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Nightmares

This one was an experiment – and a long one at that – to do with characters. The idea was, instead of planning the story all the way out to the end, I would simply start with a premise and a couple of characters and go from there. That way, when I sat down to write I would be forced to turn to the characters to find out what happened next, rather than an idea of where the story was supposed to go. So did it work? You be the judge.

Devil’s Quill

Ben Pienaar

 

When Harold stepped through the front door he was hit with an evil stench. He imagined a similar smell might come about if you stole a rotting cat from the dumpster, left it for a week in the sun, and then tossed it on a bonfire, maggots and all. With the smell came terror, because it could only mean one thing: someone had been in his house.

He closed the front door, keeping one eye on the opening into the hallway, and stepped over to the coffee table. He’d left his breakfast bowl there, and he lifted the egg stained knife from it before edging around the corner. He held it blade outwards and elbow cocked, the way the pros did it in the movies. The stench grew stronger as he approached his bedroom. He was certain he’d closed the door when he left, but it was open now.

He was shaking, every nerve primed for the slightest movement, though he had no idea what he’d do if there was anyone there. Attack them with the knife? Scream incoherently? Drop it and throw himself out of the nearest window? He was dizzy with that smell, and when he stepped inside his room he was almost certain he was going to find a corpse there. Someone had murdered Zara, his housemate, and she’d be stretched out on the bed, disembowelled.

The room was empty. Or at least as empty as his room ever was. A bed in one corner, piled with dirty clothes; a desk with a world globe, a lamp, a laptop and piles of papers scattered across the top; a wardrobe filled to overflowing with books instead of clothes.

No, there was something new there. He zeroed in on it after a few moments, because it was sitting on the only part of his desk he usually kept clear so he had somewhere to set his coffee down. It was, of all things, an inkpot and quill. One of those old ones they used to use – only it didn’t look old. The end was bright silver and sharp, and the feather wasn’t from any bird he knew. It was dark red and shot with yellow streaks and purple spirals, shiny and healthy.

He stared at it for a long time before he lowered the knife, but did not let it fall – the feeling that something was here, in the house with him, was still strong. He pushed aside his curtains and cranked open the window, taking a deep breath of fresh air and letting it clear his head a little.

It had to be a gift. From Zara, maybe? She was always giving him small presents – she was just one of those people. The leather bound notebook and the world globe on his desk had both been from her, so it made sense. As for the smell, he couldn’t say. He’d open the windows and change the bin and make sure nothing had been stolen, that was all.

Who used a quill, though? He hadn’t written a thing longhand in years, though people were endlessly giving him exercise books and pens. Never mind. He’d use it until the ink was gone, then at least she wouldn’t think he was ungrateful. The thought of writing something was like a weight settling on his stomach. The truth was, he hadn’t written anything in a long time. The last rejection he’d received for his novel still sat in his email, read but not deleted.

Thank you for your submission. However, it just wasn’t right for us here at Glorian Press. Best of luck in future.

They didn’t even name him in that one. It was an automatic response. He hadn’t written a word since, hadn’t done anything but go to work at the bottle store, come home and read until his eyes were red, then drink until his mind was black.

Calm now, he stripped off all of his clothes and had a shower, then stood in front of the mirror and looked into it, leaning over the basin. He felt exactly like he looked: eyes dark around the edges, hair too long and hanging in greasy vines down his acne scarred face, no joy left in his features. He was twenty years too old for his body. Or a hundred.

Zara came home, bright and cheerful as always, and started talking about her day. She was small, red headed girl he’d met in university, someone always in a hurry, her mind always full of a million different and conflicting thoughts, burning with energy that never seemed to die. His polar opposite. She fascinated him. When he interrupted her to ask about the inkpot, she stared at him blankly and then shook her head.

‘Hey, that looks awesome, though!’ she said, going into his room and lifting the pot and quill from his desk. ‘What the hell is this feather from? It feels real but maybe they manufactured it? By the way, it smells gross in here.’

‘I know.’ The scorched carcass smell was a fraction of what it had been, leaking out now slowly through the open window.

She put the feather down and unscrewed the inkpot, which had no label. She sniffed it. ‘Yup, definitely ink.’

‘What else would it be?’

‘I dunno. Anyway, it wasn’t me, Harold. Probably from one of your weird work friends. Who’s that guy that came over with cough medicine that one time? Ronaldo? Dropping a stink bomb in here and leaving you a weird present is totally the kind of thing he would do.’

Harold shrugged. She wasn’t wrong. Ron was unpredictable and weird, the main reasons he was Harold’s friend in the first place. Harold seemed to attract weirdos.

‘So, you gonna use it to start your novel?’ She prodded him, eyebrows raised. She was always nagging at him because for the past three years he’d been talking about the novel he wanted to write. Talking about it had always reduced the pressure he felt to actually write it, and he suspected she knew this.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I guess I will.’

 

He had no intention of actually doing that, but in the end the strangeness of the whole thing could not be ignored. Whether it was Ron or Zara, the truth would only raise more questions. In the end, it was all irrelevant. Harold had never been one for asking why –that was a sure path to madness. Besides, you tended to find out one way or the other in the long run. So despite his intentions, he couldn’t help himself. He wrote.

The quill felt right in his grip. He’d never used such a thing before, but his hand moved of its own accord, dipping into the ink and hovering over the blank page he’d set out in front of him. It wasn’t even lined – just a blank A4. For a moment he was terrified, certain that his greatest fear had come true: he hadn’t written for so long that he’d forgotten how. He had an idea – a short horror tale about a ghost boy struggling to regain his life – but he was sure he would be unable to write anything but a childlike sequence of statements: The ghost boy walked the graveyards. The night was dark. He didn’t want to be dead.

After an eternity, he lowered his hand to the page and wrote. A sentence formed, and another, and another, no pauses in between to ponder the next words, no hesitation whatsoever. His hand cramped and still he didn’t stop, until at last the pain of it was so intense he had to drop the quill and flex his palm, wincing. ‘Christ!’

He glanced at his watch. Four o’clock. He blinked. That couldn’t be right. He’d started writing at one. Back when he used to write regularly it was an effort to go half an hour without getting up to have tea or search the internet or anything else. One hour was a good day’s work. At some point he couldn’t quite recall, he must have pulled more paper from his desk drawers, because there were twenty or so pages scattered in front of him now, with casually scratched page numbers at the bottom of each, and writing on both sides. It belonged to him alright, block letters with too small spaces between the words – yet it also wasn’t his. There were no lines on the paper, but he’d written in perfectly level lines on it, and there were exactly thirty three lines on every page. And he’d left a margin.

‘What the hell?’

And then he read over it. That was something he always did when he finished a session, read over everything he’d just done, always amazed at the blatant mistakes he hadn’t seen only minutes ago. But this time was not like other times. Although he’d written in a fever, his eyes merely glancing over each word and his mind always on the next, there wasn’t so much as a spelling mistake. In fact, as far as he could tell – not that he was a pro – it was perfect. It was too good to be him, though his old style was present, the insights all his own, the atmosphere just the kind he liked: dark and cold. It was brilliant.

The following day, he wrote for six hours, and the day after that, eight. By the end of the month his desk was piled with short stories and novel chapters. His coffee intake doubled and then tripled so that he barely slept, and even the physical exertion at work couldn’t put him down. At the rate he was going, his novel would be done by the end of the next month.

‘Jeez, Harold, I feel like I haven’t seen you in like, forever.’ Zara said this to him one midnight as he made the short journey from his bedroom to the kettle to make a fresh coffee. He stared at her for a long time before he replied, his mind buzzing with a million ideas and characters and things he just had to write.

‘I’m on a roll, that’s for sure. A big roll. I don’t know what it is about that quill, but it’s changed the way I write completely!’

‘I don’t think that’s all it’s changed. Have you looked in the mirror in a while?’

‘Why?’

‘You look pretty different. You’ve lost like, a lot of weight. And your eyes are… you look like Jack Sparrow.’

‘I’ve just been tired. Working hard, but I think I’m doing really good work, you know?’

‘Oh. Yeah, that’s good. But how do you know?’

‘What?’

‘How do you know it’s good?’ She said it in such an innocent way, blowing strands of red hair out of her face, that it took him by surprise. It was true – how could he be so sure of himself? Maybe he was completely delusional, writing gibberish that only he could read? The thought of it was enough to double his heart rate.

‘I… I’ve sent it out. To places. Good results. Just short stories, though. To test the waters.’

‘Oh? Yeah, that’s cool. Well, good luck!’ She gave him a corny double thumbs up and he smiled back at her. Five minutes later he was writing again, using his left hand because his right cramped up again. Who knew he’d been ambidextrous this whole time? When he was done, he leaned back in his creaky chair and thought about what she’d said. She was right, of course. There was no way for him to know for real if he was any good until he let someone else read it. Before, the thought of someone else actually reading what he’d done had been cause for alarm, but now he was actually excited. He couldn’t wait. He wouldn’t.

It was two in the morning, but in his caffeine induced adrenalin haze, he woke her without a second thought, knocking lightly but persistently on her door until she opened it. Her red hair stuck up at odd angles and she rubbed her eyes, squinting into the hallway light. ‘Hey. What’s going on?’

‘Sorry I know it’s really late but could you do me a big favour?’

‘Um, I guess. What is it?’

‘You were right before. I have no idea if it’s any good. Could you just read one of my short stories? Just breeze through, you know, and let me know what you think.’

She raised her eyebrows in a look that said: really? ‘Does it have to be now?’

‘It’ll only take a few minutes,’ he said, giving her a grateful smile and holding up the story in his free hand, the other clutching a steaming coffee with a vice grip. It was the story about the ghost boy, the first one he’d done with the quill.

She sighed and took it from him, passing through the hallway and taking a seat at the kitchen table. He had a fleeting moment of guilt, seeing her hunched over his work in her pyjamas like a schoolgirl forced to do her homework before bed, but anticipation killed it quickly enough. He went to hover in the lounge room, pacing and glancing at the clock every two seconds.

It wasn’t a long story, and after ten minutes of agonizing silence she called to him from the next room. ‘I’m done.’ Her tone was impenetrable, flat. No way to tell if it was good or bad – he’d just have to find out. When he walked into the kitchen, she was leaning back in the chair and the story was on the other side of the table, as though she’d pushed it away, disgusted. She was looking at it with a small frown, and didn’t glance at him as he came in. His heart sank. It wasn’t good – or worse, it was gibberish. She’d take his hand and ask him to see a professional, tell him she was worried about him.

‘Well?’ he said in a choked voice when he couldn’t take it anymore. ‘What did you think?’

She shook her head, blinking, as though he’d distracted her from something, and finally looked at him. ‘It was good, Harold.’

‘Good?’

‘I mean, your writing is… I don’t read that much, you know? But I just couldn’t stop. Something about the way you do it just, I dunno, pulls you in. It’s…’ She let out a breath and nodded to herself. ‘It’s the best story I’ve ever read.’

‘Wow. I mean, thanks. Uh, why do you look so unhappy?’ She was still frowning, and the praise had been given with difficulty. Something was wrong here.

‘It’s just. I mean it’s really brutal, isn’t it? Did you have to…? I mean you really got to me. With the boy, the way he takes people and just mutilates them, and he hates it but does it anyway? I dunno, something in how you did it. I really don’t think I can sleep tonight.’ She gave a disbelieving laugh. ‘Is that crazy?’

‘I guess it’s good. I mean, it is a horror story.’

‘Yeah. That’s true.’ She stood up and slid past him, giving him a pat on the shoulder as she went by. ‘I guess I should try and sleep anyway. It’s a really good story, Harold. You’ll definitely get that published.’

‘Thanks, Zara. Sorry again for waking you.’

‘That’s alright.’ But he caught a look on her face a moment before she shut the door behind her. It wasn’t directed at him, but into his room, a glance in which he saw something hideous, pure hatred written on her features like she wanted to pour gasoline all over his desk and set it alight. Only a flicker, there and gone in an instant, and then she shut the door and he was alone.

 

His stories were published, one after the other, to the first places he sent them. The acceptance emails, mythical things he’d only heard about but never seen, came with entire paragraphs pouring praise on him. Phrases like ‘unsettling’ and ‘deeply disturbing’ were used liberally. By the time his twentieth was published, editors were asking him about a novel, and when he saw the queries he smiled, because after months of labour, he had three.

Another curious thing about the inkpot: it didn’t seem to be running out at a normal rate. Not that he knew how fast one would normally go through an inkpot, but he was sure that after filling that many pages he should have used up at least half the container, when in fact it was about four fifths full. But then, Harold wasn’t one for asking why.

His writing habits settled somewhat, but he would still go for three or four hours at a time, usually eight to midnight, the endless scratching of the quill instilling itself in his consciousness so that he heard it in his sleep. By October the following year, when Glorian Press was preparing to publish his first novel in time for Halloween, he’d amassed a backlog of four novels, all of them brilliant. He read over them once each, making not a single correction.

Zara read everything he did, but no longer at his urging. She snatched the stories from his hands, sometimes sneaking into his room to take something he’d recently completed or read what he was currently working on. She still spoke often and laughed, but many of her words had a sting to them now, her humour no longer cheerful but decidedly bitter. He’d always had a dark sense of humour, but now and again even he found her jokes – punctuated with a sharp bark of laughter that was utterly unlike her old warm chuckle – shocking.

Halloween came around, and the numbers came rolling in along with candy and trick or treaters. He’d been given a generous advance for a first time author, but his book sold so many copies in the first few days he was certain it would outdo the projected sales. He was even more certain when he opened the door on Halloween night to see a group of high schoolers dressed up as the characters he’d created. There was a goofy blond girl as Dinara, the skinless woman, a lanky kid carrying a bloody knife in one hand and a bloody stump wrist in the other, and three more in similar attire, all wearing crooked grins. ‘Trick or treaaaaat!’

‘Hey, you’re the monsters from that book, right?’

The lanky kid nodded. Zara came stomping down the hall with the bowl of candy. She’d been in a bad mood all day, muttering about how she hated children and their stupid games.

‘So you liked it, huh? You seem a bit young to read that kind of, ah, adult thing.’ They couldn’t be older than fifteen or so, but their answer couldn’t have pleased him more.

‘We’re old enough. Everyone at school read it. It’s badass.’ This from the short kid dressed up as the corpse child, his costume gruesome in its detail. Tangy ketchup wafted off him. The lanky kid winked. ‘Yeah. You wouldn’t get it, though. It’s twisted.’

Zara pushed Harold aside before he could reply and extended the big white bowl full of various chocolates and candies. ‘Here it is. Don’t take too much, you greedy shits.’

‘Jeez, lady, chill out.’

‘Don’t tell me to chill, brat.’

The kids exchanged nervous glances and took only one of her chocolates each. Harold stared at Zara, with her drawn face and bulging eyes, but she didn’t meet his gaze. The corpse child came last, and when it was his turn he plunged his hand into the candy and took a large handful. Zara tried to pull the bowl away but by then he had his loot and the others were sprinting away from the door, laughing. ‘Bitch!’ the short kid yelled over his shoulder as he chased them down the driveway. Zara tried to follow, throwing the bowl aside and spreading candies all over the floor, but Harold managed to pull her into a bear hug and get her away from the door, kicking and shouting.

‘Jesus, Zara, what the hell!’

She calmed after a few minutes and he kicked the door shut with his foot, not daring to release her.

‘You can let go of me, idiot,’ she said in a flat voice, and when he did, he was surprised to see a small, bitter smile on her face. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘Half those things are fucking laxative chocolates anyway.’ Neither of them answered the door for the rest of the night, and Zara stayed in her room, making not a sound.

 

The novel, The Broken Don’t Die, became a bestseller in the first few months, and Glorian press signed him onto a five book contract. He already had the full manuscripts of all five, but he kept writing all the same. The day he got his first royalty check, he went into the boss’s office at work. Two of the managers were in there, sitting on the computers and talking, and when he cleared his throat the third time the store manager, Joseph, turned his fat neck and looked at him. ‘Harold?’

‘Uh, yeah. Look I dunno if you’ve been, well you probably wouldn’t know, but I got a book deal recently.’

‘A what? Oh yeah, you like to write stuff. A book deal?’

‘Yeah. Um, so I’ve been making a bunch of money and I don’t really need this job anymore, so I figured I’d give my notice today.’

Joseph looked like a pig that had been slapped in the face. He was a mouth breather, a constant eater and an eternal sweater. To Harold’s surprise, he said: ‘Holy shit, that was you, wasn’t it? That wrote that fucked up book everyone’s talking about?’

‘Uh. Yeah. You know it?’

‘I read it. You sick bastard. I don’t read anything, but my damn kids kept telling me to get it. Same kids who left dog shit in my shoe yesterday. I don’t want someone that fucked up working for me. Get the hell out of here. Don’t come in next week, I’ll just run off the rest of your annual leave.’

The other manager, a grumpy old guy whose name Harold never bothered to remember, grunted something, but didn’t look around. Joseph had turned back to his computer and was shaking his head, banging on the keys, when Harold finally left the office. The rest of the week, everyone at work treated him like a cancer, cutting him out of their lives before he could grow on them.

That, Harold told himself, was the price of fame. He’d finally tapped into his true talent, a talent he’d always known was in him, and they were all jealous. Even Zara, who he’d never have guessed would have a jealous bone in her body. Her hatred, at least, wasn’t so much directed at him as at the whole world, and her monologues were no longer inane anecdotes about her workday, as they used to be, but rants about people she’d encountered, and tales of the pranks she’d pulled on them. Slashed the tires of the guy who parked in her space. Broke the neighbour’s window one night because their marital tiffs kept her awake at night. Weren’t people just the fucking worst?

The inkpot passed the halfway mark, and then it was down to less than a quarter. He had a backlog of twelve novels, plus about three short story collections. The previous contract had him at two books a year, and he agreed to another one at four per year. By the time the sixth came out, he was making more money than he’d ever dreamed, from writing or any other vocation. He stockpiled it and put it in the bank where it could grow with interest. He already had enough to live on for the rest of his life, and in luxury, too.

It was time to break it to Zara. He’d barely seen her in the last couple of months, except in brief and severely unpleasant meetings in the house. Everything she said was mean, everything she told him full of spite and wrongdoing – usually her own. He’d last seen her four full days ago, when she’d bumped him in the hallway and hissed like an animal. Several white and blue pills had fallen out of her pockets and landed on the floor and she’d rushed to pick them up, swearing over and over again. She turned off every light he turned on. Once upon a time, she’d cooked delicious meals of roast pork or lasagne; now when she ate, it was handfuls of raw vegetables or a fish tossed in boiling water or a vile smelling stew.

It was late afternoon, which meant she’d be getting ready to start the night shift at her new job at the pharmacy. The curtains were drawn in every room but his, so he stepped into a dim hallway, her own door shrouded in dark. He knocked and cleared his throat.

‘What?’ Sharp, impatient. Talking to her was like picking up pieces of broken glass – you were bound to get a cut here and there.

‘I just wanted to talk.’

There was a long silence, and he was on the point of knocking again when she flung the door open. A smell like old sweat and mouldy clothes came to him, and he had to resist the urge to show the revulsion on his face. Her hair was dark and matted, her eyes in a permanent squint, tight around the edges as though she were permanently exhausted. Pasty skin and clothes hanging off her like shapeless sacks. Behind her, not much was visible except for a lamp so dim it only illuminated a tiny area in one corner, which was stacked with papers and pens. Clothes were piled all around her room in haphazard mountains.

‘What the hell?’

‘I was just thinking. I’ve been making a lot of money lately, and…’

‘Yeah, lucky you. Is that all?’

‘No. And, I was thinking I might just move out. You know, to my own place.’

Her mouth twitched. ‘Move?’

‘Yes.’

‘With all your books and everything?’

‘Well, yes. I could always send them to you for free if you – ’

‘Screw that! I have to read them now, today, as soon as you write it.’ She put a hand up to her forehead and sighed. ‘Fine. You want to go, I don’t give a shit, but I’ll be there every day for an update, okay?’

‘I can’t do that, Zara.’

‘What?’ She spoke the word in a whisper, her eyes widening. ‘What did you say?’

‘I don’t like people reading what I’m working on, okay? I’m happy to send you copies of stuff, after it’s published. Besides, I’m not sure it’s a good idea anyway. You’ve been changing ever since I started getting successful.’

‘Are you serious?’ She was leaning towards him now, and a finger with a long and dirty nail came up and jabbed him in the chest. ‘I’ve lived here for two years with you, I knew you back when you were nothing, and now you’re just, what, moving away and taking everything?’

‘I’m just taking what’s mine. Zara, what th – ’

‘I’ve read all your work from the first story, read everything you ever did that was worthwhile, listened to all your agonizing over characters and plots and all that bullshit.’ In truth, their conversations had been mostly one sided, him emerging from a writing session to vent his excitement and ideas about his current work and her nodding emphatically and looking for an opening to complain about something.

‘Zara, you’ve changed. Don’t you remember how you used to be? You’re like a different person, so sad all the time and – and mean.’

‘And who made me that way? Guess what, Mr. Famous Author? Guess who gave you that fucking quill that’s given you everything you’ve got?’

He snorted, unable to stop himself. ‘Zara, the quill’s just a lucky charm, okay? Yeah, it was turning point, but only because it was what started me writing again. It got me practicing, that’s all.’

She leaned in so close her nose almost touched his, and her breath was like old cheese and garbage. ‘That quill made you. I made you. Don’t forget that.’ And then she drew back and slammed her door in his face and screamed something. There were bumps and bangs from within, and he gazed stupidly at the wood, wondering how she could possibly trash her room any further.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘That went well.’ He returned to his room and got back to work.

 

He moved into the house of his dreams soon after, a great stone and wood construction with a view of rolling valleys, distant mountains, and the city skyline, silhouetted by the sun in the afternoon. By then, he was an established name in the world of horror fiction. He’d sold the movie rights to three of his books, his agent had organized a tour of North America, and every reading he gave was sold out almost immediately. It happened he had a knack for speaking, though the way his prose went these days it was hard to ruin the horrific scenes and stark imagery he had created.

Yes, all of his dreams had come true.

But the people he knew, and the ones he met, were not what they once were, and Zara was only one example. Every day he saw pale faces, angry faces, eager faces. Sick, crazy, empty of emotion. At readings, these were his audiences. When people shook his hand they gripped it like they were drowning. They spoke in disjointed sentences. Their eyes darted here and there, and not a single one of his fans was healthy. Many seemed to be drug addicts or alcoholics; they all smoked. Was this the kind of people he wrote for? So be it, he told himself. If they are my audience, I love them all the same. I was never one to ask why, after all.

He gave his last reading just a few months before the inkpot ran out. A gymnasium hall, more than four hundred people seated in front of him, none of them sweating but him, though it was midsummer. They were cold blooded, these people, these fans of his, cold in the eye and nearer death than they should be. Even the teenagers – no, especially them; they smiled at you and you wondered if their hearts were beating at all. Several times, catching the eye of one of them near the front, a tall kid with blond hair in a mop on his freckled head, Harold stuttered in his reading.

When it was over and the refreshments were being served, he saw the same kid pushing through the crowd towards him. He walked with an oddly formal upright posture, chin up and hands behind his back, a smile on his face that Harold could only describe as smug. He stopped several feet away from Harold, who was smiling back as warmly as he could, and did the strangest thing: he made a bow and extended a slender hand: ‘Hello, Sir, my name is Billy Slater.’

Harold reached for the hand, cocking his head the way he did when presented with an unusual sight, and felt the familiar clammy vice grip as the kid grabbed him.

The knife might have gone straight through the side of his neck if it weren’t for the white fluorescents glancing off the blade at the peak of its arc. Harold recoiled in the last instant and Billy Slater sunk four inches of steel into his right shoulder. Harold didn’t remember this part, having no recollection of it, but he was told that when security tackled the blonde youth, he was on top of Harold and screaming, twisting the knife and trying to pull it out of his arm. Had the point not lodged in his shoulder socket, they said, he’d have had time to get in one or two more stabs.

Out of hospital, Harold announced that he was going to be unreachable for the following year, for his own safety and also so that he could write his longest novel ever, the details of which he refused to reveal.

The truth was he was badly shaken, because though much of the incident was a blur of pain and fear, he did have a single memory, a moment of clarity that if not for the security, would have been his last. In it, he was lying on the gymnasium floor, his dark blood spreading over polished wood. His mouth and eyes were open comically wide, his face a caricature of a scream. He wasn’t looking at the blood, but beyond it, at the people standing underneath the blinding fluorescents. Old, young, women, men and boys, all with that sickly, crooked look about them, and all of them standing motionless, staring. They were sipping drinks, some of them even clapping. All of them were smiling.

The shoulder would never be right again – he had trouble lifting his arm above his head, but otherwise it felt close to normal barely three months later. Those three months were the best of his life to date, the first time he’d had a chance to enjoy his own achievements, his personal paradise. Outside the barbed and gated walls of his mansion, his fans raged and screamed and begged to be let in. Inside, he went for long strolls by the lake, or lay in the grass under a bright sun. His websites and email were flooded with questions, abuse and praise all at once, but he only read John Grisham books and ate toasted sandwiches. The world pondered the mysterious author and what he was producing, mourned him and abhorred him at the same time. He drank beer in the day and whiskey at night.

In the beginning, his departure from the world made headlines: AUTHOR BECOMES HERMIT, RETREATS INTO MANSION. FAMOUS HORROR AUTHOR LOCKS HIMSELF AWAY TO WRITE MASTERPIECE. But eventually even that stopped, and he was alone, at last.

Except for Zara.

He was sitting out on the deck one evening, sipping a lager and looking over the lake, when the hairs on his neck pricked up. His sore shoulder tingled. Someone was watching. Unnerved, he stood up and squinted into the dimness, and there she was, standing on the far side of the lake, motionless and visible only because of the whiteness of her skin. She was too distant for Harold to be certain it was Zara, yet he was certain. Perhaps it was the way she was standing, stock still with her arms hanging by her sides. Maybe it was the fear, a sense of danger that he’d felt in the last days he’d lived with her, as though she could snap at any time and drive a blade into his face.

He used the phone in the kitchen to call security, but when he stepped outside again, she was gone.

 

Winter came, and though he didn’t see Zara again, he sensed her nearness. He would smell her, not the sweet strawberries he recalled from their first years of living together, but the rotten garbage smell of her in their last. Strolling around the lake one day he hesitated on the far bank, realising he was standing in the spot he’d last seen her. The day was cheerful and wet, birds singing and frogs croaking – it had rained the night before. In the mud, there were foot prints. Small female feet, bare. They led from the trees behind him directly into the lake. There were none leading out.

After that, he refused to leave the house, and dealt only with the guards. He paced his mansion, turning on every light as soon as it became dark, locking every door and window and checking each ten times a day. He bought a walking stick, the kind that conceals a short sword inside a wooden sheath, and took to patrolling the mansion with it, the endless tapping echoing against the walls well into the night.

He stopped reading Grisham and started on Roald Dahl and then Enid Blyton, his mind searching for an escape from the fear and paranoia that engulfed him. When his year was over and he still didn’t return to civilisation, crowds of fans began to collect outside his gates. They had waited dutifully for their masterpiece, but now they were impatient. They harassed the guards day and night.

His desk stood alone and bare in a large room on the third floor. Well, not completely bare. Beneath a thickening layer of dust lay a ream of yellowing blank papers, and waiting atop them, his Quill.

 

Summer ended and autumn came around again, the lake gaining a blanket of dead leaves and the sky turning grey. Often the tapping of his cane was drowned by the sound of rain hammering the windows. It occurred to him that if Zara broke in, he wouldn’t hear it.

The crowds grew, now so thick outside his front gates the guards sometimes had trouble dispersing them when they needed to drive out for groceries. They kicked the cars and bore signs that read: You Owe Us, and Write or Die. Partly to appease them, Harold sent a man out to buy an inkpot and instructions to make sure someone saw it. Somehow, it only seemed to aggravate them.

Whenever a new movie based on one of his books was released, everything got worse. Headlines proclaimed: GRUESOME MOVIE CAUSES OUTRAGE, and BOY MURDERS PARENTS IN SPIRIT OF RECENT BOOK, and CINEMA RIOT RESULTS IN FIFTEEN INJURED. More protesters came to his gates, and some of these were in a different spirit. They had signs that read Don’t Do It Harold, and End The Horror.

Harold refused to sell any more movie rights, but his last book was released and now the world was hungry. His isolation only served to make everyone more desperate with each passing day, all of them certain he had to be writing something truly epic.

But he couldn’t. He tried one day, after the two groups of protesters had a brawl outside his front gates and the police were called. It was the only way to stop them, he was sure – just give them what they wanted. So he went up to his third floor room one midnight and sat down at his dusty desk. Once upon a time, he’d felt a sliver of excitement when he sat down to write, but this time there was only dread and sadness.

I awoke with a nightmare in my heart, and the nightmare was this: everyone was dead but me, and though I still walked the earth, there was nothing left for me. He stared at the words and shook his head. Something was wrong. The quill wasn’t flying over the paper. No insights came to him, and though he had a rough idea of his main character and the premise of his story, there was nothing more to it. The lines weren’t even good. The quill wasn’t working.

In that moment, he knew that the words he’d spoken to Zara had been a lie. The present she claimed to have given him was no lucky charm – it was everything, it was all the genius he believed until now had been inside him all along. He almost wanted to laugh at his own arrogance. Imagine believing that he, Harold, could effortlessly hold the world in his grasp with story after story. It was all in the ink, and now he’d used it up. He dropped the quill and put his head in his hands. He fell asleep at his desk, the rain battering the windows until it seemed they had to break.

 

The crowds grew, and one morning, while Harold sat at his table staring at a plate of bacon and eggs and wondering if he could stomach it with his hangover, one of the guards knocked on the front door. It was the head guard himself, Jim. Harold had chosen him because Jim had admitted – proudly – that he’d never read a book in his fifty years of life.

There was something wrong with Jim. His eyes, normally beady and suspicious of everyone, were slack and unfocused. His eternal frown was gone and one corner of his mouth was turned up. He didn’t so much as blink when Harold opened the door, just stood there in the icy air, breathing steam through his nose.

‘Jim. What’s the matter?’

‘They’ve been getting wild outside, lately, sir. Very wild.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed.’

Jim paused. ‘I was wondering.’

‘Yes?’

‘How far along in this book of yours are you?’

‘I… I still have some way to go, Jim. Why?’

‘Just because, you see…’ he leaned in, glancing left and right as if there might be someone listening in. ‘I don’t know if I can keep them out much longer. I’ve a mind, you know, if it keeps up. I’ve a mind to just open the gates and let them in.’ And he winked, the corners of his eyes yellow, the smile that accompanied it unwholesome, far out of place on his usually stern face.

Harold opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. He stepped back and closed the front door, leaving Jim out in the rain.

 

They would kill him, if they got in. There was no doubt in Harold’s mind. He had only to stand in the driveway and look at them clinging to the gates, screaming like animals, waving protest signs as though they were swinging axes. They would search for his writings and, finding nothing, would tear him to pieces.

The guards refused to let him leave the house. As Jim said: ‘It’s far too dangerous, sir. See, them out there, they’ll eat you alive. No, you just tell us what you need and we’ll get it for you. More ink, perhaps? I imagine you’ve been writing yourself to death, haven’t you?’

He wasn’t wrong. By then, pages and pages of drivel lay scattered around Harold’s writing room. Better than he’d once done, perhaps, but they were still trash compared to the works that made him famous. The Quill was only half the magic; he needed Zara. Only she could supply him with the ink. He stopped sleeping, stopped writing, and kept up his rounds of the mansion, walking until his feet grew blisters. One hand on the cane, tapping and tapping from evening until dawn, the other clutching a tall glass of whiskey to his chest, ice blocks clinking inside even though the house was permanently cold. It kept him awake, the cold, and he needed to stay awake.

 

She came to him, finally, when the screams of the waiting crowd clawed at his mind and he’d almost lost hope entirely, his nerves prickling and his ears primed for the dreaded sound of the front gates grinding open. It was several hours after dinner and the house had grown dark because in his determined pacing he’d neglected to turn on any lights. He was frowning, staring at the ground and watching the end of his cane tap along with his feet, hypnotising himself with the constant motion, when something caught his eye.

She was standing in front of the door to his writing room on the third floor hallway, motionless and in the dark, the whites of her eyes visible in her silhouette. She might have been there for hours. He stopped, and for a moment the two of them simply stared at each other.

She looked worse than she ever had been. Her clothes were torn and muddy; she didn’t have any shoes on and her bare feet were covered in blisters and wounds, the nail on her little toe hanging half broken. Her hair was wet and dangling like vines from her head, her bloodshot eyes peering from beneath them. She was perilously thin – clearly starving, though she burned with the strength of the mad.

‘You have to write it,’ she said in a thick voice.

‘I can’t,’ he said.

She took a step towards him and he unsheathed his cane sword without thinking, not sure what he meant to do with it. She smirked at the sight, and reached behind her, pulling a machete from her belt. Harold recognized it as the one that hung in the gardener’s shed. No one had told him it was missing.

‘You have no idea, do you? What I gave you?’

He shook his head.

She licked cracked lips. ‘The ink was free, Harold. That was just to get you hooked. But there’s no such thing as something for nothing. If you want to write, you’ll have to pay.’

‘You aren’t making any sense, Zara. Listen to yourself.’

Zara laughed and turned her back on him, pushing through the door to his writing room. She kicked a path through the piles of discarded papers toward the desk, and he followed her, stopping at the threshold. She didn’t look at him, picking up the empty inkpot and turning it over in her free hand.

‘You need ink?’ she said, so quietly he nearly didn’t hear.

He didn’t reply, because she was already moving, bringing the machete up to her face, blade inwards. She stuck her tongue out of her mouth and he saw black and yellow teeth in red gums, and then he realised what she was doing and he stepped back, horrified. She licked the machete from the hilt all the way to the tip, and he saw the two sides of her tongue slide apart, blood trickling down her chin and dribbling into the inkpot she held beneath it.

When it was full, she put it down on his desk. ‘There’s your ink,’ she gurgled, her mouth still full of blood. She swallowed a mouthful of it and smiled at him.

‘My God,’ he whispered. ‘It was really you. You gave me that thing?’

But she shook his head. ‘Not truly. I wish it were, but it came through me, Harold. Not from me. It doesn’t matter who gave it to you. It’s yours now.’

‘I don’t want it.’

‘It doesn’t matter what you want!’ She shouted, spraying blood into his face. ‘It’s yours and you have to finish it! You don’t have a choice! Just listen. Listen?’ The last word pleading, she cocked her head to one side, bloody saliva leaking from the side of her mouth. He listened, and on the wind, even so late at night, he heard the crowd. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he knew. Write – or – Die! Write – or – die! How much longer would they wait?

She came in close then, her rancid breath in his face and her eyes intent and sincere. ‘I’ll take the blood from you myself if I have to.’

He reeled back at her touch, but she was already cutting him, her machete licking up his thigh, the pain sudden and shocking. He lashed out blindly with the cane sword and she threw herself back, screaming with laughter, the point cutting through the rags on her chest and drawing a red line in the flesh just above her breasts. His glass of whiskey smashed on the floor and he stepped on it as he came after her, the pain of glass in his bare foot igniting sparks of rage.

‘Get away from me you crazy bitch!’ Her laughter turned screws in his brain, making him see dark red, and each time he swiped at her she danced back and taunted him with shrieks of delight. If he could just cut her once, one good slash.

She hacked at his left arm with the machete, almost playfully, and it sunk in, and then the red turned to white and he was screaming and slicing with all his strength now, wanting to hurt her for real, kill her. He brought the cane sword up and across her body, and this time she was backed against the wall and couldn’t get away. He opened a gash from hip to shoulder, his forward momentum pushing him into the blow and making it deeper than he intended, and this time she was screaming for real. Blood soaked her rags in an instant.

He was shouting something, raising the blade for another strike, but this time she got him first, jabbing him with the machete hard enough to make him stumble backward. Before he could recover his balance, she smashed the window behind her and spat blood at his feet. ‘Write or die,’ she said, and threw herself out into the rain.

Harold stood where he was for a long time, swaying in place and leaking blood. When his vision grew dark around the edges he dropped to his knees and closed his eyes, letting the wind blow rain into his face, and the chant of the crowd washed over him, the words drilling into him like bullets. Write – or – Die! Write – or – Die!

 

When he wrote with Zara’s blood, it wasn’t like it had been before, but by God it was something. It was awful, but not in the sense that the writing was bad. No, the prose itself was flawless, but the style was different. All short sentences and narrow paragraphs, the author making sharp and bitter observations. The author – not him! Surely such disgusting scenes couldn’t come from him, nor such bleak views of humanity, every character evil in a different way.

The ink – a full pot just like the first one had been – only lasted the length of a novella. It practically wrote itself, and when it was finished, he felt sick. It was full of depravity, of children murdered and eaten; of men skinned alive. But the story was chilling, and Hallet, the protagonist who also happened to be the main villain of the piece, was fascinating. There was romance and heartbreak and sex and death. They would love it.

He typed it up and sent it by email to his agent, knowing that if he let anyone get hold the physical manuscript he would never see it again. The masses outside would rip it apart in their desperation to read it. As soon as it was done, he raced outside – or tried to: Jim was standing guard at his front door and halted him with a meaty hand on his chest. ‘Any news, sir?’

‘Tell them! Tell them I’ve done something, and it’s getting published soon. Tell them there’ll be more, I promise. Please, just don’t let them in.’

‘Don’t panic, sir. You had another week before I’d have given last warning,’ Jim said. ‘I’ll tell them. Perhaps the news will calm them for a while.’

‘Thanks. Good.’

‘In the meantime, you’d best be started on the new one, eh? The world awaits.’

‘Yes. No, I can’t! Jim, the window to my writing room is shattered. An accident. I cannot write in there until it’s fixed.’

‘I know, sir,’ Jim said in a low voice. ‘The guard on duty saw it break. The repairman will be in this afternoon.’

‘Right. The guard on duty. Did the guard on duty happen to see any, uh, intruders that night? Or for that matter, see anyone, uh, leaving the building through the fucking window?’ He spoke through gritted teeth, barely containing his fury though every instinct told him not to antagonize the huge man.

But Jim only shrugged and smiled his out of place smile. ‘No sir. Nothing like that at all. Was the storm that did it, he told me. Big storm we had that night.’

‘Yes. A big storm.’ He nodded and turned to go back into the house.

‘One more thing, sir,’ Jim called back to him. He didn’t turn around, just hunched his head as though in anticipation of a blow and massaged his temples. ‘Yes?’

‘They have a deadline, for you. For your masterpiece.’

‘Oh. They have?’

‘Yes. One year. To the day, from midnight last night.’

One year. From midnight. Jim gave a curt nod and then headed down the driveway to break the news to the drooling hordes. Harold shut the door behind him and went to find some whiskey.

 

He didn’t write. For months it was as though nothing had ever happened – the inkpot and the pages alike remained empty on his desk. Six months passed, and he felt like a man on death row who had failed to accept the reality of his situation.

The world outside was suffering. Not long after the release of Zara’s story, a riot erupted outside his front gates and three policemen were murdered. The army arrived to keep order and set up a barrier around his house, but the sight gave Harold no comfort: he had seen the faces of the soldiers. When they saw him, they smiled and winked at him with yellow eyes.

When nine months had gone by, his agent told him that his book had sold several hundred million copies. Everyone in the continent who could read had read it, and it was being distributed around the world. The crowds returned en masse, and sometimes Harold would sit on the balcony and look out over them, spreading like a flood through the streets, a whole town made of tents and pale bodies and garbage.

The president himself gave an announcement on television: ‘And I urge you, the fans, to disperse. Go back to your homes and leave Harold in peace so that he can write what I have no doubt will be a novel that will last until the end of time. The military is there to ensure his continued safety and production. His story will reach you in due time, and I intend to have it distributed to every household as soon as possible.’

He had more to say, but Harold turned the television off then, because the president did not look good. His dress and appearance were flawless as ever, but there was something in his smile, the way it twitched at the sides. Something in the way his hand shook a little when it straightened his tie. The military is there to ensure his continued safety and production.

The last month arrived, and Harold possessed neither writing nor hope. Zara didn’t want another story made with her blood – there was nothing for her in that. She wanted his story, and she would take his blood to get it, if she had to. She visited his writing room on the first day of that last month. He smelt her in the hallway and drew his sword, pushing open the door with one foot, certain she would be in there with her machete. But she was already gone. She had left him a message, pasted across the wall in front of his desk in blood that had already dried into the wallpaper. WRITE OR DIE.

 

He drank day and night for two weeks, hoping he would pass out and never wake up, or that he would wake up and be back in his old house, with the old, cheerful Zara just across the hall, and an ordinary laptop which produced ordinary bad prose.

He didn’t die. Two weeks to go, and the gates would open. The presence of the military meant nothing more than that they’d be the first through the gates, to see what he had created. If nothing, then perhaps they would drag him away to a sterile room in a large building. The president would assure the masses, even while they rioted in the streets and murdered each other by the thousands, that he would make sure Harold produced something. And he would.

So Harold wrote.

He used his cane sword, of course. It was sharp, and after he cut along the vein in his left arm and filled the inkpot he vomited into the bin beside him, a cold sweat on his forehead and white flashes before his eyes. He tightened up a tourniquet and bandaged the wound, but that was all. No time to clean up, or do anything else: he only had ten days to write his masterpiece.

It wasn’t to be horror – he swore that to himself. They could have their book, but it was going to contain nothing but goodness. It was going to be a romance, full of children and good people, a tale of bravery and generous deeds. No, not even bravery, because there would be nothing to fear to begin with. It would be so sweet, it would be boring. No one would want to read it – it would be worse than one of those Dick and Jane books he’d read as a child! Puppy dogs, candy and love. People living in a perfect world in which emotions other than happiness and laughter were foreign. Smiling now, pale sunlight streaming in through the window, he dipped the quill into the pot and wrote the title on the first page, in his own fresh blood: HAPPYLAND.

The first paragraphs came out of him easily, and for the first time in years Harold found himself enjoying his craft, his heart lifting and his smile widening with every sentence.

Jill and Jack lived in a palace so large it was almost a city, a rolling mountain of houses and gardens and orchards all layered atop each other. It was built on a hill, and from anywhere inside the great palace, one could view Happyland all the way to the distant horizon. And what a sight it was.

            ‘I say, Jill, I’ve been thinking we should go on an adventure,’ Jack said one beautiful day. They were sitting atop the tallest tower, curled up in the window sill and looking out at the world, a place full of magic and possibility.

            ‘Yes, so have I. Just think of the things we might discover! I shall tell father at once!’

 

In an hour, Harold was lost to the world, his novel providing an escape that even whiskey could not rival. Within two hours, the quill sped over paper with supernatural speed and pages piled up on the desk beside him. He did not blink, nor move from his position, nor feel the pain of a cramping hand. He was creating at last, and everything was going to be alright.

Midnight came and went, and in the darkness of the early morning, things began to change, though he didn’t know it. The story began to turn sour. Jack made a snide remark to Jill. Jill thought about someone in a less than wholesome way. They met a monster and killed it, but the scenes of its death were maybe more gruesome than they needed to be.

Harold slept for five hours and then woke up, made himself a coffee as thick as mud, and started writing again. He stopped for a quick meal of butter and toast, and a few minutes later he was deep inside Happyland. He didn’t emerge from it for forty eight hours, at the end of which he collapsed at his desk. When he woke, he started writing again immediately.

His blood ran out on the third day, and he’d only done sixty six pages. This time, he cut his calf, reasoning that he already had a cane to help him get around. It wasn’t any easier this time around: the pain, the cold sweat, the vomit. He went on.

Jack and Jill ventured to the city of death. Harold’s plan was to show the reader how the goodness of his protagonists would spread throughout the evil city, curing all ills and leaving a paradise behind them. But somewhere along the way, things went awry. Instead of helping anyone, they barely escaped the place with their lives, and the things they saw scarred them, jaded them – even corrupted them to a degree.

 

‘Sometimes I wonder how such things could have existed in Happyland,’ Jill said.

            ‘I don’t know, Jill. But we’re here to do good, remember? When we set out, we knew we’d come across things of all kinds.’

            ‘Yes, but… Not that.’

            ‘No. Not that. But now we know we’re strong enough to do something about it all. Now we know how to fight it.’

            And so it was that the two of them decided to seek what darkness they could find in such a bright a world as Happyland, and smite it! They would return to their father content in the knowledge that they had made their world as safe and joyful as they had always known it to be in their hearts.

 

Two days later, his blood ran out and he had to cut again. He’d taken to drinking coffee in the morning and whiskey in the evening to keep him awake as long as possible – he’d found that even when he was too drunk to stand the quill somehow kept writing, and he suspected it moved in his hand while he slept, because the next day he read over pages of work he couldn’t remember creating. He grew dehydrated, and his blood leaked from the wound he made in his left shoulder slowly. It was thick and dark.

It ran out again a day and half later. He filled the pot and started writing again immediately. He’d long passed one hundred thousand words, a decent length for a novel, but his story was not yet told, and he only had four days remaining. He wrote faster.

Harold was aware of the way his tale was twisting, but helpless to stop it. When he wrote, he was engulfed in the world he had created, more of an observer than a god. Once, he tried to alter the course of things by force. The result was garbled, nonsensical sentences that a child could have done. But when he told the story the way it wanted to be told, the quill did its work, and every word was pure genius. He had no choice, really.

He was burning through the ink too fast, writing day and night, never sleeping, the scratch of the quill as constant now as the tapping of his cane had once been. He stopped eating and drank only coffee and alcohol, moving only when his spine felt like it was pierced with daggers. And Jack and Jill discovered, page by page, that their world was not the paradise they had once believed it to be, but a thinly veiled hell. Likewise, Harold learned that his own soul was not the pure thing he’d once thought it, but a seedy, black place full of evil and hatred.

He poured himself into the book. He emptied the pot in another day, and then half a day, and then six hours. Each time, he jammed a torn shirt into his mouth and cut himself, now almost numbed to the pain, letting the blood flow at the cost of a few muffled screams and that icy sweat.

When there were two days to go he looked in the mirror and saw a stranger: a bare skeleton, giant eyes peering out of a paper white face and black around the edges, hair falling out of his skull, and those long fresh cuts all over, everywhere he could reach except for his right arm. Sometimes, walking through his empty house, he would hear Zara whispering things to him, words that ignited emotions of rage or terror, but for reasons he could never remember. He’d see things moving in the dark, non human forms flitting around corners and leaving a rotten smell – the same one he’d smelt the day he’d found the quill in his room.

Jack and Jill were being chased by a beast the likes of which they’d never seen. It could trace them through the eyes of the people they met. So, when they encountered a poor farmer on his way home from the market, they had no choice but to murder him before the monster could locate them. Even as Jill slit his throat, his eyes were turning yellow, a sure sign the monster was trying to see them. No one could be trusted. Not even each other.

Even as he reached the final dénouement, he knew he’d done too much. He’d finally gone too far. He’d poured his soul into the paper and it horrified him – it would drive anyone else insane. Harold himself, contemplating the ending he had to write, felt his own mind slipping. The story said things, that was the problem. It spoke of the meaninglessness of life. Jack and Jill were still learning the truth of this, as would the reader, but Harold saw it already, the whole truth and nothing but. It had taken the writing of this book to show him, and now that he saw it he had to finish it.

He reached to dip the quill so that he could begin the final chapters, tears of despair already trailing down his now ancient face, and found the inkpot empty. Impossible. He’d filled it up barely an hour ago – he couldn’t have written more than a few pages with it. Yet, he had so far to go.

‘Damn you! Damn you!’ He grabbed the empty pot and threw it as hard as he could at the window, breaking once again the same glass that Zara had, all that time ago. He picked up the cane sword, lying in a sticky pool on his desk, and used it to open a fresh wound in his left thigh, hoping he didn’t open the femoral artery, but not hoping too hard. Instead of using the blood to fill the pot, he dipped the quill straight into the wound and let it drink up as much as it could before he finally set it to the page. He was going to finish this bastard, he was going to finish it the way it had to be done. Even if it killed him.

It was only then, in the moment of utter silence, that Jack understood the truth. It was no longer just himself and Jill against the world – the beast had changed all that. It was him, and him alone, against the beast. Even she, the girl he loved as a sister, could no longer be trusted. The beast was in her already – how else could it have tracked them across these endless miles and wastelands? How else could they have done the things they had, just to stay alive? So many innocent lives, so much horror.

            And that was when he met her eyes.

            She stared at him for a long moment, and held his gaze steadily. He had time to register a look in her eyes that was something like recognition, but by the time he saw the hatchet rising from her side, it was too late. He lifted his forearm and the blade sunk through meat and bone, snapping it but not making it all the way through. The end of his arm flopped senseless above his elbow.

Young Jack, the Jack who had left the palace at Jill’s side, would have screamed then. He’d have pulled away and tried to run, perhaps falling over, weeping with wide eyes at the sight of all that blood pouring from his mutilated arm. He’d have been in such a state of shock and incomprehension he wouldn’t have felt the next blow. But Old Jack had seen too much to be shocked, and taken too much pain to be beaten so easily. He stepped into the blow, jamming two fingers up the second knuckle into Jill’s eyes and wrenching them out with enough force to make her head snap forward.

She let go of the axe, which stayed lodged in his limp right arm. He didn’t stop, but grabbed her by the neck and, throwing her to the ground, proceeded to throttle her, his own tears falling into her open sockets until at last her pain was over. The beast had her no more.

Overcome with grief, he crawled from her corpse to the mirror of Elamore. The mirror, the artefact they’d come so far for, the only thing remaining in this doomed world that had a hope of saving it. All he had to do was return it intact to the great Palace of Happyland, his home.

But as he reached for the mirror, the shock already wearing off and pain seeping into him through his wounds, he stopped, catching sight of his reflection. Was there something amiss? Yes, it was his eyes, his yellow eyes, and the sign of the beast there grinning, moving in a fog just beneath the surface.

‘NO!’ He cried, only now realising why Jill had looked at him so steadily before, seeing the monster inside him. Too late for the last time, he saw that his reaching hand was not open, but grasping for the hatchet she’d dropped.

Happyland’s last hope shattered with the clink of broken glass and a scream of despair that echoed off high ceilings and turned quickly to inhuman laughter.

 

Jim’s patience reached its end long before the deadline, and at last he could wait no longer. He told the gatemen to open up in five minutes and they nodded eagerly. The estate was the quietest it had been in years, the crowds no longer pushing and screaming but standing motionless, like a perfectly calm ocean. Even the soldiers were looking inward instead of outward, quiet and ready, their eyes as hungry as everyone else’s. Jim wondered if they would use their guns to hold the fans at bay or if they would use them to procure the story for themselves. Either way, he, Jim, would see it first – it would be his before it was anyone else’s in the world.

With that delightful thought in mind, he took the winding stairs two at a time, his heart quickening in his chest in a way it had never done before he’d read Harold’s stories. Good Harold, Great Harold, who’d shown him somehow in words how the world really was. Who’d shown him what he’d have to do in life to get what he wanted, how bloodthirsty he’d have to be. Who’d shown him that violence was written into his blood the same as love or fear, and that it was far more beautiful than either.

He pushed open the door to the writing room, certain he would find Harold, his hero, standing triumphant, a stack of papers on the desk beside him.

The stack was there, but that was where Jim’s dream vision stopped and the terror began. He took in the scene in sharp visual pockets, each holding a piece to a puzzle he desperately didn’t want to put together. Harold’s body, not standing but face down on his desk, blood soaking in a great pool beneath his chair and dripping from the desk; No novel at all, but a rectangle imprinted in the congealing blood on the desk where it should have sat; bloody footprints in the carpet, leading past the empty inkpot; the smashed window. Zara. That bitch Zara had taken it.

An immense roar broke his daze and he looked around, overwhelmed. So horrendous was the sound of it, shaking the window panes and sending glasses crashing to the floor in the kitchen below, that he thought a bomb had been dropped, and he was hearing the shockwave moments before it hit him. Only when he heard the front door breaking away from its hinges did he realise the truth: the guards had opened the gates.

They were coming up.

‘Oh, God.’

In the end, he could do nothing but drop to his knees and hang his head.

 

They searched the grounds, every tree and cupboard, the attic and the basement, and found nothing. Jim was torn to pieces by a mob driven mad with rage at the sight of the stolen manuscript, but he was only the first casualty. Many were trampled, others simply beaten in the riots that followed. One soldier, learning of the missing novel, stood on the balcony and fired into the crowds until all of his ammunition was spent, before throwing himself over the railing.

Years went by.

The book, and Zara, remained lost.

Theories abounded, but it soon became apparent that there were simply no leads. Suicide became the world’s leading cause of death, as people learned that they would never read Harold’s masterpiece, nor anything else by him again. Those touched by his books lived lives of violence and crime. Armies mobilised for wars with thousands of new recruits, fighting for dubious causes. Prisons were opened to hold thousands more.

The mansion was bought for a fortune by one of those who’d never given up, and whose soul was only just corrupted enough by the things he’d read not to drive him to utter ruin. In fact, Professor Gordon James was quite successful, the owner of a chain of publishing houses and a PHD in philosophy. Harold’s words had fascinated him even as they’d poisoned him, and he was utterly driven to find the final works of this tortured man. He was certain the manuscript was somewhere on the estate, and before his furniture was moved in he began his search.

He scoured every inch of the house for months, growing madder with frustration by the day, until one cold night when a song came to him on the wind as he sat out on the back porch. It was just after dinner, nine o’clock, and he was sipping from his customary glass of port, when he heard what sounded like a woman’s voice drifting to him. He sat upright and stared hard over the fields and gardens, head cocked to one side. It was coming from somewhere just across the lake, where the trees were dense and the animals had made burrows and nests in every thicket.

Ears straining, he put down his glass and stepped out from the cover of the veranda, the late autumn wind whipping at his short hair but doing nothing to diminish the sound of the singing. It was high and clear, and came to him in snatches. He listened for several long minutes before he was sure: the song was not so much a song – though it was music to his ears – but a tale. A story of a boy and girl, Jack and Jill, and their adventures in some faraway land.

Something in the cadence warned him, a warbling change in the tune that made his neck hairs stand straight: this song was familiar. Maybe not the content, but the tone. In fact, the things he was hearing could only come from one mind.

He was hearing Harold’s last novel.

Almost immediately, the breath catching in his throat, he started off toward the lake. There was nothing on his mind but finding the source of that eerie voice and strangling it until it told him where to find the novel. But before he’d taken five steps the sound cut out completely, and he was left in silence.

Swearing, he backed up quickly until he was back within reach of his porch, and once again the voice started up, a smile in it now, as if the singer was laughing at him. Nice try.

Dr. James hardly dared to breathe, so focused was he on the precious words. He would look tomorrow, he told himself. Hours passed as he stood motionless in the cold night air, and the words wound their way into his ears and set to work on his mind, dissecting it, laying eggs inside it. Soon, it was apparent he wouldn’t need the original manuscript at all – he could recall every word sung to him from across the lake.

When the strange voice finished the tale, there was a heartbreaking silence, and then she began once more, from the beginning. By midnight of the next day, when his legs could hardly hold him up straight and every inch of him was covered in insect bites, Dr. James had the masterpiece in its entirety locked away in his own mind.

He turned slowly from the lake, utterly hypnotised, and made his way back inside, knocking over his half finished glass of port on the way, spreading mud over a once spotless carpet.

He had no time for trivia any more. He had a mission, and his mission was to spread the word. The voice had found him, and now he would sing for the world.

‘Hello? James publishing houses, Westwood speaking.’

‘Westwood, it’s me, James. Sorry, I don’t have my mobile phone with me and I couldn’t remember your personal number.’

‘Oh, James! I mean, sir! I haven’t heard from you for a while. I mean, how is your, uh, holiday?’

‘Shut up and listen Westwood. Get a pen and paper and get comfortable. I have something for you. A book. I think it’s going to be a best seller.’

He grinned at nothing while Westwood shuffled around in his desk. ‘Yes,’ he went on. ‘I think it’s going to sell millions.’

 

 

 

 

It’s kind of a strange one, this, came to me out of the blue. I was watching the Truman show, and found myself profoundly creeped out during the beginning, just in the fake cheerful way everyone acted around him, and the way his life is constructed to be so perfect. It’s a nightmare to us, but from an emotionless, objective point of view it’s an almost idyllic existence: guaranteed friends/wife/kids, a pleasant home town where no crimes are committed and everyone is happy. Big brother watching all the time, so nothing bad can happen to you. Sounds like heaven. Right.

Peace

Ben Pienaar

 

There was no longer a sun in the sky, but the day was bright all the same, and Jerry Friedman was smiling as he stepped out into the light. He waved a cheerful good morning to his neighbour Tom, who was also heading to his car for the morning commute, and got a pleasant response.

‘Hey there, buddy. Gonna be a good one, huh?’ He hated Tom. That guy was like this even before good took over. As smug as he was boring. An asshole, perfect in every way. Jerry wanted to drag him into a dark alleyway and tear him to pieces.

‘Oh yes, sir. Looking forward to it.’

The commute was easier, he supposed. You didn’t really drive. You just sat there and watched your car shoot along the roads at an insane speed, somehow navigating crowded intersections with barely a pause, inches to spare yet never so much as a scratch on the paintwork by the end. An hour long journey became ten minutes with such ideal coordination. He was always early. Everyone was.

He was lying out in the back garden when the eye opened in the sky. He had a gun in one hand and a half empty bottle of vodka in the other, celebrating his divorce to Grace. Ten years of hell with that bitch. He cut her loose and it still somehow felt like the worst day of his life. He remembered her sneer the last time he saw her, the familiar way her lip curled up on just one side. ‘At least I don’t have to sneak around with Dean anymore.’ He didn’t know who Dean was and he didn’t ask. ‘He’s my boyfriend. I love him.’

‘I didn’t fucking ask.’ That memory was clear in his mind at the moment the eye blinked open. He sensed it at first, a softening of the light and a cooling, changing from noon to a sunset in a moment. He stared up at the sun – or at least where the sun had been, and there it was, looking right back at him. No iris, just a round white ball with a dilated pupil in the middle.

Watching.

Work was accounting. It didn’t used to be, because he hated maths, but once he started work there – no interview required – he found it so easy that he could let his mind wander while his hands moved the paper. He was doing that a lot lately. His mind usually wandered to happy places, like the place where he had Tom, or maybe Dean, tied up in his basement and he got to work on them with a baseball bat.

He greeted his co-workers, chatted about his new life and how great it was. No need to worry about that paycheck, isn’t that fine? Gene from customer service asked him how his ex wife was doing. He’d been dating her while the divorce was going through. Today, he kept his tone light and his eyes on her face. ‘Not an ex for much longer! We’re getting back together!’ Everything anyone said these days ended in a cheerful exclamation mark, their expression one of perpetual joy.

‘That’s great!’ she said. He felt something break inside him. It wasn’t a new feeling. Every day he woke up and saw that eye he moved one step closer to insanity. It would reach him any day now. He felt like he was in a car with the brakes cut, rolling down a steep incline toward a bottomless canyon. No way to stop. All you could do was hold on tight and watch it come. You didn’t even get to scream.

On that first day, Jerry found himself doing things. He didn’t decide to do them, or ponder them, or motivate himself to do them – he just found himself already doing them. He’d stared at the eye for a minute or so, wondering if he was hallucinating, and then he’d got up from his deck chair, dropped his gun in the dustbin and emptied his vodka into the kitchen sink. Him, who’d rather pour liquid gold down a sink than vodka. Since then, he ate mostly vegetables and lean meat, drank only water, and never overate.

Television was on for exactly half an hour each day, blinking on automatically when he got home for work, and it showed world news. There was no world news. No accidents, no disasters, no new inventions. Statistics, happy news stories. A dog that could talk, a new nature reserve, the tallest building ever built, a world government formulated, another prison closed.

He came home to a pristine house, and Grace had cooked him dinner. They sat down to eat it, talking about their incredibly boring days, and he watched her eyes for signs of life. He thought he saw some hatred in there, and that gave him a little hope. He envisioned sticking his fork in those eyes and popping them into his mouth like meatballs.

‘You know, it’s best for everyone. I mean, I don’t know if it’s God or what. I suppose He must be, to be so powerful.’

‘Could be the devil.’ The words made it all the way out of his mouth and there was a short silence while they pondered what that could mean. She made a funny choking sound and he realised she was trying to swear. Didn’t work. Shit.

‘Anyway,’ she went on as though nothing had happened. ‘It’s a force of good. Everyone guaranteed a hundred years. No pain at all. Nothing bad.’

‘Nothing bad.’ He said. ‘Nothing…’ It was possible, sometimes, to communicate like that. Get across a point without saying it. There were times he was grateful he still had his thoughts, but most of the time he wished he didn’t. That abyss came closer by the day, opening out before him so he could see the emptiness for which he was destined.

‘You have to be thankful that in the end, good won.’ She said, shining him a brilliant white toothed smile. Her smile had never been white, nor cheerful. It had been yellow and mean, like a stray dog with bared teeth.

‘Yes. Good won.’

And the days passed this way, uniform and perfect. They had two kids, and on a daily basis, even as he took care of them and played with them, Jerry envisioned smothering them in their sleep or drowning them in the bath. They weren’t his children, really – they belonged like everything else to the eye in the sky. The only difference was they’d never had it any other way. They had no idea their bodies should be theirs to control, not the insane being that scrutinized their every move.

But there were no suicides, no murders, and the world hummed along without mishap for decades.

Good won, he told himself many times as he saw the face in the mirror, always smiling, grow older, but not weaker, nor senile. He only looked older, but felt like a younger man than the year before. Good won.

The abyss grew larger and darker. Sometimes, when he looked deeply into the eyes of his friends and colleagues he could see that they’d already lost their sanity, and that nothing was left behind the shell that walked the earth. Who knew what thoughts scuttled through the broken things that had once been human minds? What were they now? Toys?

No prisons, no hospitals, no police. Early to bed, early to rise. Board games with the kids. Good won.

He could see inside the abyss, now, and there lay a question there that he didn’t like at all.

Thoughts of destruction. Torture and death and executions. He imagined skinning his family alive and setting fire to his work. He imagined sinking an axe into Dean’s head and shooting Tom in the face. His mind was on fire with thoughts while his body bought groceries and laughed at knock knock jokes.

The question was, if there was a God, wasn’t there also a heaven?

The air was never too cold or too hot. Pain of any kind no longer existed for him or anyone else, nor even discomfort. He ate but was never hungry. He slept but was never tired. Night time never came, only that pleasant orange sunset light.

Good won? Perhaps there hadn’t been a battle, at all. Maybe good had had it from the start.

The abyss was looming now and the screams within him, the thoughts of bloodshed and murder threatening to consume him utterly.

The question was: what had he really done with the gun the day the eye opened in the sky?

Walking towards his car, Tom looked up at him and waved. ‘Hey there, buddy!’

‘Hi, friend! Gonna be a good one, today, huh?’

‘Oh yes sir.’

He smiled at Tom, but though his lips moved, there was nothing behind his eyes. Only the dark, stretching onwards into eternity.

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.

An image came into my mind while I was day dreaming, and it was the kind of thing I knew immediately I had to make into a story, somehow. The image was the first line of the story, actually: A baby’s hand, sticking out of the soil, as if grasping for freedom. Creepy. I was very tempted to go with the well worn Evil Dead Baby idea, but decided against it because it’s so hackneyed I had to use capital letters just then. What I came up with was, I hope, a bit more original. As always, enjoy!

Seed

Ben Pienaar

 

A hand, young and fresh like a baby’s, stuck out of the soil in Peter Hannet’s back garden. When he saw it, Peter’s mouth fell open and he stood, hose continuing to flood his vegetable garden unattended, and stared at the thing without breathing. Only when spots began to flash in front of his eyes did he come back to himself. A few minutes later, having turned off the hose, made a cup of tea and gathered himself sufficiently, he nodded to himself, pushed his glasses up his nose and headed back out into the garden, quite bravely, really.

It was not a hand. He almost doubled over with relief, laughing quietly to himself at his own foolishness. Then again, it wasn’t so foolish, was it? Kneeling beside it in the soil, it was like no plant he’d ever seen before, and he tended to know plants. But the stem was too long to be a wrist, and the ‘fingers’ had no joints that he could see, though they curled up as though the buried thing was trying to claw it’s way to the surface. After a few minutes of analysis, he prodded it and recoiled at the touch – it felt just like human skin! Had it belonged to a dead baby, however, he was certain it wouldn’t be so vibrant and coloured. One of the little fingers had curled after his touch, and now it began to uncurl slowly.

With each passing minute, his trepidation became excitement. This was a brand new specimen. There was a paper in this at least – maybe two. Perhaps he could even have the thing named after him – a long held dream of his since his early decision to become a botanist. A Peter Plant, or perhaps simply a Hannet tree. In the end, he did what any good botanist would do: he took pictures, made notes, and tried to make it grow.

At first, nothing worked. How it had begun in the first place he didn’t know, because within a week of discovering it, the thing began to wilt, the skin turning a light grey and flaking. It attracted flies. He tried watering it a lot and then a little, gave it one kind of soil and then another, shaded it and exposed it. He even tried giving it milk, since it reminded him so much of a child. It occurred to him, with a sickening jolt, that perhaps he’d been mistaken from the beginning and someone really had buried a baby in his back yard. And the hand had been so fresh when he found it, perhaps it had still been alive then?

But he had one last thing to try: blood. Not his own, but pig’s blood, procured from the butcher. It was probably a long shot, but the hand did remind him so much of a living thing… perhaps it was a carnivorous plant. So, once a day, he filled his little green watering can with blood and poured it onto the hand, hoping Mrs. Hammond wasn’t poking her yard long nose over his fence as she often did.

To his delight, the hand recovered completely within three days, the skin returning to a healthy strawberries and cream complexion and rising up stiffly from the ground. Less than a week later, it began to grow.

Peter was soon entirely obsessed with his new plant. He found himself daydreaming in the middle of lectures at the university – the ones he gave as well as the ones he attended. Luckily, he’d always been known to fit the academic cliché of the absent minded, anti social professor, and it suited him fine. When they found out what he’d created, the eye rolling would turn to grudging admiration and he would be at last called to higher and greater things.

Soon, the hand no longer looked like a hand. The wrist grew thicker and more solid and more fingers sprouted from its base, then lengthened into arms which sprouted still more fingers. In his mind he already began to refer to the thing as the Hannet Tree. He was certain by now that nothing like it existed on earth. He had already started his thesis and, when it was fully grown, he would present it to the world and his days of academic anonymity would be gone, as would the endless hours spent seeking funding. Money would pour into any endeavour he set his mind on thereafter.

‘You don’t think you’re, ah, burying yourself a bit in your work?’

Jerry, one of the other professors he occasionally had coffee with at the university, had taken to asking prying questions with comically raised eyebrows. ‘I mean, what is it you’re really working on, Pete?’

‘Ah, you know, just feeling at loose ends. Searching for that ever elusive breakthrough.’

‘Oh? Not, ah, there’s no… Lady in your life?’ He said, half smiling. Inwardly laughing, Peter clutched on the idea. ‘Perhaps. Too early to tell. Actually,’ he glanced at his watch, ‘I should be going.’ And he gave his colleague a roguish wink, thinking: Just you wait, friend, just you wait.

He began filling the watering can to the brim and feeding the Hannet three times a day. In three months it was already taller than he, and Peter decided it was time to conduct experiments. At this rate, the thing would surely be fully grown by the end of the year, and he wanted to have as much information as possible about it for his thesis.

Still, despite his excitement, there was something distinctly unnerving about it. Its bark was too much like skin – sweating and stinking in the sun, breaking out in tiny goose bumps at night. It was stretchy and, beneath the surface was in places knotted as if by muscle or soft as if filled with fat. The limbs stretched out in all directions, and now the arms and fingers did have joints, hard centres that he could feel beneath the flesh. Once, he deliberately snapped a twig at the very tip of a branch and couldn’t help but cringe at the sound and feel of it. Surely that was how it would be to break a man’s finger? The feeling of the bone straining and then breaking, and the shards of it poking through the skin. The finger turned black and fell off after a couple of days. He couldn’t quite bring himself to do it again.

As the weeks went on, it became impossible to conduct experiments in the clinical, impartial manner he was so used to. The more time he spent studying the thing, the more time he wanted to spend. Sometimes he would simply stand and stare at it, or walk around it in endless circles, letting his fingers run along the trunk, tracing every little blemish and mark on its otherwise smooth skin. He tended to it endlessly, plying it with fresh blood and heaping blood bone fertiliser at the base of it.

Marie from next door did stick her nose over once while he was doing this, and asked him about the strange tree, but he replied with such a long and jargon filled lecture about it that his explanation didn’t even make sense to him. She didn’t ask again, but now and again he felt her eyes on him as he worked. He took to visiting the tree at night instead, when the neighbourhood was asleep and he could be with it privately.

In his long observations, he noticed several strange things about the tree. One was that birds never seemed to land on it or near it, not even when he hung a seed bell from the limbs. Insects never set up their hives or nests as they would in other trees, though maggots did briefly infest the broken finger, feasting and then growing into flies and departing to leave a healed stump.

He managed to deliberately wound the tree only one other time, late one night when he endeavoured to sever a wedge right to the centre of the trunk, hoping to get an idea of what a cross section might be like. It was torture. He used a heavy wood saw to cut, and blood spurted out with the first strokes, horribly warm in his lap, sending a wave of dizziness over him. He persisted, but though the tree itself gave no sign of pain, he could sense it in the air like an electric field, making the hair stand up all over his body, a silent scream ringing in his ears.

When he felt the blade hit bone near the centre of the tree a second time, completing the wedge, he pulled it out and, without glancing at it, stood up and ran over to the bushes in the far corner of the garden and vomited. He was covered in blood and cold sweat, horrified at what he’d done without quite knowing why. Christ, it was just a plant, wasn’t it? It didn’t breathe, nor eat, nor show any signs of being alive, save that all too familiar anatomy. Yet it had screamed.

Tears welling in his eyes, he hugged the tree like a friend and felt it respond, a shifting of the skin against his chest, a gentle sigh as the limbs moved and twisted above him. Two of the branches managed to coil around him, as though reciprocating the hug, and the trunk gave a little shudder as he tightened his own embrace. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered, half of his mind confused and the other half entranced. The sweet smelling sweat filled his nose and the numerous fingers clutched at his back, his hair, his neck.

They stayed like that for a long time, until the blood stopped flowing from the wound and Peter’s tears began to dry on the soft skin. It was so warm, that skin. Tentatively, he stuck out his tongue and licked it. It tasted salty, a little musty. One of the arms curled all the way around his waist and slid under his shirt, a hand of thirty wriggling fingers moving up his chest, exploring it.

He was dizzy with the sensations, no longer questioning what the nature of the tree really was, nor what he was doing here, locked in its sensual arms, but just went with it in a way he never had with another human being. He ran his hands along the trunk, bit it gently, the arms all over him now, firm and gentle at the same time, one of them curling between his legs and lifting him off the ground.

He gasped and his eyes opened, his heart rate ramping up as the hypnosis broke for a moment. He looked down and saw the ground already a shocking distance below him, the arms coiling beneath him and swaying as they lifted him far above the top of the tree and into the cold night air.

From here, suspended for a time, he could look straight down and see his tree from above. At the top, the trunk widened and divided into countless arms, some of which were now holding him up. But there was something there, partially hidden by the constant movement of the limbs, which by now were running over him so feverishly that there was no part of him save his face that was not being caressed or squeezed or grasped, his clothes torn from his body by their urgency.

He fixed his gaze on that central point, where the trunk ended and the arms grew, and after a few long seconds, he saw what it was. It was a mouth, a hole the size of a plate that opened and closed, rimmed with folds of skin that served as lips and lined all the way round with what could only be described as teeth, though they were more like stalactites or icicles in shape, long and pointed inward, toward the darkness inside the trunk.

Peter opened his mouth to scream, but one of the hands on his face, sensing the opening, forced itself inside and down his throat. He gagged and tried to bite down, but the arm was too wide and his jaw was forced open almost to the point of breaking. The arms tightened their hold on him, or perhaps it only felt that way because of his struggling. They were bringing him, he realised, slowly down towards that hideous opening, turning him in the air until his body was vertical, his head down.

His torn shirt fell before him and the mouth sucked it in, the lips pressing closed, then open, and it was gone. He was utterly helpless. He strained against the arms with everything he had, but it was like fighting a hundred pythons, each one tight with muscle and acting against a different part of him. They subdued him patiently, bending as they brought him, inexorably, to the mouth.

Its breath was hot on his face, and it smelled like fresh, uncooked meat. It was breathing faster now, as if excited at the prospect of the coming meal, and Peter could almost feel it building up to take a bite, the mouth widening until the lips were stretched and cracking at their limit, the arms holding him drawing back a bit, as if to position him better. He couldn’t make a sound, the hand inside him all the way into his stomach and probing deeper, but he tried all the same, the blood vessels in his eyes rupturing with the effort of it, his naked body on fire.

Without warning, the arm wrenched itself out of his mouth with shocking speed and, before Peter could take a breath, he was plunged into that dark, wet hole. The jaws closed, and there was a moment of pain as he felt a hundred jagged points dig into his skin.

He’d expected it to be over then, that he’d be dead before the pain could kick in, but a minute later he was still there, and not only that but he was breathing, too, the mouth still opening and closing around his ankles and letting in the air. He could not even hope for the relief of unconsciousness.

Frantically, he tried to wriggle back up the thing’s oesophagus, but of course that was the reason the teeth had grown inwards: at the first movement they dug deeper into his flesh. In his desperation, he tried to move further down, but the opening grew too narrow and he felt more teeth here, piercing his face.

He let out a cry of terror that was almost a whimper, but the tree was deaf to his pleas and only opened and closed, opened and closed, piercing him anew each time until he was bleeding from a thousand tiny pricks, and his blood was running down over his face and making it harder to breathe, soaking into his hair and trickling steadily into the gurgling hole just beneath him.

‘Please, oh, please don’t let me die like this,’ he whispered, but he was growing fainter by the second, and the tree was still so very thirsty. His world was reduced to the deep throb of his weakening heart, of blood running through the trunk, of thirsty sucking, of pain.

When there was no blood left in him, the mouth opened wide once again and the arms reached in to retrieve the shell. They had further uses for such healthy, fertile flesh.

It was less than three days later that the tree bloomed and the branches, now spread so wide that some of them hung over the neighbouring fence, sprouted tiny round fruit the colour of sunburn. They might have been mistaken for apples at a distance, and only up close could one have seen how horribly wrong such a comparison was. Only touching it would reveal how soft and loose the skin was, like uncooked chicken skin fit around a ball of soft cheese. There was a soft peach fuzz growth on only one side of the fruit, near the stem, and beneath it one’s fingers would quickly touch upon half formed features. Two indentations where eyes might be; a tightly drawn line where the mouth would go, even a small bump for a nose.

Marie Hammond, picking the overhanging fruit on the following morning, saw and felt all of these things, but she picked every fruit on her side of the fence all the same. My fence, my fruit and he can keep the rest of his secret little plant to himself, thankyou very much. And in that spiteful spirit she forced herself to sit down and take a hearty bite out of one of the repulsive things, closing her eyes as she did so and missing, at first, the way the meat inside looked so much like brains. Had she seen that, she might have spat it out before she got a proper taste, and that was for the good because now she found out what she couldn’t have known from merely touching and looking at the fruit:

It was delicious.

I got this one just by being naked. It got me thinking about skin, and how weird it is. It clings to you, so soft and fragile, but crucial for your survival. A very useful organ, skin is, and none of you should ever take that for granted. Why, what would happen if the only way you could have skin was if you had to borrow it from other people? Actually, you don’t have to think about that, I already did. Enjoy!

Skin

Ben Pienaar

 

He didn’t remember being born. At least, not in any kind of visual way. He knew there was pain, though, lots and lots of pain. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure if he could still feel it, reverberating through his nerves like an echo, and he’d just grown numb to it.

Many other things were lost to him. His name, everything from the life he must have had before his birth. Truth told, he wasn’t particularly curious. Asking questions about the past was useless – after all, it couldn’t be changed. You just got on with it, lived by your instincts. He was what he was, and he was alive. That was the important thing. He was alive, and hungry to keep living.

Ray Barron was paranoid, but he’d never been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He liked to point that out to people, because there was an important distinction: he didn’t see things that weren’t there. ‘The things I see,’ he was telling the fat guy, Ernest Wells from next door, ‘The things I see, they exist. You understand? I was never diagnosed skitzo because they see pink elephants and shit, you know? Whereas the stuff I see, I mean regardless of what conclusions I drawn about it,’ he chuckled, ‘whatever I see is real. It was really there. Even my shrink admitted it.’

‘Uh, okay.’ Ernie was glancing up and down the hall in the let me out of here way that Ray was very accustomed to. Not that he cared – he thought it was funny. As long as the guy got the message he was sending to him, that was the important thing.

‘Point I’m trying to make here, Ernie. The guy moved in down the hall? Skinner or whatever he says his name is? He’s a shape shifter.’

He nodded and gave a knowing half smile and Ernie gave him an uncertain smile. ‘I see.’

Ray raised his eyebrows, a little annoyed. He was going out of his way to give this guy a pointer and he was just brushing it off like Ray was some retard. ‘Thing I’m trying to warn you about, and I told this to Angeline and Gary as well, he’s dangerous. See, he kills people, too.’

‘Oh, he does?’ Ernie made a show of checking his watch.

Ray decided to do his good deed for the day and try one more time to get through to the guy. ‘Listen,’ he said, leaning in closer to Ernie and eyeing the door to 126 at the same time. ‘I see that guy leave in the morning, sometimes afternoon, carrying a big briefcase really light, you know. I keep an eye out ‘till he gets back. Still the same guy, now the briefcase is heavy. With me so far?’

‘You think he has a body in the briefcase.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m just telling you what I see, okay? You draw your own conclusions. Anyway, he goes into his room. I keep watching, because I’m a suspicious guy like that, right? He stays in there the whole time, then the next day I see a different guy leave the house. Sometimes a woman, with the same briefcase. Sometimes they don’t have a briefcase at all, and sometimes two people come back to the room, but not usually.’

‘I, uh, I’m not one hundred percent following.’

‘Let me finish, okay, here’s the weird part. I mean, we could be looking at just a social guy, right, brings home people now and again. So I’ll tell you the weird part. Sometimes, one of the people he’s brought back, I see leaving the next day with the briefcase. Now why would they do that? Why would his friends be doing his job for him, or whatever he does?’

‘Look, I don’t know Mr. ah, Barone? But I really gotta go. I have lunch with family and…’

‘You not listening? I’ll spell it out, buddy, and this is the only warning you get. The guy’s a shapeshifter, and he steals people’s bodies, maybe learns how to imitate them like in that movie The Thing. I’m on top of it, but I’m warning you to stay the hell out of this building for the next week. Or at least stay in your room and don’t answer the door to people you don’t know, I mean intimately, you get me?’

‘Uh, thank you Mr. Barone, I will definitely keep that in mind.’ He looked at his watch again and pushed awkwardly past Ray and into the hallway. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m getting late already now, so I’ll see you around okay, thank you for the, ah, the warning.’

And he was gone into the lift, giving an obviously fake wave and a smile before the doors closed in front of him. Ray stared back, deadpan. Just because he came off a little weird people assumed he had two and a half brain cells. They heard paranoid and added the rest in their minds. They didn’t think about what paranoia really was: awareness. He was aware, and they were not.

‘Yeah, late,’ He muttered to the empty hall. ‘Late to stuff your face with fifty fuckin burgers. Asshole.’

He called himself Skinner, when people asked. It was accurate, after all, and he found he smiled whenever he said the name – he had a sense of humour, it seemed. It was the kind of last name no one ever asked for a first – they just called you Skinner.

His instincts were basic, his directives straightforward, his whole life spread out plain before him, the way he imagined it was for an animal: survive, procreate, thrive, spread, and enjoy yourself along the way. Such simple needs, and so joyful to fulfil. It fascinated him how other people had invented so many other needs and desires and then depended on those inventions for their happiness.

Survival was sometimes hard, though. At the moment, he was looking out through the peephole in his doorway, and he could see the crazy guy from down the hall talking to the fat one, glancing his way often. He’d been onto Skinner’s case since day one, watching him at all hours, pretending to be crossing the hall to visit people whenever Skinner came and went, asking all his different skins about their lives, even watching him walk past through his own peephole. Despite the perfection of this residence, Skinner had already decided that he had to either get rid of him or move somewhere across town. There would be other places.

Skinner moved away from the door and into his apartment, his good mood ruined. Who knew what the creepy bastard was telling the others? Who knew what he was capable of? He shook the thoughts away as he passed through his bedroom and slid open the door to his bath. The mere sight of it, filled with blood (and a little hot water) sent chills up his body. He was far too dry already, some of his meat blackening and flaking on the surface.

He slid into the bath, letting out a hiss of relief through gritted teeth as the lukewarm blood engulfed him. It felt like heaven, an all-encompassing thirst quenched in full. Coming out of a bloodbath was like having a ten hour sleep, drinking three cups of coffee and taking a cold shower on a hot day all in one. All he needed was one a day, provided he could slip into a skin between baths.

When he did get out, dripping blood all over the tiles and not caring, the tub was only about a quarter full. He’d be able to use it one more time before he needed a refill, but that was fine. He hadn’t had trouble acquiring blood lately. He could take it from one of his procreation experiments. Offspring was easy to replace. Blinking in the dimness with lashless lids of pale flesh, he headed back out into the sitting room and checked the time on an old wall clock: six. The light against the window panes was dark blue, and the glint of moonlight on the glass gave him a jolt of excitement. It was time to get moving.

He went to his walk in wardrobe and pulled open the doors. It was chilled inside. In this apartment block that had been a hard thing to hook up discreetly, but he’d accumulated wealth very quickly over the years. The only reason he stayed in places like these at all was for the anonymity. This way he could live in places with high crime rates and low class citizens, people easy to snatch from the streets without having anyone come looking. One of the reasons the crazy guy pissed him off so much: a setup like this wasn’t easy to establish.

The robe was lined on all walls with meat hooks dangling from metal bars. On each hook hung a different skin, naked, the clothes for each person folded neatly and kept in a pigeonhole in the wall behind them. It would have been hard to make out the differences between the drapes of shapeless flesh, but Skinner had the memories to go along with each one. This one had a tattoo on the arm of a dragonfly, a young waitress he’d seduced wearing the skin of the young lawyer which hung opposite her. That one had a scar on the right leg, so he knew it had to be the scrawny teenager who was home alone. That one hung almost to the floor, so it was the fat guy, the one who’d taken so long to die.

In the end he chose a chef, the freshest skin and the only one he hadn’t used yet. He didn’t’ like to overuse any of the skins, in case police were watching him – though he was already working on that problem with his children. Still, it paid to be careful.

He lifted the skin from the hook and found the hole in the back, stepping into each leg and shivering with the cold of it. Once he got moving the skin would insulate him but he always shivered badly for the first ten minutes or so. He put each arm through the shoulders one at a time, his fingers wiggling at the ends, like putting on a long, wet glove. Finally, he pulled the face and hair over his head, massaging it into place and making sure his teeth were just behind the lips before he put his hands behind his back and began sealing closed the opening behind him, pressing the sides together and feeling them fuse closed with the aid of his natural excretions.

He checked himself in the mirror before he put on the clothes, turning slowly around and making sure the skin was on. There was a large Y shaped scar on his back where the opening was, but no one would see that. Besides that, the only signs that he was anything other than human were the way his eyes and mouth didn’t quite fit with the skin. The eyes were too small and narrow, so his pupils and irises looked too large, and his mouth looked too full of teeth. He smiled as wide as he could, showing too much gum, and judged that it wasn’t noticeable.

It was time to go.

Ray saw a chubby Asian man in a chef’s outfit leave room 126 carrying the large briefcase. Ray was watching through the tiniest crack in his door, so as soon as the Asian passed him he couldn’t see anything. He waited a few moments and then closed his door quietly.

Now why, why the fuck would a chef need that briefcase for anything? Ridiculous. Am I the only guy in the building with eyes, with brains? Shit. He slid into a sitting position, back against the door, and thought. There were three things he knew. One. The guy was a shape shifter. Two, he killed people. Three, he had to be stopped.

It was difficult to explain to a guy like Ernie, because he hadn’t seen what Ray had. He hadn’t seen how the party girl had gone into 126 the other night, drunk and falling all over the place, chewing gum, laughing too loud and talking incessantly, and he hadn’t seen her leave: cold eyes, smiling slightly, walking purposefully. She’d abandoned the high heels in favour of male shoes, and walked like a man. She hadn’t been herself, just like every other person that had left 126. How could you explain such a subtle but significant difference to a numbnuts like Ernie?

Ray closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, in and out. His room smelled like mould and dust, an old smell but one he suddenly savoured.

What would the police say? He was a paranoid, but even if they didn’t know that, even if none of them knew who he was from the other half a dozen times he’d called them for shit that didn’t pan out… A shape shifter? Don’t say that. Say serial killer, or something. No. He knew it was useless without proof. And besides, there was a part of him that was curious to know whether it was all real or not. He saw what he saw, yeah, but… maybe this was just like all those other times? Maybe he was getting crazier. He had to know. If he could just know, then he’d call the cops in, anonymous.

‘Okay, Ray. Listen up. Proof’s in the room. He just left. Go in, see proof, call cops, get the fuck outta there. End of story.’

He nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. But what if he comes back early? What if there’s more than one of them in there?’

‘Right. Uh, okay. You take a big fucking knife. See him shift his way out of that, huh?’ he laughed, and couldn’t help but hear a bit of madness in it. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. It didn’t matter, as long as he trusted himself. He was just on reconnaissance, after all. Just look, don’t touch, then get out. Easy, easy.

‘Yeah, right. Get your shit together, Ray. You don’t know how long he’s gonna be. Best get started.’

The guy locked the door, but Ray could pick locks, especially these old ones. He’d bought the tools online, reasoning that it was an easy skill to learn and one that would surely come in use. They were always doing it in movies, anyway. The door clicked open after twenty or so minutes, but the hall was dead quiet and no one saw him. Skinner was usually gone for a few hours, so he had plenty of time. He slipped inside.

The place stank of blood. Ray had never really smelt blood before, but he knew it on a base, instinctive level, a heavy metallic smell that settled in the back of his throat. There was no furniture, and the carpet was a dark ratty brown covered in dark stains. Surely no one could live in a place like this. There was no fridge, and the kitchenette had no plates nor bowls. When Ray opened the cutlery drawer, he found it full of knives. They were all stained and razor sharp, ranging in size from a short flaying knife to a long, thick bladed butchers knife that could chop through bone. He looked from that one to the paring knife he held in his hand, then nodded to himself and tucked his into the back of his pants and took the other.

Across the room, a door stood half open, and Ray stared at it, wondering if he had the balls to keep going. Truth was, he should call the cops right now. They could wait for Skinner together and nail him. But no, there was time and much more to see here, and Skinner wouldn’t be back for a while. Besides, the rational side of him, the side that fought his paranoia, was urging him that the Skinner guy was just a drug dealer. That would explain the people going in and out all the time, and the old briefcases, and the state of the place. Surely this wasn’t an uncommon place for a heroin addict? As for the knives, maybe he was a cutter, one of those depressed people that had to hurt themselves to feel alive? Yeah, that could be it.

But the smell.

Ray shook his head and moved slowly into the adjoining room. His ears primed for the slightest sound. He pushed the door open and stepped into the musty dimness, his eyes taking in the rooms only inhabitants while his brain rushed madly to keep up with what he was seeing.

He had found Skinner’s children.

Skinner stared at the woman, leaning against an alley’s corner, skirt hitched up over a provocatively extended leg, fishnet stockings and a cigarette dangling between long red nails. She caught him looking and dropped the cigarette, grinding it out under her high heels.

A prostitute. Why hadn’t it occurred to him to add one of those to his collection? Now he thought of it, she could be the perfect tool – what better way to get prospective Skins alone, perhaps all the way into the safety of his own apartment? And to get money also, since her clients would always come prepared with plenty of cash? Her skin would be quite tight on him of course, may split here and there, but as long as she got them into the bedroom there would be no need to show them anything more than a gleaming blade.

He smiled at her, trying not to repeat the leer he’d seen in the mirror and, he suspected, failing. But she was coming towards him now, her heels tapping over the sidewalk, glancing casually down the street. The victim coming to him, and he’d barely gone a block from his apartment. This hunt was turning out to be too easy.

‘Hey there,’ she said, leaning against the concrete wall as she reached him. Her voice was put on, too deep and husky to be natural. She smelled like smoke.

‘How much?’ he said. He wasn’t sure how humans did this kind of thing yet, but he found the safest route, when in doubt, was to get to the point.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Well you’re an eager beaver, huh? Guess that depends what you want.’ She looked him up and down, taking in his chef’s uniform. ‘Gonna cook me a meal after?’

He stopped smiling when he caught a familiar look in her eye. She’d already seen something different in his appearance, or his manner. He’d have to hurry this up before she got too freaked out. ‘Just normal. The usual,’ he said.

She shrugged, almost seeming disappointed. ‘Not a request I get often, but I’m not complaining.’ She gave a small smile, looked down the street again and folded her arms. ‘Three hundred.’

‘Okay.’

She raised her eyebrows and it occurred to him she had been expecting him to haggle, or refuse her. ‘I mean, two hundred.’

‘Two fifty.’

‘Okay, but it must be at my place.’

She gave him an uncertain look, but after a minute she nodded and said, ‘lead the way.’

They were lined up against the curtains, floating inside six large fish tanks that stood from wall to wall. They looked just like unborn foetuses, down to their curled up bodies and overlarge heads. They had no umbilical cords, and they had no skin. Ray could see the veins trailing along the surface of their raw meat flesh, pulsing with each heartbeat. Their lids were thin flaps, the pupils almost visible darting left and right in dream sleep. The liquid in which they floated was pale green tinged with red; each tank had a drip beside it feeding them what looked like blood.

‘What the… Jesus.’ He gagged on the chemical smell and put a hand out on the table beside him. It was the only other piece of furniture in this room, a large metal bed not unlike a surgeon’s table. It was covered in congealed and dry blood, and he pulled away as though he’d touched a hot stove. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to vomit.

When the feeling passed, he lifted his phone to his pocket. He had no idea what went on in here, but it sure as shit wasn’t legal. He got the operator and spoke, trying to sound as sane as possible.

‘What is your emergency?’

‘I need police. I was returning something to a guy in the apartment down the hall from me and his whole place is like a – a serial killer’s… there’s blood everywhere, there’s weapons. I found a dead baby. Please come quickly.’

He gave her the address and then hung up before she could ask questions. They’d come, he was sure of it, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the story for Ray Barron. Ray Barron had now done his part and he could return safely to his room and only emerge when the psychopath from room 126 was safely in custody, just long enough to tell them all ‘I told you so!’

The fear was pulsing through him in dizzying waves, and he was on the point of getting the hell out of there when a key turned in the front door lock and he froze beside the table, his mind a white sheet of terror. The knife was clenched tight in his fist but for the life of him he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it. He’d never thrown a punch at another human being, and the thing entering now was no human.

A woman’s voice came to him. ‘Oh, wow. Okay I get the price now. This place is…’

‘I know, I am sorry. Very old place, only just moved in, lots of cleaning to do.’

The second voice was Skinner, Ray was sure of it. He was putting on a Japanese accent to fit the body he inhabited but the tone was unmistakeable.

Ray looked around desperately for an escape and found it in the heavy metal door opposite the fish tanks. All he had to do was hide out until the police got here. He swung the door open quickly, praying the hinges weren’t rusty, and slipped inside. Thankfully, the voices in the next room drowned out whatever noise he made and he breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped back from the door.

It was ice cold in here, and a halogen light shone in the ceiling. Ray turned to see what new hell he’d stepped into here, and as his eyes fell on the hooks and the neatly hung skins that lined the walls, a scream welled up inside him. He held it down, but the horror around him pushed in on his mind, challenging his sanity.

In the end, only one thought saved him: the cops are coming, the cops are coming. He turned to face the door and raised the butcher knife with a badly shaking hand, his quick breaths steaming in front of him. The back of his neck prickled and itched, and he imagined the skins sliding from their suits and reaching for him with slack arms, boneless fingers curling around his neck and tightening, bodies weighing him down like wet blankets.

He shut his eyes tight and prayed.

Skinner gestured for the girl to go before him and she took two steps into the next room before she froze, her eyes stuck on his latest batch of children. She was reaching into her handbag for her mace, or tazer or whatever they held when he pushed his favourite skewering knife through the centre of her throat, grabbing a handful of her hair with his other hand to keep her head from going forward.

The blade was narrow at the tip and wide at the base, so it severed the top of her spinal cord and blocked her airway and jugular. Death came in a matter of choking seconds, her legs kicking involuntarily in the air as he lifted her up and carried her, knife still lodged in her throat and blood cascading down her body, to the skinning table.

He laid her out and left her to bleed, a bucket at the end of the tilted table to catch it all, and went into the kitchen to get the necessary tools. He was in good spirits, his face twitching and his tongue flicking out to lick his skin, a habit he had, used to being dry in the open air as he was. If he could get skins with such ease his collection would grow exponentially, and his children would have ever more suits to employ. Perhaps he could even start a separate collection of suits – doctors and nurses and even military. Faces to get his foot through coveted doors.

When he opened the cutlery drawer something strange tugged at his attention and he hesitated. Of course – the chopper was missing. It should have been right there in the middle of the drawer, but it wasn’t. Skinner looked up from the counter, his eyes narrowing. He inhaled deeply, but the chef’s nostrils were too inefficient, dulled.

He went back into the room with the operating table and, pulling the knife from the back of the prostitute’s neck, used it to open up his suit so he could step out of it. The slack skin pooled around his feet, he took another deep breath and this time the unmistakable aroma of intrusion filled his nostrils: foreign sweat, with a hint of fear. Someone had been in this very room, and recently.

He took two steps toward his bedroom, knife raised in a still wet hand, but the trail fell away almost immediately. He stepped back to the centre, nose poised like a dog’s, ignoring the unpleasant sensation of blood drying on his body. Slowly, his head turned until he found he was facing the door to his closet.

He stepped forward, blade still in hand, and sniffed the doorknob. The smell hit him almost like a physical thing, so strange did it taste in contrast to that of the blood and meat he knew so well. Tangy and ripe, terror and dirty clothes. A man.

Skinner stood in front of his closet, listening to the steady drizzle of blood into the bucket behind him, and found he could hear breathing on the other side of the door. It was very fast. He suspected it was the crazy guy from down the hall. Who else would have had the notion to investigate his apartment while he was away?

Just like that, two problems solved with one knife.

He whipped open the door, hard, bursting forward as soon as he had the room, meaning to slit the man’s throat before he had time to scream, but his blade fell on empty air and he realised, as his legs went out from under him and he found himself flying towards the back of his closet on his own momentum, that the man had been squatting the whole time.

Skinner slid across the metal floor, the pain of the cold and dryness on his chest and stomach almost too much to bear, and slammed into the back wall. He looked up, lips bared in a grimace of agony, in time to see the door to the closet slam shut.

Ray did not attempt to hold the door shut on the thing. His thoughts were not on killing it but on running as far away from that monstrosity as he could get. He had been crouching mostly because of the cold and in the hopes of surprising Skinner if he did open the door, and he was glad he had too, because he’d no time at all to react before the slippery thing had tripped over him and tumbled into the cool room.

If it weren’t for his fists clenching in fear, he would have already dropped his knife. Ray hit the doorway to the first room on the way out, throwing a horrified look over his shoulder at the pale body on the table, still dripping blood, and half fell into the front room.

He had barely recovered his balance when the door swung open and three police officers stepped inside, guns already raised and badges flashing.

‘Get back, get back! Against the wall, sir!’

Ray put his hands up in a comical surrender and backed up against the wall, one cop moving towards him with a gun pointed directly at his head, finger on the trigger.

‘It’s not me, it’s not me!’ Ray was screaming, ‘He’s in the freezer room, in the freezer room!’

‘Jesus Christ,’ he heard one of the other two cops exclaim as they entered the next room, no doubt seeing the mutilated body and the foetuses in the tanks.

Ray stared at the eye of the cop holding the gun on him, the man glaring at him as though he was the criminal, and then he realised he was still holding the knife in one hand. ‘Shit!’ he dropped it, but the cop’s expression didn’t change.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Ray said, wondering suddenly what would happen when they found the skinless freak in the freezer room. Probably the thing would die once they took it away from its nutrients and its skin suits. What would they believe then? That a man without any skin on his body, or a man with a large bloody knife in one hand had done the deed?

The reality of the situation began to sink in and Ray sank to his knees with the gravity of it. The cop moved in closer, pressing the barrel of his handgun to Ray’s temple. In those moments, Ray almost hoped he would pull the trigger. He saw his future ahead of him, trial and conviction as a paranoid mass murderer, a collector of skins. He tried to imagine Ernie Wells, or anyone else for that matter, saying anything good about him in a court, and couldn’t. He would be given death.

He looked up into the policeman’s eyes. They were dark brown and bloodshot. The rest of his face was drawn and tired looking, panicked, understandably. He had a blond beard which sat at a strange angle on his chin, as though it was trying to go one way and the rest of him was going the other. His ears also looked at odd angles on his head.

The freezer door opened, and then there was a brief silence. Ray experienced a few moments of confusion. He’d been expecting gunfire, or perhaps screams and curses as the cops saw what was inside. Instead, he heard a few muffled words exchanged, their tone that of mild concern.

His paranoia began to work again, but this time he wasn’t so sure it was paranoia after all. His eyes strayed to the front door behind the blond bearded cop in front of him and he noticed that not only was it locked but the chain was drawn across the frame. One of the cops had taken the time to do that.

The cop in front of him wasn’t shaking, which was also strange, because he was very young, not more than twenty or twenty one. This was likely the first time he’d drawn his gun, yet he was pointing it directly between Ray’s eyes, unshaking, unflinching, unafraid.

And his eye, what was it about his eye? It was bloodshot, but a little too red around the corner, like there was blood collecting, seeping through from the meat beneath. As he watched, Ray saw a teardrop collect there and run a little way down the policeman’s cheek.

‘Turn around, sir. You’re under arrest,’ the cop said. He neglected the Miranda, and that was when Ray knew it was all over.

He nodded at the cop and turned around. He was doomed, but there was a sense of relief even as he stooped and picked up the knife he’d dropped, knowing that at last, he’d been right, he’d known the truth from the beginning and he’d done something about it. He wouldn’t suffer any more.

He twisted around with the knife, watched it push through the cop’s eye and saw the surprised expression even as he pulled the trigger.

‘FUCK Y – ’

BANG!

The cop stared at the body in front of him for a moment, shocked, numb to the low chuckle his father gave behind him. He holstered his gun and pulled the knife slowly from his eye, shuddering as the goop slipped out of its socket and hit the floor like a broken egg.

He turned to look at the others and they were laughing at him too, but he didn’t mind. He was the youngest, but he’d taken a second kill before any of them. He nodded his head and puffed out his chest, and the others came to help him lift the body to the skinning table.

There was much work to do.

If Aliens were able to travel lightyears through space to reach us, what makes us think we’d have even the remotest chance to resist them? If they were so advanced as a society, we would be like spear wielding cavemen in their eyes, would we not? More to the point, what makes us think they’d be any less vicious than we are? This story is my take on Independence Day. Enjoy!

Slaughterhouse

 The place stank of blood and metal. Moans and wails and shouts funnelled up to Vesko from the yard, screams of pain from the hang room and of terror from the kill room. Machinery grinding away day and night, a heavy deep sound that you felt in your bones, just a hint of the incomprehensible power it represented.

The Giants.

Vesko cooked his dinner under the sky vent. Tonight’s meal was a new delicacy: thigh tenderloins skewered with a piece of charred wood. He wished he had some spices to add, or better yet, some vegetables. An all meat diet was taking its toll on him: scurvy had already taken three of his teeth and his skin was turning a pale yellow and breaking out in small, suppurating sores. Still, no matter what hell you were in, you just did what you could. You made the best of it.

The first ship. So big it blocked out the sun no matter where you were, fast enough to cross half the world before it landed somewhere in the Indian, not far from Australia’s west coast. Vast. Everyone so excited, scientists and army flocking to it to welcome our Alien guests, if they were alive. Headlines like: Alien life confirmed – friend or foe? And – Experts say ship alone advanced enough to revolutionise modern technology.

            Then the Giants emerged.

Deep in thought, Vesko sat cross legged as close to the flames as he could without being burned – the giants didn’t like the heat. They had a thin down of hair all over their bodies and it glistened with sweat permanently, making them reek like sewage, the only smell that could penetrate that of raw meat in this hell. He turned the skewer over, watching the tenderloins he’d cut turn brown around the outside, the red meat turning pale. Occasionally a drop of blood hissed on the flames.

Angie blinked into existence across from him, looking perfect, not the plump empty shell she’d been at the end. This had been happening a lot lately, and though he was aware she was a hallucination, Vesko prayed every time that she wouldn’t leave him again. ‘Hey, baby,’ he said, grinning.

‘Hey.’ She wrinkled her face at the cooking meat. ‘You’re not really going to eat that, are you? That could be me, for all you know.’

He shrugged. ‘If that’s true, you’re delicious.’ He laughed until he choked on his own saliva, unaware of the tears trickling down his cheeks. They came every time he spoke to his wife. She smiled sadly at him and leaned across the fire to wipe one of them away. Her strawberry blond hair hung into the fire but didn’t singe.

‘Thanks, Angie.’

‘We need to have a talk.’

‘Yeah.’

‘About what you’re going to do now.’

He nodded. ‘I’m sorry I left you, you know. I wanted to stay with you all right to the end. I wanted to get back into that vat with you but there was no way.’

But her face hardened. ‘Don’t you dare talk like that, Vesko. Tell me what good that would have done. Just tell me.’

‘I could have been with you.’

‘You are with me,’ she said, softening a little. ‘But you staying with us when you could get away? That’s not the Vesko I married. That’s not him at all.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You remember the one that hung us up? You were watching, weren’t you?’

He cringed at the memory, gritting his teeth against the wave of horror that came over him. It passed quickly and he took a gasp of smoky air.

The sheer size of them wouldn’t have been enough by itself. A grown man was perhaps the size of a chicken in comparison to one of them, but mankind had developed formidable weapons to bridge that gap. No, the terrifying thing was their efficiency. No one stood a chance at all against that ruthless single mindedness. They had the population of earth beaten in intelligence, technology, numbers and size, but their greatest advantage was that relentlessness, utter devotion to their own kind. Each and every one of them ready to die for their cause. And what was their cause? Consumption. Expansion. Growth.

One of them picked their car up while it was driving. He remembered that moment of madness, the road just falling away beneath him, everyone screaming, the engine making a crazy high pitched sound as the wheels spun in the air. The giant held the car perfectly level in the air, moving at incredible speed over farmland to one of those enormous dump trucks they had, things the size of golf courses with a flat pan on the back, the barriers high and smooth. They were packed with other human beings, and the giant tipped the car slowly over the middle and shook it until they all fell out and hit the hot metal a couple of meters below.

When they reached the slaughterhouse, the dump truck opened up and the flat pan tipped to make a smooth slide, emptying them into a feeding pen. Vesko had still been hopeful he could get them out of this place. They were so much smaller than the giants – there had to be some crack to squeeze through, some weakness in the holding.

There wasn’t. Every day, a giant dropped enormous loaves of bread into the pens, delicious, moist bread that tasted like olives. Some refused to eat, but not for long. Soon after his arrival Vesko saw one of the giants reach in and pluck a man from the group. Judging by his holocaust survivor build, he hadn’t eaten in a while. The giant held him twenty feet or so off the ground, its long fingers pinched under his arms, and then it raised a tool of some kind, a pair of shears that they used to cut their body hair in an effort to cool down. It cut that man into pieces from the toes up, pieces of him falling down in a red shower, his screams going on far longer than should have been possible, only stopping when the shears reached a place just below his chest and his stomach acids came pouring down along with the blood. Most of him was gone the next day, eaten by the other hunger strikers.

Vesko was hugging his family when they were emptied, along with hundreds of others, into an enormous metal vat, but he lost hold of them during the short fall and hit the edge of the container they were all landing in. He didn’t remember much, only the sharp pain of hitting metal bars on the way down and a lurching in his stomach. When he woke, he was lying somewhere beneath the slaughterhouse, his hair caked in blood, the only light filtering through a crack in the floor above him.

The loins were pretty much cooked now, and he brought the skewer to his mouth and bit one off, chewing it slowly, his grumbling stomach welcoming the meal. He liked to imagine it was pork, and usually he succeeded. It was harder when he was eating fingers or pieces of a face, anything recognizable as human.

‘That’s the one you’ve got to kill, baby,’ she said.

He nodded. He had the thing’s face fixed in his memory. The giants weren’t like animals, they all had distinctive features, though as far as appearance went they looked more like enormous apes than humans. They had the disproportionately long arms, even the sideways loping gait when they were running fast. Some had different coloured body hair, blonde or red or brown, some had big, low hanging chins and an under bite, others had arms that bulged with muscle or bellies that sagged from too much meat. The one that had hung his family, gleaming steel hooks through their backs and out their chests, had big eyes the colour of ash.

‘But you’ve got to have a plan. You have to stay alive after, so you can kill more.’

‘Yeah, I know. I got a plan. I’ve been sharpening my sword, every day.’ He chewed at another loin and looked over at his sword. It was a piece of scrap metal shaving he’d found on the floor of the kill room, twice as long as his forearm, hard but surprisingly light. There was another smaller piece beside it, which he’d been using to sharpen the edges of the sword every day. It was almost sharp enough, but the handle was thin and he sometimes worried it would snap. Nothing he could do about that, though.

‘Live for me, honey? Okay?’

‘I will. I will.’ But she was gone, and he didn’t think she’d be back again, at least not until it was over and he was either dead or somewhere safe.

After the meal he curled up a little way from the fire where the metal was warm but not scalding, and tried to sleep holding his sword like a pillow. He would do it the next day. He’d have to get around to the place the hooks came out of the wall by a conveyor belt on the ceiling, hitch a ride to the hang room. He’d only get one chance at the giant, and that only if he was lucky. If he missed… The mincer.

The mincer was the source of most of the mechanical noise in the place. It was the kind of sound that made your skull vibrate no matter where you were in the building, and it kept going from sunrise to midnight, when the slaughterhouse closed and the giants descended below ground to sleep. On his second day here, Vesko had climbed up into the beams in the mincing room and checked it out. The hooks stopped at a point just before the mincer and a giant stood beside it, sorting the dying people. The children and the old or diseased, he lifted from the hooks and dropped straight into the wide circular hole in the ground, a constantly churning mess of blended bodies, a mash of black, red and yellow. Whatever blades worked just beneath the surface worked fast, because if so much as a toe disappeared beneath the surface, you were gone.

The young and healthy were left on the hooks, which took them to the next room. Vesko had spied there also, and seen another giant divide the bodies into the best cuts with expert precision, reducing still living human beings into ten separate blocks of meat in the space of seconds. Occasionally he judged a body unfit for consumption and threw it into another pile on the far wall. It was from this pile that Vesko had obtained all of his meals since.

He planned and mentally rehearsed what he would do until he could see every moment of the following day in clear detail, accounted for every possibility he could conceive of, and at last he closed his eyes and stole a few hours of sleep.

He awoke to the sound of the mincer starting up, and in a few moments he was on his feet, sick to his stomach with fear. He pissed in the smouldering fire and reached for his sword. Instead of leaving straight away, he sat down and sharpened it for another hour or so, not so much because it needed it but because he was hoping Angie would come back to him one last time.

She didn’t, but when he finally started on his way down the vents, her voice came to him on a blast of hot air from behind. ‘See you soon,’ she said. The words chilled him, but he told himself she meant them as a comfort, that whether he lived or died he would see her again.

It took a while to find the right place, and he had to squeeze through a narrow groove slick with black grease and barely large enough to fit him let alone his sword. When he finally got out and crouched on a shelf near the factory’s ceiling, he saw he was in the perfect position: the hooks were emerging directly beneath him: in fact he could have followed along the top of the conveyor belt directly above them. That wouldn’t be quick enough, though: he was going to have to drop down and stand in one of the hooks, be ready to jump at the perfect opportunity.

Vesko stayed where he was, watching the heads of some of the other giant workers pass below him, going about their gruesome work. They spoke to each other over the sound of machinery in a series of low howls and high yelps, like baying farm dogs on a hunt. He was terrified of them, but he was also angry, and for an hour or more he sat above the conveyor belt and allowed the hatred to overtake him.

He thought of the grey eyed bastard, working day in and out, grabbing wriggling bodies from the enormous vat and impaling them like worms on fishing hooks, unthinking or uncaring of the pain he caused. Vesko would make him think. Vesko would make him care.

He dropped down onto one of the hooks, both his feet wedged in the U bend while his free hand gripped the chain from which it hung. He held the sword backhanded: knowing that slashing would give nothing but scratches; he would have to thrust, and he would only have one or two blows to get it right.

The hook neared the hole in the far wall, and Vesko squinted ahead and saw two grey haired arms lay a screaming child onto a hook, the tip thankfully piercing her heart and cutting her suffering short. The hooks moved relentlessly on and the arms pulled back, then returned with a heavyset man who wasn’t so lucky: the hook wound up too low, piercing his stomach and bursting through with a light spray of stomach acid. The man turned and saw Vesko on the next hook, but whether he saw him and understood what was happening or was too lost in his pain was impossible to tell.

Vesko was coming through the gap now, and his mind had shrunk down to the tunnel vision that always accompanied extreme fear. He was not aware of the ear piercing screams, nor the thrumming machinery, nor the stench of blood and gore. He was aware only of the way the hook was swaying slightly under his weight, and of the sword in his hand, and of his own quick breaths.

Everything happened in a matter of seconds when he emerged into the hang room. The giant was pulling a plump, struggling woman from the vat, bent over the side of it with both arms inside, his back to the room. Vesko had a couple of seconds before it turned and saw him, but he didn’t wait: he pushed off the hook as hard as he could, kicking it hard against the conveyor belt, and grabbed his sword with both hands above his head as he flew through the air.

The giant heard him, the enormous head swivelling while the woman squirmed in his hands, and Vesko collided with his shoulder, sinking the point of the sword into the base of his neck.

The wind was knocked out of him but he held on, and when the Giant turned violently to swipe at him he was pulled along with the protruding sword handle, almost flying into the vat and then back the other way again, where he might have landed on a hook had he let go. The Giant was not bellowing but choking and gurgling, and when he went down on his knees with a deafening crash Vesko saw blood pouring down his furry front. All the motion had torn the airways and veins in his neck. Even now the sword was sliding out with Vesko’s weight on the end, and the giant’s hands fell on air as they reached for him. The blade came out with a wet sucking and Vesko landed hard on the metal floor.

The giant knelt there, swaying and confused, wide hands grasping his throat, grey eyes staring around him until they settled on Vesko. He was on his feet now, sword up and ready to fight. The giant was triple his height even though he was on his knees, but Vesko was mad. ‘You die, you murdering fuck. You die slow.’ His voice didn’t sound like his own. It sounded sick and harsh, like that of a bitter old man.

It died slow, making a weak grab for him as it came toppling to the bloody ground, but he hopped out of the way in time and then crouched right in front of its face, letting hot blood pool around his feet until his shoes were soaked. It watched him, just a hint of wonderment in its eyes, that such a harmless little thing could have killed him, and Vesko smirked. Working slowly, his hate burning like fire inside him, he pried out the giant’s eyes one after the other and listening to wasted screams hissing from its broken wind pipe.

There were no other giants in this area, but that wouldn’t last long: the giant in the next room would be seeing the first empty hooks about now and getting curious. Vesko had not expected to be alive now, but he had prepared for it all the same, and as he started for half open doorway into the next room he heard Angie urging him on: ‘Go, Vesko, kill them all for me.’

He entered the mincing room at a full sprint, and in a state of mind closer to madness than he’d ever been, but further from fear. He’d taken revenge, what else was there to live for? Everything else he killed was a bonus, a joy, a pleasure. With his mind full of the roaring mincer and his eyes and mouth open in a wild scream, he went for the next giant.

This one was standing hunched over and staring with a look of consternation at the fresh empty hooks emerging from the hole near the ceiling of the slaughterhouse. They were smart beasts, their minds working with the same mechanical efficiency with which they had conducted their enslavement of the human race.

But for all their intelligence, the giants were limited in that their eyesight was their primary sense to the exclusion of most others, and since this one, a slack jawed, big chested beast, was concentrating on the hooks, it did not see Vesko run in through the doorway nor hear his screams over the sound of the mincer.

He hamstrung it.

The giants were alien, but their anatomy was not so different from that of an ape or a human, and just by watching them move Vesko had seen the way their bodies were held together, the places their tendons showed through their pale skin. He dragged the sharp sword with all of his adrenaline fuelled strength beneath the knee joint of the beast and heard the snap as he broke through ligament. In almost the same motion he followed through with a hack, planting the blade in the place a human’s Achilles would have been and pulling it across the bone.

The giant let out a howl of pain and surprise as he went down hard on his right knee, and Vesko, still screaming his fury, launched himself at his back, colliding with a buttock the size of a bed and pressing the point of his sword into the soft flesh as hard as he could.

That was all it took. The giant let out another yell and jumped forward onto all fours. Only there was nowhere for its hands to land besides the mincer. Vesko didn’t see but felt its thick arms connect with the unseen blades, the giant’s whole body vibrating with the force of them. He let go of the sword and flung himself backward before he could be taken with it, and after that he could only sit and watch as the giant was pulled into the churning pit before him, the engines whining and struggling to chop the thick bones.

The pool of gore rose up fast as his midsection and then hips disappeared beneath the surface and suddenly the pit was overflowing, red waves with yellow froth washing over the stained metal floor towards Vesko. Watching them come, he only knew that if he stayed where he was and let that bloody tide reach him he would lose whatever remained of his sanity. At the last moment, he jumped to his feet and ran, not caring where he was going, only looking for a way out of this hellish place, never thinking about anything except getting away from that endless rushing wave of death.

He ran to the adjoining door but did not slide beneath it. Instead, he stopped beside it with his back against the wall and waited. Sure enough, a moment later the giant from the chopping room burst through and immediately headed for the control panel on the opposite wall which controlled the mincer. Vesko slid around the door.

There was nowhere to go from there. On one side of the room, the pile of discarded bodies. Vesko taken his food from that pile by lowering a noose made from his pants, shirt and shoelaces, and snaring a corpse around the neck so he could haul it up into the vent, so there was no way to get up there from the floor. There was no sanctuary there: Vesko had been here long enough to know what happened to those bodies: they were dropped into the mincer at the very end of the day and fed as gruel to the people in the holding pens.

His only hope was the pile of ready chopped body parts in the corner to his left. He ran for it, knowing he could be seen at any moment now, cursing himself for not being man enough to make a stand with his sword at least and take as many of the bastards with him. He dove into the pile and dug himself in as quickly as he could until he was settled in, near the bottom. The blood was still dripping form some of the cuts, and he was covered in the lukewarm mess. He could smell the sweat on a hundred bodies, the dirt in the flesh. He felt they were still alive and pressing on him from all sides.

There was much activity in the slaughterhouse after that, but Vesko didn’t take note. He curled into the foetal position, weighed down by heads, torsos, arms and legs. The best cuts.

The initial wars were furious, intense, and utterly hopeless. Vesko knew this from the very first news reports, and it was for this reason he packed his bags and drove as far out into the Australian country as he could with his family: to hide.

            He was right. By the end of one year, the earth was littered with the titanic ships and little of human civilisation remained. At least, nothing that the giants couldn’t use. By two years, when Vesko was beginning to grow accustomed to an isolated life, a place so barren surely no giant would ever want to go, they had demolished every form of organised human resistance that existed: every army, every government, every city. Their ships came and went with steadily increasing frequency, taking away resources in mind boggling quantities and depositing machines larger than cities themselves, their purposes only to mine Earth’s bounty ever more thoroughly.

            The giants were more than omnivores: they consumed anything and everything to feed themselves, and besides that there seemed not a single material they had no use for. When they mined a city, the material from the buildings was salvaged along with the asphalt from the roads, the cars, every life form, and then the dirt underneath for thousands of meters below the surface. The oceans themselves were being steadily drained by ships so large they rivalled the size of a small country.

            And Vesko lived in the desert, seeing these things in the distance, hearing the far away sounds of machines and the thudding of giant’s feet and refusing to believe they would ever come for him. What could there be for them, in the desert?

            But after five years the giants had erected their own monstrous factories, established their own systems, and there were few places of Earth that had not been thoroughly depleted. They came.

He didn’t know why he was trying so badly to stay alive anymore, but asking why had never been his prerogative anyway. It just was, that was all. His family was dead and he was lying here with someone’s intestines sliding lazily over his face and a factory full of giants nearby. That was just life. What could you do but make the best of it?

A head dropped down through the pile and landed on his left arm so that it was looking right at him. As his eyes grew used to the semi darkness, Vesko thought he could make out the contours of the face. A woman, not unlike Angie. The longer he looked, and let the shadows swirl in and around the features, the more like her it was, until she blinked open her bright blue eyes and smiled at him.

‘Sorry I had to leave you, baby,’ he whispered. His lips were cold with drying blood.

‘You did what you had to do.’

A few minutes later he reached out into the mass of chilled flesh and found a soft breast and a torso just like Angie’s. He dragged it into a hug, and soon after, groping around, he found her arms and legs and arranged them into position. She wrapped her arms around him and gave him that beautiful smile that had haunted his dreams since the day he’d met her.

‘You want to thank me Vesko baby? Keep living and keep killing. Alright?’

‘Yeah.’ He smiled back, unable to resist. ‘For you, Ange.’

She kissed him then, and her lips were warm on his and she didn’t taste like blood or death and there was still hope in the world.

You had to make the best of it, after all.

I KNOW, okay. But I had to do this one, even though it is now my third insane asylum related short story. Besides, I’d argue that the other two (Room for Thought and Scaredy Cat) were both pretty decent stories, and original despite the hackneyed setting. The nature of the asylum can be interpreted in one of two ways, as can Lucy herself. Either way is pretty horrifying, though, so believe what you want. Enjoy!

 

Asylum

By Ben Pienaar

 

Abandoned asylums were considered clichés in general, but Lucy Neil had found that in real life they were quite interesting. Each one was unique, and not just in terms of the layout – they all had their own personalities, their own moods. Some were places of peace, even years after they’d begun to crumble, places with comfortable old chairs and big windows and gardens with ponds. Others were dark and tense, full of twisting corridors and walls so white they seemed to scream at you. Rooms that were empty but dense with the memories of what had happened inside them.

This one was more the latter than the former. She told herself that it was in her head, nothing but a result of knowing exactly what had happened in here. This was one of the older ones – the worst ones were always old – and it had been operational far past time it should have been demolished. Back then, they’d thrown in as many sane people as mad, (at least, they were sane when they came in).

She walked slowly – Lucy was one of those that always did everything slowly, enjoying every moment. She’d come at noon instead of night, so the dark and ominous feel of the place didn’t have so much of a hold on her. She’d come again later in the week at midnight, but that would be with Jim. The front door opened on a long, narrow hallway with walls of heavy stone, and she made her way down, tempted to duck into one of the many rooms branching off on either side. She decided to make a full round of the place until she really got into it. You never knew, sometimes there were squatters or drug addicts, even in the day.

But it was all empty. Empty and safe – there was literally a main road right out at the front door. For some reason, she didn’t feel that good about it. All abandoned asylums were different, sure, but most of them were also the same in a lot of ways. They all had broken windows, there was always tons of graffiti throughout the building, and they were always strewn with trash. She was glad she hadn’t found any squatters here, but it sure seemed strange that there were no signs of squatters ever having been here.

But it was just the mood. The mood of the place always got into her, one way or another, and places like this were worst of all. She put on her business face, tied her hair back so it wouldn’t fall in front of the lens, and started unpacking her tripod.

She snapped a few pictures of the hall, trying to catch the way the shadows crouched in odd corners, as though the broken light hanging from the ceiling was still shining with head aching fluorescence. She found a large tiled room that looked like it had once been a communal shower and bathroom, although it was hard to tell because whatever flimsy concrete had made up the dividing walls had crumbled all over the place, now.

The further down the hall she went, venturing into this room and that one, missing none as she made her way, the less run down it seemed. The crumbled bathroom was the worst she saw, which was strange because she could have sworn she’d glanced into one or two rooms on her initial run through which had been half demolished.

She picked up her tripod at the end of the hall and went up a steep, twisting stairwell to the second of three stories. This one was in even better shape than the first. She turned into the first door on her left and set up in what looked like a patient’s room. For a while, she didn’t take any pictures, but stood and absorbed the mood of the room.

She didn’t like it. It suffocated her. For one thing, the walls were too heavy. They were made of some thick stone or something, barely covered by a thin coat of white paint, that made her wonder how the so many of the walls downstairs had crumbled so easily. These looked good for another hundred years. She knew what they were for, too: to muffle the patient’s screams – the same reason the walls around the place were so tall.

She took a few pictures of the bed and the little bedside table, making sure to zoom out the image so it took into account the door and revealed how cramped the room really was. The window had a large jagged hole in it as though someone had thrown a rock through it and she took a picture of that as well and then placed the camera in front of it so she could take a few of the back garden. It was a paltry, wilted garden. Full of weeds now, but she had a feeling it had looked just the same when the asylum was still running.

Lucy picked up the tripod and kept going, moving systematically through the building. The carpet up here was soft but whole and mostly unstained, while the one downstairs had been full of holes and black blotches of… who knew what. She found two little white switches at the end of the corridor and pressed one of them. To her surprise, the lights in four of the ten rooms came on. She clicked the second switch and the hallway light flickered once and then went off. Aren’t they supposed to cut electricity to these places? She flicked off the lights, folded up her tripod and started back down the hallway for the stairwell that led up to the third floor.

Just before she turned to start up the stairs, she glanced into the first room she’d photographed – the one directly opposite the stairwell, and saw that the door was shut. She hadn’t shut it, had she? No, no she was sure she hadn’t. Only she must have. She’d have heard it, otherwise. Squatter. Must be. Shit, I should have brought Jim.

            But it was better to be sure. If it was a squatter or drug addict or whoever, she’d just look in and get out before they could see the thousand dollar camera around her neck. Better to be sure.

The door opened easily, didn’t even creak, and there was no one inside. Now that she was looking into the room, she realised the closed door hadn’t been the only odd thing: the window wasn’t broken. She knew it had been – she’d taken a picture of the sunlight glinting off the jags in the glass. But it was solid now. And there was something else: the bed had been bare, nothing but a metal frame and a stained mattress when she was last there. Now it was fully made up, complete with a pillow and scratchy grey blanket.

‘Okay, this place is officially creeping me out,’ she spoke aloud. Usually, the sound of her own voice comforted her – it was why she tended to speak rapidly when she was scared, especially when she was by herself – but for some reason that wasn’t the case today. This time it just reminded her how alone she was.

She backed out of the room and closed the door. The sound of cars running by on the highway outside reassured her and she let out a sigh. It was noon, after all; the sun was streaming in from every window. One more floor and that was it, she promised herself. And maybe she wouldn’t come back after all.

She went up the stairs, trying to ignore the way her steps echoed against the concrete walls, and opened the door to the third floor.

The hallway was brightly lit, and when she stepped into it she saw that all of the doors were shut tight, save the one at the far end, which was slightly ajar. For some reason, she felt certain they were all locked, too. Someone coughed from inside one of them.

Lucy stood in the hallway, breathing in short gasps and trying to get herself under control. She’d already been up here, that was the thing. She’d come through here and looked in every room and seen the same kinds of things she’d seen on the first floor: holes in walls, worn carpets, broken windows. Some of these doors hadn’t even been here.

She turned to go back down the stairwell and saw that the door was closed, even though she’d been standing directly in front of it the entire time. She tried to open it, but it was locked. Oh God, what’s going on?

            She heard him before she saw him, a soft footstep on the carpet, and she spun around so fast she almost fell backwards. He put a hand up and took a step back down the hallway. ‘Hey now,’ he said, ‘it’s alright, Lucy.’

‘W… What? Who are you?’

‘My names, Gareth, remember? And she’s Lorraine.’ His eyes flicked over her shoulder and she looked around just long enough to see a woman, middle aged and squint eyed, standing with an overly enthusiastic smile in front of another door. Lucy backed up against the stairwell door. ‘Stop, just hang on. Who the hell are you?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ He looked genuinely hurt. ‘We take care of you. We’ve taken care of you for the last two years.’

‘What? Okay just… Hey, just get back!’ he’d been edging closer, but he stood straight now and put his hands up, as if in surrender. ‘Alright, alright. We just want to help.’

‘I don’t need help. You too!’ she snarled at the old woman, who also retreated a step. Her hands went behind her back but not before Lucy caught a glimpse of the syringe clasped in a well practiced grip between three fingers. ‘Hey! What’s that?’

‘Nothing, dear.’

She spun around and tried to wrench the stairwell door again – maybe it was just jammed – but it wouldn’t budge. The other two stood their ground, and when she turned back around the man was looking at her with something like pity in his eyes. ‘Lucy,’ he said. ‘Please.’

She moved to grab her camera, thinking only that she could throw it at one of them and make a break for the window at the end of the corridor – but when her fingers reached for the strap they closed on nothing. She looked down. Her camera was gone, and so was her tripod. Somehow they’d disappeared in the last few minutes.

‘Okay now, do you see? We don’t want to hurt you,’ he said.

‘What did you do with it? You took my camera! Jim! Jim!’ This last she screamed as the woman finally took her chance and ran for her, syringe brandished in one hand. Her expression was that of someone who was doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.

Lucy threw herself backwards in time to avoid it but the man caught her under the arms and held her up.

‘No! NO! Stop! I’m not from here, I don’t belong here! HELP! HELP MEEEE!’ She kicked and flailed and screamed, but somehow the old woman got the needle past her guard, and she felt something cold shoot along the veins in her arm.

She fought, she fought so hard, but her body betrayed her, her muscles slowed and relaxed. She rested on strong arms, staring at the too bright light on the ceiling, watching the shadows close in on the corners of her vision. ‘Jim…’ she whispered. ‘Help me, Jim.’

But he didn’t come, and soon she was fast asleep.

This is just me playing with myself. Uh, not literally. I mean you know, playing with themes and ideas and stuff. Anyway, it was all for fun, and when I read over it I realised it was actually not a bad story, too. I was split right in two minds about whether I should include those last scenes at the end or not. I’ll let you judge. Enjoy!

 

Main Character

By Ben Pienaar

 

He woke with a pounding head and a mouth dry enough to sand the splinters from a plank of wood. He rolled over, repressed the urge to vomit, and then pushed himself up against the wall.

It took a few moments to realise the pounding wasn’t all in his head.

‘Open up, buddy! Let’s not make this hard, okay?’

He was in a dingy one room apartment. The place looked like a… Oh, shit. His eyes had come to rest first on the loaded .38 in one corner of the dusty room, and second on the bloody knife half wrapped in bed linen just a few feet away.

Wait, how do I know that’s loaded? What the fuck happened last night? He thought the empty bottle of Jack lying beside an old desk could explain that, but then he realised he couldn’t remember the whole previous week. In fact, forget last week, what about last year? Last decade? He had no idea what he’d been doing his whole life. It was as if he’d just woken up today. A fine time for amnesia to strike.

‘Come on, Jack, there’s only one way out of there and we got it covered.’

Cops. It had to be. He’d murdered someone last night and the cops were here to pick him up. So why didn’t they just smash through the door? Maybe they thought he had a weapon. Shit, he should have a weapon.

Jack fought off fresh waves of nausea and crawled over to the .38, which was in fact loaded. He tucked it into his belt and used a short dressing table nearby to pull himself to his feet. The room spun wildly around him but he managed, somehow, to steady it.

When he forced his eyes to open wider than a squint he saw two things. The first was the victim, a huge guy – the kind of guy you see playing the villain’s muscle in the movies. He was pretty cut up, and his throat was opened in a big red grin. The floorboards were saturated with blood. Damn. No wonder this place is so trashed. The second thing was that the door wasn’t the only way out, after all. There was a small sliding window. Jack went over to it.

‘Stay the hell back, I’ve got a gun!’ he shouted at the door, using the sound of his voice to mask the bang as he wrenched the window up. He heard the guy on the other side relay the information to whoever he was with him. There were murmurs of worry. Good – the more reluctant they were, the longer he had to get out.

He stuck his head out of the window and looked down. Six stories. Broken legs if he jumped from here, for sure. Nothing but smooth brick all the way. The window was no way out. No way at all. He swore quietly. How had this happened? How the Christ had this happened?

He tried to remember things about his past, but all he could come up with were a few scenes in italics about his past in the army…

Wait. What the fuck was that thought? Scenes in italics? Who thought of their own memories in italics? That was the kind of thing you saw in a book. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. ‘You’re losing it, Jack.’

Only he wasn’t losing it, he was just starting to get it. He opened his eyes again and looked at his hands. He turned them over to see the palms, then turned them over again, and then again. They were different. The first time, his hands had looked… generic. Like anyone’s hands. They could have belonged to any one of millions of males in their twenties. But when he turned them over again, he suddenly noticed a deep scar on the back of his right hand that he swore hadn’t been there, and when he looked at his palms for the second time they were no longer smooth but rough and calloused.

‘What the hell?’

‘Listen we’re gonna be here all day and night if we have to be. You just come out in your own time, alright Jack?’

‘Stay the fuck back! I’ll kill you all!’

Come out in his own time. Yeah right. They probably had a swat team landing on the roof of the building right now. But how were they after him? If he’d only killed the guy last night, who tipped off the cops?

No one tipped them off, that was who. No one had to. The cops were there because it made things interesting. Because he was Jack Hunter and he was supposed to break out of here and go in search of the truth, and maybe cure his amnesia.

‘You’re thinking crazy, man.’ He went into the bathroom, swaying a little on his feet and trying to keep whatever was left in his stomach down. It was a dingy, mouldy old room with a cracked mirror, and when he looked in it he saw the face he pretty much expected. It was a hard, carved out of wood face. Square jaw, ice cold grey eyes, scars all over the place from a million fights. He knew the face, but he really didn’t recognize it. It was his, but he was certain he’d never seen it before.

‘Weird.’

There was more banging on the door, but it sounded almost half hearted. They were only trying to seem genuine, distracting him while the backup came.

Jack put a hand up to his face and felt his skin. Rough. Only… Was he really feeling it? Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. On impulse, before he even had time to think about it, he rammed his hand into the mirror, shattering it and spilling shards of bright glass all over the place. He pulled some glass out of his hand and winced. There was plenty of blood – and it sure felt like pain, but why was he so disconnected? Like the hangover, it was there when he thought about it, but… He looked at the wall for a minute, focusing on all the little cracks and fissures in the concrete. He inhaled dusty air and sneezed. The pain vanished. And now it was back.

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. The amnesia, the cops surrounding the building, the dead guy. And who had a name like Jack Hunter, outside of some noir action story? It had to be a noir action. His thoughts were made up of witty similes and dark cynicism. The city outside was vast and grey and rainy. I’m just a character in some goddam story.

No, no. It couldn’t be, because if it was, surely the writer would never allow him to think that. If he really was a character, the writer had full control of his thoughts as well as his actions – so why would he let him know so much? Why not just block it all from him and let him go ahead and get on with the story.

It’s some kind of experiment. He wants me to be real, as real as possible – only he made some kind of mistake, made me so real I saw through the thin world he created. It’s just a goddamn veneer, wool pulled over the eyes of everyone but me.

‘That’s right, asshole. Only you’re missing just one thing.’

Jack froze at the sound of the voice. It had come from the other room. It sounded raw, like someone with a very sore throat.

‘If it was a mistake, how come he didn’t just go back to the beginning and start over?’

Jack took a step towards the door and then stopped. He was supposed to go check it out, wasn’t he? So he didn’t. He stayed where he was, and before the voice could say anything else, he raised his arms above his head and spun around like a ballerina. ‘I feel pretty! Oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty, and freeee!’ He shouted at the top of his lungs, executing enthusiastic if awkward dance moves. He stopped and stood there, heart racing.

The cops from the door started up again. ‘Come on Jack, buddy, just calm down and come with us. We’re not here to hurt you or take you away anywhere. Just put the gun down and come with us.’

‘Fuck, fuck! I can say anything I want!’ Jack screamed from the bathroom.

There was a throaty chuckle from the other room. ‘Having fun in there?’

Jack looked at himself in the mirror again. There was still that same feeling of disconnection, the knowledge (growing more and more sure by the second) that he was in a story, but now he was also sure he was free. There was no way his character – a hardened man with a name like Jack Hunter and a military history – there was no way a character like that would do what he just did. And no one had tried to censor him, either. He hadn’t screamed Fudge, after all, and while that may not be proof by itself, it was something.

Finally, he stepped out into the other room.

The corpse – the big guy – was sitting up, and while his once white shirt had been pretty red before, now it was drenched black. The act of sitting must have caused some of the pooled blood in the back of his throat to seep out of the wound. He was smiling, and Jack noticed he was missing some teeth.

‘Heyy, Jacky boy. You made it.’

Jack said nothing, his teeth clenched. Whatever it was, it was just another game or trick put there by whoever was writing this to make him do something. Get him moving in the right direction.

‘That’s sorta right… Only not really. I’m here to help, Jacky boy.’

‘What the hell would you know? You’re just some thug.’

‘It ain’t the thug talking now.’ He made a sick choking noise and some more blood dribbled from his throat.

‘Way I see it,’ Jack said, ‘There’s only two ways about it. Either I’m just a character doing what I’m told, in which case there’s nothing I can do that I’m not supposed to anyway, or else I’m the only one in this world who’s not like that.’

‘Bingo,’ the corpse said.

‘Which one?’

‘Who’re you talking to in there, Jack?’ The voice started up outside. ‘You can talk to me, you know, I’ll help you out, I promise. There are some more friends coming who can help you out too, but they’re not as nice as me. Why don’t you talk to me instead?’

‘Touch that door and you eat bullets!’ Jack shouted at the door.

‘The latter,’ the corpse went on as though nothing had happened. ‘You’re the real one. The only real one around.’

‘No shit? What about you?’

‘This guy? He’s got even less of a past than you. He was born the moment he walked through that door, knowing only enough to make a few threats and get himself killed. He only existed so you could kill him, just like this room exists so you can be in it. Ha. He never even had a name.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘What does it matter? I’m not from your world. Point is. You’re real, Jack. You’re as real as they get, and you’re free, too.’

Jack opened his mouth to say something, and then things the corpse was saying struck home. He looked back at the window, thinking of the fall.

‘Go ahead,’ the corpse said. ‘I won’t stop you. I can, you know, but I won’t. It’s not my place.’

‘If that was true I wouldn’t be in this goddamn mess in the first place, asshole.’

‘I made you who you are, sure, but that’s the end of the story. You should be grateful, you’re a pretty capable guy, Jack.’

There was some kind of thumping going on in the ceiling. It occurred to Jack that he forgot to look up when he looked out the window, to see how far he was from the top of the building. For all he knew the roof was right above him.

‘I’m not stupid.’

‘I know.’

The voice outside, sounding a little more frantic now: ‘Jack, gimme a break okay? Just let me in the door and don’t shoot me, all I want to do is talk, alright?’

‘I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to break out of here, maybe kill some people in the process. I’ll bet a hundred bucks I’ve got a few decades of hand to hand combat training under my belt, and I’m not bad with a gun either.’

‘Well sure, look what you did to muscles over here.’

‘So why’d you give me all this? You want some kind of an action hero? I’m gonna escape this place and go find out all about my past? Maybe find someone I’m supposed to get revenge on, or whatever?’

The corpse shrugged. ‘You do what you want, Jacky boy. But hey, maybe there’s a love interest in it for you.’

Jack went over to the window and looked out again, this time twisting his body so he could look up. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the top apartment, otherwise the four SWAT guys rappelling down the side of the building would have reached him ten floors ago. He swore, ducked back inside and slammed the window shut.

‘Still time, Jacky, you’ll know what to do if you think hard enough.’

‘Oh yeah?’

Jack put a hand on his chest and closed his eyes. His heart was beating there, regularly and slowly. Of course it was. He was a stone cold killer, wasn’t he? No fear. Maybe he wasn’t even the good guy. Maybe it didn’t matter anyway, since everyone in this whole world was made of cardboard.

‘Fuck you,’ he said, then: ‘Fuck. You!’ He turned, took aim and fired. The sight of the corpse’s brains splattering all over the back wall, that wet sound, was so satisfying that he fired again and again into the now horizontal body. He fired all the bullets but one. The voices outside were screaming, and one of the SWAT guys came swinging in through the little window, boots first.

Jack could have beat them, even then, and he knew it. He could have disabled the first guy in a matter of split seconds, then used his gun to take care of whoever came afterward. Then it would just be a matter of the guys outside the door and disappearing into the vast city before anyone else could show up to the party. Hangover or no, he was calm and tensed, ready for the action. He was certain he could handle it. But why?

He was quick, too, and while the SWAT guy was still rising from a crouch and bringing his gun to bear, Jack stuck the .38 so far into his mouth it was practically touching his tonsils. ‘Fuck you’ he said (or meant to say – with a gun in your mouth everything comes out in vowels).

His last thought was: Before anyone else could show up to the party? Who thinks like that at a time like this? And then, loud and clear: THE END, Asshole.

He pulled the trigger.

 

The rest of the SWAT team landed while the first of them stood over the body, shaking his head. Once they saw the body, the others relaxed, lowered their guns, flicked off the safeties.

‘So close.’

‘What the fuck?’

‘Don’t beat yourself up, Jay, we went as quick as we can.’ A rough hand rested on his shoulder for a second and then fell away.

‘What the hell is going on in there?’ A frantic voice came from the hallway.

Still shaking his head, Jay stepped over the body, looked around the trashed but otherwise empty room and opened the door. A group of four guys in pale blue uniforms with nametags stared at him, shocked.

‘Oh, God,’ said one of them, a middle aged professor type with messy grey hair. His nametag said Daniel.

Jay shrugged and stepped aside, letting them come in and see for themselves. One guy stayed in the hall and leaned up against the wall, his eyes closed. Some people just couldn’t take it, Jay thought. He didn’t blame them.

Daniel was staring down at the body while the other SWAT guys stood around awkwardly. Tanner was radioing it in, in case they hadn’t heard it from the street. By the look on Daniel’s face, the dead guy was his own son. Jay stepped up beside him.

‘Friend of yours?’

‘Yes, very much. On his better days, anyway.’

‘You’re from a nuthouse, aren’t you?’

Daniel nodded without talking.

‘So what was his deal?’

‘He thought he was a character in a story. Just for short periods at a time. Sleep seemed to be the trigger and the finish of all his episodes. He had entire days where he was just as sane as you or I. Saner, even. Diggory Hermon. That was his name.’

‘Shit. A character in a story, huh?’

‘I had hope for him.’ Daniel put a hand to his forehead and turned away again. The ambulance sirens were loud and clear now – they sounded right outside the building.

‘I really had hope.’

The rough original plan for this was: Woman with mind reading abilities goes to a cemetery and accidentally reads the mind of a dead person. Goes insane as a result. In the end, I decided the idea just wasn’t good enough, and it sounded unoriginal. But by then the idea of a psychic reading the mind of a corpse was just too good not to write something about. This story was the tree that grew from that disturbing seed. Enjoy!

 

Bloody Mary

By Ben Pienaar

 

Rain spent a lot of time in cemeteries, because it was the only place she knew true silence. Anywhere else, unless she happened to be driving way out in the middle of nowhere for whatever reason, she’d get thoughts intrusively pushing their way into her mind. Obviously it was helpful in some ways, her thin talent allowing her to make a living as a live TV psychic, but more often than not it was just incredibly annoying. The problem being that ninety nine percent of the thoughts that were so determined to make themselves heard were completely useless and inane. The cemetery was blessed relief.

Until the day she heard a voice call out to her.

Voices had a direction, but it wasn’t the same as when someone called out to you on the street. It was more like having someone flick you on the back of the head in a crowded elevator. You had a pretty good idea who it was, but you weren’t certain unless you caught them in action. In this case, Rain was definitely not certain, because all of her instincts were telling her the voice was coming from underground.

‘Please…’

She looked around, startled. She knew it wasn’t spoken – people’s inner voices always had emotions attached that you could pick up with them. But someone had to be around for her to hear them. The cemetery was less than fifteen minutes from closing and she couldn’t see a soul.

‘I couldn’t go… isn’t there anyone there? Please.’

She listened hard, and the direction was more definite now. She would bet her bank account it was coming from the grave she’d just passed a second ago, the one marked MARY MARIE LESTER 1901 – 1945. She took a couple of steps back and stood in front of it, and for a while there was nothing else besides the sound of yellow leaves blowing across the concrete in a gentle breeze.

It was a cold day, and Rain started shivering. She turned to leave and it came again, as if sensing the movement. ‘Can you hear me?’

She spun around and stared at the grave. It was made of black granite, the letters once golden, now faded almost into obscurity. ‘Yes,’ she said, and then, when there was no reply, ‘YES!’ In her mind, as loud as she could. She’d never tried telepathy before.

‘Really? You can hear me?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m so lonely,’ the voice said. ‘I can’t go on, I don’t know why. I think if my body wasted away… but it’s taking so long. I’m afraid.’

‘God. You’re not alive?’ For some reason, she’d assumed the owner of the voice had to be alive still, some unfortunate soul buried in a false grave, maybe by the mob. The idea that she was talking to a real dead person made her want to scream and tear her hair out. Somehow, she held her ground.

‘No,’ the voice said. ‘They buried me too early though. Much too early. I’m so lonely. Won’t you… be my friend?’

‘I… yes of course I will. You poor woman.’

‘Will you take me out? Please, I’m suffocating in here. I just want to be out in the open, I want to see the world again. Won’t you dig me out? You’ve no idea how long I’ve waited…’

But she did, of course. If she’d died in 1944, then the woman talking to her right now had been buried for just on forty years. It was all madness. Usually the thoughts she picked up were meaningless half the time, snatches of songs or snippets of semi formed ideas or pictures – total gibberish. Yet here this dead woman was talking quite plainly to her as though they had bumped into each other on the street.

Rain was silent, her mind working as it always did, looking for some kind of opportunity. This dead woman was going to change the world, she was sure of it – she just didn’t know how yet.

‘Yes,’ she said, still thoughtful. ‘Don’t you worry any more, Mary. I’m going to take you home.’

 

Feeling like a child in a morbid game of hide and seek, she took her place behind an enormous crypt, huddling in a shadowy corner while the security drove the narrow roads, shutting and locking gates and checking for stragglers. She stayed there for another half hour after they left, just in case. When she finally stretched her legs and dusted herself off, the sun was well past the horizon and the air was several degrees colder.

She didn’t head back to the grave, but uphill to the back of the cemetery, where the maintenance shed stood in the shadows of overhanging oaks. It was locked, of course, but it was also shoddy and made of wood and a good sized rock took care of the rusty lock. It was the work of a few seconds to grab a hefty shovel and head back to the grave.

She hesitated for a moment in front of Mary Marie Lester’s grave. Am I mad? She thought. No, Margaret’s voice spoke in her mind. She wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or disturbed. In the end, she trusted her intuition as she always did, and began to dig.

 

Mary Marie Lester took up space (she couldn’t really be said to be living, after all) in Rain’s basement. She claimed not to need any creature comforts or food or anything else for that matter. All she needed was a little company. That she had plenty of, because Rain spent hours every day talking to her, sometimes teetering on the line between conversation and interrogation.

As she’d predicted, it wasn’t long before she discovered her big opportunity. As usual, they were talking about Mary’s life, trying to work out why she should have such a strong psychic presence and why she hadn’t been allowed to ‘pass on.’

‘I lived through the great depression, and I always thought it must have been what made my parents so… strange.’ She sat in a tall wooden chair that Rain had dragged down into the basement, her body slumped back in it, her head rolled back and the whites of her eyes staring at the ceiling. Considering how long she’d been under, her state of preservation was amazing. Her skin was grey and clung to the bone, but her teeth were all still there, if a little yellow and cracked. Her nails were an inch long and her hair still clung to her head in grey strands. She looks like the crypt keeper, Rain thought, and stifled a laugh.

‘You’ll see a depression soon enough, and it’ll be just as bad. Perhaps you’ll understand then.’ She spoke only with her mental voice, but now and again her jaw would move up and down and sometimes her teeth would click. Distracted, it was a few moments before what she’d just said struck Rain.

‘Wait, did you just say we’d see a depression? Soon?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do you know?’

‘In death, there is no time. Everything exists at once.’

‘I… Do you mean to say,’ Rain spoke slowly, hardly daring to believe it was possible, ‘that you can see everything? The past and future of the whole world?’

‘Not of myself. My own future ended when I died, so I can’t see that. The world of death is lost to me. Only the affairs of the living are visible, and the past.’

‘But you know what’s going to happen? You know there’s going to be another depression.’

‘There is always another depression,’ Mary clicked.

‘What else do you know? I mean, in the next, say year or so, what will happen?’

‘Well. What year is it?’

‘1984.’

‘Ah… I’m so glad to see Mr. Orwell was mistaken, and that there are no big brothers or great wars here.’

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Never mind.’

She began to talk, in that mind voice that was almost a whisper, and Rain grabbed a pen and paper and scribbled furiously for five minutes. When Mary stopped talking, she looked up. ‘That’s all this year? All that happens in the next six months, on those days?’

‘Yes,’ she sighed.

Rain looked down at the piece of paper on her lap. She had almost filled the page, a line of dates on the left side and corresponding events beside them. Many things were useless to her, only mildly interesting if they were true. But amidst the useless tidbits of information, she had the following:

  • An East Rail train derails between Sheung Shui and Fanling stations, Hong Kong.
  • A series of explosions at the Pemex Petroleum Storage Facility at San Juan Ixhuatepec, in Mexico City, ignites a major fire and kills about 500 people.

 

  • San Diego: 41-year-old James Oliver Huberty sprays a McDonald’s restaurant with gunfire, killing 21 people before being shot and killed himself.

 

‘And you’re sure of all this?’

‘Yes, yes.’

She forced herself to talk a little longer, but eventually her itching mind won out and she told Mary she had to ‘work’. Up in the kitchen, she flipped open her laptop and within minutes had signed up to wordpress and started her very first blog. It was entitled: The Psychic Predictions of Rain Carmen. She titled her first post: 1984, June – December, and carefully transcribed everything Mary had told her.

She clicked publish, but didn’t bother to check if anyone would follow. It would be a long process at first, but just because she was greedy didn’t mean she was impatient. Besides, there was a lot of work to do.

Over the following months, Rain began to make posts daily, extracting every bit of major future news from Mary along the way, enduring her life stories with patience in return. The followers were few and far between at first, but then her predictions began to come true. And they were true to the letter – Mary didn’t get a detail wrong. It was as if there was some phantom calendar filled with all the poignant events of history that she could read at will.

By the time Rain was writing about the tragic death of Princess Diana, she had thousands of followers and dozens of offers to appear on television and radio and give live predictions. By the time she predicted the fall of the twin towers, she was world famous.

All the while, Mary seemed oblivious, and even while she was discreetly transported (in a box labelled ‘equipment’) to Rain’s new Florida mansion, she took to the new basement like it was the same place. She rotted in her chair and whispered endless, repeating stories, while Rain prodded her all the while for events in the coming years.

Then the rotting became a problem.

Rain first noticed it only in Mary’s manner. She began to talk in slow, meandering sentences that made less and less sense, as though she were drifting in and out of sleep. At last, when an unnerving silence fell between them, Rain asked her about it.

‘Oh, dear. I think I’m finally beginning to rest. It’s you, Rain, you’ve been such a good friend. You’re putting this old girl to rest at last.’

‘What do you mean?’ she said softly, trying to keep the alarm out of her voice.

‘I’m not lonely anymore… I’ve been feeling so warm and comfortable lately. I feel I’m going. I can’ thank you enough, Rain, I really can’t. You gave me what I never had in life – friendship. And now you’re going to give me peace, and I can never repay you. I’m sorry.’

You better be sorry you bitch! I’m not even close to done with you. I need predictions good for the next hundred years. I’ll be treated like a Queen all my life and remembered for ever as the one true psychic, and you won’t take it away from me. I won’t let you. Somehow, Rain managed to drown this thought in a flood of others, masking it from the corpse’s ever sensitive mind. Even so, the rotten head lolled on her shoulders and the white eyes rolled in their sockets.

‘Rain? Is it all right?’

‘Of course, yes I’m sorry about that, it was all so shocking, you know? I thought I’d have you forever, Mary.’

The black lips twisted at the corners into the smallest of smiles. Mary’s body hadn’t changed in the first months, but that had come along with her change in behaviour. The earthy, almost floral smell had darkened to something more resembling a stench and more black flaps of skin were hanging from the yellowing bone by the day. It was bad.

Rain had no choice but to turn to her only recourse, the only hope she’d ever had when it came to things of the spiritual realm. Her bible, a thick dusty tome entitled: The Natural Supernatural. To her knowledge it was the only book that wasn’t full of rubbish. It had helped her learn about her own innate psychic powers, and it had told her all about what kind of Ghoul Mary was. In retrospect, she should have seen it coming. If the business of a troubled undead came to a close, the undead became dead. Rest in Peace, end of story. If there was any way to stop it, it was in the book.

She found it alright, flipping fast through the pages and scanning the words in a fever, knowing that every second the old bird and her dead vision was getting away from her. When she found out what she had to do, she dropped the thing like it had turned white hot. The pages flicked over and the book closed by itself, and the pair of empty eyes engraved in the leather cover stared back at her. Not before she had one sentence fixed in her mind, however – branded there and likely to scar: Only an infusion of the most youthful blood will prolong the life of the resting undead.

 

She brought the first glass of it to Mary less than a week later, her hand shaking slightly. ‘It’s a tomato juice,’ she said brightly, tipping it down Mary’s tilted open mouth. She half expected it to pour out of a hundred holes in the deteriorating corpse, but somehow it didn’t. ‘I thought it might liven you up a little. It always does the trick for me, after all.’

And it did, oh, it livened her up alright. For the next three months, Rain brought Mary a tomato juice every day and it was like watching a snuff film in reverse. At first it was only subtle changes: her limbs a little more mobile and less stiff; her eyes moving and focusing rather than rolling; her skin a bit fuller. Then one day Rain descended into the basement to deliver the daily juice and receive the daily news for her television show – Looking Ahead with Rain – and saw Mary standing up.

Rain almost dropped the glass when she saw the empty chair, and then she heard a shuffle and caught sight of the crooked upright form in the corner. ‘My God! You gave me a fright, Mary! I thought you were… gone.’

She came close to dropping the glass again when, instead of hearing Mary’s voice in her head, the old bat open her mouth and spoke. Her once black teeth were now mostly yellow. ‘What is it? What is in the glass?’ She had the voice of a lifelong smoker. Or someone with rotted vocal chords, Rain supposed. She put the glass down on the table.

‘Just tomato juice, dear. Don’t you like it?’

‘Rubbish. There’s something in it. Look at me, just look at me.’

The once sagging flaps of skin on her chest seemed almost to be filling out. Her hair was still grey and ragged, but it was thicker on her scalp. She’s coming back! Rain’s mind screamed madly in her head, and for once she forgot to mask the thoughts from the other woman. She’s going to come all the way back!

‘I… You look good.’

‘Rain, I owe you my… I suppose I owe you my death, rather than my life, but God, that’s just as important to me. But whatever you’re doing… it can’t be right. It’s not natural. It has to stop.’

‘You don’t mean that. It’s like you said, look at yourself. Just think, Mary, you could have it all back again, a real life! It’s your right, after all, isn’t it? To take back what was taken from you?’

The corpse – Rain was still having trouble thinking of her as anything but a corpse, though she had a feeling that would change soon – just looked at her. It was unnerving. Eventually she let out what sounded almost like a sigh and returned to the table to sit down. When Rain gave her the juice, she dutifully drank it down. Rain made a mental note to start experimenting with the mixture. If Mary’s tastebuds started to come back…

‘Alright,’ Mary said, her black tongue flicking out to lick her lips. ‘What do you want to know?’

A week later, Mary’s progress seemed to slow and then stop. When she started noticing signs of reversal, Rain started giving her three glasses of ‘tomato juice’, now also mixed with liberal amounts of actual tomato juice, a day. The reversal stopped, and a month later Mary was frighteningly alive, sometimes pacing as she answered questions, her hands clasped behind her back or in her lap, her back straight instead of bent, streaks of black now visible in the grey hair. At her request, Rain brought her a black dress of hers – she was beginning to feel self conscious in her nakedness.

And all the while the predictions went on. Rain’s live television show continued, and each day she made predictions about the following day, all taken from an exercise book she kept full of notable events and dates, several for every day starting in June 1984 and currently up to December 2035. Some people critiqued the show, pointing out that many of her predictions never came true. This was in fact the case, but it was only because the events were always tragedies, and by now the police were taking her seriously enough to prepare for them.

In November 1987, Jeffrey Dahmer’s hotel room was suddenly infiltrated by a SWAT team just as he was standing over the unconscious body of Steve Tuomi with a hammer raised over his head.

In April, 1988, Kuwait airways flight 422 suffered an attempted hijacking, which was thwarted by six undercover policemen who happened to be on the flight.

In December, 1989, the residents of Newcastle, Sydney prepare for an earthquake despite there being no warnings from meteorologists. No one dies when it hits.

These things all happen, but many things also go wrong: massacres and murders, death and destruction, some of which Rain predicts – the people involved either don’t believe her, don’t care, or in the case of mass revolutions and riots, have no control over or don’t want to change. Some she doesn’t predict, and she admits humbly that much of the future is dark to her. It is an immense effort just to see the things she does.

Some things don’t happen at all: in August 1991, Wade Frankum watches Rain’s show predicting the Strathfield massacre. The following day passes uneventfully, and a week later he dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

 

‘What you are doing is amazing,’ Mary said one day, thoughtfully sipping her tomato juice. Her voice was only a little scratchy now; her skin still rotted and black but now fully covering her body. ‘Every day I look into the future I see something different to what was there before. The world is getting brighter, thanks to you. You will have to change many things I’ve told you – they won’t happen any more. People are listening closely to what you say.’

‘Thanks to you, Mary.’ Inwardly, she was cursing. Mary might be on the moon, but she didn’t realise what it meant for them. If her future predictions were becoming inaccurate because of what people were doing now, she’d never be free of this corpse – She’d be dependent on her for the rest of her life. And Mary was already getting restless, beginning to walk around the house despite Rain’s caution that she might be seen. What would happen if she decided to leave, take credit for everything? If she kept getting better people might even mistake her for a living person, and then what? Maybe she’d reveal Rain for a fraud and take over. Maybe she’d find out about the tomato juice and make it for herself. Maybe Rain would fill the grave that Mary was made for. What then?

After that, Rain started mixing more and more tomato juice into the cocktail, now adding a little vodka and a stick of celery, that at Mary’s request. ‘I always liked bloody Mary’s, she said with a smile. ‘You know, because of my name. They’re good, too. I think I’m starting to taste again. I think I’m starting to feel alive.’ Rain didn’t like the way her eyes shone when she said that, not at all.

She stopped her show and kept to her website instead, and now she only predicted one event a day, claiming that the future was becoming dark to her and she could only see some things. People were surprisingly understanding, many even claiming it was a good thing, and that the future was something no one should know anyway. There was hate mail, as always, and people claiming God was taking away her witch powers and would exterminate her soon. There were death threats, but weren’t there always? If anyone was serious, Mary would tell her well ahead of time.

‘Are they changing? Are people really changing?’ Mary asked her once. ‘Sometimes the future looks so peaceful, and then… I see something else, more evil. You’ll stop it, won’t you, if I keep telling you?’

‘Of course, Mary! That’s the whole point, isn’t it? I mean, we can’t bring world peace, but there is so much we have the power to change. So much. Now drink up.’

‘Good, good.’ But Mary wasn’t so good lately. Rain watched with satisfaction as she began to deteriorate little by little. The pacing stopped and she was restricted to the chair more often than not, her skin drying out and turning from light green back to black. A couple of teeth fell back out and her eyes returned to their dim milky white.

After almost six months of trial and error, Rain had arrived at the perfect mixture for the bloody Marys, and Mary stopped changing altogether. She was alive enough to be useful, and just dead enough not to be trouble.

‘Do you think I’m going? Do you think I’m finally dying?’ she asked Rain.

‘Maybe. I’m not sure. I haven’t changed the mixture.’

‘God. What’s in it, Rain? Why won’t you tell me?’ Her head rolled on her shoulders and her teeth clicked. Rain felt those cold fingers picking at her mind, but she kept the truth of the Bloody Marys locked in a dark box in the back of her mind, and Mary would never find it.

‘Please don’t do that, Mary. I’m sorry, it’s just, you really don’t want to know. You told me once you were never adventurous with your food. How would you like it if I told you there were crushed spiders or pureed fish eyes or something?’

‘There isn’t, is there?’

‘Not any of those, but think about it, how tasty could the ingredients of a drink be that does such unnatural things? You know what kind of things go in a witch’s brew.’

She let out a sigh. ‘I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t seem to work well any more. I won’t have to drink it for much longer, anyway.’

‘We’ll see.’

 

Rain was out of the house most of the time, but in her current state Mary was in no position to explore the way she used to. She was so tired, lately. So bone tired – dead tired. They’d done all they could, surely? She’d told her so much, the future was changed for good, couldn’t she die now? Rain wouldn’t begrudge her that, would she?

But first, she had to know.

Mary was plenty worse off than she had been at the height of her revival, but she wasn’t quite as helpless as Rain thought she was. The truth was, her taste buds had come back for long enough for her to know that Rain was changing the mixture, lessening it, degrading her on purpose. And why? Mary thought she knew – she’d also seen more of Rain’s mind than the selfish girl would have her believe. It made her uneasy, that. A woman that could turn the lives of others so easily to their own purposes without remorse could only mean trouble.

So one day, when Rain was out somewhere, (who knew where? Fame had made her a popular woman indeed) she stretched her arms and legs, wincing at the cracks her old bones made, and stood up. Rain would have been shocked to see it, and it wasn’t easy, but… she had to know.

Mary opened the basement door and headed up the stone steps. She’d seen plenty of the house when she’d been more lively, but she hadn’t really looked, then. She’d only wandered around, thinking and looking out of the windows, wondering if she’d ever really see the world again. The thought had given her such hope, then. Her consciousness always at war with herself, half saying she needed it, she deserved it, the other saying there was something too wrong about it, something unnatural and false. But she couldn’t make the decision until she knew the truth. She began the search.

It did not take long to find it. After all, there were only three places one would really keep potential ingredients for a bloody Mary, and they were all in the kitchen. There was the vodka on the marble counter, two empty bottles and one half full with a shot glass for measuring. She opened the fridge and saw the celery and the carton of tomato juice. The pantry showed her the Tobasco. So where else could she look?

Rain had a freezer, its big metal door the same size as the fridge, and when Mary tried to open it she saw a heavy padlock. She didn’t have blood to run cold, or a heart to beat faster, but she felt the fear all the same. Why on earth would someone lock a freezer? There were no servants maintaining the mansion, which was unusual in itself: there was only Mary and Rain.

She searched the kitchen briefly, without much hope. Of course Rain kept the key on her – it was the only logical thing. And if she had a spare, wouldn’t she have stashed it carefully away, especially when Mary had been up and about?

But I’m not like that, anymore, Mary told herself. And she makes me a Bloody Mary every morning. Every morning, she has to pull out the ingredients and put them back again. She might have kept the key far away at first, but for how long before she got lazy?

Hardly daring to hope, Mary reached up and felt along the top of the freezer, standing on tiptoes. She brushed something, grabbed it, and brought it down. The key.

She pushed it into the padlock and heard the satisfying click as it came unlocked. The freezer door opened a crack and icy air spilled out into the kitchen.

Mary hesitated. I don’t want to see anymore, she thought. I don’t care. I won’t drink anymore anyway – she can’t make me. Then we’ll see how good she really is, how selfless and caring. What can she do, anyway, kill me?

She laughed, winced at the sickening crackle of it, and turned from the freezer. She didn’t move.

She had to know.

The freezer was a walk in, as it turned out. There were no shelves inside – the door simply opened into a long room with the dimensions of a generous bathroom. The floor and walls were concrete, and when she opened the door a tiny fluorescent light came on, illuminating everything in pale white.

She was looking down at first, not really wanting to see it all at first, and she knew then that she must have suspected it, deep down. So she saw the trails of blood first. Dots and lines leading to large puddles of frozen black blood. Then she looked up and saw that the puddles were centered under hanging bodies – six of them – hanging from metal hooks.

They were children. She stood at the entrance to the freezer in a state of shock, feeling empty. Her emotions were sucked from her the same way a tsunami sucks the water from the beach before it comes thundering in. There was a boy here, ten years old maybe, and opposite him a girl who’d yet to see her fifth birthday. And dear lord, that one looked like it was barely old enough to walk.

Parts of them were sawn off, and the saw that did the job was hanging on a hook to her right. Just little bits. Fingers and toes and little chunks of flesh. Bite sized morsels.

Mary thought of the tomato juice in a glass: the thickness of it and the way it clung to the sides. She thought of the horrible sour taste she’d begun to detect as her tastebuds regenerated. She pictured Rain fixing her a tall Bloody Mary every morning, microwave humming in the background as it heated and softened a severed heap of flesh, letting the blood leak out and simmer in a bowl. Oh. Oh God.

Somewhere in another world, she heard a car crunching up the gravel driveway.

 

Rain knew there was something wrong the moment she closed the front door behind her, but it was several moments before she could put her finger on it. There was that smell, for one thing, that sickening, familiar smell of microwaved human meat. And the air was too cold inside. Hadn’t she put the heater on before she left?

When she realised what happened, she could only stare at the kitchen door, keys dangling from one hand, dumbfounded. Surely not, she thought, surely not. If Mary had really found her… stash, the last thing the sweet and innocent girl would have done would be to go ahead and mix herself a fresh cocktail. Rain was a good judge of people – after a lifetime of mind reading how could she not be? And Mary Lester was the kind of girl who would lose her mind, go absolutely mad at the sight of the bodies in the freezer. She must have been desperate.

            She let out the breath she’d been holding, prepared herself for a confrontation, and pushed open the kitchen door. The smell hit her a little stronger in here and she wrinkled her nose.

There was no one there. The freezer door was wide open, just as she suspected. The microwave door was also open, and the inside was splattered with red. ‘Oh my God, she actually did it.’ The sound of her own voice in the silence was unnerving.

‘Mary?’ she said, stepping closer to the freezer but not quite daring to look inside just yet. She darted back to the counter and grabbed a knife out of the cutlery drawer, just in case. She wasn’t sure if it would do anything to a dead woman, but it was better than nothing. There was no reply, and she approached the freezer door again, more confident now.

She was tempted to lunge for the door and swing it shut, but then she’d have the old corpse locked in there, and she’d either have to risk letting her out or freeze her completely. ‘Shit. Listen to me, Mary, please. I know it looks bad… I mean it is bad, it’s horrible and evil I know, but before you make any decisions you might regret just think about all the lives we’ve saved, you and I. Believe me when I tell you it’s in the thousands. Thousands of lives we’ve saved, and we’ll save thousands more, and all at the cost of only six.’

She had a prickling on her neck and looked around the room. It was possible Mary wasn’t in the freezer. She should check the rest of the house first. No – room by room was safest. She went back again and shut the kitchen door tightly. The door to the basement stairs was already closed, so if Mary came in behind her she’d hear her in time.

‘Tell me that’s not worth it,’ she said, approaching the freezer. ‘Tell me thousands of lives aren’t worth six and I know you’re lying.’

She stepped into the threshold and stared down the length of the freezer. It was empty. Of course it’s empty! Why would she leave it to make herself a bowl of blood and then hide in there? She’d be expecting me to…

She whirled around in time to see the cupboard underneath the sink explode outwards with a deafening crash. Mary charged, her face snarling and covered in blood. She moved with frightening speed, but there were several steps to cross and Rain had the knife up with plenty of time to spare. She sunk the blade straight into Mary’s heart as they collided.

Rain went flying back into the freezer, sliding over the slick floor until her head knocked the back wall. She stared at Mary, dumbfounded, and watched as the old corpse pulled the six inch blade out of her chest as though it were a splinter. A single stream of thick black ooze spilled from the wound.

‘No, wait!’ Rain struggled to her feet, but it was too late. Mary stepped back and slammed the freezer door shut on her. The key clicked in the lock.

Oh God no, this can’t be happening, this cannot be happening. She stood in the dark. Mary’s voice came to her from the other side of the door after a minute of terrifying silence.

‘Did you kill them?’

It took her another minute to realise what she was asking. Of course I killed them, you crazy bat! But when she did relief flooded in. ‘No!’ she almost shouted, already shivering badly in the cold. ‘I got them – stole them from a morgue. It was wrong, I know, it was wrong, but the book said only youthful blood would work! I’ll return them, I promise.’

‘I will see.’

For the next half hour, there was nothing but silence from outside, and Rain huddled in a ball at the back of the freezer, rubbing her arms furiously. Her fingers and toes were going numb, even though she’d put on long pants and a jacket before going out. It was impossibly cold.

‘You lied!’ She jumped hard enough to knock her head on the wall when Mary screamed through the door at her.

‘I used your computer, I checked! I recognized the boy and girl! They were reported missing years ago!’

‘You what? How?’

‘I’m not stupid. Just because I died before you were born doesn’t mean I can’t learn what you do with that black box after watching you every day. I know how the world works. I was going to sleep and you didn’t want me to, did you?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just saw all the good we could do! And we did do good, Mary! We did so much good! Please let me out, I’m freezing to death in here.’

‘Mary?’

‘Mary, Please! I swear I’ll confess to everything, I’ll do whatever you want! No one else has to die! I already worked it out – those six bodies will last a hundred years!’ That wasn’t true – they’d last more like ten, but Mary wouldn’t know that.

‘You’ll do anything I want?’ If she hadn’t been pressed up against the freezer door, Rain wouldn’t have heard the words, spoken so softly. Hope rushed through her.

‘Yes, God yes, anything at all.’

‘Die.’

‘Mary? Please. We can change the world.’

‘Mary?’

‘MARY!’

‘Oh, God.’

 

The list of missing persons in Rain’s area dropped from six to one in a single day. The one was of course Rain herself, and after seeing the contents of her freezer no one was surprised on that front. The media went mad. Rain’s fame as a philanthropist had risen her to such heights it might as well have been Mother Theresa revealed as a cannibal killer – of children, no less.

How could someone who had done so much good be so evil? Yet even the doubters had to admit that the presence of the corpses in her home and the blood stained microwave, coupled with her subsequent disappearance, was incriminating.

Less than six months later, the website for Looking Ahead with Rain published. And it was no paltry day or two of events either, but a list of every major event and catastrophe that was to come for over a hundred years, along with a short but detailed description for each. People who had yet to be born were accused of mass murder, terrorists and war criminals named, and disasters that no one expected to happen ever, let alone within the next century, were sited. The list stopped at the year 2100, but not before predicting that, as a result of the list, many would believe the year 2100 to be the apocalypse, but that this was in fact, not the case.

The website was never updated again, and Rain was never found. During the course of their investigations police found human tissue in Rain’s basement that matched that of Mary Lester. Her absence had gone unnoticed, the grave neatly filled, but when investigators dug the well turned earth they discovered that her body, it seemed, had also disappeared. Some speculated that Rain had been murdered by a vigilante – there had been so shortage of death threats sent her way since her very first prediction – and the police finally admitted the theory held a lot of water. Rain’s hefty bank account went to her only next of kin – a brother who hadn’t spoken to her in years and who’d lived in Australia for all of them – while the safe in her bedroom had been opened and emptied on the day of her disappearance.

Far, far away, on a crystal beach in the middle of the pacific, a beautiful woman reclines on a polished wooden deck chair. She closes the laptop she had open in front of her and lays it on the sand beside her, marvelling at the progress of technology. In her day only the most powerful governments even knew what a computer was; now every other person has one of their own.

It is a fascinating world indeed, and the more she thinks of it, the more Mary decides Rain had a point after all – it wouldn’t be right for her to go to sleep just yet. She had so much to catch up on.

Smiling at the prospect, she leans back and watches the warm Mediterranean sea sparkle and shift before her, the sunlight glancing off the water like a million brilliant stars. She takes a long sip of the Bloody Mary she brought down with her, closes her eyes, and thinks of the future.

 

I think everyone’s experienced the central theme here: a sense of social suffocation. You feel you must impress the people you’re with, or at least avoid their judgement, and so must be on your best behaviour. Eat with a straight back and hold the knife and fork correctly; be painfully polite and have impeccable manners; smile and answer questions. If you’re like me, your behaviour is the result of a polite mask you acquire, while inside you suffocate, slowly. Or maybe I’m just a psychopath… Anyway, enjoy!

 

Matriarch

By Ben Pienaar

 

If a stranger looked in during the evening, they would see the family of five sitting around a fire in the living room: the straight backed mother focused on her knitting, the father perhaps still in his suit and reading a book about politics or history; the sixteen year old son perhaps also reading or maybe just sitting in intense thought; the fifteen year old daughter helping her ten year old sister work on a puzzle laid out on the floor. The stranger would probably grow bored very quickly and move on. The horror of the situation would be lost on all but the most perceptive.

The sixteen year old son was Cedric Dillon, and on the evening in question he was fighting a fierce internal battle with his mother. As usual, it was short lived, and he exhausted himself within minutes. If the stranger had looked very closely just then, he might have seen a single tear well up and roll down the boy’s cheek.

‘Cedric,’ Agatha said, only the smallest hint of annoyance present in her voice, ‘why don’t you play a game of chess with your father?’

That was the end of it, of course. It took every ounce of focus and effort just to put up the slightest resistance to her, every bit of willpower. After a game of chess he’d be drained completely. It was amazing she even let him try anymore, though he knew why she did: having him sit quiet and motionless was her way of punishing him, and of reminding him how little power he had. She knew how badly the boredom got to him, how it suffocated him.

His head nodded and his arms pushed him up out of the soft couch.

‘Sounds like a plan. We’ll see how you’ve improved,’ his father said, standing and moving to the little table in the corner, where an ornate ivory chessboard was set up. He didn’t answer, letting his legs walk him over to the table and sit him down. She could make him shut up and she could change the words that came out of his mouth, but she’d never been able to make him speak. For whatever reason, that was still his.

They played a long game, and by the end of it Colleen and Janet had both gone up to bed, stopping to give Agatha a kiss and a cheerful goodnight. Cedric smiled whenever they did that, knowing that when each of them opened their mouths they were cursing her in their own way, screaming bloody hate in her face. She changed what came out, of course, but in order to do that she had to know what was going to come; she heard every horrendous word.

‘Good game, son,’ his father said, checkmating him. ‘I should get to bed, though. It’s a big day tomorrow and I can’t wait to snatch a little sleep and get started. See you bright and early tomorrow morning!’ Cedric could tell from the robotic way he spoke that she wasn’t making him say it. As his father kissed Agatha goodnight and ascended the stairs, Cedric sighed. James Dillon was broken. He was the sheep that no longer tried to scale the fence, only grazed peacefully on the bland dry grass in the paddock and waited for slaughter.

While he was thinking this his body had lifted him up and walked him over to Agatha’s rocking chair. She put down her half knitted scarf and looked up at him. She only ever looked at him that way: tight lipped, her hair pulled into a vicious bun. Sometimes he wondered, if he cut her bun off, whether the skin on her face would sag and fall off her skull.

‘How many nights must we go through the same thing? How many times must we learn the same lesson? Mmm?’ She was giving him free reign to speak, he could feel it, but he said nothing. Instead he used the brief freedom to scowl at her.

‘You were ever a stubborn boy, Cedric. But I am just as stubborn and luckily for you, not only do I have the power but I am also right and you are wrong. My way of life is the happiest way for all of us. I will remain persistent, and one day you will see the truth of it. One day, when you’re a wealthy lawyer – or perhaps Doctor or even politician, I haven’t decided yet – and when you have a big house and a beautiful wife and children. All of it will be because of me and you will thank me for it and be grateful. It is only unfortunate I’ll need to wait so long for your gratitude.

Fuck your gratitude you old whore!

‘Thankyou, mother, of course you’re right, as always,’ he said, an apologetic smile stretching his face.

Now it was her turn to scowl. ‘I’ve a mind to give you a stern punishment for that. In fact I think I will, but we should wait for the school holidays, so I needn’t be afraid of leaving marks.’

Once, when his father still had some fight left in him, they’d managed to communicate enough to organise a sort of mutiny against her. Mr. Dillon had even grabbed her around the neck with both hands at one point, but in the end the whole thing had been finished in under a minute. They had all filed into the kitchen and cut each other with knives while she watched, unflinching, until the effort of it had leeched her anger away. All of them still got nightmares about that. In fact Cedric was convinced that had something to do with her as well – her reaching into their dreams and warping them to her purposes. There was no escape.

‘Yes mother.’ She gave him a funny look. She hadn’t made him say the words, this time, and neither was she forcing the smile on his face now.

‘Perhaps you will learn, after all,’ she said. ‘But all for another day. Bed now.’

‘Yes mother,’ he said again, and his body took him upstairs, his hands brushing his teeth too hard, mechanically, and changing him into his pyjamas.

He had a room on his own now, the two girls sharing bunk beds in the next one over, and once he was lying face up in the darkness, eyes shut, he was perfectly alone. Usually it stayed like this all night: his body stuck in the same stiff position, motionless until morning. An itchy nose or an exposed foot could keep him up all night, but exhaustion almost always won over in the end. Tonight, however, was different.

It happened late, well after midnight, though he couldn’t be sure. Something woke him up – a sense of… relaxation. She’s asleep, he thought. He’d felt it only once before a few months ago, and when it happened then he’d fought her viciously, pushing off the covers and trying to throw himself out of the window. She’d woken up and regained control in seconds, and they’d been up the rest of the night. The punishment for that attempt had been the worst he’d ever suffered at her hands.

This time, he didn’t fight. Instead he gave her a kind of mental nudge, and wriggled the fingers on his right hand. Nothing. No resistance. He did the same with his left and got the same result. Adrenaline rushed into him and he forced himself to calm down. After years of fighting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Cedric had no shortage of willpower.

After an hour, he was sitting up in bed and making, slow, easy movements with his arms and legs. The idea, he figured, was not to surprise her. He would push her aside just as he was now pushing aside his blanket, letting her roll away without any sudden movements. It was incredible he’d got this far – how much further would he push it? All the way, he thought. I’m going to push it all the way.

            Another hour passed but it was still the dead of the night when he was on his feet beside the bed. The air was ice cold but his movements were unhindered, unwatched – he was free! He shivered. How long would it last? And what could he do? What should he do?

Kill her.

But he had no idea how his father would react. He hadn’t known his true father for years, only the happy puppet his mother paraded about the house. For all he knew he’d collapse in grief and then call the police. Or even murder him for revenge.

So what, Run? There’s nowhere to go, and for all you know distance makes no difference. After all, she can still control you at school. Maybe she’ll just turn you around in the morning and march you right back home.

            Kill her. It’s the only way.

His inner voice whispered these thoughts to him as he tiptoed out of his room and downstairs to the kitchen. He was being quiet, but he wasn’t so much worried about making noise – but about setting off some unseen tripwire. He’d spent years trying to work out exactly what her powers were, but he was sure he didn’t know even half of her tricks. If he walked into the wrong room she might wake up suddenly, a silent alarm ringing loud in her mind. But if that was the case, surely she would have woken up as soon as he left his room?

He cocked his head outside his parents’ bedroom door and listened. Only soft breathing, no movement. Not that she’d need to get out of bed to bring him to heel anyway – and he was still free. He smiled and started down the stairs.

A glance out of the ground floor window, along with the still bright embers of the fire, told him there was plenty of time before dawn. He resolved to take his time, moving as slowly as possible and keeping his eyes half closed all the while, his mind relaxed. If she stirred in her sleep and checked on him, perhaps he could trick her with his thoughts into thinking he was still asleep. While he lifted a knife from the rack by the sink he was visualising himself in bed, thinking of the soft covers and warmth, trying to make his thoughts fragmented and dream like.

It took him another hour to reach the bedroom door with the knife, and still she had not woken. He was drenched in icy sweat now, his whole body tense. This door had to be it: the alarm that would wake her up. He closed his fist around the knob and turned it, slowly. The door swung open, creaking a hundred times louder in the silence and tension. The lumps in the bed didn’t stir.

The smell of varnished wood hit him, stronger than in the rest of the house, and also the mothball stench that seemed to follow her around wherever she was. It made his head dizzy.

He stepped into the room, taking infinite care with every step, until he was right by her bedside. He could see his father’s blank face beside her. She was lying on her back, blanket drawn up to her neck, breathing slowly.

Cedric brought the knife up and stared at it, hypnotised for the moment at the way it shone with moonlight. The leafy oaks outside the window swayed in the wind, masking his sigh. This was it, as close as any of them had ever come – probably as close as they ever would come. It was all up to him.

He leaned over her, knife poised just above her chest, and took a deep breath. He wanted to say something, some final, bitter goodbye, but it might wake her up in time. He was risking enough as it was. It was time to finish it.

He pushed down on the knife. Nothing happened. It stayed exactly where it was, poised just a couple of feet above her. He pushed again, even resting some of his weight on the back of it, but it was as though he were trying to push the blade through solid steel.

That was when her eyes opened.

Cedric stopped pushing and stared into them, and in those moments his body and mind paused save a single, all-encompassing terror: I’m dead.

He still fought her, at the end, and to his credit he managed to slow her down. The knife turned, inexorably, but instead of turning with it his wrists stayed where they were and the bones in them snapped one by one as the knife performed a full one eighty to look him in the eye.

He could have lifted a car with the strength he exerted to fight her, but her power was not physical in the first place and the blade approached his right pupil, wrists bent at obscene angles. When it pierced his cornea, he didn’t stop fighting, but a centimetre later his mind was lost in a lake of pain and his only desire was for it all to end. He gave in.

 

***      ***      ***

 

James Dillon woke up as the bright rays of dawn shone in through the window. Agatha had already been up and opened it, and the breeze hit his face, bringing coolness and country fragrances that never failed to cheer him up, however short lived the feeling was. He got dressed and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

He always treasured these few moments of freedom afforded him. As time went, he noticed Agatha’s grip loosening somewhat, especially with all the recent spats she’d had with Cedric. As long as he did what he knew he was supposed to do, she’d let him get on with it. He made sure to comb his hair and clean his teeth.

Downstairs, the others were gathered around eating breakfast, Agatha at the head of the table as usual. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down. He smiled at everyone, and they smiled back.

It was bright and cheerful as usual, and only when James looked across at Cedric did his smile falter for the first time. Luckily, he regained it before Agatha could glare at him.

Cedric’s eye was a bloody mess, and it was very fresh by the looks of it. Must have happened during the night at some point. The left side of his face was a mess of black, gummy blood. ‘Hello father,’ he said. ‘Awake at last?’

‘Yes… Did you sleep well?’

‘As always.’

He glanced sideways at the two girls, but they were oblivious to the exchange, delicately spooning food into their mouths with their usual ladylike grace. Today, though, the image was ruined by the huge red gashes along their throats, where the blood had not yet dried.

Colleen turned to look at him with vacant eyes were her sad ones had once been, and she opened her mouth to say something but blood spilled out instead of words.

After breakfast, James’s body took him upstairs to the study to begin the day’s work, and as he sat down in front of his great desk by the window he heard Agatha talking to the kids. ‘Best get cleaning now, hadn’t you? Just a few chores to get done and then you can enjoy yourselves for a little while before school starts.’

‘But mother,’ Janet said in an uncharacteristically scratchy voice, ‘School starts at nine.’

‘No, dear, not anymore. I’ve decided to home school you from now on. Much better for all round education. Teachers these days will put all kinds of nonsense into your brains.’

‘Ooh, that sounds fun.’

‘Can we go for a walk out in the woods today, mother?’ Cedric said.

‘Yes. Yes I don’t see why not. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Ah, well, get to work now. Looks like we’ve got a big day ahead of us, and your father will want dinner when he’s finished with work.’

Yes, James thought, his hand reaching down by itself to turn on his computer. They had a big day ahead of them alright. A big, busy day.

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