poisonThe Ballad of James Malloy

by GJ Hart

In the distance, a prodigious spruce bound in blinking lights funneled into lilac, and darkness crept across fallow fields as James Malloy headed to the Swan and Anchor. Staggering along the lonely lane, he lifted a bottle high into the cold December air until it sloshed with starlight dripping from Giillian 707—a broiling gas giant that had returned to the fringes of the solar system after an orbit spanning aeons. It dominated the night sky as the moon bristled at the firmament’s edge—its bitter, jealous understudy

Malloy—ex-car salesman, ex-aristocrat, ex-management consultant—had left the twelve members of the commune to drink the goat’s cream punch he’d laced with ground oleander root. They would soon be out cold at best and Cassandra would pack and clear the lockboxes hidden beneath the floorboards.

Although founded on the principles of equity and egalitarianism, the commune’s dynamic had—due to Malloy’s piercing heterochromia, insidious charm and facility for exploiting others’ fears—mutated into a rancorous autocracy. This mass self-demotion—from partner to apostle—had afforded Malloy the type of power he’d always considered his right. Merrily, and in keeping with the traditions of tyranny, he did no chores, contributed nothing to any running costs and lived comfortably in a well-appointed apartment in the cottage attic – constructed for him but not by him.

Due to an assiduous and systematic campaign of embezzlement, Malloy was now a rich man. He’d persuaded his disciples to hand over everything they owned and what money he hadn’t hoarded, he’d used to purchase a modest chateau, situated on the pink cliffs overlooking Saint-Nazaire and where tomorrow, his new life with Cassandra would begin

On a clement spring morning in 2012, Malloy had gathered his disciples in the cottage garden and told them to ready themselves: the world’s end was near. This day of Judgement, he explained, would decimate the planet and see the commune flutter away to a glittering Elysium. “But there will be many bridges to cross and to cross them” he’d whispered, bending to sniff his budding oleander, “you must trust me.”

Of course, his prophecy had never come to pass and Malloy had paced and howled and torn at his hair. “I am but a man and I search, how I search,” he’d moaned and his disciple’s faith, rather than wither, had absorbed his torment and flourished. Malloy instructed them to travel out again, to plead for their jobs back and the next day before dawn, they’d set off with hearts and minds renewed

Malloy first learnt of Giillian 707’s impending arrival from his news feed and realised immediately it provided the perfect cover. He’d summoned them again and explained—this time there was no doubt: the end was close. He’d implored them to commit body and soul and labour in preparation until both fell broken. On the penultimate day, he ordered them to quit their jobs, to finish their chores and enjoy the punch. He had no need to observe them through the holes drilled in the rafters: their desperation was manifest.

Malloy’s quiet walk to the pub acted not only as alibi, but the soothing overture to an evening of ridicule and offence, which, thanks to a defining incident in his past, he relished. He loved that his presence riled the villagers so; loved how they addressed him as Mr Manson or Mr Koresh, and if inclined to serve him, served his pint wrapped in tin foil. Hate nourished Malloy and even if it didn’t, why should he care – they meant nothing and tomorrow, he and Cassandra would be gone. Malloy finished the last of the bottle, set his sights on the towering spruce and hurried on.

No time seemed to pass. Malloy woke to dawn song and the roar of empty fields. He remembered nothing and attempting to move, found one leg wedged knee-deep in a fox burrow. A bruise, big as a half-laid egg had popped from his temple and checking his wallet, he was bewildered to find not a single penny stolen or spent. Panicking, he pulled himself free and took to the road, his head pounding beneath a blank, frigid sky.

He found the cottage deserted and bounding upstairs, discovered his flat trashed and every lockbox empty. His ledgers littered the bed and as he bundled them up and tore at their pages, he heard horns and the thunder of approaching boots. He was priming the fire basket when the front door cracked and the walls ran blue. Another crack and the room blazed with beams that swung and probed until they uncovered Malloy, weeping beneath the bed, muttering apologias like the fluttering of tiny wings.

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