Katrina Monroe's The Rack
He’s strapped down tightly with leather straps flecked with bits of blood and bile and maybe a little ketchup from this afternoon’s lunch. I pin posies to the individual spikes in Christian’s hair, gelled to death with probably the last of the nineties’ stock of L.A. Looks while Bunny plays with the fuzz on his face.
The national anthem of Wales plays over the loudspeaker—though it could just be a bunch of men gargling rocks for all I can understand—as a soothing tool. Rumor has it Christian Saunders is skittish.
But then he tries to chomp on one of Bunny’s fingers and I’m forced to reevaluate the necessity of the in-house rumor mill.
Bunny hisses. I pat her shoulder. “Why don’t you show Mr. Saunders the wheel?”
She grins and, pausing to spit on her palms, yanks the rack’s wheel.
I shush them both. It’s time to begin. “You're the second journalist I've had on my rack. Matter of fact, a lot of this leather came from her backside. What made you stray from telling true stories to making shit up?”
His gaze falls on one of the more poorly tanned leather straps. There’s a bit of hair left on purpose. “I've always liked making shit up. It's easier. I fell into journalism because I had a shitty job and I was looking for a way to make some extra cash. I figured out early on that there's more money to be made in writing articles than fiction, even if it isn't as rewarding. Bit by bit, I did more writing and less other work until I reached the stage where I could just about support myself through writing. Well that, doing drug trials and selling my blood. Then I realized that when I spent all my time writing for clients, my muse got pissed at me and demanded some attention. In journalism, most of the time you are writing about things you don't know or even care about just to tick boxes and get paid. It's not as glamorous as people outside the industry imagine. Not these days, anyway. There's a lot of politics involved. Before, manual work was my bread and butter and writing was a distraction. These days writing articles is my bread and butter and fiction is a distraction. Either way, I get distracted a lot.”
I can tell by the way his eyes follow Bunny’s nobby backside. I roll my eyes and turn the wheel as I ask the next question. “I love me a Welshman. For us Amereekans, what's the biggest different between Wales and the rest of the UK?”
The grating tune hits a crescendo. He flinches. “All the countries in the UK – Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales have different cultural identities and little quirks. We all think our little corner is the best bit, and we are probably all wrong. We usually hate each other, but we hate the English more than the other countries because of the centuries of tyranny and shit they've put us all through. As much as the English would like it to, that kind of animosity doesn't just go away. I used to be a teacher in China, and my first class with any new set of students always consisted of me trying to explain where and what Wales is. A lot of places don't recognize us as a seperate entity, which is fucking annoying. It's like telling someone you are Canadian and having them ask you what part of America canada is in. As for what makes the Welsh unique, we have the coolest flag in the world. That goes without saying. Oh, and our dicks are bigger.”
I slap Bunny before she has a chance to confirm his claim. The girl’s been antsy lately. I should probably let her out once or twice a month. For his impertinence, I roll the wheel, hard, and a sound like a cat dying falls out of his mouth. Twin rosey blooms blossom on his cheeks.
“How does your heritage inspire your writing? Wait! Say it in Welsh.”
His face screws up as he thinks. “ That's Welsh for 'I speak more Chinese than Welsh,' and it's true. I just used Google translate to come up with that. Everyone assumes we all speak the lingo, but the truth is most of us don't. I'm from the south, which was virtually unpopulated until some bright spark discovered coal there just before the Industrial Revolution. Then it was overrun with English and Scottish migrant workers. Nowadays, we speak 'Wenglish,' a peculiar mix of English spoken in a really weird accent, and a few Welsh words thrown in just to confuse outsiders. Welsh is a funny language. The word for microwave is 'popty-ping' and hamster translates as 'fat cheeks.' See? Hilarious.
“Being Welsh has inspired my writing, though. Growing up in a post-industrial wasteland where the coal pits and steelworks have all shut up shop is pretty fucking bleak. There is mass unemployment, a high crime rate, minimal prospects, and everyone's either mental or on drugs. Sometimes both. Welsh people are generally quite angry and bitter about life, but we manifest it through use of humour and shagging other people's partners.”
“Disappointing,” I mutter and clip metal cuffs to each of his fingers. My own invention, the cuffs attach to the rack and twist as the wheel turns, bending the fingers individually as the rest of the body is stretched.
I test the chains and then twirl the wheel. Something pops. He screams. “Oops.” I smirk, examining his hand. The small finger on his left hand is bent at an interesting angle.
Bunny pouts in the corner.
“So,” I continue, flicking his nose. “Of everything you've written, what are you most proud of? What hides in your desk, unseen and forgotten?”
His breaths come faster, more labored. Poor baby and his broken finger. If his lips curl any lower I might splint it to save us both the embarrassment of a crier.
“Good question(s)!” He says, probably attempting to appease me. Silly boy. “There's nothing quite like seeing your name in print for the first time, and then another milestone is actually getting your first check (anyone who knows about writing will tell you there's often a disparity between those two things). The first thing I ever had published was a short story in a Welsh literature magazine called Cambrensis when I was about 23. On my dad's advice, I submitted the whole thing in BLOCK CAPITALS which meant that some poor schmuck had to re-type it all. Overall, though, I'm most proud of my latest novel, Sker House. And I'm not just saying that because it's new. It's a very personal book about a place I used to visit when I was a kid, and it covers a lot of Welsh history, legends and folklore. I wrote the first draft about five years ago, but at the time I didn't feel I was doing the story justice. It took a lot more in the way of research and re-writes before I felt it was good enough to put out there.
“To answer the second part of the question, I just had a quick look in my files. There's a lot of stuff I never finished. To paraphrase Stephen King, a good idea is like a good healthy piece of shit. It floats to the top, while the bad stuff sinks to the bottom. I've had a lot of bad ideas that went nowhere. Other than that, there are a couple of really atrocious stabs at erotica that will never see the light of day. Not in my name, anyway. I can't have my mum reading that.”
I giggle. “Mum.”
His bloodshot eyes and sopping brow tell me he isn’t amused. I resolve to rectify this.
I wrap another invention of mine around his neck. Fur-lined for comfort, the two-inch wide strap sits easily just above the Adam’s apple. It is also hooked to the wheel.
“Oh. Sorry.” I smile. “Does this hurt?”
“Yeah. But it's okay, I kinda like it.”
I glance up at Bunny, wide-eyed and drooling. I can almost smell the pheromones in the air and it takes everything I have no to vomit.
I turn back to Christian. “What draws you to dark fiction?”
He opens his mouth a few times, only to huff out stale puffs of air. When his voice finally emerges, it’s strained and dry. “I have no idea. People always ask me why I don't write more love stories. I wouldn't know how, even if I tried. That shit is hard. Love is hard. It's a fucking emotional nightare. I do have love interests in my work, but one of them usually dies. Sometimes I like to throw a spanner in the works and kill them both. Shit, sometimes everybody dies. It's carnage. Most of my work has what one reviewer described as a 'sardonic twist of humour.' That'll be the Welsh in me. Though I'm sure my brand of black humour is lost on most people.” He sighs and it’s like the last sigh of a couch before it’s destroyed beneath its own girth.
I spin the wheel again, this time cracking a second finger. His eyes bulge and a cry lodges in his throat. If I look close, I can see the lump of it, quivering beneath his skin.
“Do you envy any writers? Who, and why?”
“I envy anyone who is richer, more succesful, or more talented than me, so I envy a helluva lot of people! It's more an envious appreciation, though, rather than the nasty kind. A lot of being succesful is down to luck. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people and most importantly, not pissing them off. That's all way too much to even think about. There are too many factors out of your control. So I just do my own thing and drink a lot.”
This is my favorite part—finding kinship with those who end up on the rack. There’s a bottle of red something or other beneath my desk, just waiting to be cracked and drunk. I might share if he cooperates further.
Click, click, click goes the wheel.
Pink, red, blue goes his face.
“What are you working on now, and why should we care?” I ask.
“In the non-fiction world, at the moment I'm doing some stuff for a magazine called Bikes, Etc. It's about bikes, if you didn't get that. And a series of features on creepy Welsh stuff for a website called Americymru. You should care about that because it keeps me alive. Fiction-wise, I'm putting the finishing touches to a horror novella set in the trenches of World War I called No Man's Land. And you should care because this summer is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which is still one of the bloodiest chapters in human history. Elsewhere, I have short stories coming up in Liquid Imagination, QuickFic and 9 Tales at the End of the World over the next few months.”
Too bad he might not make it home to finish any of it.
With a wink and a pucker, I spin the wheel until three of his fingers shiver, on the verge of fracture. I lean in close to his ear and whisper, “Who’s your daddy?”
Spittle flies from the corners of his mouth. “Fuck off!! How the fuck do you even know about that?!”
Maybe I won’t suspend the rumor mill quite yet.
The tiniest nudge and fingers break, the strap cuts off a scream, and the Welsh anthem ends with the thump of a timpani.