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.
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?’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.’