Storyteller

I was thinking about that feeling everyone gets when you’re lying in bed and you realize you have one foot out over the side. You all know the one. If you’re like me, you wake up from some half formed dream and realise: Shit, my foot’s out in the open. You can almost feel the hand – or perhaps the mouth hanging open just an inch away, and the breeze coming in through the window feels like a cold breath on your toes. I had a lot of fun with this one. Enjoy

Storyteller

 

The hole was framed by the roots of a wattle, and some of them hung over the entrance so thickly that Terry almost didn’t see it.

‘Hey! Look.’ Terry pointed to it and Shaun clutched the dead magpie to his breast, squinting against the sun. ‘Oh, yeah? That’d work, wouldn’t it?’

‘Wouldn’t have to dig or anything. Just get some rocks and that, cover it up. Like a tomb.’

‘Yeah, okay.’ Though Shaun probably didn’t even know what a tomb was. He was ten, still a baby. Terry made a mental note to include a tomb in the next story he told his little brother. Sometimes he even made him cry, but Shaun always asked for a new one, every night.

Terry nodded towards the hole and Shaun nodded, blinking sweat out of his eyes as he knelt at the entrance and laid the bird down out of the sun. He lowered his head and Terry rolled his eyes as he heard his brother whispering something, a prayer. All broken up over a bird, probably dead of old age or something.

He got back up eventually, and sure enough, when he turned around his eyes were red and moist. Terry turned away and started gathering leaves and rocks to cover up the hole. He was already mentally drinking from the jug of ice cold water in the fridge their father kept for days like this. He licked cracked lips.

‘What you reckon made the hole?’ Shaun said, his voice thick.

‘Wombat probably,’ Terry said, and smirked when he saw the look of alarm on his brother’s face. ‘Don’t freak out, dummy. You can tell by the roots it’s old as. Hasn’t been used in ages.’

‘Right.’

They gathered in silence for a few minutes, until they each had an armful of dried up sticks and leaves, and then they turned and started back for the hole. Terry wiped his brow and blinked stinging sweat out of his eyes. Summer in the bush was no joke.

‘You think magpies also go to heaven?’ Shaun asked.

Terry felt an urge to tell Shaun there wasn’t any heaven, that people just died and rotted away, but he remembered dad’s face the last time he started on all that and resisted. It was a constant temptation of his to corrupt his younger brother’s wide eyed innocence – a thing he both loved and hated at the same time. Instead, he said, ‘I hope not, or they’d bother the shit out of all the dead people.’ Grinning at Shaun’s scandalised look.

He looked up just in time to see a white hand creep out of the hole and fold the bird into its delicate fingers, before pulling it back into the darkness.

Fear fell over him like a cold blanket. He froze midstride, the sticks clutched in his arms. Shaun kept walking with his head down, oblivious, until Terry forced out a kind of choking sound that was supposed to be his name. He looked around, his eyes widening at the sight of his older brother.

‘Hey, you right?’

Terry nodded, his eyes fixed on the hole. The hand and bird were both gone, but there were drag marks in the red sand. Shaun followed his gaze and, when he saw it, dropped his load of sticks and took a long step back. ‘Terry! It’s gone.’

Terry nodded again, his mouth dry, seeing the hand creep out of the hole in his mind’s eye over and over. It had been white pale, with nails chipped and brown. They reminded him of Dad’s friend Pete who hadn’t brushed his teeth for years. Thin rotted pieces.

‘What was it? Did a wombat take it?’ Shaun asked, bending slowly to pick up one of the sticks.

The sun felt cold on his skin now, but Terry finally managed to shake his vocal cords into working order. ‘A hand,’ he said. ‘It was a hand that took it.’

Shaun gave him a sideways look, sensing another deception. ‘A hand?’

‘Yeah. It was all… it was white and flaking. Came out of the hole and took it.’

Shaun was still giving him that look, and the corner of his mouth turned up a little. ‘Is it a story? Do you have one for me?’

But Terry shook his head and grabbed his little brother by the shoulder, shaking him until the smile disappeared and a look of hurt and fear replaced it. ‘Hey! Terry, stop!’

‘Listen to me, Shaun. Listen to me, okay? We are never coming back out here ever again. Never coming anywhere near this hole, alright? No matter what.’

‘You’re hurting me.’

‘Promise me!’

‘Okay! I promise. Terry, let goooooo.’ Terry had never been able to stand that whine, and it cut through even this terror. He let Shaun go and then started back towards the house at a fast walk, looking back over his shoulder every other step. Only when Shaun trotted reluctantly after him, rubbing his shoulder and asking his nagging questions, did he feel the first hint of relief. It didn’t matter what he’d seen, didn’t matter that it was impossible, that the burrow was far too small to hold a human being, and that that hand couldn’t have belonged to one in any case. They were leaving now, and would never be back. Not ever.

Sleep didn’t come that night, and after a few hours he gave up and sat cross legged on his bed, where he could look out of the window at the back garden and make sure no white hands were snaking their way through the trees, coming to knock on the window.

Shaun did not feel quite the same dread for the hand his brother did – although he hadn’t seen it for himself. All it had done was take the bird, not harmed them at all. Whoever the hand belonged to, he reasoned, was probably starving, maybe trapped and unable to call for help. Maybe he’d been there for months, years even, living off runoff and the occasional wondering animal.

‘Couldn’t be a man,’ was the last thing Terry said about it. ‘No one’s got arms that long.’ After that, he simply refused to mention it, and by the following day he was back to normal, laughing and helping with the chores.

Shaun hadn’t sleep through that night, either: Instead, he’d stared up at the ceiling and imagined. Tonight was the first time Terry had refused to give him a story, and so his imagination was hungry. He fed it with a story of his own, of a young farmer taking a stroll in the bush, when suddenly a pile of rocks came crashing down on him. The farmer in Shaun’s mind was tough and strong, but the boulders weighed him down, and as time went on sand blew over the mound and the wattle tree grew above it. He was trapped but for the one hand, and he used it to make a large burrow, from which he fed himself, for years and years and years.

Shaun couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lie underground, unable to move anything except a single hand. No one to talk to, no way to get help. And what if you had to – to go? You’d just have to do it and wait for it to get absorbed by the ground. Gross. Years, decades even, in the silence of the earth. Like being alive for your own death. No, he just couldn’t imagine. But he did, all the same, and when morning came, he decided he just had to help somehow. Promise or no promise.

It took him a week to gather the courage. Noble intentions or not, Shaun was still ten, and the thought of a hand sneaking out of the ground like that and taking the bird – and for what? To eat it? – was hard to swallow. Worse, he knew he’d have to go at night, and he’d have to sneak, or Terry and Dad would know something was up.

Sunday night came, and he waited one hour, two after lights out, listening intently to the familiar sounds their father made downstairs: the creak of the chair as he got up from the to pour a glass of whiskey and his soft groan as he sat down. The fridge door opening as he fixed himself a late night feast and then, finally, floorboards creaking as he came up the stairs and went to bed. Shaun waited until his father’s snores joined the thrum of the cicadas outside his window.

He swallowed his fear, slipped out of bed, and padded on socked feet across the floor boards.

‘Where are you going?’ Terry’s voice came to him from the bed on the far side of the room and Shaun froze. Terry sounded wide awake, not groggy. He’d been watching him, knowing, somehow. He turned slowly and saw his brother sitting upright, his eyes glinting in the dark.

‘I’m… I want to…’ But alas, Shaun had never been able to lie on his most devious day. The one time he’d given it his best shot – when he’d broken the lounge window with a tennis ball and tried to blame it on the wind – he’d been given the hiding of his life. ‘I’m going to see the hand,’ he said, deflating as he gave in to the truth.

Terry got out of bed and came over to him so fast he took a step back, his pajama pants pressing against the cold wall. ‘I told you never to go back. I told you.’

‘He needs help.’

It, it’s it, not he!’ Terry’s whisper now so loud it was straining his voice.

‘Terry, Ssssh, Dad’ll hear.’

‘I don’t care. You’re not going.’

‘I am.’ He forced himself to look Terry in his furious blue eyes. ‘There was a man out there, starving. ‘We should dig him out.’

For a moment, Terry was speechless, but it was fear, not anger, that silenced him. Shaun had never seen his brother scared of anything before, besides the time he almost stood on a brown snake last Christmas. Even that hadn’t made him look like this, with the whites of his eyes almost glowing in the dark, his lips pale and tight.

‘He could die.’

‘We’re not letting it out. Not ever. I’ll… I’ll come with you.’ He almost choked on the words. ‘But we’re not digging him out. And I’m going to bring Dad’s snake stick.’

The snake stick was a heavy branch with a solid rounded end that their father had picked out specifically for snake killing. It leaned up against the shed out back and, with their father swinging it, could kill in a single blow. Terry walked with it over one shoulder and followed Shaun who was feeling naked. He didn’t think his brother had ever followed him anywhere before.

It was cooler than it had been that week, but the air was humid tonight, and when they finally came to the hole both of them were sweaty and covered in mosquito bites. Shaun had brought a sandwich from home and he took it out of his pocket when they arrived and stepped towards the hole. Somehow, he felt less afraid now that he was actually here and seeing it for himself.

He jumped when Terry put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What?’ he turned, but found it difficult to meet his brother’s eyes, where that terror lived, so strange on his familiar face.

‘Don’t get too close,’ Terry said.

‘I won’t. I just want to see if he’ll talk to us.’

He waited another minute or so, watching the hole, and then got down on all fours and crawled a few feet closer. It felt safer this way, now that he could see much further down the tunnel, though it was all black. He hesitated, then leaned forward and tossed the sandwich just into the entrance. It was clearly visible, the white bread almost shining in the moonlight. Nothing came to take it.

‘H – Hello?’ Shaun said. He cleared his throat and then repeated himself, louder, feeling Terry tense up behind him, the stick raised like a baseball bat and ready to strike.

‘Don’t stand like that, you’ll scare him!’

Terry didn’t move for a few minutes but, when the hand didn’t show itself, he seemed to relax and lowered the stick. He came over and crouched beside Shaun, and the two of them stared into the darkness, their heart beats slowing and their minds entertaining the idea that maybe the hand wouldn’t come out at all, would never emerge again, perhaps had never emerged in the first place.

‘Mr. Hand,’ Shaun said. ‘Mr. Hand, do you need help? Maybe we can dig you out? Just give us a sign if you want us to dig you out. Like a thumbs up!’ He winced as Terry elbowed him in the side. ‘Shaun, no.’

A soft wind blew, cooling the sweat on their brows, but there wasn’t so much as a stir from the opening. Shaun began to wonder if the man had finally died. It was surely only a matter of time, living the way he did. They hadn’t had rain in three days. But he couldn’t give up. He resolved himself to try a bit longer.

‘Terry, tell him one of your stories. Maybe he’s shy.’

‘No.’

‘Come on. Tell him that one – that one about the dead guy who goes after his wife.’

‘I’m not saying anything. Let’s go home, alright? It’s not coming out.’

But Shaun was nothing if not stubborn and, manoeuvring himself into a comfortable cross legged position on the sand, he began the story himself as best he could, hoping it would waken something in the man the way it had woken something in him when he’d first heard it, the kind of horror that made you glad to be alive at the same time it was scaring you.

‘Once, there was a man, and he got buried and – ’

‘That’s not how it goes,’ Terry interrupted.

‘Well, you said!’

‘Just, if you’re going to tell it, tell it properly.’

‘I don’t remember.’

The two of them were silent, wind rustling the bush around them as though the leaves were full of writhing snakes. Finally, Terry cleared his throat formally, and began, and Shaun settled back to listen, a smile playing on his lips.

‘One night, seven feet beneath a grave marked Harvey Cole, a corpse rolled over…’

And he told the story of the man who rose from the dead to murder his wife’s new lover and bring her to rest with him. He was shaky at first, self conscious of what he was doing and where they were, but by the end he’d let his voice deepen to that graveyard murmer that he loved so much. He finished twenty minutes later: ‘After a time, the dirt above them stopped crumbling down, leaving a steep ditch at the top, but filling it for the most part. The gravestone at its head read HARVEY COLE, TAKEN TOO SOON. And underneath that, in untidy letters: SELENA COLE, LOVING WIFE.’

He sat back, the sudden quiet falling over them and returning them to the world. Though he’d heard that one before, Shaun thought that if the night held nothing more for them, he’d managed to get his brother to tell stories again. Terry met his eyes and the two grinned at each other, both feeling the same thing. When they were younger, they’d spent nights camped out of sight of the house, telling these stories to each other over a small fire. Seeing the grin, it occurred to Shaun that maybe the hand had just been another tale, that Terry had been pretending this whole time, creating a real life story that the two of them were living together.

He opened his mouth to say this when something pale moved in the corner of his eye. He was up on all fours in an instant, staring at the hole. It was there, alright. Something twisting in the darkness like a white snake. It emerged from the hole, a dead hand connected to an arm far too long to be human, and closed bony fingers around the sandwich at the entrance, pulling it back before they could get a proper look at it. Shaun was left with only one or two details: the way the thumbnail was brown and cracked all over like broken glass, and the whiteness of the skin, like flaking chalk.

In the following silence, both of them heard a whisper float out of the hole, so low it was nearly lost to the wind: ‘Thank you.’

Whether it was for the food or the story, they didn’t know, and they didn’t stay to find out, either, both boys hurrying back home as fast as they could, exhilarated and terrified all at once.

The two of them visited the hole every night, after that, and one of them – usually Shaun, who was warming to the role of storyteller quickly and developing a graveyard voice of his own – would tell a tale. He could only tell the ones Terry had told him, however, because it had always been Terry with the knack for invention. By the third night, the hand would venture out of the hole and rest just inside the hole so that they could make out its pale form and little else, as though it were listening. Afterward, Shaun would crawl closer and put a piece of food in front of it, and talk to it a while before they left. Terry noticed, to his discomfort, that Shaun was leaving the food further and further away each time, as if trying to coax the hand further out, and when he spoke it was always to convince the hand that there was a world outside, that it should let them dig it out, that they were its friends and wanted to be with it. There was always that quiet whisper at the very end, sometimes only as they turned to leave, drifting to them on the night air: ‘Thank you. Another, another…’

On the fifth night, a Friday, Shaun suggested they camp out by the hole, just like they used to, with a fire and marshmallows and tents. Terry agreed, but when they went he made sure to bring the snake stick and resolved that he wouldn’t sleep that night, and would watch the hole with one eye the whole time. He was no longer petrified of the hand, but he was deeply suspicious of it. Whatever Shaun said, it was no human, nor ever had been.

When they left the house, waving goodbye to their bemused father, Shaun was over the moon with excitement, and Terry couldn’t help but be run along in the current of his enthusiasm a little. ‘It’s like we’re living in one of your stories!’ Shaun told him, eyes shining as they made their way along a now well trodden path deeper into the bush. ‘Only, one of the better ones.’ Terry’s stories tended not to have happy endings.

The night went just as so many had in the past, only this one was so much more thrilling now that they had an audience. The hand lay in its hole while Shaun told the story of the fisherman pulled out of their boat by a monster from the deep, and at the end he gave it a big piece of beef jerky from the bag their father had given them. The hand took it and slid back into the hole. This night, however, it came back.

The fire was guttering low and Shaun’s eyes were drooping and his head nodding. Had Terry not seen the hand, he doubted Shaun would have. It came out of the hole walking on its fingertips like a spider, and Terry kicked his brother in the knee. ‘Ow, what?’ He nodded toward the hand and Shaun woke up, smiling.

‘Hello, back again?’

The middle finger stuck up like a head and bobbed up and down, nodding. Shaun laughed and clapped his hands, and the hand responded, doing an odd little dance on the sand.

Terry watched it, unnerved, wondering what it was up to. Was it really trying to entertain them? He curled his hand around the snake stick and moved so that he was half kneeling, ready to stand up at a moment’s notice if he had to. He watched the hand dance, fascinated, the first good look he’d had at the thing since he first saw it. It wasn’t so bad now, was it? Now that he could see it in the firelight, it wasn’t an intangible, mysterious thing: it was simply a hand, one that could be crushed with a heavy stick. And it was dancing.

Shaun came forward and put his own hand on the ground, making it copy the odd, jumping dance, as though the two were in some kind of competition. The hand jumped up onto two fingers and began to do a bizarre tap-dance on its cracked nails, and Shaun laughed and made his middle and index fingers hop an Irish step dance. The two of them went on like that for several minutes, Shaun giggling furiously and breaking into a light sweat from his efforts, and when at last he gave up and clapped his hands, ceding victory, Terry was chuckling along with him.

Finally, the hand stopped and extended out of the hole, open as if to beg a handshake for a game well played.

Terry saw the danger immediately. He choked on his laughter, fumbling for the stick by his side, even as Shaun, eyes bright with mirth and grinning from ear to ear, reached for the hand.

‘Shaun, no!’ Terry’s shout was sudden and loud in the still air, but it was too late: Shaun’s hand was firmly within the grip of those sharp, white skinned digits, and as he turned his head at the shout, his expression changed from confusion to shock, as though he had only just now realised what he’d done.

The hand pulled.

Terry had the great snake stick raised above his head, but there was nothing for him to strike at: Shaun had gone in an instant from a comfortable forward leaning sitting position to sprawled out full on his stomach, his entire arm inside the hole and his head pressing painfully against the roots of the wattle at the top.

‘Terry HELP!’ His voice was high pitched and cracking. Terry threw the stick to the ground and lunged for Shaun’s feet, and as he grabbed hold of his little brother’s ankle he heard something pop, and Shaun’s head slid into the hole. A second later there came another pop as his left shoulder came out of its joint and now Terry had both of Shaun’s feet under his arms and was pulling on them with all his weight. Surely the thing couldn’t drag him all the way through such a tiny hole – the space was barely big enough for Shaun’s head.

But no, Shaun’s body disappeared through the opening, small bones cracking with the passage. Terry wasn’t screaming, all of his effort involved in his battle, but he could hear a muffled noise coming from somewhere underground. The moments that followed were made more horrifying by the silence. The campfire still crackled behind him; the cicadas still chirruped endlessly. Terry’s feet slid in the sand as he struggled for purchase, tiny breaths hissing through gritted teeth.

But the top half of Shaun’s body was through the hole, and the rest of him went easily. The hand was impossibly strong, far too much for a twelve year old, and soon Terry held only a single foot. Shaun’s loose fitting Nike slid off at the last instant, his twitching foot disappearing into the dark without a sound.

Terry dropped to his stomach, his quick breaths stirring up the dust, and stared into the tunnel. He caught a glimpse of Shaun’s fluoro orange sock, moving away from him at surprising speed, and then it was gone.

He was alone.

The next minutes of Terry’s life were a blur of tears and panic. He snatched the stick from the ground and ran, faster than he’d ever run in his entire life, all the way home. He screamed his father’s name long before he reached the house, and when he emerged from the bush he saw his dad standing at the front door in his underpants, shotgun clutched to his chest, squinting into the dark.

‘Terry? Is that you?’

‘Dad!’ Terry skidded to a stop before he reached the house. ‘Something took Shaun! Something took him into a hole, come on!’ He started off into the bush and his father rushed after him, swearing.

‘What d’you mean something took him? What was it?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ Terry sobbed as he ran, desperate to get his father to the hole before something bad happened to Shaun.

‘Was it a man? Did some sick bastard get my boy?’ Terry heard a fury in his father’s voice he’d never heard before, a murderous tone, and it flooded him with relief. No monster could stand up to that rage. He’d get to Shaun if he had to tear the world apart.

When the camp came into view, the fire still crackling away, Terry pointed at the hole. ‘In there,’ he gasped. ‘It took him in there.’

‘What the fuck…’ His father stared at the hole for a long time, the shotgun half raised. He cast Terry a quick glance, as if to make sure he wasn’t playing some trick on him. The fear in Terry’s eyes must have convinced him, because he lowered himself to his knees and pointed the gun directly into the hole.

‘Don’t shoot, Dad, he’s in there!’

His father ignored him, instead speaking into the hole in a loud voice. ‘Alright, listen up, whoever you are. You bring my son out of that place or I’m going to bloody well dig you out. You make me dig, and I guarantee you won’t live until morning, you understand? I’ll kill you and bury you right here and no one’s ever gonna know about it. You touch my son and I’ll make sure it’s a slow death, too.’

Only silence met his words, and he glanced over at Terry after a minute. ‘He pulled him inside there? Are you sure?’

Terry nodded vigorously, not correcting his father’s assumption that it was a man. His father didn’t believe in monsters.

‘Does it go anywhere? Are there any other tunnel openings around here?’

‘I dunno. I don’t think so.’

‘Go look,’ his father growled, and Terry nodded and made a quick search of the surrounding area, being careful to keep the fire and his father in sight at all times. He heard his dad say something else into the hole, but couldn’t hear words, only that murderous tone. ‘It’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be okay,’ he found himself whispering, over and over.

He returned after a few minutes, shaking his head at his father’s raised eyebrows.

‘Alright. That’s good. That means the bugger didn’t get away.’

‘What if he crawled out while I was getting you?’ Terry said, though somehow he knew that the body belonging to the pale white hand would never leave the safety of its subterranean lair.

His father only nodded at the hole, the shotgun still trained on the entrance. ‘No grown man’s gonna fit through there, son. He’s holed himself up in there to hide. But he’s not going anywhere!’ he shouted the last words into the hole, then nodded at Terry. ‘Get the spade.’

Terry kept up a run all the way back, his heart racing so fast it hurt, his mind flashing images of Shaun, trapped in a cramped dark tunnel with… something. Could he breathe? Was it just keeping him in there or was it doing things to him? Maybe it had really been lonely and, seeing a friend, simply taken it, the way a baby might take a toy from another, without really thinking about it.

He grabbed his father’s heavy spade and the pickaxe that leaned against the wall next to it, all the while listening as hard as he could over the sound of his own strained breathing, certain he would hear the shotgun go off at any minute. But the shot never came, and as he started back into the bush with the tools over his shoulder, a horrible sense of foreboding fell over him. He began to slow down as he neared the campsite, the flicker of the distant fire coming to him through the narrow tree trunks, casting long shadows over the sand. A voice in his mind, one born of intuition and gut feeling, was telling him to turn around and run. Something had gone wrong. He should drop the tools and run, past the house even, all the way into town get somewhere he could be surrounded by other people.

‘Dad?’ He was walking now, fighting the feeling, telling himself it was all going to be okay. He searched the dark around the fire for the tall silhouette of his father. He should have heard him, but Terry got no reply. ‘Dad? I got the axe! Where are you?’

His arms felt weak. He came out of the trees and stood in the firelight, the hole now in full view and his father nowhere to be seen. There was no sign of him at all, no footprints or disturbance, no shotgun lying discarded by the hole; his father was simply gone.

‘Dad?’ His voice came out a squeak and the tools fell from his shaking arms. Warm tears fell down his sweat soaked face, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the pitch darkness of the hole, the bottomless hole that seemed to stare right back at him across the fire. There was something moving in there, something pale white and dead sliding over the sand just behind the hanging roots of the wattle. This time, Terry did not wait to see what came: he ran.

Tree branches swatted at him, roots tripped him up, thistles and thorns tore at his clothes, but Terry didn’t care for them, nor what was in front of him, nor how far he had to go: he cared only for what was behind him. He didn’t stop at his house but ran up the driveway and started down the dirt road, panting now, his lungs burning like fire. The dirt road joined a highway after a few kilometres, and then that ran on for twenty or so more before it went through the village. Terry ran.

The highway was surely near, but there would be no cars on it at this time. Terry kept up a slow jog until his knees began to buckle and then he struggled to maintain a fast walk. He could hear it now, between each breath: a sliding sound in the sand behind him. Inexorable. He turned the last bend and saw the final stretch of dirt road before it joined the empty highway. On either side of it were acres of empty farmland. The sky had gone from black to dark blue, the stars still bright.

He was crawling, his knees bloody, when the hand closed around his ankle. Even then he didn’t look back – only struggled to keep going, his whole body shaking with the effort, his mind threatening to break at the feel of those vice like fingers, ice cold on his naked skin.

And the hand pulled.

He fought, but when the gravel started cleaving skin from skin he stopped fighting and just tried to stay alive. The journey was slow but brutal, and he felt every inch of the track he’d just run: the asphalt, the gravel, the dirt road with rocks scattered like land mines down its length, each one digging into his flesh as he went over. He endured the pain as long as he could before he twisted over or held himself up for brief moments with his hands, then collapsed again until he was compelled to move. The hand was completely out of his reach – when he tried to curl over to get at it it would jerk at him, hard, so that his head came down on the ground with enough force to make him see stars.

By the time it pulled him off his driveway and into the bush he was almost delirious with pain and blood loss, his skin red and grazed in some parts all the way through, his meat exposed. He surrendered, the fight gone out of him, and went limp, allowing the hand to drag him like a rag doll. He watched the treetops pass above him, partially blotting out a sky he’d never see again. There was blood in his ears.

Without warning, he felt his hips catch in something and realised it was the opening to the hole. His stomach lurched, as though he were only now realising where it had been taking him all along. He let out a cry and the hand jerked him in up to his armpits. Remembering the way Shaun’s shoulders had popped out of their sockets, he gave one last effort, pushing with all his strength on the sides of the hole, praying for something to break loose, even if it was his foot.

Something tore and snapped in his ankle beneath the tight fingers – his Achilles – and a black curtain fell across his mind for a moment. Or perhaps it was for good: when he regained consciousness he was lost in darkness, his arms trailing above his head as he was dragged through the tunnel, dirt sticking in blood thickened mud all over his body, all sound muffled to him.

How long was the tunnel? He didn’t know, only that it was taking him down – and steeply. He found he was too far from the entrance to breathe – but it was relief, not dread, that settled over him: whatever awaited at the end of this eternal hole, he wouldn’t be alive to see it. Even the pain faded as colours swam across his vision, blotting out his mind piece by piece until there was nothing left.

And he woke.

He did not know how long it had been, or how he was breathing, now. The air was stale and disgusting, a stench of rot and excrement that stung his nose, but somehow it was fresh enough to inhale. He was sitting with his legs sprayed wide and his back propped up against a dirt wall, the top of his head touching the ceiling. Besides these, there was a sense of immeasurable weight above him, endless leagues of dry earth between him and the surface. He realised he was crying when tears stung his wounded cheeks.

A hand caressed the side of his face so lightly he barely felt it at first. He froze at the touch of it, and the hand moved quicker, eagerly. Another pressed something against his lips, a cold piece of meat that smelled raw. He tried to turn his head away but a hand gripped his chin and held it steady.

‘Sshhh,’ came a soft voice, the same one that thanked him for his stories so many times. ‘Be still… be still… You must eat.’

He refused, but the fingers dug into the skin around his chin and he opened his mouth to cry out. Fingers pushed the meat into his mouth and clamped his mouth shut. He chewed and swallowed quickly, his whole body erupting in a shiver of revulsion.

‘Good, good. The voice whispered, and a hand patted him on the head. When he was next offered the piece of meat, he took it with one of his hands and tried to put it in his pocket, but the hands gripped his wrist and guided it back up to his mouth. ‘Good, good,’ the voice said again.

He was sobbing, the tears searing his wounds but he didn’t care. The meat was no animal, he knew, and there were no sounds down here besides his own and the soft voice of his captor. He wanted to die, but somehow, even before the next words reached him he knew he would not be allowed.

‘Please, tell me a story,’ the voice said, one clammy hand stroking his matted hair. ‘Tell me a story.’

Terry could only put his head in his arms and cry, but the voice went on and on, asking the same question, the hand stroking him more and more insistently. ‘Please, a story, please.’

There must have been some hope in him, buried beneath layers of despair, because after an eternity he found himself lifting his head, his eyes opening on fixing on two white gleaming circles like twin moons, the size of saucers. He found his cracked lips opening, his tongue moving; his weak voice escaped him as if of its own accord.

‘Once, four friends all killed themselves on the same day. It was a suicide pact…’

His voice was soft and lonely and the eyes closed as he went on, a smile he couldn’t see widening in the dark.

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