distance. Laundry flapping bird-like on lines strung between barn and one particular house every Wednesday—wash day for the unseeable McBee’s—conveys to me merely an outline of the size, shape, reliability of the family who wear these jeans and dainty underthings. And socks. So many socks on the McBee clothesline; how many feet does this translate to? I need an inkling of family size just to calm my drug-besotted curiosity.

Thanksgiving Day: concealed folks leave pie slices in the mailbox. Sometimes a small square envelope like you might use to send a Christmas card. Tucked inside by indiscernible hands, a crisp five-dollar bill which, it seems to me, has been requested purposely the last time my generous customer was in town at the bank. A wrinkled fiver will not do. And neither will a thankyou note from me because who would I address it to? I have only an account on my call sheet. There is no face attached to it; no data of eyes blue or green, cleft of chin, age of possessor. The person does not exist even though she extends a cling-wrapped blueberry pie wedge and a bank note to me on occasion.

And so, I come by daily and drop the paper into the tube and drive to the next stop where the tube is absent, or facing skyward, and, then, simply sidearm an arching pitch over the roof of the Civic, propelling the missive onto the driveway; and I continue down the pike, unglimpsed, never seen by people I am unsure are really behind the windows in this, my rural delusion.

 

James D. Reed’s stories have been published by Midwestern Gothic, Big Pulp Magazine, and The Nebraska Review, among others.; and in many online venues including Fast Forward Festival, Golden Key, 4th Floor, Forever Onward! Review, and Long Story Short. Jim and his wife live on a farm near Collinsville, Ohio.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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let me be your good luck charm – linda m crate

i can be your kiss
of good luck
your white light
casting off the night
because i am the daughter of the moon
i have been dancing in both
the shadows and the bright all my life,
but many have chosen my thorns
rather than my flowers;
they would rather me be the monster than the dream
i would rather not cut them on the jagged
edges of my teeth
they oft give me no choice—
just let me bloom
see the fragrance of my heart
let me show you my magic and my divinity,
my love and my light;
i want you to see something more than my malice
yet that’s all you’ll ever let me be—
let me instead
paint a sunset with a thousand wings
then maybe you’ll remember me as i am
not who you think i am instead.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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