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25/5/18 – On Not Knowing What the Hell You’re Doing

It is a strange thing, the writer’s inability to know the quality of their own work. I might write a story I love, only to have it shot down by those whose opinions I value. Other works I’ve detested personally, only to have others heap praise upon them. I’ve tried, over and over, to figure out what the hell I can do to predict, ahead of time, whether or not a story will be well received by my beta readers or not.

The conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is this: if your readers all disagree about the good and bad points of your story, you win. Don’t change a thing. If everyone unanimously says it’s good, or that certain points are good – then that’s probably the truth, and likewise for if they all say it’s bad, or that specific parts of it are bad. In other words your opinion, as the writer, is meaningless. Your own taste, your own criticism, has already been exercised in the first and following drafts of the story. Once it is sent out into the world, it is no longer a part of you, and therefore beyond your judgement.

One of the reasons I think I am good at taking criticism is that I can separate my stories from myself. If you hate my story, you hate my story, but I don’t extend that criticism to mean that you hate me, even though I may have put a lot of my heart and soul into a certain project. Anyone that’s devoted a portion of their life to a project as intensive as a novel – or even a short story – knows how difficult this can be.

This is one of the reasons I’ve always liked Stephen King’s idea that stories are found objects, like fossils. I don’t believe in it, exactly, because I think the reality of the matter is that I created the story from nothing, not that I discovered a pre-existing thing. But sometimes it definitely feels like a story is something that you’re finding rather than making, and it can be very helpful to think of things this way. One of the reasons why is as I mentioned above: if a story is something you’ve found, you can be detached from it and therefore edit it more objectively and take criticism better. Instead of saying to people ‘Look at this piece of my soul which contains all my blood sweat and tears! What do you think of it?’ You can say ‘Hey look at this cool thing I found? Not sure about it myself, what do you reckon?’

The moral of the story, I think, can be summarised the following way: if you finish a story – and you should finish most of the stories you start, if not all – send it out.

It sounds obvious, but only to those who have not written many hundreds of thousands or millions of words. Anyone who’s created a significant body of work has created a significant body of shit. That is the truth.

Here’s the thing: if it is truly bad, it may be bad for reasons that you don’t anticipate, and having other people tell you those reasons can be really helpful. I have deleted dozens of stories on the basis that I thought they were unfit to see the light of day. I was on the brink of doing this with a recent thing I created, but I stubbornly gave it to my beta readers instead, only to receive an overwhelmingly positive response.

That’s good, but it would have been just as good to get a negative response and reasons for it that I hadn’t anticipated – then, you see, I would have learned something. But to throw a finished story away without any feedback at all? That’s a waste.

So, the lesson for today’s post is this: if you have a story that is finished, send it out.

After all, what do you have to lose?

 

21/5/18 – On Over Writing and Gin

Wrote nothing today, but I feel justified because yesterday I did 2200 words. I was on a roll – I wrote until 3am drinking gin, and the best part was when I read over the words this morning they weren’t even that bad. I have had bad experiences writing drunk in the past. It has always been a mystery to me how people like Stephen King and Hemingway and Hunter Thompson could drink so much and yet produce such good work consistently. Apparently, Stephen King wrote Cujo over the course of a 72 hour coke binge, and remembers little of it, yet the novel required little rewriting.

The idea of this appeals to me, because I’ve never been capable of such prolific production. Then again, I’ve also never had coke. If I write more than a couple of thousand words in one night, I feel drained the next day. I get a feeling that I’ve seen every sentence a hundred times. Every phrase is a cliché; every plot device is a trope.

On the other hand, if I don’t write for too long, say four or five days in a row, I sink into a terrible depression. My life ceases to have meaning, and everything else I do is leeched of joy. I become self destructive.

The best way to do it, in my experience, is to write just enough that you’re satisfied for the day, but no more. Like eating a big meal, but then stopping short of being completely full. That way, when you wake up in the morning you’re hungry again, instead of bloated and lethargic.

Right now, that means about one thousand to thirteen hundred words a day – though I should mention that that number has changed over time. The amount per day, and the number of days per week I typically write, has increased steadily across the years.

So today I did not write, but I’m okay with it because I’m still full from yesterday, and I’m not yet willing to take up cocaine.

 

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

 

I was listening to Pixar’s Andrew Stanton in a Ted Talk  about a concept of storytelling he called the ‘Two plus Two’ method. If you’re not aware, Pixar pretty much hits it out of the park for every movie they make. Their stories are solid and consistently entertaining, and I believe that the storytelling craft of people like Andrew Stanton is largely responsible for Pixar’s success (not to detract from the hundreds of other talented folks involved in the animation and production, of course).

I bring it up because when I heard him outline the concept of ‘Two Plus Two’ I realised I’d been using it for ages, only the name I had given it myself was The Spoon (I’ll explain in a second). It’s an important idea not just because of it’s value as a storytelling tool, but specifically because of how it applies to horror.

Here’s how it works. The way Stanton describes it in a nutshell is this: The audience wants to work for the story, but they don’t want to know they’re working. Therefore, for maximum impact, don’t give them four, give them two plus two and let them add it up.

That’s it. Those who are well versed in oft-given advice for fiction authors and the like will recognize this rule because it’s basically a re-wording of the old ‘Show, don’t Tell’ mantra. What the latter doesn’t explain, I think, is that there are actually times when you do tell. For example, you have to ‘tell’ two plus two. In the telling of these things, you are showing the four.

If that seems confusing or vague, here’s my Spoon Method for comparison…

Back in school I had a cool English Teacher – we’ll call her Liz. You know the type: wordy, thick glasses, excessively jolly and articulate – the Fun Aunt. She was one for games, Liz: she would make us speak for a minute on Bananas or the colour Yellow without repeating ourselves or saying ‘um’, or she would make us list as many uses for a brick as possible. One game which stuck with me was what she called the Spoon game.

A spoon is just an example – the game could be with any random object. She would pick the object and whisper it to someone, and that someone would have to describe it to the rest of the class until someone guessed what it was. The catch was that Liz would also give the person a list of words or phrases they weren’t allowed to use when describing the object. So, if Spoon was the object, the banned words might be: cutlery, concave, eating, metal, spoon, scoop… And hilarity ensued as people tried their hardest to guess what an excavating device for soft edibles might be.

So how does this apply to writing horror? Well, the spoon is the Terrible Thing, The Monster, and/or The Darkness. You, as the one in charge of getting the message across, already know everything about this Evil. But if you want the reader to be afraid, you can’t just give them all you know. That would be like the student just yelling out ‘It’s a spoon!’ Where’s the fun in that? So don’t show the monster; show the tracks in the mud. Don’t show the teeth; show the bite marks.

In Stephen King’s IT, before we really know anything about the monster, here are the parts King decides to show us: 1. A young boy, Georgie, getting his arm bitten off by a clown in a drain. 2. A series of incidents of little children going missing in a small town. 3. Six phone calls to the main characters, an old friend telling them that ‘It’ has returned and they must go back to the small town. In all cases the characters are terrified, and one even commits suicide rather than face the monster.

Note that in none of these cases are we told about the nature of IT or what it is or anything really about the monster itself. But we are terrified, because what the hell is so bad that someone would rather kill themselves than face it? There-in lies the rub: we have to ask a question, and not only that but it is a question to which we don’t know the answer, and all fear stems from the unknown.

As for how much to show, I think the answer can best be summarised in two words: ‘Just Enough’. First of all, give the reader credit – they can work out quite a lot from a small amount of information. Chances are, you can be more subtle than you think. Remember, the more they have to think, the further they have to reach, the greater the emotional impact when they finally get there.

The most effective things to show, as I mentioned earlier, are those which do not so much illicit a conclusion in the reader’s mind as a question. At it’s core, this question is always the same: ‘What is the horror?’ But it manifests itself in various ways, such as: ‘What kind of monster could do that to a human body?’ ‘What kind of thing would make those tracks in the mud?’ ‘What could someone have seen to make them gauge their own eyes out?’ etc.

So, to conclude: Two plus two equals a spoon. Show the reader just enough to make them ask questions. And finally: don’t show the killer, show the bodies.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  2. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  3. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  4. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  5. The Lord of The Rings Trilogy/The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. Sidhartha – Herman Hesse
  7. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  8. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  9. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. 1984 – George Orwell

Epilogue

 

After Dale’s funeral, Brian, Matt, Elyse and Steph met at the foot of the Westlake cliffs, where it all began. Brian came last, and he brought the Book of Worlds with him, held solemnly in both hands, like a priest with his bible. They were silent, sitting in an uncertain semicircle alongside the rock wall. They’d built a stack of kindling and Matt stooped and lit it with a match when he saw Brian approaching.

There were no greetings or smiles, everyone still sick from the funeral, the sight of Dale’s pale faced parents clear in their minds. Brian simply walked up to the sputtering fire, stood for a moment, and tossed the book onto it. A moment later, Steph leaned forward and tossed in the box which contained the ring of keys.

In silence, they watched the flames until there was nothing but ashes and glowing logs. Only then did Brian speak. ‘He was the best of all of us,’ he said. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked Jordan. He made himself the sacrifice.’

‘It should have been me,’ Matt said, watching the flames flash and lick at the wood.

‘It was him,’ Brian said simply. Matt said nothing, but put an arm around Steph and pulled her closer.

‘I thought it was a trick, at first,’ Steph said. ‘I thought he had some decoy or something that Jordan was attacking, and he was just screaming to make it realistic. I thought we were going to find some dummy with its stuffing ripped out, and Dale would step out from the bushes, smiling like he used to when he pulled off a really good magic trick.’

‘I remember that smile,’ Elyse said. ‘Like he already knew how good it was, and he would rather die than tell you how he did it.’

‘Yeah.’

They watched the fire burn down, and when it was nothing but cinders they hugged each other and parted ways, Matt and Steph walking back down the lane towards Wayward road, Brian and Elyse to Brian’s house. Before they’d left the park, Brian turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey.’

‘Uh. Hey?’ She said, smiling.

‘Um.’ He was remembering blades. Skin split, blood leaking from the wounds. Blisters rising from new burns. He was remembering her face lit in ecstasy as he worked a nail into a fresh cut. He forced the thoughts away. He hoped it would get easier with time.

‘Now it’s all over,’ he said, finally. ‘Will you, um, will you go out with me?’

She smiled at him, and the scars across her lips looked prettier than ever.

‘Of course I will, idiot.’

He stopped walking and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her in for a kiss and she hesitated. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heart thundering in his chest. ‘I won’t bite.’ She let out a sudden laugh, the first in a long time it seemed, and for a few moments he felt like it was all going to be alright. She kissed him then, hard – but not too hard – and it was good.

 

THE END

Epilogue

 

The Westlake Watcher: Peace Reigns?

 

After last month’s huge spike in violence in the usually peaceful suburb of Westlake, it seems that people have had enough. The unprecedented violence began with the assault on young Zane Blaire, and culminated in the torture and murder of Frank Silic by his son, Jordan Silic, who still has yet to be found (full story page 4).

Between these two crimes, hundreds of violent cases have been reported this summer, almost all of them apparently impulsive. According to the police (who were themselves accused of excessive force in over fifty percent of their criminal apprehensions during this period), many of the criminals claimed to have had no rational explanation or reason for their attacks. These were all crimes of passion, in other words.

So what was the cause, then, of this strange eruption of violence over the course of two months? Dina Silic, Jordan’s mother and a survivor of his brutal onslaught, claims her son had gone insane and ‘acted like someone I’d never met’. Similar sentiments were expressed by witnesses in Zaine’s attack, and an uncharacteristically large portion of the crimes committed were committed by citizens with no prior convictions. Many were described as normal, friendly people. ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was a common phrase. Those recently released from prison have apparently gone back to their ordinary lives. The crime rate in Westlake, since November, has dropped to below its long term average. And so the question remains: what are we to conclude?

Many interviewed seem to liken the event to a kind of natural disaster. As though a community can lose its collective mind for a period, cause great destruction, and return to normal, the same way a hurricane hits a town and then fades away. Ask an anthropologist, and it’s a case of over population coupled with a deteriorating economy. Ask a lawyer, and it’s a case of police corruption. Ask a Doctor, and it’s a case of drug and alcohol abuse. Everyone has their theories.

Whatever the cause, Westlake seems to have recovered, for now, and already the new year is looming and full of hope. The previous two months will, most likely, be swept under the rug and forgotten with time. Perhaps, that is how it should be, though Zane Blaire will doubtless remember his summer for the rest of his life, and so too will Dina Silic, both bearing scars that will never fade. Besides them, a staggering one hundred and sixty victims of assault, rape and attempted murder will no doubt be less eager to forgive and forget, and the families of Ray Deakin and Jimmy Lee, along with the relatives of ten other missing Westlake residents (including Jordan Silic), continue to search for answers.

For now, Westlake has very much the atmosphere of those rebuilding after an earthquake: families rally around each other to support those with lost loved ones, people can be seen tentatively stepping out into the streets once again to clean the wreckage left by mindless rioters, and others are beginning to get on with their lives once more. For better or worse, it seems Westlake has weathered the storm.

61

 

Matt stood in the clearing, shivering with cold, though the night was warm. The air was thick with the smell of pine needles and fresh grass. He wondered what things he’d miss most of Earth, once he was gone. Would it be friends and family, or simple things: fresh air, blue sky, beaches?

He took out the knife and started cutting one of the unmarked trees, praying he only had to do it once or twice. There had been so many close calls with Steph. I’m so sorry, Steph. Please forgive me.

A leaf crackled, somewhere from back the way he came. What was that? Paranoia. You’re losing it, man. Just get out of here, someplace you can’t get infected, you’ll be alright. He finished the carving of the door and started on the key hole, and then heard a twig snap. He froze, edged his head around the trunk of the tree and stared into the darkness. There was someone there, a large person picking his way through the undergrowth, trying to be quiet. Jordan.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Jordan himself stepped forward into the moonlight. His skin was a network of black veins. He wasn’t smiling but his eyes were alight with excitement. The same kind you might see in a cat’s eyes as it crouched, tail slowing flicking one way and the other, watching a mouse.

There was no time to finish the door and jump through, and Matt had no keys for any of the other doors. He stood up. He felt cold as ice.

‘You can run, if you want,’ Jordan said.

He didn’t run; there was nowhere to go – or at least, nowhere he could get to quickly enough. Jordan barely looked like himself any more. Gone was the thick Greek boy with dark circles under his eyes. This was an animal with the mind of a demon, lean muscles, black scarred skin, all seeing eyes and teeth sharp enough to crush stone.

‘You’re a monster,’ Matt said.

Jordan came a little closer and then raked his claws idly down one of the trees. It was the same one Brian and Elyse were inside now, if that world still existed at all. ‘Yeah? I wonder who did that to me?’

‘It’s not our fault. It’s a parasite. Brian had it too. My family have it.’

‘I wonder who gave it to them?’ Jordan said in the same flat voice.

‘No one. It just… came through. You wouldn’t hate us if we gave you a cold or something, would you?’ Why was it so hard to talk, to formulate thoughts? A frantic voice screamed over and over: Think of something! Think of something now!

Jordan’s mouth twitched a little, as if he was about to smile. He stepped over a thick tree root. ‘This,’ he took another step. ‘Is not. A fucking COLD!’

He lunged with the last word, but Matt had known from the first that this was it – that the fight for his life had begun – and he was already rolling over uneven ground, scrambling to get balance, screaming as loud as he could. The neighbourhood was filled with the infected – surely they wouldn’t miss a chance for some pain. He knew, of course, that it was a fifty fifty toss up whether it would be he or Jordan they’d tear to pieces, but they were the best odds he could get.

Six steps, dodging through the trees, hardly able to believe he’d got this far, and two heavy hands came down on his shoulders and wrenched him backwards. His feet flew out in front of him and he hit the ground hard on his back. Jordan’s claws had dug all the way down to his collarbone and there was warmth as blood flowed from the wounds, but no pain yet.

Jordan’s face hovered over Matt’s for a second, his mouth opening wider, wider, the skin stretching around the sides, eyes vanishing in folds of skin along with all the other features as the mouth went on growing. It was the size of his whole face now, just a round black hole with small sharp teeth sticking unevenly out of the gums around the sides. He’s going to bite my whole fucking head off.

Matt’s left arm was numb and immovable, but his right was just fine and he brought it up and gripped Jordan’s throat with everything he had – throwing a punch at that hole was hopeless. Jordan raised his claws, on the point of severing Matt’s arm at the elbow, when there was a scream – one that Matt was sure was familiar – and a flash of spinning light. A dull impact, and Matt lost hold of Jordan’s throat. A torch lay on the ground nearby, it’s light throwing long shadows all over the place, obscuring everything.

Matt got to his feet, disoriented, and tried to see what was going on. Someone was still screaming, and he followed the sound to a thicket of bushes. He saw Jordan there, his back to him, and he was hunched over, holding something, his whole body shifting and moving as if he were struggling with it, his back heaving as though he were vomiting. It’s not what’s coming out, it’s what’s going in.

It was that thought, and the final placement of that familiar scream, that sent Matt over the edge. He threw himself at the great heaving thing, a real monster now, nothing human left in it, and pounded it, bit it, tore at its throat with his hands until he felt his own fingernails snapping back from the force of his scratches.

Jordan twisted round and elbowed him in the chest. Ribs broke, and Matt found himself flying through the air and into a tree. He dropped onto his knees, unable to breathe. He put his right hand up to his chest as though it could ease the pressure there, somehow.

Amidst the pain, he heard Steph speak. He hadn’t even known she was there, but the sound of her voice sent his heart plummeting into the pit of his stomach. Oh, please, not her. Why did you come Steph? But he had not yet processed the words she’d spoken – had barely heard them at all – or just as importantly, where she’d spoken them from.

‘Pick on someone your own size, Shit Hole,’ she said, her voice shaky and afraid, but somehow also triumphant.

Matt stared through the bars of light and shadow, trying to see, the pain like a veil over his eyes. Jordan was standing straight up, unhurt, staring at Steph. She was partially illuminated in some of the torch’s errant light. She was holding a long knife in her left hand and the ring of keys Matt had left at Dale’s door in the other. Her dark hair hung over her scared eyes.

None of it made sense until Matt saw a dark, slender hand with nails like razors reach out of the pool of darkness beside her and take the knife gently from her grasp. Elyse stepped into the light, and Brian came up beside her, but if it weren’t for their eyes Matt would never have recognized them at all.

Brian glanced at him, briefly, though Matt couldn’t be sure he knew who he was. His dark eyes fixed on Jordan a second later, and then he was gone. Perhaps it was Matt’s concussion slowing his perception, but to him it seemed that one second Brian and Elyse were there, side by side like a pair of murderous rotted corpses, and then they had vanished. They moved so quickly it was like the shadows ate them up in one place and spat them out, instantly, in another.

Jordan let out a wild roar, a sound of pure fury that froze Matt’s bones and made him pull in his first deep breath. He turned in time to see Brian and Elyse dragging his great form to the ground, Brian crouching on his shoulders and wrenching his mouth wide open with both hands; Elyse hugging him from behind, pulling him downhill.

They fell in a mess, but it was over from the beginning. Brian was letting out strange, frantic yelps that it took Matt a few seconds to realise were a kind of laughter. Elyse was screeching with something that sounded almost like ecstasy, and Jordan was still shouting, but his cries were taking on a high, frantic quality.

The fight went on, and Matt stayed on his knees and stared into the darkness out of range of the torchlight and listened to it with growing horror. Jordan’s roars became howls, and then screams of pure agony: the screams of a boy now, not a man or a monster.

It went on and on, and Steph stepped up beside Matt and stared with him, and together they heard skin ripping away from muscle. They heard bones crack and ligaments snap. They heard pleading and begging and then whimpers, and then they heard nothing but the smack of raw meat between eager lips. All the while, the smell of blood wafted up to them and settled in the back of their throats. Steph’s hand was tight on his shoulder.

She knows they’re not going to stop. They’re going to come for us next.

‘Steph,’he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘Do you have the keys?’

‘Yes.’

‘Let’s go. We have to hide in a world. We have to hide until they’re dead or gone. They’re going to kill us, Steph.’

‘What about Dale?’ she said in a small voice.

Matt looked over at the dense patch of bushes. He saw Dale’s blue jeans protruding into the light, and they were soaked in blood. One foot twitched, then was still. ‘He’s dead.’

Steph got an arm under him and helped him to his feet.

‘Hey, wait.’ Brian was standing there on the slope. He looked almost like himself, except for the black veins knotting his face and the skin visible under his tattered clothes like ropes. He was panting, covered in head to toe in blood. It dripped from his fingertips. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

Elyse came up beside him. She looked as bad as he did, if not worse. One of her eyes was closed, a gash across it. Something leaked from below her lid. Like Brian, she was covered in blood. She was chewing something, the corner of her mouth turned up in a satisfied half smile.

‘Steph.’ Matt nudged her. They could still make it to one of the doors. Maybe, if they were lucky, one of them could get through. He’d already made up his mind to make sure it was her. He had nothing, after all. There was nothing for him, anymore. She didn’t move.

Brian came forward, one step, two, and all of a sudden it was too late and there was no getting away. ‘It’s okay, now,’ he said. Steph was shaking, and Matt was on the point of throwing himself on Brian – take out his eyes and there might be a chance after all – when he’d closed the distance completely and pulled her into a hug. Before he knew what was happening, Elyse was in front of him, tears in her eyes, and she hugged him too, and he knew, somehow, that it was over.

 

Dale was still alive, barely. They picked up the torch and Brian and Elyse picked him up out of the bushes and laid him down on his back. Matt saw the gaping wound Jordan had made in Dale’s abdomen. His whole stomach was a mess of organs, some burst and torn, pulled out of place. His intestines almost spilled out of him as they set him down, and Matt could see the bite marks in the pink flesh. His eyes were half closed but bright with reflected moonlight, and he was breathing fast, two or three breaths a second.

‘It’s okay,’ he told them, eyes flicking, from one to the other, blinking. ‘I’ve done this before. It’s not so bad.’ He didn’t say anything after that, and Elyse held him until he died, his eyes fixed on the moon.

They stayed there for a long time afterward, huddled against the cold in a tight circle around their friend, no one speaking, crying in silence. They felt more than ever as though they were in another world. No one had answered their screams during the fight, and the sirens and shouts on the streets were far away. They were alone with their horror and their dead friend, the victors of a battle no one else knew had been fought.

‘The door’s closed now,’ Steph said eventually, looking down at Dale’s horribly slack face. There was no peace in that expression, no relief or grace; only an absence of everything. Death.

Matt almost didn’t dare to speak. He didn’t know what made her say that, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She sounded certain, and that was enough. He put an arm around her and one around Elyse, and the four of them huddled closer.

‘You think we’ll go back to normal?’ Brian asked. ‘Will the burn come back?’

‘I don’t know,’ Steph said. ‘We’ll just have to wait.’

And so they did. Hugging each other in the blue dark, crying often and talking in low voices occasionally, they waited for the sun.

60

 

‘Pick up, pick up, pick up. Damn.’ Dale redialled. ‘Come on.’

‘Dale?’ Steph answered at last, sounding worried.

‘Yeah, we have to find Matt right now.’

‘Why? What happened?’

‘I found something. I don’t know if it can help us or not but… I dunno, maybe. I was gonna run to Matt’s house but when I opened the front door I found the box of keys. He left them here, Steph, why would he do that?’

‘Oh, no. He’s running away, isn’t he?’

‘Yeah. I can’t get hold of him.’

‘Dale – oh, God, he must have gone to Westlake. That’s where all the other doors are.’

‘That’s what I figured. Listen, we don’t have that much time, I – ’

‘Dale, wait, what did you find out?’

‘Huh?’

‘What did you find out, why were you trying to get to him?’

‘Oh, yeah. Listen, Steph – it’s a sacrifice. A human sacrifice I think, I don’t know if it has to be innocent, or a child, or just anyone, but I’m sure of it. That kid that died, remember, in the book? That was what closed the door for good, that was the bit that was burned off in the original volumes. Someone has to die to make the door close properly.’

‘Oh, God, are you sure? Dale. Are you sure?’

‘No, not really, but… I dunno, Steph. It seems likely, that’s all.’

The phone crackled as she let out a frustrated breath. ‘We’re wasting time.’

‘Can you meet me there?’

‘Forget meeting, we just have to get to him as quick as possible. Like right now. Dale, if he gets into some other world, he’ll never know, do you realise that? He’ll just run away and never know about us or his family or anything.’

‘Okay, okay, I’m going now. Hurry – and bring a torch or something with you, yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

59

 

The light was on in the dining room, and Matt’s parents were eating dinner with his little sister. He stood in the lounge room, leaning against a wall in the dark, and listened for a moment, imagining he was in the room with them.

‘Daddy, you dropped your chicken!’

‘What? Oh, Jeez. Don’t look at me like that, Sarah.’

‘Isn’t there something you should say to your daughter, James?’

‘Uh. Oh, yeah. I’m sorry about what happened earlier, with the knife.’

‘That’s okay, Daddy. He asked me to hold the tomato and then he slipped and cut me!’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It was an accident.’

‘Oh really?’ Matt’s mother said. ‘So how come you did the same thing to me just yesterday?’

‘Ah, oooh, well I guess I’m just clumsy, huh?’

‘Daddy!’

‘I can’t help it if she’s jiggling the carrots around.’ It was his dad alright, but he was putting on a show of happiness. Matt saw through it, because he was looking for it. His father was scared.

‘Where’s Matt tonight, Mommy?’

‘He’s at Dale’s house. He said he’d be back at nine or ten… which is after your bed time, baby girl.’

‘I’m not a baby.’

‘Well, the way you were crying about that little cut…’ Matt didn’t hear the rest, because he was back out the front door, walking fast. He gritted his teeth – it helped stop the tears. He thought he was moving aimlessly through the streets, but soon enough he came to see that he was heading straight for Westlake park, and he knew why, too.

There was nothing left here for him, on Earth. His entire family was infected. Dale had put on a strong front, but a front was all it was. Earth was as dead as the world the parasite had come from. One day some other traveller would come upon it, and it would be full of jungles and oceans and mountains, but there wouldn’t be a sign of life. If there was, it would be knotted with muscle, black skinned, and ravenous. Dale and the others had their families, but Matt had only himself now, and if he stayed, he would die. He had no one to rescue.

He still had the Stanley knife in his pocket, but he took a detour by Dale’s house and left the box containing all of the keys on his front doorstep. They’d need them when they went back to Zindel. After that, he stuck his hands in his pocket, pulled his hood down so the flies couldn’t get to him, and made a beeline for the rolling hills and forest of Westlake park.

He was not aware of a figure in a thick jacket, hands similarly tucked into pockets and hood pulled down, who followed him all the way to the rickety wooden fence and over it, keeping just far enough away to evade notice. A gibbous moon cast long shadows over everything, but Matt was listening to the sirens and his eyes were fixed on the tall pines silhouetted against the sky, marking the forest. Soon, the figures of both boys were lost in the dark.

58

 

Dale had made out like he really thought there would be something in the old tome, but as he sat down on his bed in his quiet house (dinner had been subdued and quick: pizza delivery, pieces shoved mindlessly into mouths, then various family members had disappeared into their respective areas of the house), and opened the Book of Worlds, he realised how ludicrous it was. Zindel had written the thing, after all – he should have known one way or the other.

But he read anyway, from the start, analysing each word, each sentence, not knowing what he was searching for, only that if he didn’t find it he was going to have to wake up his family and convince them that the whole world was going to die if they didn’t follow him into a secret trapdoor in some stranger’s house.

When he reached the crucial chapter, On Closing Doors, he read it through and, settling on one particular paragraph, his heart froze. The section detailing the closing of doors was so badly scorched that it took me a day to make out what I needed, and even then half a page was lost to me completely.

That was it, wasn’t it? The scorched pages had concealed something, some secret that you had to know to close the door. Only that didn’t quite make sense, because a moment later Zindel wrote: Fortunately, whatever was written there must not have mattered, because when I broke the key in half and spoke: ‘Claudo’ the door shut. So whatever was hidden, it hadn’t mattered. Or else, Dale thought, it had mattered, and Zindel had done it without knowing it.

He flipped back to the beginning and started again. It seemed straightforward: a beast followed him to Earth and mauled a child. Zindel closed the door the same way Brian had, and three days later found the animal, so he said, without a soul. He was certain the door closing had done it. What if it wasn’t the door at all? What if he didn’t close it properly after all, and the beast died of something else, some random disease. Oh, shit, what if Zindel never closed that door at all?

Dale closed his eyes for a second and then opened them again. No, it couldn’t be that. Zindel said he’d seen the outline of the door disappear. Was there something else that had happened? Some other event that had sealed the door closed finally, but something Zindel didn’t consciously do?

So, from the book, what event? The mauling of a small child? Dale laughed out loud, a shaky, hysterical laugh he didn’t like the sound of at all, but before it took hold of him he stopped, abruptly, and stared at the page. What if that was it? An innocent sacrifice. The door opened with blood, so it must be closed with blood. The thought had an uncomfortable ring of truth.

He mulled it over, and decided on two things. Firstly, there was nowhere near enough proof to be certain of it. Sure, it was the only event written that may have had an impact, though Zindel didn’t seem to think so, but there was something else: The book which I had to use (the same one that contained the method to open the doors) was badly burned on account of the previous owner attempting to destroy it… Now what the hell did that mean? Why would someone try to destroy a book they wrote? Especially since opening a door was no big deal, just a few carvings in a tree and a little cut on the hand. So why burn that last bit? Unless the burned section mentioned that to close a door you needed a sacrifice.

            Shit.

57

 

Steph felt like she had a cork sitting in the back of her throat the whole dinner. She sat with her parents and her younger sister and fought tears while they laughed about a spelling mistake on Kylie’s test.

‘I was supposed to write “pass” but I wrote “ass” on accident!’ she was saying, and put a hand up to her giggling, food filled mouth as mum and dad burst out laughing. Steph couldn’t help but stare at her. She had lived with this little girl her whole life, her entire life, and yet she couldn’t really remember appreciating her. She was an annoyance who was always crying or screaming high pitched laughter or stealing her clothes or telling their parents that Steph had snuck out of her room to see her friends late at night.

‘And what did you teacher say?’ Steph’s mum asked, still smiling.

Steph had come through the front door, wondering how she was going to tell her family everything, how she was going to convince them to come with her all the way up to Zindel’s house and go through that tiny trapdoor. She had been pondering this carefully when her eyes had wondered over her father’s hands as he ate. He had remarkably long fingernails. And there was something else. A tiny, black cut on the back of his right hand.

‘What happened to you?’ she’d asked when she saw it.

‘Oh, that? I got a splinter today and your mother dug it out for me. Bloody shovelled it out, more like.’

‘Sorry, dear, it was very stubborn.’

‘Stubborn? You went at it like it was your worst enemy!’ Steph’s gaze had moved over her mother’s face as she’d spoken, and she saw it now. So subtle, but it was there alright. Just the slightest pointing of her incisors, the slightest enlargement of her eyes. Perhaps she hadn’t been liberal enough with the fly repellent.

And that, of course, had been that. Problem solved.

‘She said if I ever had trouble spelling I should ass her a question,’ Kylie said, and then erupted in another peal of ear splitting giggles.

Was she really going to die, this girl, Steph wondered, laughing along with them. Was she really going to grow long nails and razor teeth? Were black veins going to appear all over her small body? Would she hurt their parents first, small claws digging at flesh through the bed sheets?

She forked sausage and mashed potato into her mouth without tasting it and looked at her parents, who were talking about the primary school. They’d had parent teacher day.

‘And you haven’t been bullied at all, have you Kylie? Ms. Maree seemed to think there was a lot of fighting and meanness going around lately.’

Kylie shrugged. ‘I saw Mary pull out some of Jessica’s hair and there was blood.’

‘Oh, my God. They don’t have standards at these schools any more.’

‘Too slack on the punishments, I reckon,’ Steph’s dad said. ‘They wouldn’t have taken that stuff in my day. Take a stick to the buggers.’

‘You’re not wrong. Half those kids haven’t been punished in their lives.’

If you only knew. Steph watched her parents, taking in every precious wrinkle in their faces, the way her mother wrinkled her nose at the prospect of badly brought up children, the redness of her father’s face from the tabasco he’d poured all over his mashed potatoes. The people who’d raised her. Were they really going to hurt anyone? Maybe they’d take kitchen knives to each other and slice themselves to raw meat. Or maybe when it got bad enough they’d lock themselves in a room with Kylie. No way. They’d kill themselves before they hurt us.  Maybe they would. But the parasite would win in the end, one way or the other, she knew that much. She had a whole empty planet to prove it.

They sent Kylie, kicking and screaming, to bed just after dinner. Normally Steph would disappear into her own room without a word to them for the rest of the night, but this time she stayed in the sitting room with them, sipping at tea and talking and trying so, so hard not to cry.

‘So how was the day, honey?’ her mum asked. ‘You’re a little subdued tonight.’

‘Uh, it was, you know.’ She forced a smile that she was sure her mother saw right through and felt a tear slide down her cheek.

‘Oh, Steph.’ She came over and gave her a hug, her father flashing her a sad smile over her shoulder.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry!’

‘Nah. It was just. It’s just been a bad day that’s all.’

‘You don’t want to talk about it?’

Steph shook her head and then spoke anyway. ‘Just all the violent stuff that’s been going on, you know. Everyone going mad and hurting each other.’

‘I know, honey, but you know none of that’s going to happen to any of us. It’s just the recession taking its toll.’ The lie was clear in her mother’s voice, but Steph appreciated the effort.

‘We’ll just have to be more careful about leaving the house, especially after dark,’ her father put in, when her mother had released her. ‘Glen Warwick just down the road got beaten so badly two days ago he’s still in hospital.’

‘Glen?’ her mother said. ‘God, I didn’t know that.’

‘And it was a group, apparently. Two old guys, a girl, and two young fellas. Now I want to know what the bloody hell  kind of gang that is.’

‘Thanks for the comforting words, dad.’ Steph said.

He shrugged. ‘You’ve got to be realistic,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ Steph said, sadly. ‘You do.’

She went over and hugged him, ignoring the look of shock on his face. She hadn’t hugged him since she was ten years old. He gave her an awkward pat on the back. ‘Try not to let it get to you, darlin’. Like your mum says, nothing’s happened to us, we’re gonna be alright.’

‘Thanks, Dad. I better get up to bed.’

She kissed her mother good night and went slowly up the stairs. She felt more helpless than she’d ever felt in her whole life. She was thinking about Glen Warwick, and whether he was starting to dream about stabbing the nurses, or if that came later. She was thinking about all the people who were already acting on those desires, spreading the parasite exponentially.

A man hits his girlfriend in a fit of uncharacteristic rage. She leaves him and moves to another state, where she later assaults her roommate, who goes to a bar a week later and scratches a guy hitting on her, who gets into a brawl with several other guys, one of whom flies back to his native country – America, say – where he starts kidnapping children to torture them. When they arrest him, he attacks several police officers before they’re forced to shoot him. The officers start getting a little more free with the baton… It just went on and on and on. Slow, insidious, inevitable.

‘Steph?’ She realised she’d been standing at the top of the stairs, tears still streaming down her face, for a long time. Her little sister was standing in the door to her bedroom, staring at her.

‘What’s wrong, Steph?’

‘Kylie… you should be in bed.’ Her voice was so shaky she could barely get the words out, and her little sister came to her, dropping Rex, her favourite teddybear, so she could wrap both of her arms around Steph’s waist. In a minute, she was crying also.

‘What’s wrong, Steph?’

‘I’m just sad, Kylie. I love you, you know that? I do.’

‘I love you, too,’ she said simply.

‘You dropped Rex.’

‘I know.’ And then she let her go and gave her a sad smile, wiped her face, picked up Rex, and said: ‘Goodnight, Steph. You’ll feel better tomorrow. Mum always says so.’

Steph stood at the top of the stairs for a few minutes after she closed the door. And then she went down to her own room, feeling completely empty. She had never known it was possible to feel so dark before. She had never known that despair like this existed in the world.

As she lay, propped up in her bed, staring at the half moon hanging in a black sky, she realised that the only thing stopping herself from committing suicide was the knowledge of what it would do to Kylie and their parents. They had enough pain in store for them, after all.

She looked out over the night sky and thought about Earth, ten years from now. Empty, overgrown cities. Starving monsters with wide mouths and all seeing eyes stalking deserted streets, causing pain at every opportunity, spreading parasites to every level of the food chain. Perhaps some would organise. Humans were, after all, so intelligent. Maybe the more capable would make farms out of the less able, immense factories in which pain could be freely harvested, medical science used now to keep crops fresh for as long as possible.

She sat in the dark and thought about the future. It was no longer a question of dread. For Steph Courson, the world had already ended.

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