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Tom had never been met at an airport by anyone. Not once had he emerged into an arrivals lounge, after those strange moments of shuffling, stuttering limbo between seat and sliding doors, and been greeted by the face of a loved one, friend, or even a stranger holding up a handwritten, misspelled sign with his name on it.
And—though he’d never acknowledged this before, never even been conscious of doing it—he’d still check all the faces anyway along with all the handwritten, wrongly spelled signs for his own name. And now he really thought about it, now he pulled together the wayward strands of reason and arranged them against the contextual backdrop of his life’s course, it made perfect sense that no one would meet him at the airport because he was entirely alone. He was a mere shadow, stalking the spaces between the living like some self-aware, gaseous funk. It made even more sense that he might somehow imagine that there would be someone there to meet him because that was exactly the sort of narcissistic, pitiable fantasy—
“And so in light of all that, they’ve given us this survey to do so you can tell the chairman what you think, what you really think, of the last quarter’s initiatives. And it’s compulsory. And we’re doing it now.”
Chairs creaked, numbed buttocks shifted in seats, stray minds returned to the here and now. This was an unusual tangent. Monday morning team meetings were usually one way traffic; Owen talked and they mimicked for as long and as best they could the look of people listening, until inevitably their eyes glazed over and they took on the look of exhausted, forlorn, unusually well-dressed news-reel refugees; huddled together, vacant and staring, lost in their own heads.
Like Tom; suffering through another Monday team meeting epiphany of the soul, dwelling on some specific ditty of his life, a previously trivial and until then unconsidered quirk that in that moment became suddenly loaded with existential pertinence: Tom had never been met at an airport arrivals lounge because nobody had ever cared enough to do so. That was the only logical explanation he could think of.
“Survey?” someone said.
“Now, Owen?” someone else said.
“Yes Anthony, now. We’re all here. We’ve got the projector set up; we’ll do it now.”
“But, we haven’t…we need to print them out, hand them out, return them. Filing, there’ll be filing,” somebody said.
“We’ll probably need a spreadsheet. I’ll make a spreadsheet,” said another voice.
Owen pressed his fingers together in a steeple shape and tapped the conjoined forefingers against his pursed lips. It was the kind of pensive gesture capable men in board rooms did when considering how to articulate the finer details of an important point to other capable men, or, as in this case, what middle-management types did when pretending to entertain the inane fancies of his braying subordinates.
“Hmm, yes we could do that Jennifer but then we wouldn’t be doing it now, would we? We’d be doing it ‘over the course of today’ or ‘by COP Thursday,’ whereas we need to do it now. So we’re all going to do it now, together.”
He leaned forward and seized the mouse of his laptop, sending an enlarged cursor skittering across the far wall of the conference room.
“Right. So answers are between one and five; one being ‘very poor’ and five being ‘very good.’ So ‘general morale?’”
Everyone looked at everyone else.
“Come on. What’s your general morale like?”
“What? All of us?” someone said.
“I’m just going to put four; ‘good.’ Okay?”
Everyone frowned at everyone else.
“I’m worried we’re not going to capture the consensus of the group this way,” Steve said.
“Right, okay I’ve noted that mentally Steve, maybe there’ll be a bit for notes at the end, but this is democracy in action and it’s the best we can do under the circumstances and we should be grateful that this isn’t North Korea.”
“Could we not just print out…”
“Question 2: ‘kitchen facilities, hygiene, and cleanliness.’”
“I’m just gonna go ahead and click four.”
Their branch dealt mainly in traffic cones, not specifically and not exclusively, but mainly traffic cones. The Watford branch did something to do with the screws that went into the gurneys in all NHS hospitals in the North East, while Coventry supplied something to do with school playing fields, but even Owen didn’t know for sure exactly what.
But they did traffic cones; deployment and positioning of. It was one of a multitude of deals to explode from the cluster-bomb chaos of contracts, sub-contracts, Private Finance Initiatives, and semi-autonomous something-or-others after the Highway Agency’s market floatation two years earlier.
Not that anyone in the customer services department had ever truly considered the finer details of the grinding mechanisms above them, Tom and his colleagues being about as aware of the contrivances and movements of the machine on which they labored as an anchovy was of the currents and tides it swam through; conscious on some primordial level that it affected them, but equally aware that it was outside of their control. Occasionally Steve—who used to work at IBM and thus was considered the ‘smart one’—would peer over the top of a Guardian article and tut and shake his head and mutter something about Kafka (whoever they were, a rival bidder perhaps). But beyond that there was just too much admin—too many complaints from truckers, local residents, and motorists—to think about that stuff.
Anthony had been walking half a pace behind Tom after the meeting, as they walked down the corridor and back to their cluster.
“Hey Tom, before I forget; Rose is away. Think you can sort post this week? You’re next on the rota, so …” Anthony said.
When Tom arrived back at his desk, post clerk Ryan was already there, feet up on the desk, flicking through the local paper.
“Hi Tom, bought the post for you.”
“How did you—?”
“Four hundred thousand people living on top of each other and not a single story of note.”
Ryan tossed the paper onto the desk and shook his head at Tom in a comradely fashion, as if sharing in some mutual and private comprehension. “That’s some lazy journalism, Tom.”
“I mean no wonder people are getting their news from social media these days.”
“But then there’s no fact checking, no standards, no filter. But, you know, Egypt and whatnot, so …”
“Yeah, exactly; pros and cons.”
It was if at some point in the past Ryan had decided that he and Tom would be friends. And while Tom had never given any sign of either consent or encouragement, Ryan seemed also to have decided that he would do the majority of the heavy lifting, allowing Tom to take more of a passenger’s role in the relationship. This was fine by Tom as he generally avoided any kind of lifting at all, metaphorical or otherwise.
“Anyway, the late post is due in a minute; better get back to the office. Bye, Tom.”
Her letter was third from the top, except it was more of a parcel, a cache, than a letter. The envelope was stuffed with the kind of fullness and satisfying firmness that in a domestic setting might conjure a certain pleasurable anticipation, but in a work environment stirred only foreboding. A landslide of papers tumbled out. Among the usual prerequisite complaint forms downloaded from The Company website—filled out and annotated in such a free-form emancipated way that Tom already knew processing them would take a considerable amount of the day—were quantities of maps, deeds, planning consents, and handwritten notes. He stacked the documents up and put them to the far side of his desk. Then he checked his work email, then his personal email, then made some coffee, then checked both emails again, then checked his eBay account, then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, emails, eBay, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Twitter, an article about Ghostbusters on a national news website, emails, Twitter, AV Club, The Onion, YouTube, Facebook, emails, Twitter.
Then it started raining outside. Then it stopped. And then it was lunchtime.
The other pieces of mail conformed to the pre-assigned processing formula, allowing Tom to channel them down the relevant pipes and funnels towards resolution and, more importantly, away from his own personal responsibility.
Outside a seagull swooped and shat. The turd fell through the air with a graceful, sleepy submission, twisting slowly in the breeze like a dropped body shrouded in white silk, and then splatted on the bonnet of a Ford Mondeo in the car park, as unceremoniously and without meaning as its fall was elegant. Tom considered it at length, then, at ten to five, he pulled the heap of documents across from his desk and skim read the forms. They most definitely did not conform to the processing formula. The best way to deal with these was to not deal with them at all, to play the archetypal pedantic bureaucrat and find something—anything—wrong with it, then email the sender requesting they “address this oversight and submit a new form for processing” with all the pre-written guidance attached to it.
Click. Send. Gone.
Or not: by nine the next morning she’d returned his parry with added interest: questions—so many questions—about the process, about why her original application had been dissatisfactory, about why it took so long just to make a complaint, about why it took so long to get anything done these days, about why the road works were even needed, about speed limits, about trip hazards, about her dogs’ health, about local teenage vandals, about wind turbines, post office opening times and miles to the gallon. Questions so open-ended, so confused and so rooted in such a fundamental misunderstanding as to have no answers at all. And yet Tom still got the sense that at the heart of these disparate themes there was a commonality, that despite the apparent arbitrariness of it all cones were at the heart of it, but in such a complex way as to be beyond him, like deciphering a constellation amid a dense mass of stars.
“Fuck’s sake,” Tom murmured under his breath.
“Alright there Tom?” said Anthony, passing his desk on the way back from the kitchenette.
Tom gestured forlornly at the screen and shook his head, exasperated.
“Some kind of complaint?”
“More like a manifesto, a drag net manifesto of everything.”
Anthony planted his hand on Tom’s desk and leaned in, furrowing his brow and looking thoughtfully at the computer screen. He remained there just long enough for Tom to detect the latent heat coming from his upper body, to notice the cracks on his leather belt and the fraying threads of his trouser loops. It occurred to Tom that this was the closest he’d been to another human being in several weeks.
And in his head he saw himself alone in an arrivals lounge, clutching an airport trolley with both hands and pirouetting in tight circles like a child killing time, leading the trolley in an improvised dance, while on its slates a potato sack squirmed and writhed …
“Have you got the original application?” Anthony said finally.
Once again the bundle traversed his desk.
“This is a mess. Did you send the guidance notes?”
“I think they just confused her even more.”
Anthony very rarely swore.
“Look here,” he said.
It was right at the bottom, under that literary landslide of superfluous, tautological bewilderment, like a death threat at the bottom of a shopping list. She’d written: I’m eighty-three and I have a large brain tumor and all this stress is not helping!
“If she dies …” Tom started.
“It’s not your fault,” said Anthony, and then, glancing at Tom, “It’s not our fault. Still, you know how these things can turn out.”
“Can we just escalate this up the chain?”
“I’d best ask Owen just in case.”
He’d arrived prepared, his hands already in that steepled position, his face already arranged in that look of concentrated concern.
Several moments passed in silence, Owen staring at the screen, Tom and Anthony staring at Owen. And he was just staring, Tom observed. Owen’s eyes were fixed, his pupils suspended in their whites, death-staring straight ahead.
“Well as far as I can tell, she wants to make some kind of complaint,” said Owen finally, breaking the tension and straightening up.
“Y-yes,” said Anthony, “but it’s what she’s complaining about that we can’t quite decipher, and what it’s got to do with the cones on her street. Also, she could …”
Anthony trailed off.
“Die?” Owen said. “Yes, that could look bad from certain people’s point of view. Stress-induced seizure or something, I see that, so maybe prioritize it?”
Anthony and Tom exchanged a look.
“I’m gonna let you guys enfranchise yourself,” continued Owen, with renewed vigor, “Pull together, brain storm something. You need flip charts, marker pens, clip boards? I will personally sign off on that shit. I’m so excited by this. I’m so excited for you guys. This is power to the workforce. What we discussed earlier in the meeting, yes? Empowerment, agency, bull by the horns and all that jazz.”
And with that he spun on his heel and left.
“You know we can’t spare the manpower Tom,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to take individual ownership. Just…do the best you can.” He rested a consolatory hand on Tom’s shoulder and walked back to his desk.
Tom sifted through the mess, reading random paragraphs, trying to establish some kind of thread or narrative, occasionally retreating, defeated, back into his internet procrastination loop, idly submitting to point and click muscle memory.
He fired off a holding email with a few unnecessary, stalling questions; buying himself some time, feigning progress. By now a mid-winter dusk had fallen. Despite the chill, he put on his coat and completed two laps of the building, weighing up the seriousness of the situation in his mind and looking for ways he might still shift responsibility for the complaint away from himself. But it seemed futile. He was lumbered with it, like Atlas and his stone, forever falling through an ever-deepening wormhole of admin ad infinitum.
He returned to the cluster to find the team gathered around Jennifer’s computer with looks of grim concentration on their faces. Could he be in luck? Had something larger than traffic cones and the professional obligations of the day occurred, a bomb perhaps or some other weighty national tragedy that might put things into a favorable perspective? What he needed was a nice, hefty death toll.
But there was only one death.
“She’s dead,” Jennifer informed him. “It’s on the local paper’s website. And we’re mentioned.”
He sat at his own desk and typed the paper’s name into a search engine. She was the third story down. An aneurism of which they were the trigger; “stress caused by the bureaucratic complaints procedure of an outsourced wing of the Highways Agency.”
“She had a fucking brain tumor,” he told the team. “She was a ticking time bomb, you know, anything could have set that thing off. It’s not our fault.”
“Yeah, not our fault,” said Jennifer, not looking up from the screen.
Tom narrowed his eyes and scrutinized Jennifer. He was sure he’d detected an intonation, the slightest breath of emphasis on the ‘our.’
“Some of these comments are savage,” Anthony said.
Tom scrolled down to the customary spit bucket of bile that hung off the bottom of every online article.
“Tipikal government bureracrats, dead-eyed bastards just dont cear about decent folk,” read one. “Blood on they’re hands,” read another.
“Looks like the normal bilge to me,” Steve said.
“True,” Anthony said, “but we should get the press office onto it anyway, get a line out.”
“We have a press office?” Tom said.
They had a press office, or rather a press officer; a jaundiced youth in a Clerks 2 T-shirt wearing the look of a drunk roused in the early hours.
“What site’s this on?” he asked.
“The local paper,” Anthony said.
“Can’t get on it; can’t get on any site ‘cept the company’s site,” the kid drawled.
“Yep, too much World of Warcraft, IT cut us off.”
“So the press office can’t read the papers?”
“Okay, you can go.”
Tom felt oddly relieved. His name didn’t appear anywhere in the article, just the company’s, which was fine by him. His job seemed safe and he wouldn’t have to process her hare-brained complaints thesis anymore.
In his pocket his phone chimed. He pulled it out; a text: “Did you really do your best for me, Tom?” was all it said; number withheld. Tom barely had time to furrow his brow in confusion before Owen arrived.
“Ah, so you’ve seen it then,” Owen said, appearing as if from nowhere, “A tricky one and no mistake, we’ve been fielding calls from the nationals since it went up.”
“The nationals?” Steve said.
“Yep, the red-tops love the human interest side of it. The lefties are on about the privatization process; they’re making it political, cherry picking one measly fuck up, bloody opportunists.” Everyone present nodded dutifully along. “Which is why we’re going to have to give them your name Tom.”
Tom’s guts plummeted three floors, coming to rest in the basement floor urinal.
‘Fraid so, Tom. See, we’re not like a normal private company like Bic or Facebook or the people who make Marmite. We’re a contract company, and there’re quite a few people with quite a big stake in companies like us; there’re careers riding on this, and I mean at the very top. I would take the blame of course but I’m a bit too high up. I’m too close to the people who matter; we need distance. And those people, they kind of are the country, they run the place. So, in a way Tom, you’re sort of taking one, not just for the team, but for the whole nation, the whole ‘way of doing things,’ the whole foundation of the free-market liberal democracy. Do you see what I mean Tom?”
He could only nod.
“Well thanks for being a good sport. Good luck in whatever you do next, although I might keep my head down for a bit.” And with that Owen left.
A brief moment followed during which everyone stared down at their shoes. Eventually Jennifer broke the silence with the click of her mouse, sending the rest of the team drifting back to their work stations.
“Take the rest of the week off Tom,” said Anthony, still looking downwards, avoiding Tom’s eye. “We’ll see where we stand on Monday. It might have blown over by then.”
“I’m really sorry Anthony. I did try. I mean I know I procrastinate but…”
“It was a very complex complaint. I’m sure you did you’re best. Like Owen said; it’s just politics.”
Half an hour later Tom turned onto his street, saw the news vans ringing the area around his flat, and sped off in the direction he’d arrived. He drove several more miles out of town, to where the Victorian terraces turned into detached identikit new builds with garages and ornamented, neatly mown front lawns. For several minutes he sat in his car, idling on the driveway, speculating about his parents’ reaction. There was a time when they might have seen this for the sensationalized scapegoating exercise it was. But it seemed to Tom that age and the stifling unreality of modern suburbia, the years since retirement spent confirming the bias of their fellow suburbanites over garden fences and tea and Battenberg, had gnawed away at his parents’ critical thought. How much they’d read or seen or heard, and how much they’d believe it, he didn’t know.
He sat in the stationary car, tapping the steering wheel with his forefinger and staring at the parents’ front door. From his pocket his phone trilled:
“Can you even remember my name Tom? Can you remember the name of your victim?” the text said.
Who was this? Was it Jennifer, perhaps? He always got a bad vibe from her but she’d never given any indication that whatever resentment she did harbor against him was sufficient enough to inspire any actual action. He had no enemies for the same reason he didn’t have any friends. From the minute amount he knew about what society broadly referred to as “tech”—phone hacking, online privacy, identity fraud, the swapping and selling of private information like it was nothing more than second-hand cassette tapes—he could only conclude that these texts could be coming from pretty much anyone in the world.
A curtain twitched, and a few seconds later his mother appeared in the front doorway, lost in the folds and hillocks of a ludicrously fluffy purple dressing gown.
“Hello dear, looks like you’re finally famous after all these years, just like you’d always wanted.”
These blind-sidingly misplaced comments, so inapplicable to Tom as to render him speechless with bemusement, were common of his mother, as if she was thinking of an imagined sibling with a completely opposing personality to Tom’s, or just a generic version of what she thought a mid-twenties male might want.
“I have never, ever said I—that’s just—god.” Barely past the threshold and he’d already reverted to his fifteen year old self. “It’s just politics, Mum. They needed someone to pin it on; I’m their rogue asshole.”
From the living room, over the sound of the TV, came a horse growl. “I told him he should have just joined the army, like every other sod who doesn’t know what they’re for.”
“You know he can’t, with his eyesight and wonky knees,” his mother said.
“They let gays in these days; they don’t care about that stuff anymore. They don’t give a Jesus god damn when there’s a war on, wonky knee or not.”
“Mum, I need to stay here for a while,” said Thomas, ignoring the voice emanating from the living room. “The press are all over my flat, it’s been a mental day. I just—what is that?”
Over his mother’s shoulder, on the landing wall just before the kitchen, a picture Tom hadn’t seen before hung in a tasteful, silver frame.
“Since when did you know The New Pornographers?”
“I found them on the internet; it’s so good for finding music.”
This was almost feasible, the internet could take you down all kinds of avenues and rabbit holes, and The New Pornographersdid have a certain universal pop charm. But they were just so… credible.
“But why the art work?”
“I think it makes a nice addition to the landing.”
“And the name, it doesn’t bother you? The neighbors…”
His father ambled into the hallway, coddled to the neck in a matching purple dressing gown, his fat, reddened head poking out the top like a semi-sucked gobstopper atop a giant meringue.
“Don’t be so repressed Tom, it’s just a name.”
“Was it two for one at TK Maxx?” said Tom, eyeing his father’s gown. “So mum, I can stay, yeah?”
His parents exchanged a look, his father retreating back into the living room.
“Look Tom, you need to fight this on your own. For once in your life you’re going to engage with something and see it out to the end,” said his mother, patting his shoulder and turning towards the kitchen.
Tom gaped after her in bewilderment. “Jesus fucking Christ, this isn’t sixth form maths, this is my reputation as a person! This could be my whole future. I’ll always be the civil servant bastard who stressed an old lady to death.”
“We’re not abandoning you Tom. Look, here’s a ham sandwich and some apple cake. And you’d better clean up your language before the police officers get here.”
Tom’s expression spoke for itself.
“I’m sure they just want to clean up a few things. It’s for your own protection I imagine. There’s some very angry people out there saying some very nasty things about you personally.”
Again the voice from the living room: “Earlier a guy called you a ‘vicious little twat.’ They tried to beep it out but you could hear it fine; ‘vicious little twat,’ he said.”
A sudden sweep of red and blue light cascaded through the house, shadows birthing, stretching, and dying within a second, coming to rest on the living room back wall.
A moment later the doorbell rang, and a moment after that Tom found himself in the back of a police car heading to the station, the friendly policewoman in the front passenger seat explaining, in the way a nurse might just before administering a particularly painful injection, that this was all just a formality to “rule out any potential manslaughter charges.”
From his throat to his bowels Tom’s innards seemed to twist in on themselves, like a towel being wrung out.
“Yes, just a quick interview; just to rule it out.”
Tom lurched forward in the back seat. “This is mental! I didn’t kill the old lady, the tumor in her brain did! There’s no way I’m liable for this.”
“Yes, but the family of the deceased believe you may have been the trigger.”
“I was just doing my job, that’s like suing a loans company every time some deadbeat kills himself, it’s like… it’s like an epileptic suing the inventor of the strobe light…”
“Dr. Harold Eugene Edgerton, and please don’t joke Mr. Broadshaw. This is a very serious matter.”
“Serious? But I thought it was just a formality, to rule out…”
“Rule it out, yes.”
Tom thought for a moment.
“Then why do I need to go down to the station?”
“For you own protection.”
“And the handcuffs; are these for my own protection too?”
“And because this is a very serious matter.”
Again his phone chimed. He twisted and groped, prizing the phone from his pocket: “Did you really do your job Tom, did you really do your best?”
“Who the fuck is sending these goddamn messages?” he said aloud.
“The news was right,” said the burly male cop in the driver’s seat through a mouthful of apple cake, “He is an annoying twat.”
“Vicious twat, he’s a vicious twat,” corrected the woman.
It wasn’t a normal jail cell, or at least it wasn’t a modern jail cell, more a medieval dungeon. The walls and floor were of darkened stone made slick with damp and algae. Heavy chains hung from cast iron rings driven into the walls, and where a mattress might have been there was only a thin covering of rotting straw. The only light came from a flame torch, mounted on a bracket on the wall.
“Is this a… normal jail cell?” he asked. “Aren’t I entitled to a cup of tea and a phone call?”
“Well, you haven’t been formally arrested, so technically no. Your lawyer’s arrived, by the way. Got here before us actually,” said the policewoman.
Ryan walked in wearing a suit, tie, slicked back hair, and carrying a briefcase. He grinned at Tom. “Hello mate.”
Tom buried the heels of his hands into his eyes. “This is a fucking nightmare.”
“It isn’t,” said Ryan.
“I’m in a coma.”
“Some weird parallel something-or-other,” said Tom, slumping down against the wall.
Ryan made the face of someone weighing up a not unreasonable observation. He turned to the policewoman; “I’d like some time alone with my client please,” he said, leaning forward and kissing the woman long and hard on the mouth. “I’ll need ten minutes or so,” he said a moment later, when they finally broke apart.
The policewoman smiled politely at them both and left, pulling the large wooden door closed behind her.
“What the hell was that all about?” said Tom.
“What was what?”
Tom shook his head in exasperation. “‘What was what?’ What’s everything? That kiss, this cell, my mum and dad’s matching dressing gowns, New Pornographers stuff, you a fucking lawyer; this whole nightmare fucked up day.”
Again his phone trilled. He pulled it out of his pocket and stared at the screen.
“And these fucking messages! Who’s sending me these?”
“What messages?” said Ryan.
“You don’t even have your phone on you Tom. And I told you before it’s not a nightmare.”
“The only thing you’ve got in your pockets is apple cake, and some confetti, and a couple of Pogs.”
Tom looked down at the moist lump of multi-colored sludge resting in his palm, shards of cardboard sticking out of it like a tiny piece of conceptual modern art. Sitting against the wall he shut his eyes and began to gently bang his head against the uneven stonework, the pain in his skull a relief from the cacophony of confusion and helplessness.
“And stop thinking about fucking airports,” he heard Ryan say. “It’s so weird.”
Because Tom was back in that deserted airport, still pushing that trolley and heading to the door marked “No Goods to Declare,” then passing through them only to be met with the sight of those familiar black carousels, creeping, prowling their way painstakingly and mechanically back to the beginning of themselves. The potato sack was alone on the baggage reclaim belt, still writhing and twisting purposelessly.
And then the atmosphere around him changed; a familiar warmth, the air stale and stagnant, and there was another voice; “I’m just going to go ahead and put a four,” Owen said.
He opened his eyes and he was back in that Monday morning team meeting.
And then he was walking down the corridor back to the cluster. Anthony, a half pace behind him, asked Tom what Tom already knew he would. He agreed—he was next on the rota after all, and Rose was away. And when he got back to his desk Ryan was there, feet up on the table and reading the paper. On the desk, next to his shoe, lay a fat, firm envelope, more of a cache than a letter.
“Four hundred thousand people living on top of each other and not a single story of note,” Ryan said. “Anyway; work to do,” and he got up and left.
From his pocket Tom’s phone cried out: “Strike one,” the message read.
He eased open the envelope and watched the menace tumble out.
John Miskelly is twenty-eight and unemployed again. He doesn’t own a laundry basket and his record player sits atop a pile of cardboard boxes. He also doesn’t own a shelf so all his books and records just sort of sit in the corner like he was going to put them in the attic or something but then he pulled a muscle in his back. It’s not romantic, it’s pathetic. In the time it’s taken you to read this, four of his friends have bought houses and six have conceived a child. He is the co-creator and editor of BonusCupped fanzine and blogs irregularly at www.protagonistcomplex.blogspot.com. More of his short stories can be found on the website you’re currently on… click one below…