Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.

I open the lid of the crate and look out.
There is no one there. I’ve done it. I’ve got through the security at Cutcost, and now I can take anything I want. That’s the weak point in their security: no one can get in, but anyone can get out. I climb out of the crate. Making it self-sealing was a stroke of genius, though I say so myself.
Getting a job at the warehouse was easy enough, they always take on extra staff in the loading bay just before Christmas. Now I can help myself: plasma TVs; DVD players; laptop computers; not to mention luxury food items. They might call themselves ‘Cutcost’, but they don’t sell cheap tat rubbish, they just buy in bulk and pass on the savings to the customer. “Thanks, Cutcost!”
They have those push-bar emergency exits. I can fill as many trolleys as I like and push them out to the van I left outside.
“Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.”
Christ! Nearly jumped out of my skin! It’s just a self service checkout. They must have left it on and some short circuit or other is making it say announcements at random.
There is literally no limit to what I could walk out with.
While I remember, I’d better get that turkey Alice was mithering about earlier on. And I’ll make it a big one. They keep them in the walk in deep freeze.
“Unexpected Item in Bagging Area.”
There we are! I’ll take a twenty pound one. Might as well. Wait till she sees it! Will it go in the oven, though? That’s a point. Better get one a bit smaller. Christ! It’s cold in here!
How do you open this door from the inside? There’s no push-bar. There’s no handle neither. What’s this?
“Press button for emergency exit.” What an odd turn of phrase. OK. I press it.
Was that a bell? A disturbing thought comes to me.
Try again. Christ, it’s getting colder!
Yes. It’s a bell.
A bell, but no one to hear it.
Not till Boxing Day.
It’s getting colder.  
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
Bloody cold now.
Try the bell again.
No, no one to hear for two whole days. But they’d have to come in to get ready for boxing day, wouldn’t they? A skeleton staff. They’d ask for volunteers, people who needed the money. They’d pay double money. But even just one day would be too long.
Colder. God, it’s so cold.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
My hands are blue and numb, covered with tiny ice crystals. My breath is a cloud of steam. My feet are hurting with the burning cold. My eyelids are sticking, and stinging. I can no longer open them.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.” The voice has an edge of cruel laughter, now — a note of triumph. But it can’t have. There is no one there. No one there for days. No one, only me.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”
Only me.
“Unexpected item in bagging area.”

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Summer Lightning’s Spell

Looking back, our relatives will say,
We planned it. We chose, certainly but no,
No plan about it; anarchy – although
Design came into it.

And yours will say, I dragged you up the garden path!

And mine will say, “After all is said and done
He has no job, and never goes to mass!
He’s just a drifter, just a mongrel stray.”

As you pause at the door to pivot on your heel
And view the last train, hunger steels your will.

“You’re late!” I say – attempting to look down
My button nose at you as you bow your head
To kiss my cheek. My eyes are trying to
Connect with yours, but you look down, clumsily…
Escaping only briefly – and we kiss…

As you pause at the stairs and shuffle anxiously
I take your coat, pretending not to see.

We sit alone and talk alone, “Oh look!”
I’m carried off by pictures in a book
Of childish memories; the fairies glide
Across the page; the children ride
On ponies. You stare unable to believe
And make a weak sound of encouragement…

…But why the shudder? Do you feel the chill
Of tomb-cold hands as hunger steals your will?
Do you fear the sand between the toes,
The ghosts that haunt the shadowland?

“Come on! – There’s walking to be done,” I say.
Still hours to go till final light of day,
I try to sound as if my mood is gay,
Time for children to go out to play!

The river we discard as “too clichéd,”
Although the reason I dislike the name
Has more to do with death – how to explain
Those days in well scrubbed halls with whispered words,
“Gone to Rose Cottage,” — Get out of this mood.
Back in the present we stuff ourselves with food,
My post-bullemic appetite is good
Yet modest — I eat no more than I should,
Perhaps a slice of cake, a slice of death
By chocolate? — A sharp intake of breath;
Ahah! The waitress; Try to be discrete
— If staring is quite unavoidable,
She affected not to notice — why can’t you?

And then again, why didn’t you just run?
Lean walletted — as usual — you’ve gone
Without your lunch and hunger gnawed your will.
And even if you could afford a bun
At ‘Traveller’s Fare’, or even — at a pinch
— Big Mac and fries washed down with coke in town —
Do you have the nerve to take the walk of shame,
Or face my words whimpering through the air to spear
And burst your empty gallantries, and your ears?

And thou, O Man, ‘Eternal Present’ wouldst
Thou rather know no future, shun the past,
And seize on every opportunity?
Thy moments stretched no further than my purse,
Not as mine — from cradle to the hearse,
And all betwixt minutely planned — that’s me.
Such matters as, “for better or for worse,”
Thou wouldst not debate — chapter and verse
Dance on my needlepoint — but not for thee.

And what if — after all — no turning back?
After the coffee, meals, and films, and shows
And other baits I dangle at your back?
What if you’re planning better than you know?
What of the grey between the white and black?
And with so long a siege your armour rusts
Until you can no longer hide the cracks.

Our purpose wavers, resolution bends,
Shall you — after all — begin to like me?
Shall I — after all — begin to like you?
Shall we find sincerity at last?
Given time, will you grow to love my smile, rising
Over your Sunday morning paper, asking
If you want any more tea, toast, jam,
Bread, scones, cake, cream, any more?

One can — it is said — in time grow used to anything.
In time even you may acquire the taste for coffee,
Tea, or me — is that my plan? — in time…
Motives long forgotten… what we were once
Gone… Looking back we may say practically anything
To make it sound less random — should we care?

Rising to go my shoulder takes the coat
Our well tipped waitress flourishes, w’ere off!
Another coffin nail of idle time.

The waitress lingers in my jaded brain,
Neither very pretty nor too plain,
Her apron — linen, white; but with a stain,
She will have — one supposes — several boys in train,
Equipped to strut and play her little part,
She practically curtsied, carefully
Replaced my chair and smiled at you — and me
— the very model of servility,
I wonder what picture we would see if we
Watched her — a pair of flies upon the wall…
As she smiled at us — then spat into the soup?

And after all — what could I say? What could
I do to undo it? — Never strong on purpose,
Make it up as I go along; that’s me,
If I’m honest — plan and plan then tear it up!
And can you see my fortune in your cup?

And will you go at last, cloaked in the night?
Without a word, without a note, take flight,
And leave me to draw the obvious conclusion?
Listen; fatted calves are rare these days,
And you’ve grown used to watching West End plays
From seats that cost more than a double room
In bedsit land. No. I have sealed your doom,
Seek within my eyes — their crystal depths
Will show you just what your fate has in store,
And after all; if you are to be bored
— And nobody escapes! — admit it, you might as well
Be bored with all the trappings of the rich
Than throw up in some other dreary ditch.

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So what happens now?

The reality is, Labour lost in the sense of it cannot hope to get its programme through Parliament, it won’t even be trying. The Tories lost in that they no longer have a majority to get their programme through, although they will probably try, and quite a lot of day to day legislation will get through, unopposed. They also run a risk of being opposed by their own back benchers on certain parts of their programme, the repeal of the act that made fox hunting illegal is one example that springs to mind. There are also various human rights issues on which the back benchers might support the opposition.

So the position is, we still need to put pressure on the Government with petitions and so on, we still need — for example — to continue anti hunting demonstrations to make it clear to the MPs that most people are opposed. We need to put pressure on our local MPs as well, to make sure that they vote against it. Now there is more reason than ever for people to get involved ‘at grass roots level’ in the Labour Party, and with pressure groups. A Labour majority would have made our job easier, but now is not the time to abdicate our responsibilities. To the contrary, the real fight starts now.

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Three Generations

“Just like the fifties,” says Mum, gazing at the broken skyline. “It was like it when I was born, and it’ll be like it when I die.”
“You’re not going to die, Mum,” I say. “Not yet. You’ll get through this. We all will.”
She thrusts her hand into the pile of grey ash that had been someone’s front door. It still feels warm. I know, I’ve just done the same. Nothing else in our world felt quite like that. She lets it run through her fingers before slapping her palms together, dispersing the handful of dust on the merest, dry breath of a breeze. Hours before it was part of someone’s life. “Crap, innit?” she says. “Tower blocks over there a day ago. Now just rubble. The old terraced houses still there. Funny how that turned out. Used to be slums, then they did them up. Now they’re slums again. From slums to slums in three generations. For the lucky few. Not us.”
“I heard they’re rebuilding, Mum. Dave said they’re pulling down the bombed buildings, and…”
“Bombed buildings! Not heard that in sixty years,” she says. “‘You stay away from those bombed buildings! Don’t play there. They’re dangerous! Time they pulled them down.’ And they did. And now they’ll pull them down again. If there’s anyone left to pull them down.”
“I know what Dave said.” Her eyes close, tight. It’s as if she doesn’t want to open them again. Her lips flutter instead. “Never thought they’d go that far… Silly buggers… European Union… What it was supposed to prevent… All pals together one minute, falling out the next… Like a parade it was… That car cavalcade…” She surprises me by singing, in German, no less: “Freude, schoener Goetterfunken!” She still has a good voice. Weaker, though. Never knew she liked Beethoven. She continues the Ode to Joy: “Tochter aus Elysium.”
I rest my hand on her shoulder. “You all right, Mum?”
“I’m not gaga yet, my love.”
“I didn’t think you were.” No. It’s her voice that’s weaker.
“Why don’t you go up the hill?” she says. “Where Norfolk Park used to be. See how far you can… if you can see any of these fire engines, and lorries, and that, David said were coming.”
“Don’t tire yourself, Mum.”
“I’m fine,” she says, but she obviously isn’t. “They’re supposed to be setting up standpipes,” she continues. “And wash tents with  showers. That’s what the bobbies said. Turned out to be a lie. Have you seen any bobbies, lately? You don’t have to answer. They’re all in Ecclesall, and Millhouses, and what not, expect. Given up on us. Always knew they would. Why don’t you get over there? Not too far for you to walk, at your age. Don’t bother about me. Get my grandchildren away to Dore or Totley. The wind wasn’t blowing that way when it dropped. Fucking evil thing! All this upset’s giving me eczema.”
“Don’t scratch it, Mum. Mum! You’ll scratch your skin off!”
“Got piles, as well! All right, haemorrhoids, if you prefer. Old women are dirty, you know. I mean we talk dirty. We don’t dress it up in flowery language, like Mrs Bucket on the telly. We call a spade a spade. Sometimes we call it a bloody shovel! My Prolapse is bad, as well. You could drive a double decker bus up there, now!” She laughs at the thought, but the laugh gives way to a racking cough. “Bronchitis back,” she says. “Did you say Attercliffe’s gone? And Darnal?”
“It’s all gone, Mum. Meadowhall, Northern General…”
She grins. “At least I won’t be going in there. Used to say, if you go in there you don’t come out!” 
“Dave thinks it went off over Rotherham. They wanted to…” — what did he say? —“‘cut the lines of communication’, not smash everything up.”
“Lucky we had a cellar to hide in. You get off to Dore village. See if you can find someone to take you in. You and the kids.”
“They’re telling us to stay where we are, Mum. Best not.”
“Oh, don’t listen to them.” Her grip on my hand is amazingly strong. “Promise me you won’t be bitter. Just go where you’ll be safe!”
“The police, Mum. They’ve got guns. They’re already shooting looters. Dave said…”
“Yes, well,” she says, between coughs. “Still say… better off over there… Tell… police you’re lost.”
I hug her. “They’ve got files, Mum, with our National Insurance numbers, and what not. They’re asking people for their numbers and then they’re looking them up on the records. That’s what Dave reckons.” There’s some foam at the corner of her mouth. Pink foam. Christ. “Are you all right, Mum? Try to rest, Mum. Please.”
There’s a rumble of thunder. It’s spitting rain. Tiny black spiders against the grey earth. It needs to rain. Wash it all away. Wash us away as well. The staircase is the only part of the house
still standing, defiant, a middle finger sticking up at the sky — Fuck you! — with the old, galvanised-iron mop bucket’s in the cupboard underneath. But there’s no water. I ought to put the mop bucket out, with all the cracked old tins and bottles. But I don’t suppose I’ll bother.
“I’d get going, if I were you, Susan. They won’t shoot you. Not if you’ve got children. Bring little Simon and Megan here. I’d like to look at them. Might be the last time.”
“I can’t Mum,” I say. “They’re… sleeping.” And saying it out loud brings a stream of tears down my cheeks. I can feel Mum’s tears as well, mixing with mine, and the dust and ash.

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Time For A Cull?

My Facebook stream is getting too full again. Time for another cull? Not of people, not ‘friends’ you understand, that’s not the problem. It’s these random items like weather reports and reminders of things I’d rather forget and articles that I don’t want to read. It’s the pages I’ve ‘liked’ and sometimes it’s the groups I’ve joined that are subscribed to by people who feel the need to cover my screen with Blue Meanies, or grinning faceoids or red, beating hearts and live feeds. Facebook used to be simple, just a bulletin board. Now it’s so cluttered, I think the message is getting lost. I’ve turned off notifications, and yes that helps. And please don’t tell me to ‘do something else’ I don’t need permission! And that is not the problem. I usually only have Facebook on in the background while I’m doing something else, anyway. Facebook is useful. I’ve caught up with a few people and been to a few meetings that I would have missed if someone hadn’t stuck their head above the parapet and said: “Pub Quiz Brown Bear on Tuesday night!” Or “Skeptics in the Pub” next Monday. It’s the things I never subscribed to that someone I vaguely know but is a friend of someone I used to know who keeps nagging me to go to something to do with them on the other side of the earth that I could do without. I don’t travel well at the moment. I’m working on it, but suffice it to say, I’m a bit of a stay at home or at best sit all day in Starbucks kind of gal at the moment. Rant over.

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It is terrible
being poor
I feel powerless
I cannot afford

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The Madness in the Ice

We found the hut near the peak, half buried in Alaskan snow. The windows were broken, the glass was lying all around. “So they were broken after the blizzard — from within.” Weston enjoyed playing detective.

Hearne — the other reckless greenhorn — was the first through the door. “The heating’s still on.” He pointed at the crudely lagged jumble of pipes on top of a big tank or boiler. The only sign of it being on was a thin cloud of vapour near the top that looked more like breath than escaping steam.

Then it moved.

Weston grabbed my arm and Hearne reached for his gun, but I knew what it was, now. It was a man, bandaged from head to foot, sitting astride an oil drum nearly as big as him. The vapour had been his breath after all. As I watched he reached into his hip pocket.

Hearne drew his gun, I knocked his arm back before he could bring it up. “He’s gone, Hearne! Harmless. Look at him.” The poor guy was drinking from a hip flask — oblivious.

Weston stared. “Oh God!”

Then I realised: it wasn’t a hip flask. It was a bottle of aftershave. I moved forward and something crunched underfoot.

Looking down I saw the remains of that ‘something’; it was expensively electronic. “They smashed the radio to bits,” I said. I can  play detective, too.

Hearne re holstered his gun and said, “Yeah, that’s why the distress call stopped.”

“But why did they smash it? Snow madness?” I walked up to the man sitting on the oil drum. The bandages made me think of protection against the cold. I looked closer. The white linen was covered in strawberry blotches. In places, shredded clothes showed through gaps in the bandages. He was wearing mittens that were stiff with frozen blood.

He had been hacked to pieces. Somehow, he had managed to just about cover himself with bandages. He must have been weeping in agony as he wrapped the gauze over the raw flesh; losing precious blood as he did so.

Hearne laughed nervously, “Wait until you see the other guy! — Sorry, bad joke. I’ll get a blanket.”

Weston came over for a look. He winced as he said, “Moving him’s out of the question.”

“We can’t get a helicopter up here so we’ll have to move him.” Hearne knew that for a fact having tried and failed before grudgingly coming to me. Weston had picked up the distress call, so he had to be cut in, but Hearne wanted no more shares — assuming there was any salvage to share; which I doubted.

On the floor there was an empty whisky bottle — and a syringe. So, after the morphine and whisky, all he’d got left was aftershave. “Hearne,” I said, “There’s morphine in the green bag with the red cross on it.”

Hearne shook his head. “We’ve got to let him come round,” he said “It’s our only chance to find out what happened.”

“Even if he comes round, we’ll never get him down — alive,” I said.

Weston made for the door, “I’ll see if I can fix up a sledge,” he said. “Oh, and don’t knock yourself out.”

If Hearne was wounded by the jibe, he didn’t show it. But he followed Weston outside. Someone needed to stay with the bandaged guy. I thought I might as well look for some sign of what had happened. Some kind of fight, obviously. But why?

The wind was rising, making a strange, unmusical whine as it blew over the glacier. As I listened, it sounded more and more like a hundred bag pipes running down and not quite together. I looked outside, but instead of a blizzard, there was an unearthly stillness. The weird sound must have been some kind of freak echo. I came back inside and as I re entered, just for a moment, I thought I could discern voices. But no: the man on the oil drum was quite motionless, his head on one side as if listening for his companions coming back. I listened too, and rested my hand on my revolver. All I could hear was that abominable piping; up and down over several octaves.

Weston and Hearne came back in dragging a makeshift stretcher made from one of the frame tents. “Thanks for the help,” said Hearne, sarcastic as ever.

Weston snapped on a big flashlight and swung the beam around. “It’s a prospector’s hut — prefabricated,” he said. “They erect them over test drills. It must have been a big team to drag this up the mountain — even in sections.” He hung the flashlight from a ceiling hook.

“So where is everyone?” I did not expect an answer — ever. Bodies soon got buried in this kind of ice flow. “Did they go crazy — or…?”

“Or what?”

It was Hearne who answered, “Or what they were looking for was worth the risk — worth dying for.”

Weston was trying to persuade our friend to leave the oil drum. He was not co-operating so Hearne and I went to help. Even then, he fought like blazes, and it was only with a big effort that the three of us managed to get him on to the stretcher.

Hearne tapped the drum. “Whatever they found, it’s under this. They fought over it. The last survivor dragged this drum over the test hole and clung to it — like Ahab to Moby Dick.” The simile would turn out to be more apt than any of us realised.

We could see marks on the floor; the sign of a struggle — and crystals that could well be frozen blood. Hearne held up an ice pick and pointed to the red crystals on the tip.

The man on the stretcher was trying to speak.

We stood as close as we could and strained to hear.

He was saying one word over and over: “TRESOR! TRESOR! TRESOR!”

“Treasure!” Hearne laughed out loud. “You know what they found? Remember that plane that went down last year? It was in all the papers. Some French Canadian crime syndicate tried to hijack a charter flight carrying gold bullion. The attempt failed and the plane exploded and went down somewhere. These guys — must be French Canadians — came to look for it, found it, and fought for it — to the death.”

I was not convinced, “You think the plane is under our feet?”

“I’m sure of it,” said Hearne — and I’ve never seen such smugness; before or since. “A burning plane would sink straight down into the ice. After that, the ice fills in over it. They came along, drilled into the cargo hold and hit the jackpot!”

Weston tested the drum with his shoulder. “It’s still full of oil,” he said. “It won’t budge!”

“Looks like it’s jammed into the floor!” Hearne had his arms around the drum. Weston was trying to use a tent pole as a crowbar.

There was no mistaking the gold lust in their faces. They were in no mood to report the find. There are no salvage rights to gold bullion, so they were already outside the law. They would fight for it, just like their predecessors — to the death. Suddenly, I felt expendable. I backed away, feeling for my revolver. I nearly fell as my foot caught in a piece of wood on the floor. I reached down and picked it up. It was a sign:


No. Hearne was wrong — ridiculously wrong. Skewed logic and misinterpreted observations; classic fallacious thinking.

I looked up in a daze. “Hearne, Weston, they weren’t French Canadians. They were English.”

They ignored me and continued to drag at the oil drum.

“They were zoologists — From Oxford University!” I pulled out my revolver. “Get away from the drum!”

But I was too late.

The drum came up out of the hole with a slurpy sucking sound. It shot to the ceiling taking Weston and Hearne with it. The light went out, smashed by the impact.

In the dark, there was a furious rattling as the hut shook. Something whipped across the floor — and the door slammed shut.

First the drum came crashing down from the ceiling, then Hearne followed, his arms flailing and mouth gaping as something dragged him backwards to the hole. I grabbed his arm and tried to hold on to the drum, but the floor gave way with a jolt and I had to let go.

It was then I saw Weston — or what was left of him.

He was hanging upside down from the ceiling, minus his head.

I switched on my flashlight and crawled frantically to the door, unable to get my balance.

Something had fallen against the door. I tried to pull it away, but my strength drained from me when I saw what it was — a corpse, covered in bandages. I turned away and it was then that Weston’s body came crashing down into the beam of my flashlight.

Moving the beam to one side I saw Hearne. He was shaking like a rag doll. And as he shook, bits of him came off.

Then I saw what was doing the shaking.

Those Oxford zoologists must have had a good idea of what it was they were looking for. They must have known from folk tales, or maybe even specimens from earlier expeditions.

They would have known that the octopus of the Alaskan coast grows to thirty feet across the tentacles, only they were looking for something bigger, a new species — or maybe a very old one. Maybe they did have specimens, brought up by drills, dating back to when the mountains were still at the bottom of a warm sea. They would have theorised or speculated about the exact nature of this prehistoric gastropod, drawing analogies from the diversity of marine life. Perhaps they had even the fossilised tracks of its tentacles. But this was a cryptozoological expedition — not a palaeontological one — and that shows that they expected a living specimen. But what could have prepared them for the madness in the ice — that hideous, multi tentacled mollusc like thing, with the huge, slurping tongue covered in tiny, jagged teeth that whipped and shivered and cut and slashed and sliced through Hearne and Weston’s bodies, dicing them like carrots and spraying the walls with their blood?

I was brought back to awareness when a tentacle lashed around my boot and dragged me half way across the floor.

It was incredibly fast. That Oxford expedition never stood a chance. Fighting back with ice picks and axes must have been like fighting a nest of serpents with a butter knife.

I fired my gun several times into the tentacle, blasting it to shreds. My leg was free — though badly cut — and I managed to stand. I fired the rest of the bullets into the gelatinous mass, but there was no real hope of hitting a vital spot.

There had to be another way.

The floor was alive with tentacles. They were like very fast blind snakes; randomly whipping this way and that. Instinctively, I leapt up on to the oil drum and found the hole it had punched in the roof. It took an agonisingly long time, during which the tentacles began to explore the air around me. But I climbed through the hole, just in time to see the drum being dragged away, leaking oil. That gave me an idea.

I took a magnesium flare from my belt, broke the seal and — as it began to blaze — hurled it through the hole.

I remember a deafening, roaring in my ears as I rolled over and over in the snow, dampening the flames that licked around me.

After that, I have the vaguest of recollections of dragging myself through a snowdrift. Everything that happened after that was a blank; until I awoke in hospital. Now it is a week later and I wish that blankness would return. It would be better than the sleepless nights. Even sleeping pills do not stop the dreams that awaken me to scream with terror. And the strongest prescription pain killers do not help, for the lacerations from the thing’s tentacles just will not heal. Antibiotics cannot stop the slowly spreading infection; the necrotising fasciitis that is slowly killing me. No, not killing me — eating me alive. Even that is not an adequate description for the way it is slowly digesting the muscles of my arms and legs; rather in the manner of the venom of certain reptiles, or spiders.

And then there is the other poison — the one affecting my brain. I wish that I could know for sure whether the madness in the ice is dead or not, for a deep longing fills me.

And gradually, the longing turns my wish for the creature’s death to a hope that it is still alive.

The parasitic virus lodged deep in my brain sends ever strengthening signals across my synapses, urging me to hire a charter plane to fly me over those dreaded Alaskan mountains, so that I can parachute down to the place where we found that loathsome, but fascinating, giant mollusc — and into its loving arms.

It is the perfect killer. I speculated for a time that it might even be some kind of biological weapon. But no; it is just very ancient and very specialised. You have to love it, in a way. It is efficient in what it does. But until the gradual warming frees it from the ice, it needs help — just as it needed help from the expedition who thawed it out. Its guardian, the man in the bandages would have freed it — if the virus had affected his brain enough, before he died. Now I will have to do it.

And I will, very soon.

But — with my last remaining particle of reason — I still appreciate the irony.

You see, when the rescue team found me, I was laughing hysterically and repeating one word over and over again; the word the English Zoologist had repeated — an English word, not a French one. Having seen that leftover from before the remotest ice age, I know how well the word described that dreadful, fascinating, quivering tongue with its rows of razor sharp teeth that buzzed and sliced effortlessly through flesh and bone — just as it will soon slice and dice my own willing flesh and end my agony of longing!

No, there was no treasure. That was not the word. Oh the irony!

Not treasure. And not “tresor” — but “TREE SAW”!

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