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Tome On The Range

Short Fiction By: Chris Killen
Karl Smith , June 22nd, 2014 20:12

New writing returns - in rude health after a two week spell of rest for 'exhaustion' - with a short story on the nature of love and equestrianism, courtesy of novelist Chris Killen

Horse in Hotel
for Matthew Savoca

Sam met Gemma on OK Cupid and during their early courtship they emailed links to each other. Gemma worked from home as a copywriter, whereas Sam did a mixture of telesales and data inputting for a city-centre marketing firm, and while none of their IRL dates had been particularly remarkable or passionate so far, their email correspondence seemed to be going okay.

The links Sam sent Gemma were mostly to things like YouTube videos of a cat jumping out of a cardboard box, or a woman falling off a stage during a grape-treading contest, or to an article about the top twenty worst tattoos of all time.

Gemma’s were a little stranger: a video of a cross-dresser dancing around in a mask and underwear to a song about pizza or a video of a teenage boy playing along to ‘Chop Suey’ by System of a Down on a digital drum kit. Gemma’s choices were not really funny, at least not to Sam, and as he watched them (late at night, in his bedsit) he felt an admixture of excitement and discomfort that caused his stomach to stutter and lurch like a badly played Yamaha DD65.

One Tuesday evening, about three weeks into their sort-of-relationship, Gemma sent Sam an email with the subject line 'horse in hotel' and when he opened it, the email was just a single mysterious link which Sam clicked on, causing a new tab to open on his browser, and then he was looking at a grainy photo of a block of apartment buildings at night, somewhere in America (he guessed), and in one of the windows of one of the apartments, three or four floors up, you could quite clearly see a horse shape silhouetted against the curtains.

Sam looked at the photo of the horse in the hotel for a long time, trying to find it funny, but he couldn't. Instead it just made his stomach tighten, as he imagined what it might feel like to be inside something you shouldn't be inside of, seeing a TV and a bed and a nightstand and people but not really knowing what any of these things were, just feeling large and out of place and confused.

It was another one: another link from Gemma that was kind of funny but kind of scary too, and Sam was not experienced enough or attune enough to himself or to the world to listen to the small, staticky voice that had begun whispering inside him – Here is a sad person, Sam, this is not the right person for you, you will not be able to make this person happy – and instead he reopened YouTube and typed in 'spoilt kid goes mental world of warcraft' hoping to send a funny video someone had shown him a year and a half ago to Gemma in reply.

No further date was arranged after the 'spoilt kid goes mental' email, and Sam began to wonder if he'd done something wrong. He went to work and came home again and refreshed his inbox and it contained zero new emails from Gemma, and Sam never quite felt brave enough to contact her and ask outright if he’d done something wrong. There were six emails in Sam's 'unsent drafts' folder, all variations on a theme, the theme being 'hi, how are you?'

And then one morning a small red light flashed off and on on Sam’s non-iPhone, notifying him of a new Facebook event, which he looked at covertly, his phone resting on his lap during a sales call. It was an invite to Gemma’s birthday party and there seemed to be a lot of people confirmed as attending, and Sam noticed that the event had originally been created over a week ago, but he had only just been sent his invitation now, which meant ... what exactly?

Sam did not bring a guest to the party because he hardly knew anyone apart from the forty-or-so other people who worked in the call centre (none of whom he got on with particularly). There at the front door, he knocked, then knocked again and behind a small panel of frosted glass he watched colourful floating smears of light which he presumed were people moving up and down the stairs, and then the door opened and there was Gemma, wearing a paper Christmas hat, even though it was nowhere near Christmastime. She had more make up on than usual, and it made her eyes seem extremely large and black, and Sam’s stomach stuttered and lurched and he smiled and said, 'Hi,' and Gemma didn't smile back when she said, 'Oh, hey, I wasn't sure if you'd come'.

The music playing was something Sam recognised but didn't know the name of and he waited for the tight feeling in his stomach to uncoil but it didn’t.

'Come in,' Gemma said, standing back to let him pass, and Sam weaved past the people in the corridor then stepped into a packed kitchen at the far end of the house. There were people were grouped in a circle doing some sort of drinking game and other people sitting on the counters near the sink, and when Sam got to a free space and turned round to say something, he realised Gemma hadn’t followed him in.

'Okay,' he said quietly, to nobody.

He put his carrier bag down on a bit of countertop and removed one of his four cans of Dab, cracked the top, took a sip, and felt his throat tighten as he tried to swallow, causing him to cough and splutter.

There was a very pretty girl sat nearby on part of the kitchen countertop, swinging her feet in the air as she talked, loudly, about home tattooing to two bearded men who seemed to be looming in close to her, more than was really necessary. It was only when she lifted herself up a bit and pulled at the ruffled red fabric around her knees, that Sam realised that she’d been pissing, right there in the kitchen sink. She jumped down, still talking about home tattooing, and the three pushed their way back out of the kitchen. From where Sam was standing, he could see dishes in the sink – two plates and one of those Penguin mugs – but nobody seemed to give much of a shit about this so Sam didn't either. But he could feel himself sort of mentally filing the incident away, to return to later on, perhaps when he wasn't quite so nervous and confused about why Gemma hadn't followed him through the kitchen or really spoken to him at the front door. He took a big swig of his can, picked up his carrier bag, then nudged his way back out into the hall.

In the living room, which was lit by flickering, flashing white and red lights (bike lights, Sam realised), there were people on the sofas, smoking, and people gathered around a laptop at the far end, and a few people dancing in the middle. Sam didn't recognise the music now at all. It was sort of hip-hop but not really hip-hop too, and anyway, there was no Gemma in here.

Maybe I should just go home again, Sam thought as he nudged his way back along the corridor, away from the front door, apologising to the people in the toilet queue, one by one, even though he wasn't actually touching them or getting in their way even slightly. And one by one, the people in the toilet queue ignored him.

As he was going up the stairs, he tripped on something and stumbled forwards, dropping his cans as he put his hands out to steady himself. The stairs seemed very steep all of a sudden and he found it was actually easier to remain like that, climbing the remaining steps on his hands and knees, leaving his can behind him at the foot of the stairs.

When he reached the landing, he tried to stand again but found he couldn’t quite do it. His back felt strained and elongated, his skin tight and prickling, and his hands had balled themselves into angry rigid fists, his knuckles digging into the carpet painfully. He felt an overwhelming urge to shake his head from side to side, too, which he gave in to, and he felt the hair around his neck swishing a little, while his mouth gnashed and his lips ground themselves wildly against his gums.

Has my drink been spiked? Sam wondered, feeling his torso kind of growing and stretching, up towards the ceiling.

He took a few more steps forward, still on all fours, his left hip now banging against something behind him, the bannister maybe, but he couldn’t quite manoeuvre himself round to see. It was like his eyes had shifted to the edges of his head and everything was fading, too, the colours themselves dialling right down.

With his head, which was now at about handle height, Sam pushed open the nearest half-closed door, behind which he could hear the hum of voices. The door did not really open properly and when he stuck his head fully into the room he saw why: it was completely packed, with people sitting on the bed and on almost every inch of carpet. A fog of cigarette smoke hung at Sam's eye level, and he shook his head again, involuntarily, and snorted. Over on the bed was Gemma. She was right in the centre of it, cross-legged, and her eyes were wide and black and she was deep in conversation with a boy.

Sam tried to catch her eye, but she didn't seem to notice him. No one did. He took a step into the room, forcing his hard, trembling hoof out towards a small square of carpet, there between the thighs of two sitting, cross-legged people. Then he took another step, lumbering and precarious, his other hoof pressing gingerly against a girl's fingers before she quickly whipped them away.

'Sorry,' Sam tried to say, but it came out instead as a low whinny.

He took a third step into the room, then a fourth.

And then he just stood there, marooned, his eyes streaming from the smoke. He looked behind him the doorway, which now seemed kind of impossible to get back to. He looked again at Gemma, her pupils so dilated that her eyes were like cartoon eyes, her hands resting in the lap of the boy she was talking to. Sam tried to identify a gap to sit down in but there were no gaps and anyway, he did not quite know how to sit down anymore, even if he found one.

He whinnied and swished his tail.

Chris Killen was born in 1981 and currently lives in Manchester. His second novel, In Real Life, will be published by Canongate Books in January 2015. Follow him on twitter: @chriskillen