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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.

I have just returned from a three week holiday, so forgive me if the writing here is a little rusty. It’s been a while, I know, so I decided to start the year with a nice, fat story. After reading ‘the eyes of the dragon’ by Stephen King, I was inspired to write something that concerned itself with absolutely nothing but story. This happened, then this, then this, and that’s how it was. I was pretty entertained writing it, so I think it worked out. Is it just me, or is skin just the creepiest organ ever? Enjoy!

Quiet Night

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

Gabe Yeats squinted ahead on the narrow road and saw another figure walking the opposite direction. Where that poor soul hoped to go he had no idea, because all that lay behind Gabe was a hundred miles of empty road lined by countless acres of forest. Maybe he wasn’t alone, but the other man might have been a hallucination for all the difference it made. There was hope yet – judging by the size of that silhouette, he probably had some food on him.

‘Hey man!’ the fat guy called out when they were within earshot. ‘How you doin? No luck, huh?’

Gabe only shook his head. When they were close enough, he extended his hand and the guy shook it.

‘Gabe.’

‘Russel. Just call me Russ. You come far?’

The guy was big alright, but he was more of a Grizzly than a teddy, Gabe thought. Probably done his fair share of logging or fishing or whatever up north. He even had the shaggy beard to match, though it was mostly white with snow. He looked worried.

‘Yeah, too far,’ Gabe said, wiping his nose. ‘Just looking for shelter. You haven’t seen anything, have you?’

For a moment a look crossed the man’s coarse face that wasn’t quite fear, but in the territory. It was the look someone with claustrophobia might give you just before they declined your invite to go spelunking.

‘Sure, I saw a place, but I figured it was abandoned. Wouldn’t recommend it, man, basically a birds nest. There’s gotta be something better your way, right? Filling station or something?’

Gabe shook his head. ‘Not for thirty, forty miles. You wanna try that, be my guest, but I got a feeling our only shot’s this nest of yours.’

‘Or the road.’

‘That’s no option, man. I haven’t seen a car for two hours and sundown’s in about ten minutes.’

‘Shit.’ He pulled up his backpack and looked around, as if for help.

‘Hey listen,’ Gabe said. ‘If this place of yours is really abandoned, maybe we could tear down a room or two for firewood, right?’ He slapped him on the shoulder and then moved around and headed on, feeling dismal.

‘Might not be abandoned,’ Russ called after him. ‘Might be some tight ass lives there.’

‘Might be I’m willing to take an ass full of pellets to sit by a warm fire for one night. Good luck, man.’

It was the good luck that did it, or maybe the cheerful way Gabe said it. A moment later the big guy was walking by his side. It was never good to be alone on a night like this, Gabe thought. And maybe the guy had some liquor.

Gabe saw the house first, but he wouldn’t have known it for what it was but for the flicker of light in one of the windows. It was way off the road, and it was made so rickety and twisted that it blended perfectly with the woods.

‘Looks like you’re right,’ Gabe said, pointing. ‘It’s not abandoned. Or else a couple of other hobos got there first. They won’t mind sharing a little warmth, though.’

Russ grumbled something, but when Gabe left the road he still followed several steps behind. Once or twice he glanced over his shoulder, as if hoping a friendly car would show up at the last minute.

They were less than a hundred meters away when Gabe was first struck with a sense of unease, and after that it deepened with every step. The house, if you could call it that, was three stories tall including the wonky attic, and only that top window shone with light. It was flickering, which made him think first of a fire, but as he grew closer he saw that there were figures moving within.

His unease deepened when he stopped in front of the front door and heard faint music drifting down to him from the small window. It was weird and distorted by the wind, but from what he could make out it sounded almost Celtic. He glanced over at Russ and saw the big man raise his frosted eyebrows at him. Shotgun, he mouthed.

Gabe forced a smile and knocked, three times. The music stopped and the light in the attic went off, though neither of the men noticed these things at the time because they were standing close to the door now and listening for a noise within. None came.

‘Is it unlocked?’ Russ said.

Gabe tried to door and it swung open to reveal and empty wooden hallway with doors on either side and an arch at the end. Beyond that they couldn’t see for the darkness. The first door on the right was open, and through it Gabe caught sight of a fireplace. It was all he needed.

‘Come on, it’s fine,’ he said, stepping inside. ‘Probably a couple squatters upstairs is all.’

‘Yeah well.’ Russ followed him inside and closed the door, shutting out the biting wind and breathing a sigh of relief.

There were two windows in the room with the fireplace. One looked out into dense forest and so was black, but though the curtains were drawn on the other thin moonlight shone through moth eaten holes and it was this that Gabe used to navigate. He made out a rotten old couch, which wasn’t much good, but there was a wooden table and chairs in the adjoining room. He took one of them to the fireplace and then stepped on the legs one by one, snapping them. Russ seemed to cringe with every sound, but he helped willingly enough and four chairs later there was about enough wood to last them the night.

‘Alright genius, you got any matches now?’

Gabe grinned in the dark and pulled a box of redheads from his pocket. He’d had a few years of experience on the roads, and if he’d learned anything it was that matches were always useful.

When they had a nice fire crackling he went to sit on the couch and then stood up a moment later when it made a sound like a rusty hinge and something moved inside it. They contented themselves cross legged in front of the fireplace, and pretty soon they had their boots off and their whiskey out and were exchanging travel stories.

Russ had come recently from Toronto, but he’d been wandering just about all over the North of the world. ‘Can’t much stand any kind of heat,’ he explained. ‘I’d be happy in the Arctic, but anywhere too hot to snow I tend to sweat like a whore in church. Nah, give me a good day’s work in the frost, a fire at night and a bottle of whiskey to keep me warm.’

He did most of the talking, and Gabe heard a lot about the fights he’d been in and his two ex-wives, and how he was only going south for a little while to spend some money. Meet him in a bar, Gabe thought, and he’d be loud and drunk and fearless, but out here in the lonely cold he was whispering and huddling by the fire and sometimes staring nervously at the dark hallway behind them.

Gabe told him how he’d quit his job as a cop and come north from Detroit.

‘What for?’ Russ asked, and immediately seemed on guard the way most people did when he said he was the law.

‘Just too much. I mean, after seeing all that. All the shit people do to each other, you know…’

He looked into the fire and took a swig from his whiskey.

‘I’m sick of people. I just wanted some isolation, a little quiet.’

As if to oblige him, Russ fell silent and they remained that way for some time.

‘Who you think is upstairs?’ Gabe said after a while.

Russ shrugged. ‘You think they have food?’

‘Maybe. But if I had food on a night like this I wouldn’t be looking to share it.’

‘Yeah,’ Russ said, then he did a double take. ‘You don’t have any, do you?’

‘Nope. Last I ate was a petrol station this morning.’

‘Where d’you think that music was coming from?’

Gabe shook his head. He swivelled so his back was warmed by the fire and he could look into the dark hallway. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Gotta be honest, this place is creeping me out some.’

Russ shrugged. ‘You scared? I guess I can understand. Kinda weird place. Been in some real shady places myself.’ He chuckled. ‘This one time, damn! I was in a place fit to make your skin crawl. Slimy hole these bastards tried to call an inn, bugs creeping on you while you’re asleep, then they tried to slit my throat in the night and take all my shit.’

‘Oh yeah? What you do?’

He winked in the firelight and tapped his right arm. At first, Gabe didn’t get it, but then he tossed his flask to the other hand, flicked his wrist and a hunting knife magically appeared in his palm.

Gabe raised his eyebrows and the other man laughed. ‘Nah, not like that. Just scared ‘em off is all. Point is, no need to be worried. I guess it’s like those matches you carry around with you all the time. You found them useful, well same for my blade.’ He slid it back into his sleeve just as quickly and took another swig.

‘You want to take a chair leg?’ Gabe asked.

‘Huh?’

‘For light? To check if those guys up there got food or anything.’

‘Oh, yeah. Maybe they own the place, though. Might kick us out?’

‘This place? The one with rotten furniture and all the chairs we just broke that they didn’t seem to care about? Living in the attic?’

He chuckled. ‘You got a point.’

‘Yeah. Here,’ he took a burning leg from the fire and handed it to the big man, who took it in his free hand and put his flask down. ‘In case they want some,’ he explained, but Gabe noticed it left his knife hand free.

‘Just call back if you need me,’ Gabe said as Russ stood up to go.

‘Sure. Probably just a couple hoboes.’

Gabe watched the light flickering fainter and fainter in the hallway, and then it disappeared altogether as he heard the creak of heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then there was nothing but fire and the whiskey and the smell of burning pine.

Gabe waited for the sounds of voices upstairs, either mean spirited or relieved. It occurred to him then that the music had completely stopped. Something was nagging at him, but he wasn’t sure what, so he stood up and went over to the moth eaten curtains. Through the cracked glass he saw drifts of snow and scattered trees. The tiny square of yellow light that should have shone down from the upper window, however, was absent.

He was worried, and he couldn’t help but think of Russ’s story. He knew it was probably nothing more than a story, but that didn’t mean things like that didn’t happen. Place like this, you could hold up and just wait for people to come by. Kill them in the night, take their stuff, bury them in the back. Slim pickings, but he knew first hand that once you spent long enough on the road there was  really no such thing as slim pickings. Some folks would kill for a pair of shoes.

He turned from the window and stared through the dark archway that opened on the hall, his stomach clenching and unclenching as he tried to calm himself down. Everything was so quiet. Russ had plenty of time to get up to the attic by now, but he’d heard nothing. He supposed it was possible the big man’s light had gone out, but then why didn’t he call out?

Gabe watched the hallway, but everything was quiet. He mustered his courage and then called out, loud enough for anyone and everyone in the house to hear him.

‘Russ! Where you at, man?’ His voice sounded unworried, cheerful even. The house ate it up and sent him back not so much as an echo. His heart beat a little faster in his chest.

He waited another minute and then ducked out of the archway, pulled open the front door, and went outside. He hurried away from the place and only slowed when he was halfway back to the road. He turned and looked back, then, but the house was dark and still aside from the dim light in the front room. From the road it would be invisible, and so would he. Not that it mattered, because he had a feeling that maybe two cars would come down the road in the next eight hours, and neither was likely to slow down for anything.

He was shivering already, and his face was going numb. How had the wind gotten so much worse in such a short space of time? He stayed where he was for a minute longer, cursing himself for being a coward and at the world in general, and then went back inside after another longing glance at the road.

He went straight to huddle by the fire, but kept his back to it so he could watch the rest of the house at the same time. Shadows grew and shrunk and moved up and down the walls like ocean tides, and each one seemed to hide something sinister.

He heard it before he saw it, and the sound of it froze him in place and rose the hairs on his neck. It sounded like a snake slithering over the wood, or sandpaper on cold steel. It was coming from the dining room from which they’d taken the chairs, but as he listened he was sure that whatever it was came into the far corner just behind the rotted couch.

For a minute there was nothing more, but a horrid stench came to him of alcohol – maybe whiskey – but concentrated a hundred times over. And beneath that was something sickly that he didn’t dare guess at.

‘W… Who are you? I got nothing on me, okay? I got nothing,’ he said in a voice so harsh with a fear it was a whisper. It stepped out into the light.

He might have done anything to escape this new horror, then, but his mind was paralysed with terror and his whole body was clenched tight. If it had approached, he might have gone mad with fear, maybe jumped out of a window, but it didn’t. If anything it seemed to shrink away from his gaze.

It was made of skin – no, it was a skin, he thought. It had boneless legs and feet that dragged a little on the floor, making that horrible sound, and its arms drifted in the air like the sleeves of an empty jacket, parts of which looked as though they’d been cut and stitched back together. Whatever remained of the face hung over backwards like a hood. Here and there, streams of black blood showed in the light, pouring from small holes and cuts in the skin, which had the look of shrivelled bark.

It was thirty seconds or so before Gabe began to feel faint and forced himself to suck in two deep breaths. The skin did not react.

He stood up slowly, unclenching his fists to reveal half moon cuts where his fingernails had dug in. He dared to blink a few times, but didn’t move his eyes from the bizarre thing.

‘What are you?’ he said, and was surprised to hear that his voice sounded almost normal.

It raised a hand like a glove and waved it at him in the universal sign language: follow me, it said. Without waiting for a response, it slithered over the wood behind the couch and out into the hallway. As it brushed by his feet he took a step back and almost landed in the fire.

It had to be a trick, he thought, staring at the empty archway. Or else he was going insane. He turned to the fire and picked up the longest chair leg he could find from the flames. Breathing hard, he finished the last of his whiskey and felt the warmth shudder through him. Then he stepped out into the hall.

It was waiting for him in the room at the end of the hallway, which was a kitchen judging by the rusted basins on one side. As he approached, it dropped to the floor again and began to slide up the stairs in that eerie boneless way. He followed, but kept his distance, all the while his eyes darting left to right and trying to pierce the darkness in every corner. Where he could he shone his torch, but after he lit on a spider the size of his hand pulling a struggling mouse into its embrace, he decided to stop.

The stairs led onto landing made of rotten floorboards and absent of furniture. As he reached the top stair, he turned in place, wildly trying to see every part of the floor. One hallway leading off to his right held a bookcase and books that were more dust than paper. It ended in a short flight of wooden stairs to a trapdoor, which must lead to the attic.

But the skin boy did not go that way. Instead it beckoned Gabe and slid through the crack beneath a rotted door on the left. When he tried the knob, it was unlocked, and he stepped into the dark room beyond with an unpleasant prickling feeling on his back.

It was the boy’s bedroom, he realised. A tattered bed on one side, a bare wooden desk on the other, and a wardrobe – but not much else besides cobwebs. Why had it led him here? The skin boy curled its fingers around the knob of the top desk drawer and wrenched. There were four old candles inside and Gabe didn’t need any instruction – he placed them around the desk and one on the windowsill and lit them all with the steadily diminishing flame of the chair leg.

The skin boy brushed his hand against the bottom drawer and then floated back a few paces, expectantly. Gabe opened it and found stacks upon stacks of brittle paper. When he spread them out over the desk he saw that most were pictures done crudely in pastel and others were written on in large childish letters.

When Gabe tried to read these, the skin boy swept forward and brushed them almost angrily away. He stepped back, hands up in surrender. ‘Alright, okay. What you want me to look at?’ The skin boy only drifted back to the bed, but Gabe found what he wanted soon enough. With the top of the stack brushed away, he realised that the pictures underneath were growing more and more detailed; the writing more wild and unreadable.

‘I can’t… I don’t understand.’

The skin boy rushed in impatiently and pushed more pages from the desk, until only those at the bottom of the stack remained. These had the most skilfully drawn – if terrifying – pictures and writing that looked as if the person that wrote them had… No bones, he thought with a start.

Instead of retreating, the skin boy flapped his arms at Gabe urgently, telling him to read. These pages were set out neater. Each one had a detailed pastel picture, with a small white space at the bottom, where the boy had scrawled a caption for each in light spider web characters.

The first showed a happy family standing in front of a majestic house – clearly the one they were in now, only a few decades younger. There was a young boy, his father, and a mother who was holding a baby in her arms and smiling. The caption simply read: My name is Matthew. This is my family Alive.

The next picture was of the same family standing in the snow by a tiny grave. The caption read: Littel bruther was sick and dide. Gabe felt chills go down his arm as he put it aside and picked up the next one. I grew sick too and Mother was sad. She put me down and then merderd herself and Father.

He looked away from the grisly image and then caught sight of the other pages. Many of them were cruder depictions of the same scene, the murder drawn over and over again, as though he were practicing to get it just right.

Mother felt more sad then and felt bad. She hid our bodies down in the basement so we wouldn’t know, and she gave us our skins to wear to keep our bodies. The Mother was drawn with tears streaming down her ghostly face as she hid the three corpses. A knife gleamed on a table nearby. All the better to skin you with, my dears, thought Gabe, and immediately wanted to retch.

She found the sole and skin of Timothy too and told him he was alive also. We were all confused and none cud remember dyeing. Mother always found more skins for her and Father, but Timothy and I kept our own, and now we sleep every night in barrls of Father’s whiskey to stay clean. Gabe grimaced at the picture. She was preserving them, of course – waiting for her chance to get a fresh boy and baby skin. Or maybe she’d get one a few sizes too big and let them grow into it.

The next was a picture of a young boys face, horribly contorted in terror and lacking eyeballs. It looked to Gabe like a psychotic rendering of The Scream.

I found the bodys and new the truth, the caption said. But I cud not go for my Father and Timothy did not no and wud not lissen. Mother keeps Father in the attic so he won’t go exploring, and Timothy only sleeps most times or cry’s.

   The last picture was of the deflated skins of the family and their souls fleeing into the sky, where a bright sun shone. You must help me, stranger. I can’t alone. Show them their bodys and they will no the truth and sleep again. My Mother has taken too many skins, and I don’t want to wear another’s, but only to go to heven. Plees help me.

 Gabe let it fall to the desk and stood for a moment, staring down at all those scenes, eerie and gruesome in the candle light. Then he turned to see the Skin boy, Matthew, still waiting. He heard the music playing in the attic, but he couldn’t recall when it had started up again. My Mother has taken too many skins. Those words were what got to him more than anything else in the end. How many? He wondered. A place like this couldn’t have many visitors, but they’d been here a long time. How many other travellers like he and Russ had come past looking for sanctuary? Ten? Twenty?

He closed his eyes and rubbed them, trying to get rid of the whiskey haze that lay thick over his mind. He’d heard it said that fear had a sobering effect, but it wasn’t true. You might feel crystal clear awareness, but that didn’t stop you slurring your words and stumbling now and then. Plees help me.

He drew a shaking breath and opened his eyes to see Matthew still floating by the bed, highlighted only by the moon; his chair leg had only smouldering red embers now.

‘Where’s the basement?’ he asked.

Before the words were all the way out his mouth Matthew dropped to the floor and slid from the room. He followed, still holding the chair leg as a weapon – though what it could possibly do to such things as the skin people he didn’t know. As they went through the landing, Gabe glanced down the hallway and saw that the light in the attic was back on, and shadows flicked here and there across the cracks of light.

Wincing at every creaking floorboard, Gabe followed the sound of skin down the stairs to the ground floor. The fire was still burning low, so he took another chair leg and then followed Matthew into the kitchen, where he found the skin boy waiting outside an old wooden door.

He pushed it open and saw stone steps leading into darkness, so dense that even the firelight only penetrated a few feet of it. He went down the first two steps and then looked back. Matthew wasn’t following him.

‘Come on, what’re you waiting for? I can’t go alone.’

But the boy stayed where he was and mimed something that looked to Gabe like shivering.

‘Great. The dead boy is afraid of the dark and here I am.’

His knees felt weak. He didn’t like the smell that was coming from below, something like old sweat and blood. He was ice cold, but the air drifting up to him was warm. He glanced back at the skin boy and raised his eyebrows. Plees help me. He started down the stairs.

He held the chair leg in front of him, for all the good it did, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The last thing he wanted to do was trip and roll on to the bottom. Wouldn’t want to wake the baby, he thought.

After what felt like an hour he reached the bottom and breathed out slowly. But the air caught in his throat as he heard a sharp slurping shuffling sound from the other side of the room. His eyes were wide open now, his pupils dilated, but he couldn’t see far enough into the room – the flames on his makeshift torch were shrinking by the minute.

He took three cautious steps into the room before he caught sight of a huddling form in the far corner. There was something else as well, two large round shadows. The slurping stopped and then the shadow slumped back against the side of the wall and began to cry.

‘Russel?’

The reaction was instantaneous and shocking. The big man leapt to his feet and grabbed a slender piece of wood from the floor. He held it in front of him and quailed against the wall, breathing so hard he was wheezing. ‘Whathefuck? Who is it? I’ll kill you bastards I will so help me god. Jesus Christ save me I’ll kill you.’

‘Russel! It’s me, calm down, man. Jesus, what happened to you?’

As he came forward and lit up the big man’s face, it was hard to believe it was even the same person. His face was covered in a mixture of sweat and something smelling like pure ethanol. His eyes were wild and unfocussed and he was covered in grime, though there was also some dark blood drying from a wound on his forehead. When he saw that it was Gabe, he slid down into a sitting position and began to shudder as though he was sobbing, though no tears came from his eyes.

‘Oh, Jesus, Gabe. Christ. I thought they’d got you, man.’

‘What? No, they’re still in the attic. What the hell happened to you? I thought they got you, too. Didn’t you hear me calling?

He shook his head. ‘Couldn’t answer. Too scared. Figured you were a goner.’

Gabe squatted and handed his torch to the other man, though it made him cringe to do it.

‘Thanks. So you saw ‘em too, huh?’

‘Yeah. What happened to you?’

‘I opened the attic door. Just so I could take a look and see who was up there before I went up. I… I mean I thought I was going crazy. First I thought, Russ my man, you had too much whiskey. And then I realised it was for real, you know, these human skins, just dancing around and flopping and sliding everywhere. It made me sick. Then one of them turned around and I saw its face and it looked at me.

‘I just ran blind through the house. So scared I couldn’t even scream, and then I saw another one in the kitchen, blocking the hallway, looking toward the light where you were. I just went through the nearest door, fell down the stairs. Found a barrel of this stuff, though. Strong stuff, man. Shit, I really thought you were dead.’ He took a long, deep breath and the smell made Gabe want to retch again.

‘You don’t want to drink that, man.’

‘What? Oh, keep my head clear and shit, huh?’

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘So what happened to you?’

Gabe told him, and by the time he was done the torch had guttered to nothing but a red glow and Russ’s mouth was gaping open. When Gabe got to the part about the skin boy and his baby brother sleeping in the barrels, he stood up and went to the opposite corner, where he vomited his stomach empty. He came back looking pale and sick, and Gabe didn’t blame him one bit.

‘Where is he now?’ Russ said.

‘Waiting in the kitchen. I think he didn’t want to come down because he knew you’d be scared. He must have seen you running.’

‘Yeah. Look man, screw this, let’s just get the fuck outta here. Wait till morning and break out.’

Gabe stared at him, and was disgusted to find he was tempted. Very tempted. Even the thought of waiting out a cold night in the ice was better than this evil place.

‘What makes you think they’ll let us leave?’ he asked instead. ‘They must know we’re around. They probably got the exits blocked, just hanging around waiting for us to try something, or come to them.’

Russ swore. ‘Okay, what if we tip the barrels, set fire to the place? Yes! We burn ‘em, they’ll die. That’s what they want, isn’t it? That’s what the kid wants, why bother with all this body shit? We burn em’, they die.’

But Gabe was shaking his head slowly. ‘Don’t think that’ll cut it, man.’

‘Why not?’

‘They burn, they lose their skins. I don’t know how the mother’s taking folk’s skins but she’s got some way, and I think she can still do it whether she’s wearing one or not. We burn ‘em, she’ll get us anyway.’

‘Well what the fuck? She’s gonna take our goddam skins if we go up there! You didn’t see them, man, you don’t understand. Just cos some goddam ghost boy thinks it’ll work doesn’t mean it will. We drag these bodies up there, you know what? It’ll just piss her off. I’m not doing it. You’re the cop man, you do it. You can go be a hero and risk your own skin, I’m leaving here first chance I get.’

He was breathing harshly now, staring him down at him like he was saying, make me do it, go on, just try it. Gabe realised the big man was absolutely terrified. For all his bravado he was mad with fear. Somehow, it made Gabe himself calmer. He wasn’t running, after all.

‘I’m not a cop,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘I’m not a goddam cop. I used to sell cars, that’s all.’

Russ gaped at him. ‘Why’d you say you were?’

‘I dunno, man. I started hitchhiking up North a while back, looking for an escape, get away from the cities and work somewhere quiet. I meet a lot of people on the road, they all ask me the same questions. I just started making shit up after a while to keep it interesting. I mean who cares? Last time I was a Vietnam vet, guy gave me free beer.’

Russ started to laugh, and it had a hysterical quality that Gabe didn’t like. He was either drunk or he had a concussion from his tumble. ‘Hey, keep it down, man.’

But Russ wouldn’t stop laughing. Soon he was practically rolling on the floor, letting out a series of high pitched yuks that made Gabe want to smack him in the face.

Then they heard a small splash coming from the open barrel and Russ stopped cold. It was followed by some slapping and gurgling sound as something pulled itself out of the barrel and then slid down onto the floor.

A second later they were both running. The chair leg was forgotten, but terror gave them all the vision they needed, and though Russ fell over twice on the way they were soon in the kitchen again, cursing. Russ caught sight of Matthew waiting by the counter and opened his mouth to scream, but Gabe put a hand on his shoulder and a finger to his mouth and he choked it back.

The skin boy slid closer, trying to mime something with his boneless arms. Gabe realised what it was and stopped just short of slapping his forehead. ‘The bodies,’ he said. ‘We forgot the damn bodies.’

Russ stared at him, wide eyed. ‘You crazy, man? I’m not going back in there. Jesus, I can’t believe I was drinking that shit.’ He went green for a minute, but resisted the urge to throw up again. Both of them were remembering the sickening sound of wet skin on concrete.

‘Wait. Matthew, is your little brother… Can he hurt us?’ Gabe asked. The skin boy couldn’t quite nod or shake his head, but he raised a noodle-like finger and swayed it back and forth, no.’

‘Shit.’

Russel refused to accompany him, and so he returned to the darkness alone, without a torch. Matthew made to follow but Russ put a hand out to stop him.

‘What are you doing? What if your crazy parents come down, huh? He’s safe, I’m not.’ Gabe gritted his teeth but said nothing – he was right after all, though Gabe didn’t know what the boy could do to help if his mother did indeed come down.

Gabe navigated the stairs with painful slowness and then began to tiptoe, trailing his left hand along the wall. Somewhere in the dark he could hear the skin of the infant flopping around. Its silence was unnerving. Babies, in his experience, were never silent, as long as they were awake. Timothy only sleeps most times and cry’s. Perhaps he was crying, and only Matthew could hear him.

He followed the room around until he came to the barrels and then kept going, but though he was approaching the stairs he had yet to feel any kind of doorway or box that might hold the bodies. When he hit the stairs at last, he closed his eyes and tried to remember the picture Matthew had drawn. Where had they been? Ah, that’s right. The loose flagstone in the middle of the basement – right where Timothy was dragging around and screaming quietly.

With each step toward the middle of the room, a feeling of revulsion mingled with pity rose in him. The baby was crawling over the graves of its family. It knew or sensed something, he was sure.

He knelt close, and now he could smell Timothy. Flesh and blood, pickled in old whiskey. It wasn’t pleasant. This was a worse stench than Matthew’s, of course, because despite the cold Timothy had begun to rot before his mother dug him up.

Gabe felt around the floor for purchase and accidentally brushed over a leg as it crawled away from him. He broke out in a cold sweat, but he found the crack a moment later and lifted the heavy piece of stone.

As he was pushing it aside he felt small boneless hands run across his leg and a moment later the infant was climbing onto his back. Resisting the urge to scream, he pushed the stone over and then reached down into the black hole beneath with no thought other than he had to get out, get out NOW.

Timothy’s arms were curling around his neck as he pulled one of the corpses from the hole. They were well rotted, almost skeletons. Almost. There was still enough meat to warrant worms, still enough moisture to make the bones slippery in his fingers. He only hoped they’d stick together.

When he stood up to leave with the corpse, Timothy went mad, slapping his face and trying to bite him with a toothless mouth. Gabe was almost running for the stairs now, certain that he’d be driven insane if he stayed one more minute down here. Before he was halfway up, the infant dropped from his neck and crawled quickly back to the middle of the room to guard his family.

He laid the corpse on the counter with help from the other two, though Russ looked as sick as he felt. ‘What happened down there? You don’t look good,’ he said. Gabe only shook his head and turned away.

Two trips later the whole family was piled on top of the kitchen counter, Gabe was covered in filth, and Timothy the skin baby was crawling at his brother’s feet, if you could call them that.

‘So, what now?’ Russ said, almost as a challenge. ‘You gonna just grab them bodies and stroll up to the attic? Bet your life on the word of a dead boy?’

‘Got a better idea?’

‘Yeah, I already told you. Burn this shit down, get the fuck out, in any order. Don’t leave me alone, Gabe.

‘We get the fire from upstairs, bring it down here, light the barrels. This place’ll go up like July fourth and we’ll warm our hands on the bonfire. Be smart.’

But the eyes that Gabe fixed on were not smart, they were only afraid. Gabe imagined running out into the snow as the house collapsed in an inferno behind them – standing and laughing in the melting snow. He imagined a screaming wind flying at them from the midst of the fire, ghostly claws slicing the air. And he imagined how it would feel to be flayed by a thing that he could neither hit nor run from.

‘There’s only one way to do this,’ he said, and saw Russ’s face twist in a mixture of surprise and rage.

‘You’re gonna leave me to it, huh?’ He flicked his wrist and the huge knife appeared in his hand once again. ‘Well you can drag those goddamned corpses up yourself.’

Without another word, he pushed past Gabe and headed for the next room. He staggered slightly, put a hand on the door frame to steady himself, and then he was gone.

Matthew and Timothy could not help him carry the bodies, so they kept watch for him as he took them one by one up the stairs and into the hallway. The light in the attic was on and the music was playing. Gabe slid into a sitting position at the foot of the stairs.

The whiskey haze was mostly gone, and though he was tired there was too much adrenaline pumping through his system for him to feel it. At last, he thought he felt an inkling of what soldiers felt after a few years on the front line. The constant fear of imminent death. It weighed on you.

Gabe had only brought up the two large skeletons, and he thought that if he could kick open the trapdoor he might be able to burst in with one corpse in each hand. If what Matthew said was right, the parents would see them and go on to the next life. Easy

This close to the door, he could hear the music clearly. It was definitely Celtic: Irish women singing in soft high voices; bagpipes and flutes. Mother and Father, locked in an endless dance that screamed: we are alive! Try to tell us different!

He grabbed each corpse by the neck and stood up. He stared up at the square of bright light ten steps above his head. He felt like an actor about to step out in front of a stage of a million spectators. Actually, he thought, it felt more like playing Russian roulette with six rounds in the barrel, but it didn’t pay to think that way.

With Matthew at his heels, he sprinted up the stairs and crashed through the trapdoor at the top, dragging the bodies as he went.

The attic was a long, triangular room. It was mostly empty like the rest of the house except for a table on which there was an old record player turning. A bookshelf on one wall held nothing but red wine.

The skin father stood at the far end of the attic, beside an open window – the same one from which Gabe and Russ had first seen the light. He was tall, but his skin was stretched too tight on him and Gabe guessed it had come from someone twenty pounds or so lighter. He had a glass of wine curled in wormlike fingers. He turned away from the window.

The father’s face was floating above his body, unlike Matthew’s, and so Gabe could see right into his black eye sockets. While he stared, the skin father broke his wine glass on the windowsill and rushed him.

Is that how she does it? Gabe wondered. They were less than ten feet apart when Gabe raised the corpses in front of him. ‘This is you! Father of Timothy and Matthew, this is you! You have died of the sickness that took your sons, and now you must follow them into the dark!’ Where the words had come from he didn’t know, but they made him feel like a gospel preacher.

For a moment it looked as if the skin father wasn’t going to stop, and Gabe was primed to dive aside and run for it. Then, as if physically struck, he stopped barely an arm’s reach away and dropped the broken glass. It was hard to know for sure, but if those eye sockets could be said to stare at anything he thought they were staring at the skull of the body he held up in his right hand.

There was a minute of tense silence in which the skin father floated closer and stretched a hand out to touch the top of the rotting skull. He moved his fingers almost in a caress, and plucked a rotting, collapsed eyeball from its socket. He turned it over and then dropped it onto the floorboards. It made a wet sound.

Gabe looked into the floating face and saw the torn lips opening and closing, making bizarre shapes that might have looked like words if there’d been a jaw beneath it. A whoosh of warm, toxic air hit Gabe in the face and then the skin father collapsed to the floor.

Exhausted, Gabe dragged his feet over to the ancient record player and lifted the needle from the disc, bringing the strange lulling music to a stop at last.

When he turned, he saw that Matthew and Timothy had crawled up the stairs after him, and now Matthew floated toward him with alarming speed. He wrapped his arms like wet paper around Gabe’s middle, and Timothy did the same with his ankle. Gabe smiled down at them and tried not to show his revulsion.

The silence was shattered by a racket of heavy footsteps and collapsing chairs downstairs. It was followed by a high pitched creak and something that sounded like tearing cloth and splintering wood. Russ had found the skin mother.

Gabe took two steps to the attic door and then saw Matthew rise up in front of him and wave his arms to stop. A hideous scream erupted from below and a pane of glass shattered – Gabe guessed from one of the front windows.

‘What? What is it?’ Matthew’s arm floated, pointing behind him. He looked around and saw that in his haste he’d actually left the mother’s corpse behind, propped up beside the record player.

By the time he’d picked it up in both hands and turned again, the tearing sounds were coming from outside and Gabe made for the attic window instead. When he looked down, he was met with a scene that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

Russ had just fallen over backwards and was climbing to his feet, one shaking hand holding his knife in front of him. He was almost completely naked, and huge strips of his skin were missing around his arms and chest, making his body a collage of red and white. He was staring at the front door directly beneath Gabe.

‘Get the fuck away, get away! Monster! Monster!’ His screams were childish and soaked in terror, and with every word he stepped clumsily back in the snow. He was nearly out of his mind with terror, and when the skin mother stepped out of the shadow of the house, Gabe saw why.

The skin she wore was not one but many. Large portions of it were, Gabe was sure, taken from the same original body, but there was far too much to be all from one person. She was a head taller than the logger and had a long flowing gown of skin that drifted behind her and trailed in the snow. It was solid but almost haphazardly put together. Streaks of hair ran here and there, intermingled with scars and faded tattoos and stretchmarks, to make a revolting mosaic. Wiry grey hair flowed down to her shoulders. Gabe could not see her face as she had her back to him, but judging by the look on Russ’s face he didn’t want to.

As he watched, Russ lunged in with his knife and tore a cut about a foot wide in her left arm. He managed to dodge aside as she swiped with that hand, but her right caught him a moment later and when he pulled up from the snow he was missing half his face. One eye stared wildly from a red mask. It saw Gabe.

‘GABE! Help me!’

The sound of his name broke his paralysis and Gabe grasped the mother’s corpse by the neck and held it as far as he could out of the window.

‘Hey bitch!’ he shouted. ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

The skin mother turned to look up at the window and froze Gabe’s heart in his chest. Her face was a mess of stitches and gaping holes. Her eyes were as wide as fists, and she’d managed to stitch her mouth into an impossibly wide permanent smile.

‘Mother of Matthew and Timothy! This is you! You’re dead! Go back to where you belong and let your family lie in peace! GO NOW!’ He thrust the corpse as far out as he dared and waited.

He was sure she knew now, beyond all shadow of doubt. Was there acceptance there, somewhere in her twisted visage? Dawning realisation, or memory?

Endlessly grinning, she turned away from the house and flayed the rest of the skin from Russ’s face and most of his chest in a single movement. It made a sound like ripping fabric. Russ fell onto his back, screaming and heaving. Gabe looked on helplessly as she floated over almost ponderingly, and finished the job.

He listened to the tearing and watched as strip after strip of skin she flipped over her shoulder. He was sick to the depths of his stomach, but the worst came when she turned back to the house again and the screams hadn’t stopped. They were weak, sure, but the red thing flailing in the snow behind her was certainly still alive – Gabe could see the whites of its eyes in the dark.

The skin mother disappeared into the house without another glance in his direction. Gabe stared at the corpse in his hand, shocked. He turned to face the two children behind him.

‘What happened?’ he said.

In reply, Matthew raised a finger and pointed it first at himself, and then Timothy. It was little, but Gabe understood instantly: She would never leave without her children. It had never been her own death she couldn’t accept, but theirs. So he needed the bodies of the children. And where were they? Downstairs on the kitchen counter.

Gabe swore.

Some part of him knew it was too late, but he had to try. He raced for the trapdoor and threw himself down the stairs. He sprinted down the hallway and out on the landing. And then he stopped. She moved quickly for all that skin, but not quietly. Before he reached the top of the stairs he heard her dragging heavily up the stairs and brushing against the rough bannister. She was on her way up.

Was it possible to hide here in the dark, or would she sense him somehow? Should he risk the jump from the attic window and hope the snow cushioned his fall? Hope he wouldn’t look up an instant later to see her floating easily down, her skin cloak flapping in the air above her?

From where he stood he could see a door adjacent to the attic hallway that opened on a small bathroom, and without another thought he stepped inside and slid into the bathtub. It was damp and slippery with mould, but he didn’t care. He was invisible here, unless the skin mother could smell him.

There was a tiny circular window above the bath, and through it he could make out the moon almost perfectly. He wondered if it would be the last thing he ever saw, and decided that if it was, it was a damn sight better than the hideous grin of the skin mother.

He heard her drag up onto the landing and then move into the hallway without a moment’s hesitation. She was moving fast, hoping to catch him in the attic or jumping out of the window. That was good, because if she took the time to look out of the attic window, he might stand a chance after all.

He stepped out of the bathtub and waited until he heard the trapdoor close before he went to the stairs. It took all of his self-control not to rush, or to take them three at a time and pound the wood. He didn’t think he’d be able to outpace her in the dark even with a head start.

He heard the trapdoor open again before he was halfway down the stairs. Damn, she moves fast. He began to take the stairs two at a time, then three, then twisted his right ankle and tumbled the rest of the way.

His head ringing, he turned and saw her floating at the top of the stairs. Her arms were suspended in the air on either side of her and in the moonlight Gabe caught a glimpse of Russ’s hunting knife in one hand. In the other she had what looked like a shard of bone, sharpened to a razor edge.

After that everything was a blur of sound, darkness and terror. He spun around and lurched to his feet, barely feeling the agony that shot up his right leg. The kitchen counter was less than four meters away now, and he could see the semi decomposed skeletons resting on it.

It occurred to him then that it was possible that the skin mother had become so insane that even the sight of her two dead sons would not stop her. Worse, that she might see him as the murderer and flay him slowly before she killed him. Gabe’s ankle rolled under his weight and he fell again, screaming.

Her skins were loud in his ears, practically on top of him now. He pushed up from the floor, ignoring the pain of a hundred splinters as they pierced his hands, and threw himself onto the counter. He threw both arms around the cold bones that were heaped there and rolled over the other side just a hand lashed out and tore the shirt and jacket from his back, taking a narrow strip of skin as long as a finger with it.

He was huddled against the cabinets beneath the sink now, holding the corpses in his arms like a shield and staring the skin mother in the face at last. As she drifted over the counter and raised her delicate arms, he accepted with terrifying clarity that it all came down to this: the difference between a universe of pain and survival depended on the word of a dead boy. Confront her with the truth. Plees help me.

She stood over him for a moment, seeming to leer at him, and then swept both arms down in a blur of movement. Gabe closed his eyes and waited for agonizing death.

He felt the blades brush over the bare skin on his arms, briefly. Then the corpses were pulled from his arms and he opened his eyes, not daring to breathe.

She lifted the two rotted bodies to her breast and stared down first at one and then the other. Matthew and Timothy floated into the room behind her, and Gabe nodded at them. ‘Look,’ he croaked.

She looked, and when she turned back to him the skin on her face had drooped so dramatically that the grin had was now a frown and her eye sockets were ovals of black. As he watched, she dropped the two bodies and bent to pick Timothy up with one long arm, while the other wrapped around Matthew.

They huddled like that together for a minute, and Gabe heard a long, deep sigh as the hot air rushed from inside and the skins slumped more and more. At last, only a heap remained on the floor.

***      ***      ***

He found shreds of Russ’s clothing in the partially demolished front room. He used pieces of splintered wood as well as some of the old whiskey in the basement to restart the fire. It was more for warmth than light, as the first rays of dawn were streaking the sky.

He’d gone to find Russ first, but the twisted body he found out in the snow was long dead. There was no need to bury him – the softly falling snow was doing the job for him.

He spent the early hours of the morning by the fire, rubbing his hands and trying not to think of anything. When the sun touched the horizon, he went through the house and looked at the fallen skins, hoping that daylight would reveal them for the hallucinations they were. It didn’t. They lay cold and empty on the wood.

***      ***      ***

Gus Hanson was on the last leg of his overnighter when he saw the most dishevelled, haggard looking hitchhiker he’d ever seen. The man was hunched over against the cold, wearing tattered clothes and an expression like what Gus had seen on death row inmates when he’d worked in Washington State Penitentiary. The poor guy didn’t even bother to lift his thumb or look around when he heard the truck coming.

Gus pulled over and opened the passenger side door. The guy walked a few steps more before he looked up and made eye contact. Jesus, this guy’s been through hell, Gus thought. Probably a war vet or something. ‘You need a ride, buddy?’

The guy nodded and pulled himself with apparent effort into the passenger seat and closed the door. He was shivering and his eyes were bloodshot and circled with black bags.

‘You been walking all night?’

He nodded.

‘Say, you wouldn’t be from that house way back there? Looks like someone made a bonfire of it or something. There wasn’t anyone inside was there?’

The guy shrugged. ‘Wouldn’t know,’ he croaked. ‘I passed it by this morning, was still burning a bit but I didn’t see anyone.’

‘Weird in this weather, huh? Anyway, I’m Gus.’ He put on his friendliest smile and extended his hand. The guy shook it and Gus smelled him for the first time – something like iron, whiskey and wood smoke. He didn’t like that much, but something told him the guy was telling the truth.

‘I’m Gabe, Gabe Yeats,’ the guy said.

‘Nice to meet you, Gabe. So where you headed?’

‘Nearest civilisation.’

‘Yeah? Sure you don’t need a hospital, man?’ only half joking.

‘I’ll be alright.’

After a while, they got to talking. Gabe said he used to sell cars and started hitchhiking up North, looking to get away from the cities and work somewhere quiet. It sounded alright, but somehow Gus didn’t quite believe him. He was leaving something out. Maybe he’d been in prison or some horrible war, but a tough guy like this? No way you’d find a guy like this just selling cars.

Gabe got out at the first little town they passed, and the truck driver waved goodbye and watched him go, and wondered.

Everyone has a childhood memory of entering their room and seeing the silhouette of a murderer or a monster on the wall. The normal reaction is to run screaming down the hall and return with a parent and a torch to discover that it was just an unfortunate bundling of clothes, or something similar. My reaction was to hide under my blankets and then torture myself for hours with the many things the shadow could be, and the many reasons there could be that it hadn’t eaten me yet. It’s waiting for it’s friends to get there, maybe. Or it’s waiting for my fear to tenderize my meat. Combine that with my lifelong hatred of those suspicious, overly cheerful winged nymphs, and you have a story.

Shadows in the Wall

By Ben Pienaar

 

Caroline did not like moving houses, which was unfortunate because that was all her father seemed to want to do. There was nothing Mr. Turner liked more than walking into a shipwreck of a house, breathing deep of the asbestos and rat droppings, and breaking out the tools. Granted, after a year or two the houses they stayed in were pristine million dollar mansions, but it was then, just when Caroline felt like she could live in a place, that they moved to the next dump.

43 Varron Street was no different, and while her mother went to unpack and her father revelled in the dust, she headed straight upstairs without so much as a glance left or right. Her bedroom was always somewhere on the top floor. It would, as usual, be a rotted wooden box fit for worms and termites and little else. At least the movers had already put in most of the furniture so she’d have her bed.

She dropped her bags inside and closed the door behind her. She felt like slamming it but she was afraid it would fall off completely, like last time, and then she’d been stuck without one for two months.

Her new bedroom was everything she feared and expected, except for one amazing thing: The walls had wallpaper! Well, a little. The corners and edges were rotted boards, and there were some stripped sections here and there, and what paper there was was plain old boring white, but it was still there, and that was more than she’d got last time. That last house, she could hardly get to sleep for fear of the things that might crawl out of the rotted wood to get her.

The rest of it was uninteresting. Her bed was here, and so was her bedside table and clothes drawer. The light hung from the ceiling by a wire, and she had her doubts as to whether it would actually turn on. Everything was here that should be here, so why did she feel like something was missing? She put her hands on her hips and thought for a moment, and then she had it: there was no window. Well, there was, but it was a pitiful tiny square of light in the top right hand corner. It might as well not be there at all.

She reached for the light switch and, as if she could see her, her mother called from another room: ‘Don’t bother with electricity, Caroline, the guys aren’t coming till Tuesday to put the wiring in.’

She took her hand away. ‘Mooooom!’

‘You’ll just have to do without, honey.’

She sighed and fell back onto her bed, staring at the ceiling. She was disappointed to note that it was almost completely lacking paper as well. Ordinarily, she might have worried about insects dropping onto her from above, but this day she was exhausted, and when her mother turned on the shower in the next room she drifted off quickly to the sound of falling water.

When she woke, it was like waking in a dream. When she’d fallen asleep the room had been plane and pale and dim, with some light fighting its way through thick dust. Now it was night, but she was surrounded by the light of flickering candles. Her mother must have checked in and seen her sleeping, and left the candles for her. She’d left one on the bedside table and two on her chest of drawers. When Caroline sat up and rubbed her eyes she saw that her bags were open and completely unpacked. She fell back onto her pillow, staring at the wall, and considered going to sleep again, and that was when she saw the fairy.

At first she thought it was nothing more than a conveniently shaped shadow, something created by chance, perhaps by the angle of the hanging light. Then she saw that it did not seem to move with the flickering of the candlelight, and besides that its shape was too well defined. It was the silhouette of a fairy, the same ones she’d seen in storybooks a hundred times.

It moved, but not much, and she realised it was trapped in the little diamond of wallpaper that stuck like an island on the bare wall. She could see it’s – her – slender hands pressing up against the sides, and her head looking around as if searching for a way out.

Caroline turned and stared at the opposite side of the wall, her first thought being that a shadow was a shadow, and there must surely be something making it. But the furniture in her room was bare save the candles, and now she was beginning to see more of them. One fluttered up a strip of wallpaper near the ceiling. Another two seemed to be watching her from a square above the door. They were everywhere.

She felt dizzy for a moment, and closed her eyes. Was she dreaming? No, definitely not: she could feel the warmth of the candle by her bedside, and smell the familiar mustiness of old wood. And she could hear… Whispers.

They were soft, so soft, and she was certain it was the fairies making them. She was not surprised that they were still there when she opened her eyes again. They were real.

Her heart was beating hard now, and she sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the floor to gather herself. She could see them moving in the corners of the vision. One of them was trying to get to another by crawling along a narrow stretch of wallpaper like a two dimensional tunnel.

She looked up at the one she’d seen first, and saw that she was cupping her hands to her mouth, as if shouting something. When she saw that Caroline was watching, she beckoned forward with one hand.

Weak at the knees, Caroline stood up and approached the wall. When she was close enough, she knelt in front of the diamond shaped bit of wallpaper and brought her ears as close to it as she dared. She didn’t think these shadow fairies were dangerous, but she couldn’t be sure, just yet.

‘My name is Fara,’ the fairy whispered. Her voice was so tiny that Caroline could barely hear it. The slightest noise would have drowned it out.

‘I’m Caroline,’ she whispered back.

The shadow fairy seemed to come forward, her hands pressing against the wallpaper as if it was a window. ‘You have to help us, Caroline. We’re trapped.’

‘Where are you?’

‘We live as shadows on the walls. We need light, but it makes us disappear, too. Most of all, we need the wallpaper.’

‘Why can’t you go on the wood?’

‘Look at it.’ Caroline looked, and in an instant she realised the problem. The wood was splintery and full of holes and dents. In the dim light it was covered in tiny shadows.

‘We can’t walk there. We would drown in the shadows.’

‘Oh. But how do you survive in the day and night? And without candles?’ she said.

‘In the light we disappear. In the pitch dark we are free to roam, but with the slightest light the shadows deepen and sometimes we drown.’ Caroline saw her head flick up towards the tiny window in the top of the room, and when she next spoke her voice was harsh with anger.

‘The window lets it in. The man who built it meant to trap us in the walls, and keep us from being free in the dark night. In the day, we always need the walls.’

‘Oh. Oh, you poor things.’ Caroline ran a finger down the wall and the fairy fluttered back. Or, it looked like she was doing that, but it was hard to tell since she was only a shadow. The paper was incredibly soft, softer than cotton. She felt almost as though she could push her hand right through the wall, but that was surely just the rotted wood beneath.

‘Don’t worry, Fara. I’ll help you,’ she said.

In her small diamond, Fara flapped her wings and twirled a neat circle in the air. ‘Thankyou, young Caroline. All we need is the paper. I haven’t seen my own sister in years, and I’m sure the others want so badly to find each other again. You must restore the paper and cover the window, please!’

‘Okay,’ Caroline whispered. ‘I’ll do my best.’

 

***     ***     ***

The following day, Caroline’s father came downstairs to find her reading at the table. Her mother had already made them bacon and eggs and was now washing the dishes. When he entered, Caroline dropped her book immediately and stood up, as if she’d been waiting for him all morning.

‘Dad! Can you get wallpaper for my room?’

Mr. Turner stopped at the head of the table. ‘Wallpaper? Sure honey, don’t I always?’

‘I mean today, though. Or like, really soon.’

He scratched his head and stared at her. ‘Really soon, huh?’

‘Yes. I… It’s just because I’m scared of all the bugs and things living in the wood. And it’s gross and dusty and I get splinters and…’

‘Alright! Okay, how about this weekend we’ll go and you can pick out your favourite –’

‘No, I just want white. Just plain white, that’s all.’

‘Oh.’ He gave her an odd look. ‘That’s very unlike you.’

‘She’s been waiting for you all morning to ask that,’ her mother said.

‘Is that so? Hey, maybe someone’s getting the old renovation bug, huh?’

Caroline shrugged and half smiled.

‘Would you like to help Daddy do the light fixtures after that?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Dad. I’m not five anymore. I’m thirteen.’

‘Okay, geez. Give a guy a break. I’ll go pick some up for you today, okay? We can put it in together.’

She smiled and nodded, and without another word headed out the door. He heard her feet pounding up the stairs, and then the sound of her bedroom door closing. He looked at Mrs. Turner and raised his eyebrows, but all she could do was shrug back at him and shake her head.

 

***     ***     ***

Caroline told the fairies, and they were overjoyed, but hungry. They hadn’t had food in years, they said. Couldn’t she bring them something to eat? So, when her parents were gone from the kitchen, Caroline went down to find some leftover bacon in the fridge. She brought it up to her room, and then realised the insanity of it. How could they eat real food? They were shadows! But what could they eat, then? She turned to leave with the plate of bacon and then she heard a voice whisper, almost in her ear: ‘Wait!’ It was one of the two that lived in the patch of wallpaper above the door.

‘Pretend there is no wall,’ the fairy whispered.

Still unsure of herself, Caroline lifted a piece of bacon and held it up to the paper. She began to press on it, feeling that softness, and then the meat went into the wall, until the tips of her fingers were holding a scrap and most of it was a shadow. The two fairies peeled bits of it and shoved it into their mouths until there was nothing left at all.

‘Take some to the others,’ the fairy said, rubbing her belly. She couldn’t tell, but Caroline was certain she was smiling.

By the time she’d gone around the whole room, all the bacon was finished and some of the fairies were still calling for more.

‘It’s alright, for now’ Fara told her. ‘Thank you, miss. But please, we need the window covered better than it is.’ The night before, she’d sticky taped a sheet over paper over the window. ‘You’ve done a good job, but if the paper falls or tears, it could hurt one of us.’

So Caroline went to the garage and found a roll of thick black duct tape, and she used it to tape over the paper, and again and again three layers deep. When she was done, the room was so dark that she needed the candles just to see anything.

‘Make sure your mother gives you more candles,’ Fara reminded her.

That night, her father brought home the wallpaper. ‘Got it extra thick, too, so we don’t have to sand the walls down.’ Caroline hugged him and thanked him and, when he was about to get to work setting up the television, she put on her cutest face and said: ‘hey, daddy, can we do my wallpaper now?’

He winced and forced a smile. ‘Sure. Race ya there.’

She beat him by a mile, and when she entered her room she warned the fairies to hide. Then she went back out into the hallway and stopped her father halfway up the stairs. ‘We’d better use a torch, dad. We’ll see better, right?’

She’d been terrified that her father might see the fairies, but when they returned with the flashlight, rolls of wallpaper and glue, the place was pitch black. Her father shone the torch around the walls, but even when the light passed over the paper there wasn’t so much as a flicker of shadow. Caroline breathed a sigh of relief.

He handed her the torch, and they set to work. She helped him roll the glue and then align the paper, and all the while she kept the light shining where he was. Once or twice, when he rolled over one of the patches, she cringed inwardly, but then she heard something flutter nearby and whisper ‘thank you,’ and she knew it was okay.

When they’d finished two walls, he stopped. ‘Alright, missy, I think we’ll call it a night, huh?’

‘What? But dad, we’re halfway done!’

‘I know, and it’s…’ He looked at his wrist, ‘Just about your bedtime.’

‘You don’t even have a watch. You just don’t want to move the furniture!’

He gasped. ‘What? I would never be that lazy!’

She tried her best to convince him, but he was packing up and in the end he left her with a half done room. Before he left, she made him promise to buy more candles tomorrow, and then he helped her light the ones she had and kissed her goodnight.

When he was gone, she locked the door and turned to face the walls. At first, she thought they were hiding, but then she saw them in the flickering light. To her frustration, most of them were still trapped in the patches of paper in the undone part of the room.

Then she turned to the new wallpaper and her mouth fell open. There were more – far more than she’d imagined there could be, flitting about in the wall. There were so many that if they’d all tried to land at once they wouldn’t be able to fit shoulder to shoulder. Some of them, though, were able to cling to the corner of the wall, and Caroline quickly realised it was not the corner they were clinging to, but the shadows there.

She approached the walls, and amidst the small crowd she saw one fairy fly up to eye level with her, and she recognized the silhouette to be Fara. ‘Hello, sweet girl,’ the fairy said.

‘Hi, Fara. Is it okay? I wasn’t sure if it was alright to cover over the paper that was already there. It makes lumps, and I thought it might… bury you or something.’

Fara laughed, and it was an odd sound, like the chirrup of a cricket. ‘No, it’s okay, Caroline. And soon the work will be done!’ She hovered, for a minute, as if unsure what to say. Then she held out a hand.

‘Please, miss. I’d like to touch you. It’s been so long since we’ve even seen a human being. Would you?’

She hesitated, but not for long. Part of it was Fara, who was so nice to her, but most of it was that she was unbearably curious about what it would be like to stick her finger, or her whole hand into the wall the same as she’d done with the bacon.

She lifted her hand to the wallpaper and touched it with her index finger. She hesitated, and a moment later felt Fara touch the spot where her finger was. It was such a strange feeling that she couldn’t resist. She pushed forwards and her hand went into the wall.

For a moment, she was horrified at what she’d done. Her wrist stopped at the wallpaper and she could see the silhouette of her hand. It was a bizarre sight, but it was an even stranger feeling. It was like pins and needles, but it also felt like dipping her hand into a hot bath. When Fara stroked her finger it sent tingles all down her arm. She gasped, and withdrew, and her hand came out of the wall. She was almost surprised to see it in one piece.

Fara giggled. ‘It’s alright, Caroline. You can come in all the way, if you want. You aren’t a shadow, so you’re not stuck. But beware, if your whole body enters the wall, you cannot leave and you’ll become like us. Leave one arm on the outside.’

‘O… Okay.’

The idea of becoming trapped in the wall was terrifying, but Caroline was excited. She couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to experience that tingling over her body, and she decided then and there that if her father ever wanted to leave this house she’d refuse.

The fairies parted to the edges of the wallpaper as she stepped through. It was breathtaking. The tingling feeling, that warmth, spread over her whole body and she stood so that only her head and part of her arm was sticking out of the wall. She wanted badly to close her eyes and go all the way in, but she didn’t dare.

When she looked down, her whole body was a shadow. The fairies flew and landed on her and touched her with long fingers as though she were some mystical goddess. They whispered in her ears, and thanked her and told her they’d be friends forever. Caroline closed her eyes, and if she hadn’t been standing up she might have fallen asleep. But eventually she had to leave the wall, and when she lay down in bed that night she swore to Fara and the fairies that she’d never leave them.

In the day, Caroline brought them bacon and chicken (they even ate the bones) and, because they loved the sweetness, apples. She spent most of the following morning throwing apple after apple into the wall and watching them catch it and fight over it in the most friendly way, and she laughed out loud. Her parents heard her, and saw the flickering candlelight even in the middle of the day, but they never said a word. ‘Just let her be,’ Mrs. Turner said once. ‘She’s a girl. We’re weird, okay?’

Caroline took the candles her mother bought her and set them up all over her room, so that come day or night there was always darkness and shadows. Her father came home late and told her he was too tired to finish the wallpaper, but that was alright: She spent the night talking to the fairies, and sneaking the trapped ones more food. They whispered about all the things they’d seen in the room, and Caroline was fascinated. They wished she could come into the wall and play with them when it was done, and they told her that if only she was a fairy she might live forever and never fear anything.

‘What if the wallpaper gets stripped again?’ Caroline asked.

‘Maybe, but we live in the dark, and there will always be darkness,’ Fara told her. ‘And we’ve been in this house a hundred years already, and only ten of us have ever died from bright light. If you stay here, you could live forever and be happy.’

And they were happy, Caroline saw, and she knew how it felt in the wall. She was tempted, but she knew the wall had to be finished first.

***     ***     ***

Her father helped her finish the wall the next day. He noticed the duct taped window, but when he asked she said only that she liked candlelight better, and thought it was relaxing.

First they moved the furniture to the other side of the room, and then they began. Even though it was midday, and the door was wide open, they needed a flashlight to see what they were doing, and Mr. Turner decided that Caroline must be going through her ‘Goth’ phase. And then she surprised him by asking whether he thought fairies were real. Not, whether they were real, he noted, but whether he thought they were.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Sorry, sugar, just one of those things. Like Santa.’

‘Oh,’ she said, and smiled in a way he wasn’t sure he particularly liked. It was smug.

After he left, shooting her another of those cryptic looks as he went, she moved all of her furniture back into the middle of the room, and laid out all of her candles. She took a breath, barely able to contain her excitement, and lit them.

With the door closed and the window taped up, the room was made up only of shadows. The fairies even sat and clung to the shadows made by her chest of drawers and bedside table. She went from one wall to the next, whispering to them, asking them about their lives and telling them about hers.

It was around midnight when Fara beckoned her from one of the walls and asked her to join them. ‘I know there are a lot of us,’ she said, ‘but now that you’ve fixed the wallpaper, everything’s alright. We can go forever without food, if we must, and we never get sick or sad. We are always happy in the wall.’

‘But who would feed us?’ Caroline asked.

Fara laughed. ‘There’s always someone! Anyway, even if you decide you hate it here, there is a way out.’

‘There is? Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Oh. It’s difficult, I’m afraid. If you want to leave the wall, you’ll have to leave us something. A finger, perhaps. It is one of the rules. I’m sorry. It wouldn’t be painful.’

But Caroline only shook her head, and decided she needed time to think.

The walls were now covered with the fairies, flying and twirling and dancing in their new space. There were hundreds of them, and they flew across the walls of the room, ecstatic that it was at last complete. She watched the walls and saw families reuniting, long lost siblings meeting and friends seeing each other for the first time in years. They were all so happy.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ Caroline said. She lay down in her bed and watched the fairies frolicking on the wall until her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.

 

***     ***     ***

Danielle Turner made pancakes for breakfast. It was the meal usually guaranteed to get Caroline downstairs in a matter of seconds, but not today. She called her name and her husband came down the stairs, but not Caroline. They thought she must be asleep, and ate without her, but when the last of the coffee was gone and Mr. Turner kissed her goodbye and went to sell his houses, Caroline still wasn’t downstairs.

Feeling the first twinge of uneasiness, Danielle called Caroline. There was no answer. She called again, and then went upstairs and stopped outside her door. She knocked loudly. ‘Caroline? It’s breakfast! Better wake up soon. You know you start school in a week, you might as well get used to it!’

No reply.

Carefully, knowing the girl would probably hate her for it, she forced open the door.

The whole place was dark: although it was still early morning it could just as easily have been midnight in here. Except, of course, for the candles. They were assembled everywhere, dripping wax onto the old wood.

She caught movement in the corner of her eye and that was when she saw the shadows. For a moment, she didn’t believe her eyes: she was sure she was seeing an artwork. Some kind of incredible mural her daughter had created using the careful placing of furniture and shadows on the wall, and then she realised that the shadows were moving.

There was her daughter, in the middle of the wall. She knew it was her – the silhouette was that perfect. All around her were strange creatures that looked a lot like the fairies from, well, fairy tales. They landed on her arms and flew around her head. It was an incredible scene. Mrs. Turner could only stare at it, and in the back of her mind she thought that her daughter must be an incredible prodigy of art. This couldn’t have been easy to create. And what, what could possibly be making these shapes?

As she watched, the fairies surrounded the silhouette of her daughter, and began to caress and stroke her. Or, that’s what it looked like at first. But then, their long fingers extended into claws and the shadow of the girl in the wall seemed to be struggling, almost pressing up against the wall paper as if she was trying to escape.

The fairies scooped coin sized lumps of her into their hands and pushed them into their mouths. The shadow girl flailed hopelessly and diminished with each second until, when the fairies crowded around, she disappeared completely. Reduced into thousands of small portions and consumed.

Danielle watched the show with her hands on her hips and her mouth agape. When there was nothing left, the fairies flew to the far corners and the shadows on the wall and clung to them, as if they were trying to hide.

Mrs. Turner backed out of the room and closed the door behind her. She was shocked by what she’d seen, but she couldn’t say why. It was art, really – nothing real, but shadows on the wall. Nevertheless, she didn’t like it. When she found Caroline, she thought she’d do her best to discourage the girl from it. Someone with that kind of genius – to make a show like that (grisly as it seemed) had too much potential to waste it on childish pranks. She’d sign her up for every art and drama class she could lay her hands on.

But Mrs. Turner didn’t get the chance, for Caroline wasn’t anywhere to be found, and still wasn’t when her father returned home. They filed a missing persons report the following morning, but even then Danielle was recalling the fairies in the wall and wondering.

She didn’t know what she believed, but she told no one about the shadows in the room, or the little play that had been acted out for her. She told no one.

Sometimes, she sees faces in the shadows, and in the flickering firelight she thinks she sees little long fingered fairies fluttering in the corners of the room. She doesn’t know it, but they whisper to her in her sleep, and that winter she is the one to suggest redoing the wallpaper in the rest of the house.

She tells no one, but sometimes she thinks she hears her daughter’s voice among the whispers, and it calls to her. Soon, she thinks, she will see Caroline again.

Well, this is my longest story to date. I have plenty of criticisms for it, most of which are concerned with the plot holes that seem to erupt when I write something over 5,000 words. Even with its flaws, though, I enjoyed it, and no one can tell me it’s not at least original. The idea came like this: My muse (he’s the crazy hobo that lives in my mind) ventured over the gigantic trash dump of my mind and found an odd fact: the word ‘Lunatic’ is derived from the word ‘lunar’. Not caring whether it was true or not, I said, ‘cool, go find me more stuff so I can make a story.’ He obliged, but I got a little excited with some of the things he found and tried to include perhaps too many of them. Enjoy!

Lunatic

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

1

The classroom was dark, and so was the day. The only person who seemed not to mind was the Loon. He was actually smiling – smirking, really, and Chris Hoggs was seized with an immediate urge to wipe it from his face. He turned in his chair in time to catch Nick Sowe rolling his eyes, and they chuckled.

 ‘Boys got something you should share with the class, do you?’ Mr. Cane said. Mr. Cane was a rake with a stern face. Even his hair looked rusted and rake like, but despite his ridiculous appearance, even the toughest boys in St. Johns didn’t like to make him mad.

 ‘No, sir, nothing at all,’ Nick said, and Chris smiled politely.

 ‘Alright then.’

 So they held their peace until the final bell echoed through the halls, and Mr. Cane turned to rub out the board.

The Loon knew what was coming. He cast a quick glance behind him as he stood to pick up his books, caught sight of Nick and Chris homing in like sharks to a dying seal, and headed for the door. He was quick, but he only had one way home and they knew it: the cobbled alley that was Church road.

 They let him go and met him there a few minutes later, stepping out of the shadows in front of him, blocking his way. It was already getting dark and Chris imagined what they must look like emerging from the gloom. He felt a familiar thrill churn inside him. The Loon stopped and took two steps back, looking startled but not completely scared. He had his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his heavy black blazer, and tendrils of greasy hair hung over an impossibly pale face. ‘What do you want?’ he said, his voice a scratchy whisper. Ah, there was the fear, thought Chris, and immediately felt reassured.

 ‘You’d have thought he’d get used to it by now, wouldn’t you?’ Nick said, half smiling.

 ‘Then again, he is the Loon. Not right up there, are ya?’ Chris said, tapping his head.

 The Loon backed away a step, but they didn’t mind. The alley to his right was a dead end, and his house was behind them. Loon manor, the kids called it – a colossal structure at the end of a kilometer long gravel driveway at the end of Church road.

 ‘You owe two day’s safety, Loony boy,’ Nick said, flicking his hair off his face.

 ‘I thought it was three, Nick,’ Chris said. ‘He didn’t pay Monday, did he? He gave us the slip and thought he’d get away with it.’

 ‘True, true,’ Nick said. ‘How ‘bout this, Loon? You can pay us Monday, Tuesday, AND Wednesday, or you can pay for two days and take the beating for the last.’

 The Loon was starting to look scared now. His eyes darted into the alley. ‘Don’t have money for you today,’ he said, still in that thick whisper.

 Chris was surprised, but not disappointed. Most kids were so good these days, you barely ever got the chance to let off some steam. He felt his heartbeat spike and a smile spread his lips. He caught the same look on Nick’s face and they stepped forward.

 ‘I got something else instead,’ the Loon said quickly. ‘A deal.’

 They hesitated.

 ‘I’ll give you something else, something real expensive. And then, you leave me alone. For good.’

 ‘Rest of the term, maybe,’ Chris said. ‘Depends on how good it is.’ He realised he wasn’t even joking, either. Who knew what kind of treasures a boy from the Loon manor could get them. And if they kept their end, they could squeeze him for more.

 The Loon looked doubtful.

 Chris turned to Nick. ‘Look, if it’s good, he gets what he wants. Otherwise, we stomp him, yeah?’ Then, almost imperceptibly, he winked.

 Nick shrugged, pretending to be disappointed. ‘Fine.’

 ‘See? We’re good for it. What you got?’

 The Loon took another step back and onto the curb so that he was just on the corner of the narrow alley. Where he planned to go down there, Chris didn’t know: it ended in a dumpster and fifteen feet of wire fence.

 He took his hands out of his pockets and showed them what he had. If he hadn’t taken that last step back, Chris might have been able to snatch the coins out of his hands, but at this distance he knew he wouldn’t make it.

 ‘What’s this junk?’ he said. ‘Two silver coins? That won’t buy you an hour of safety, mate.’

 ‘Not coins,’ the Loon said. Then he let out a bizarre chuckle, an irregular series of semi shrieks that had helped earn him his nickname. He sounded like a sick monkey. ‘Medallions. Pure silver, boys. Worth a hundred pounds each.’

 Nick raised his eyebrows. ‘You for real?’

 ‘Well, if he’s not…’ Chris said, keeping his eyes on the Loon’s – they stared back, so pale the irises almost merged with the whites. ‘We’ll make sure he regrets it. Pretty easy to get these valued, isn’t it?’

 ‘So, it’s a deal? No more for the rest of the term?’ The Loon said. He was breathing fast, his breath coming out in steady puffs of mist.

 Chris stared at those bright circles of metal in the other boy’s palms and nodded. The Loon flicked them the coins and both boys caught them in the air and pocketed them.

 ‘So as I was saying,’ Chris went on. ‘They pay for the rest of the term. Of course, the rest of the term doesn’t really account for the last few days, does it, Nick?’ Nick saw where he was heading and grinned. ‘Which means you still owe us three days’ worth. And since you don’t have any more coins on you…’ They advanced.

 The Loon’s face changed from confusion to terror, and he almost stumbled on the curb as he backed away. If he had, they’d have caught him for sure, but as they lunged after him he turned tail and sprinted into the dark.

 They didn’t chase him, just as they hadn’t chased him out of the school, because once again they knew there was nowhere to go. Instead they rounded the corner, blocking off the only escape, and moved down the alley after him. It wasn’t a long way, and both of them heard his footsteps skid to a stop at the end. Nick chuckled and Chris began to crack his knuckles in his pre beating ritual. What they saw next would haunt them both for the rest of their lives, and though they both saw it, they never mentioned it to each other again.

 At the end of the alley, where it was too dark to see anything at all, two circular lights appeared. It reminded Chris of those documentaries you saw of Hyena feeding at night, and the odd laugh that followed was also not unlike them. Still watching them, the eyes moved to the right, rose, and then went a back to the centre of the alley again. There was the hollow clonk of something landing on top of the dumpster and then the eyes rose again, with frightening speed, until they were looking down from a height of about fifteen feet. Then they disappeared. A sound almost as light as a cat landing on carpet followed this, and then nothing. The Loon was gone.

 They walked home in silence, Nick uttering a shaky goodbye as Chris left him on his street. Only in the safety of his own home did he begin to think properly. His first thought was that he and Nick were going to leave the Loon alone from now on. Nick wouldn’t say anything, he knew. This was the kind of time when you just took your winnings and left, and forget absolutely everything. He thought Nick had seen the same thing as he had. Maybe. But if he tried to talk about it with him, Nick would deny it, make a joke, call him crazy. No, what you did with a thing like that was forget it, and that was all.

2

 That was exactly what Chris did, but even so the school days weren’t the same afterwards. They acted the same, outwardly, even to the Loon kid. They couldn’t let anyone think he’d got the better of them, and he never seemed to mind what they said. If it hadn’t, things might have been different. Once, Nick said something funny (a rare occurrence) about him and everyone laughed. The Loon spun around in his chair and gave Nick a wide grin that sent shivers scuttling all over Chris’s skin and made him grip his desk. No one else, including Nick, saw the grin, but he did.

 They stayed well away from him, and Chris even nursed a hope that things would return to normal. A few days later, he noticed that Nick wasn’t looking so good. He took to walking around all hunched up, barely saying a word and looking like he hadn’t slept in days.

They were hanging behind the Gymnasium, smoking and looking mean like usual, when he said something to Chris for the first time. He glanced around, as if checking for teachers, and then turned to him, exhaling the last drag through his nostrils.

 ‘Hey man. You been having those dreams?’

 Chris raised his eyebrows. ‘What?’

 ‘Nothing.’ He leaned back against the wall. ‘You check out your coin yet?’

 ‘Pretty sweet, yeah? Bet my life those things are pure silver.’

 Nick nodded. He took another drag and stared at the clouds. ‘What do you think they are, then?’

 Chris shrugged. That was something he hadn’t been able to work out. To him, his coin just looked like a flat circle of silver. A bit rough in the middle, but that was all. No patterns or pictures at all. He hadn’t so much as looked at his or touched it since dropping it in his pocket.

 ‘Know what I think?’

 ‘What?’

 ‘I think they’re the moon, man. I think they’re meant to be little silver moons.’

 Chris laughed, and then saw Nick staring at him.

 ‘You alright, mate?’ Chris said.

 Nick nodded and half smiled, looking cool again. Then the smile faltered horribly and he dropped his cigarette. ‘Sure you haven’t had those dreams?’

 ‘No man.’

 Nick hunched over and pulled his hood over his face. ‘Catch ya later, man, I’m going home.’

 Chris watched him go, perplexed, and then pulled his little silver circle out of his jacket pocket and looked at it. It did look like the moon, he thought to himself. In fact, the more he looked, the more he thought that yes, it was the moon. Why hadn’t he seen that before?

3

 The next day Nick wasn’t at morning roll call. The way he’d been looking, Chris supposed he was sick. It was, after all, cold enough to lose skin on metal. Chris decided to hunker down in the library.

 He got bored of the dusty place after about five minutes and hung around near the back, waiting for Mrs. Drum to look the other way so he could sneak into the ‘out of bounds’ section. The ‘out of bounds’ section was where the door to the Teacher’s lounge was, and also where their pigeonholes were, lined up against the wall like safe deposit boxes at the post office. He and Nick had been trying for years to pick the locks. Neither of them was really sure why, but both were equally certain there was mischief to be made inside. He took a copy of Dr. No so he could pretend to be reading it if Mrs. Drum came by, and headed down the aisle.

 When he came close and the general chatter of the library (far louder than usual today, due to the cold) was behind him, he heard Nick’s voice.

 ‘Please man. We’re sorry, alright? Just make it stop, yeah? I’ll even give back your stupid moon.’ The sound of fear in his friends face was even more shocking than hearing his voice in the first place. Nick didn’t get scared. Or if he did, he never showed it, even a little bit.

 ‘Wish I could,’ came that scratchy whisper. Chris felt goose bumps rise on every inch of his skin; there was no fear in that voice. ‘But it’s too late, now. Shouldn’t have pushed me so hard. Shouldn’t have lied, either.’

 ‘I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry. Just take it back and make it stop. Make it go away. Here, take it!’

 ‘Won’t make a difference. You took the coin. You take the consequences. I’ll take it back when it’s over.’

 ‘So… When it’s over, I’ll be alright, right? I’ll be able to give it back?’

 The Loon chuckled. ‘More like, you won’t be able to stop me taking it back.’

 There was silence. ‘If it gets any worse, I’ll kill you,’ Nick said, and for a moment Chris heard the Nick he was used to, the tough guy, but it was a thin veil.

 ‘If it gets any worse… I don’t think you’ll be able to do anything at all.’

 Then there was that dry chuckle again. In the silence that followed, Chris found himself retreating down the aisle and then crouching behind a bookcase. A moment later, the Loon walked past the place he’d just been standing and headed back to the main library. Chris stood and walked around the last two bookcases.

 Nick was standing with his back against the teacher’s lockers, skeleton thin and shaking all over. When he saw Chris he stood up straighter and put on a hard face, but Chris had already seen what was there before. ‘What was that all about?’ he said.

 ‘You’ll see soon enough.’ Nick slipped his coin into a pocket with a shaking hand. ‘And don’t bother throwing it away.’

  He tried to push past him but Chris put a hand out to stop him. ‘What’s going on? Tell me.’

 Nick stared down at the hand that was holding him. Then he looked up at his face, and suddenly his expression was so bitter and horrible that Chris took a step back. ‘Trust me, you’ll see. I can’t just explain it. Promise me one thing, Chris.’

‘What?’

 ‘If I don’t come to school tomorrow… Kill him.’

 This time he did push past, and a minute later he was gone into the blistering cold.

4

The next day, neither Nick nor the Loon came to school. When Chris came back to class after the lunch bell, a solemn mood had come over Mr. Cane and no one dared speak, recognizing his expression. When everyone was seated and silent, he spoke: ‘I regret to inform you, that the staff have just been briefed by the police today and… One of the students in this class has… passed on.’ There was a hush, and everyone’s eyes went to either of the two empty seats in class.

 ‘Mr. Sowe was found dead in his bedroom this morning. He apparently passed in his sleep. I am sorry for those of you who were close friends with him, and that you had to hear it this way.’ Mr. Cane’s eyes drifted to Chris’s. ‘We will have a remembrance day this coming Friday at assembly.’

 ‘What about investigation?’ Chris said.

 ‘Excuse me?’

 ‘How did he die?’

 ‘Died in his sleep, Mr. Hoggs, with unknown cause. It is unfortunately a rare occurrence, but not unheard of. Nicholas Sowe was indeed unlucky.’

 Luck had nothing to do with it, thought Chris, but with the Loon absent from school, he couldn’t take action. And did he really want to? Nick had said to kill the kid, but he hadn’t even told him why. Chris wasn’t sure he could kill someone, and besides, there was the matter of those predator eyes, and that mad, impossible thing that he’d seen.

 Besides, he thought, nothing had happened to him. He’d got off the hook, hadn’t he? As he well knew, he hadn’t got off the hook, and as he lay in bed that night, his mind wandered. How had his friend died? Tough Nick, who’d never flinched in his life. Nick, who didn’t know fear until it stared at him from a dark alleyway.

 The foot of Chris’s bed lay at his window, and as he thought he stared up at the moon – almost full tonight – and wondered what the coins had to do with it. He reached to his bedside table and lifted it up so that it was next to the real moon in the sky. Yes, they were similar. More, they were the same.

 He stared at the dazzling light for a minute, and when he put the coin down again he felt tired despite his worries. He watched it, and slowly drifted into unwelcome sleep.

 He opened his eyes, but did not wake. He knew that he was sleeping because he’d fallen asleep on earth staring at the moon and he was now on the moon, staring up at the earth. It hung in a black sky, partially darkened. The sun burned far away, but though it fell directly on him, it didn’t warm him the slightest.

 That was the worst, noticing that single thing. Because when he’d gone to bed, he’d been warm, and now he was bitter cold, and then there was this: usually when you were in a dream, you didn’t know you were dreaming, but he did. He was aware of this place. He could feel the strange suit he was wearing, see the reflections on the glass of his helmet, smell the artificial oxygen pumping into it – it reminded him of a hospital. When he stood, he felt his limbs moving, and they were certainly awake, if he wasn’t. He could imagine himself getting up out of bed now, standing in his room, fast asleep.

 He stood up too quickly and lifted off the ground almost a foot before sinking back down. Breathing fast, now, he turned a full circle and took in everything. White rocks, mountains and craters and trenches, deadly silent and motionless. It wasn’t the kind of luminous white you’d expect, but more of a dirty colour.

 He took a few tentative hops toward a rock and then realised it was too far away to reach. There were no structures of reference here, no landmarks. There was no way to tell how big the rocks and craters were, or how far away. Everything was near and close at the same time.

 His hands splayed out in front of him like a blind man, he hopped two more steps and leaned up against a man sized rock. He let himself sink to a sitting position there and then he just stared at the sky. It was too real, he thought, far too real. This must be what it was like to be schizophrenic. He shut his eyes and prayed to himself, curling into a ball against the cold, and counted seconds.

 After somewhere near two thousand, he fell asleep again, despite the cold, and when he woke up he was back in his room. In his sleep, he’d thrown his blankets off himself and he snatched them up again.

 When the dream came back to him, it wasn’t all there. He remembered being on the moon, and feeling insane. Then he woke up. The realness of the past few hours was gone and now he saw it for what it was – just a dream. A lucid dream, maybe, but a dream nevertheless. So what had happened to Nick? Why were the dreams important? Did they drive him mad? A strange thought occurred to him then: that the coins had somehow kept him asleep with the dream, and that in the meantime the Loon had crept into his room and murdered him.

 The Loon was at school that day, and Chris watched him closely. What was he supposed to do, kill the kid at school? If it gets bad, I will, he thought. He didn’t know what he meant by ‘bad’ but he also knew that he could kill someone if his life was in danger. Even someone with hyena eyes and a shark’s smile. Even the Loon.

 On the way home, he threw the silver coin into a pond in the park near his house. Ten minutes later, when he walked into his room, he saw it lying on his pillow, completely dry. Don’t bother throwing it away, Nick had said. Now he knew why.

5

 That night, he woke up on the moon again. He wasn’t surprised this time, but he was shocked, once again, at the realness of it. Maybe he’d thrown off the blankets in his sleep again and that was why he felt the cold. He bit his tongue, and it hurt, but maybe he’d bit it in real life, too. It was the clarity of thought that got to him; he was thinking so clearly, could focus so easily. Dreams were vague, inconsistent. They moved, they flowed, and you did things without thinking about them. But here, on the moon, he was completely awake.

 He realised he was in the same place he’d gone to sleep the previous night, and hopped away from the rock. He saw a vast crater some unknowable distance away and decided to head for it. It was something to do, and he needed to think.

 On the entire moon, he thought, he was the only living thing. If he was really here at all. In a strange way, it was comforting, but in another, it was terrifyingly lonely. He was not an astronaut – there were no voices from mission control, or Houston, chattering away in his helmet. He heard only his laboured breathing.

 And it was laboured, wasn’t it? More than what it should have been. It didn’t take much energy to hop from rock to rock in this gravity. He couldn’t find any kind of oxygen gauge on his suit, but in the end he didn’t need one, because it was beginning to dawn on him how Nick had died.

 Suffocation.

 No sooner did the thought arise than his breathing quickened. He tried to will it slower, but it was impossible. It wasn’t too bad, yet; he felt like he’d run a mile or two, maybe, but it wasn’t too serious. Yet.

 Chris hopped on. The further he went, the less he was able to see this place as a real landscape. It was the moon, after all – you couldn’t just travel there in a night. What was happening was all in his mind, and that was all. It wasn’t real.

 He hopped on over the uneven surface, and after a while he found he was enjoying himself. Now he understood: it was the panic that had killed Nick. He’d had a heart attack. He’d given in to his mind, gone insane, and that was why he died. Most likely, the stupid Loon had only meant to scare them, to really mess them up, and he’d done a good job of it, but Chris didn’t think he’d meant to actually kill Nick. That was Nick’s fault. If he’d only been like this, and seen it for the trick it was, he’d have lived.

 He was near to the crater now, but the fatigue set in and he settled down to rest. He lay on his back and stared up at the sky. He listened to his breathing, and tried not to notice how harsh it sounded in his ears, even though he was no longer moving around. He watched the earth, nothing more than a colourful orb in the sky, and thought of the Loon. He realised he didn’t even know the real name of the boy who was trying to kill him, even though Mr. Cane read it out every day during roll call. Well, name or not, he thought, as soon as he got back to earth (no, woke up – it was only a dream, remember), he’d get him. How bad he’d get him, well, that would depend on the Loon. If he could stop the dreams, Chris would make bloody sure he did. And if he couldn’t, then murdering the boy would be his only choice. Then they’d have to go away.

 It was a difficult trick to keep from thinking about his breathing. Every now and again he did, and his heart would skip a beat or two and he’d have to start all over again, thinking of something else, lulling himself into feeling safe. The thought that danced just out of his conscious mind was that if he didn’t manage it – if he couldn’t make himself fall asleep in time… he might run out of oxygen altogether.

 It was hard, but at last, his breathing slowed, his thoughts fogged, and he slept.  The insulated space suit loosened and changed into a softer fabric; the coldness of space became a winter morning; and when he became conscious of his breathing again, he found he no longer had to draw it with such effort into his lungs.

 Before he was properly awake, he’d thrown off his blanket and stood in the middle of his room, bathing in the pitiful sunlight and taking deep breaths of icy air. It felt good.

 After a few minutes, he remembered what he had to do today, and the joy of waking left him. It was replaced by a vision of a dark haired boy with silver eyes that glowed in the dark and a smirking face.

 He didn’t eat breakfast that morning, but got into his school clothes, packed his bag and left, making a point of yelling goodbye to his mother so she knew he’d gone to school.

 The walk to St. Johns was always full of dread, but today Chris would have killed for that kind of dread: the kind that extended to overdue homework and the bleak expectation of six hours of boredom. That kind of dread would have been like heaven. He thought of his dream the night before, and the more he considered it, the more certain he became that he couldn’t let himself sleep until he was sure he’d be safe. Today he’d sort the whole thing out with the Loon, and then he’d sleep. Maybe.

 But the Loon was not in class. He must know, Chris realised. Of course, with Nick already dead, he would know that Chris was out to get him. He must surely know that Chris would be far more desperate than his friend, because he knew what was coming. So he was hiding up in Loon manor.

 At recess, he left and snuck in through his bedroom window. He dumped his bag and changed into some fresh clothes and a hooded jumper. Walking around town during school hours in uniform got you plenty of unwanted attention from strangers, and besides, he wanted darker clothes in case he had to sneak into the manor that night.

 By the time he started on the gravel driveway at the end of Church road, the sun was high in the sky and the morning mist had dissipated. The walk up to the great iron gates had him sweating in his blazer, but he didn’t notice. He was more worried about how he was going to get into this place.

 Loon Manor wasn’t a mansion in the Hollywood sense, but more traditional: it was all stone and ivy, and the iron front gates had a mean looking gargoyle stationed on either side. From here, almost any part of the town was visible.

The gates weren’t closed completely, and Chris pushed through the opening they left. He expected them to creak and groan, but they didn’t make a sound. As he crunched his way up to the front doors, he couldn’t help being reminded of the feel of moon rocks under his boots and he shivered.

6

He hesitated, thought of the smirk on the Loon’s face and then lifted the brass lion doorknocker and banged it shut three times. He waited while the sound echoed through the house. No one came.

 That was when he noticed the tiniest opening between the two front doors. He pushed, and they swung open. ‘Hello?’ He called out, and heard his voice echo just like the doorknocker. There was no answer.

 He took one step inside and then froze. The place was vast – that was one thing – but the vastness of it was only so shocking because of the absence of furniture. He couldn’t see so much as an armchair or table in the surrounding rooms. On his right was a great space with a heavy wooden floor and a fireplace at the far end, and the fireplace was void even of charcoal and ash, let alone wood. To his left an archway led into a kitchen, full of gleaming tiles and vacant countertops. The entrance hall stretched out for quite some way and then a wide flight of stairs led up to the second story.

 Chris paused, and then took off his right shoe, wedging it in place in front of one of the front doors. He’d seen far too many horror movies in which the hero ventured into an apparently harmless place, only to have the door slam behind him and the lights go out.

 He didn’t bother with the ground floor but went straight up, past the second and onto the third. This must be where the Loon’s room was, he thought – if he even had one here. He had to sleep somewhere.

 At the top of the stairs a long wooden hallway ran the length of the house, with heavy doors lining either side and a tiny window at the far end, spilling dim sunlight.

 Chris wondered if the Loon was home. If he was, Chris wasn’t sure he wanted to be here at all, at least not without a weapon. He reached into his pocket and drew out a Swiss army knife which had lived there since sixth grade. He flicked out the knife with practiced ease and for a moment felt a little more secure.

 There was only one door in the hallway that was open – the one at the end, by the window – and it was this one he headed for. He held the knife with both hands now, feeling like a medieval knight with his sword, coming to slay the… Whatever it was. As he approached, he became more and more sure that it really was an it, and not a he. The smell that snaked its way through the half open door was something no human would tolerate. It was the smell of rot, and ancient death. Chris had an image of a booming slaughterhouse suddenly abandoned, all the workers turning off the machines and leaving without a care for the animals inside. This room, he thought, smelled like that place after twenty years or so.

 At the threshold he forced himself to hold his breath and listened. Absolute silence.

 Roaring like a wild beast, he kicked the door open and took two steps in, swinging the knife and connecting with nothing. When he opened his eyes a second later, he found himself alone, and felt incredibly stupid. He sincerely hoped that the Loon wasn’t anywhere in the house, because if he was he’d surely have heard.

 This room was much bigger than any teenager’s bedroom Chris had known, easily three times longer, wider and taller. The floor was probably made of splintery old floorboards, like the walls and ceiling were, but it was impossible to tell because every inch of it was covered in layers and piles of bones. The pile in the middle came up to his waist, and to take a step in any direction meant sweeping through a layer at least shin deep. Every movement caused a rattling landslide.

 The bones at the bottom, Chris saw, were very old and mouldy, and prone to splintering or being crushed to dust beneath his feet. The ones near the top were also old, but much fresher. At the very top of the pile in the middle, some of the bigger ones even had what looked like bits of beef jerky sticking to them.

 Chris closed his eyes for a minute and tried to stop himself from panicking. When he thought he had himself under control, he opened them and looked around the walls, and then he lost it all over again.

 At first he thought the walls were simply crumbling from age, but now he saw the damage done to them was intentional. The Loon had carved notes and messages and bizarre sentences on every inch. Some of it he could make out, some he could not. When he looked up, he saw that the ceiling had a complete lunar calendar engraved in it for that month. Most of it was crossed off and up to date. Today, the eighteenth of June, was crossed off, and the calendar ended in a big carved circle marked: Nineteenth – FULL MOON

 Chris wiped a film of cold sweat from his face and looked around some more. Some things didn’t seem to make any sense, like NEXT AWAKENING: 2023, above the tiny window that was blacked out with duct tape, or RETRIEVE MOONS, scrawled above the door. Nearby the latter, though, his eyes rested on what looked like a very short to do list in the top right corner of the room. That it was there, almost eight meters off the ground, was mad enough, but what was written in it was much, much more terrifying.

1. Blend

2. Eliminate attention (N.S./C.H.)

3. Capture 11

4. Feasting days 18th – 19th

5. Descend/Sleep

That did make sense to Chris, but not in a good way. It would make more sense if he were watching a horror movie, maybe, but this was real life. The Loon is really crazy, then, he thought to himself. He’s just a crazy person, that’s all. Then he looked down at the mess of bones at his feet, and then back up at number 4: Feasting Day s 18th -19th, and knew he was wrong.

 He wasn’t quite sure what ‘descend and sleep’ meant, but he thought he had a good idea what ‘capture 11’ meant. Those weren’t Kentucky Fried Chicken bones on the floor, after all.

 The sound of the front doors banging open came to him, and in an instant he realised what a fool he’d been. He’d left his shoe to prop the doors open for fear of having them slam behind him, but all the while he should have been worried not about what might be waiting for him in the house, but what might be on its way home.

 He glanced at the duct taped window, considered jumping out of it, and then remembered he was on the third story. Instead he stepped out of the room and was on the point of running down the hallway when he realised how much noise his remaining shoe would make on the wood. Swearing under his breath, he bent and untied the lace. He left it where it was – the Loon already had one, anyway. He padded on socked feet down the hall and started down the stairs.

 The Loon had already reached the second story. He could see its shadow on the stairs beneath him, and hear strange hiccupping noises coming from his throat. By the look of that shadow, it wasn’t in the usual form, the one that Chris saw at school every day.

 He tiptoed back up the stairs and went on down the hallway. He ducked into the first room on the right and closed the door. Once it was shut, he didn’t dare let go of the doorknob or allow it to untwist, because he was sure the tiny creak would be too loud. So he waited.

 The stairs groaned with each step, but the Loon must have been moving quickly because he only counted six groans before it was just outside his door.

 He was holding his breath now, waiting for a heavy hand to rest on the other doorknob and wrench the door open. There was nowhere to go in here – it was just another empty room with a little window.

 It sounded like it was dragging something with it. Something that slid over the floorboards like a sack of sand or… It’s a person, he thought. It had to be. There were only two more days to the full moon, after all, and the Loon still had to ‘capture eleven.’

 He waited until he heard the Loon drag whoever it was down the hallway, and into the room at the end. He began to breathe a sigh of relief and then stopped. A terrible thought had just occurred to him: the Loon had seen the shoe at the front door. It must surely have seen his other shoe at the end of the hallway, too, and realised that there was a boy in the manor. So why hadn’t it come looking yet? Because it needs to put the body away first.

 THUMP, rattle. A body dropped onto a pile of bones.

 Chris burst from the room and threw himself down the stairs. He took them five at a time and knew it wasn’t enough. There was no hideous roar behind him, no thundering footsteps, but he knew it was after him all the same, because he could feel it. And behind the thundering of his heart in his ears, he was sure he heard that terrible hiccupping laughter. The half insane chattering he’d heard when he and Nick had seen it scale the fence in the alleyway.

 When he reached the second floor balcony he jumped it, praying as he fell that he wouldn’t land wrong and snap an ankle. He hit the ground and started sprinting for the front door at the other side of the entrance hall, feeling like he was running on the moon. Of all people, he was most likely to know what that was like.

 As he passed the front doors he had, somehow, the presence of mind to hook them with the tips of his fingers so that they slammed shut behind him as he leapt into the front garden.

 The Loon was so close behind that he was certain he’d hear a colossal crash as it collided with the wood, but there was only silence. He ran through the iron gates, past the beady-eyed gargoyles and down the front drive. He didn’t look behind him, but as he neared the end of Church road he was aware that the Loon had stopped following him. If he’d dared to look behind him, then, he’d have seen nothing unusual: just a dark manor on the hill. Except, that was, up on the third story, where a pair of silver lights shone from a tiny window.

7

 He kept up the pace until he reached home, and then he collapsed to his knees on his front lawn. His feet were burning and stinging in a hundred places where pieces of gravel had embedded themselves. He felt like he’d run ten kilometres instead of one.

 Eventually, he stood up and went around to the side of the house. He climbed up to his second window and into his room, and then he flopped down on his bed, overcome with relief.

That, he thought, he’d never forget as long as he lived. How had he lived? How had he made it out alive? Why hadn’t the Loon chased him outside? Because it knows you’re going to die tonight, some bitter voice told him.

 He pushed himself off his bed and stared at it like a poisonous thing. Of course, it had to be true. If he fell asleep tonight, it would be his last dream.

 Chris slumped down against his dresser and began to shake. He put his hands up to his face and tried to stop the tears of terror from coming, but he couldn’t. He was consumed by his own imminent death: it was unavoidable, was it not? He still had the coin, and couldn’t get rid of it. The only hope of redemption was to kill the Loon and hope… but how could he even begin? How could he even think of fighting that thing?

 He had to stay awake. That was step one. He didn’t even need a step two right now, he realised – that could come later. All he needed for the next hour or so was to make sure he could stay awake until the full moon.

 He went downstairs and saw that his mother hadn’t come home yet. It was getting dark, but she wouldn’t be back until eight. He snuck into her bedroom and went to her bedside table. She had a secret stash of notes and coins there that she thought he didn’t know about. She only thought that because he made sure to take only insignificant amounts each time. This time he took it all – if she wanted to punish him, she could do her worst: he’d be happy just to still be alive to suffer it.

 He headed down to the corner shop, where the keeper knew him well but didn’t know enough English to scorn him for being out of school. He used all of his own money as well as his mother’s stash to buy every one of the fifteen Red Bulls in the fridge, and he lugged them home in a cardboard box.

 When he got home, he took them up into his room and drank one to get him started. If he could ration himself to seven on the first day and eight on the second, he’d last to the full moon, and that was all the time he had, anyway. If he hadn’t killed the Loon by then, it would ‘descend and sleep’, and that would be the end of it.

 So step one was done.

 Eight o’clock came and went. He ate a silent meal of fish and chips while his mother turned on the television and poured her first glass of wine for the night. He went back to his room and continued to think.

 When midnight rolled around, he thought he had almost enough to get started. There were three ways to kill a beast like the Loon. The first was fire. Fire killed everything, in his experience, even in the movies. The second was to shoot it, perhaps with a silver bullet. He couldn’t really afford to think of this, because he had no access to any kind of gun and couldn’t see it in the near future. Nevertheless, if the opportunity arose he wouldn’t mind entering Loon mansion with an AK47. The third was to cut out its eyes. It made rational sense, but for him there was more than that – he felt that it would work. Those big silver eyes, the moon, the coins, they were all connected.

 Chris thought for a good deal longer, but in the end that was all he had. If it didn’t work, he would die. Even if it did work, the Loon might murder him before he could begin to implement the plan. But it was all he had.

 For a minute, he wondered whether he should make his attack tonight. He decided against it. He told himself it was because at this time of night it would be hard to find any supplies he might need to set the mansion on fire and get a decent knife. The truth was in the darkness and cold of the night. The almost-full moon that hung in the sky and the memory of the heavy body it had been dragging down the hall; the smell of an abandoned slaughterhouse.

 So he drank, and thought, and waited for the sun to come up.

8

He skipped breakfast and headed straight out the door – fully dressed in his school clothes and backpack to avoid questions. He went around the side of the house and waited there until he saw his mother’s car pull out and head to work. Then he headed back inside and started raiding the kitchen. When he was done, he had his Swiss army knife in his right shoe and a steak knife tucked into his belt, under his shirt. It was that or the cleaver, and he thought the steak knife had a much sharper point – all the better for plucking eyes. He ducked into the garage and took a three quarters full container of gasoline. He used it to fill a big water bottle, and then took his mother’s lighter from its place on the couch. He was ready.

 His heart was beating wildly when he left the house again – but then it had been going like that since he’d finished the third Red Bull that night. Somehow, despite his determination to stay awake, there had been a terrible moment when he’d closed his eyes and drifted off for a minute or two. He was positive that just before he woke, he’d seen the surface of the moon stretching endlessly to a black horizon, and the thought was enough to scare him into alertness for the rest of the night.

 He went to school again, but only to make sure the Loon was there. He would be, Chris was certain. Tomorrow, no doubt, there’d be more kids missing. Certainty somehow still wasn’t enough, the same way it wasn’t enough for a bungee jumper checking the rope attaching him to the bridge.

 He didn’t go inside, but waited until half past eight, when everyone was just sitting down in class and having their names read off the roll. Then he crept around the side of the big stone building, around to the flowerbed beneath his classroom window, and pressed himself up beside it. He could hear Mr. Cane’s tones half muffled by the thick glass. ‘Pallor, Penders, Rowley…’

 He edged around until he was inches from the window, and then, as quickly as he could, he darted his head around and looked in. The Loon always sat in the same seat, and today was no exception. Chris only caught a glimpse of the greasy black hair and the bored expression before he ducked away, but it was enough. It was time to go.

 He headed around the school and hopped the fence behind the gymnasium, picking up the gasoline bottle he’d left in a clump of bushes there. He was hurrying down Church road and the side streets around it, but even trying to keep a low profile he made it to Loon Manor in under twenty minutes. He stood at the front gates, indecisive. Would the Loon think he was dead, or would he realise something was up? Would he leave class and come looking? Chris pushed through the front gates and glared at the gargoyles as he passed.

 What he really wanted to do was set the whole place alight and watch it burn, but that would end in two kinds of bad. One, the Loon wouldn’t be dead, and he’d be mad. Two, there were people in here. Were they alive, though?

 No.

 A minute later, he was standing in the bone room, one hand pinching his nose shut, staring at a sprinkling of very white bones that hadn’t been there before. There was no meat on any of them, but there was an eyeball still sitting in the socket of a skull in the right corner opposite. The lack of blood was astounding. There was some, he could see splashes of it newly dried here and there, but nowhere near enough. The bones themselves were gleaming white, sucked clean. He got the feeling that a few hours ago they were still steaming from the heat of the living body they’d once inhabited. He wondered who they’d belonged to.

 The outer walls of the manor were heavy grey stone, but almost everything else was wooden. It would burn, alright. The problem was who would be in it when it went down. What if the Loon brought back more victims? Could he save them? No, he told himself. Forget it. You kill the Loon and burn the place. Just killing the Loon was dangerous enough. Playing the hero would only end in fresh bones to add to the pile.

 He had six hours before the final bell rang. He spent the first one trying to get the perfect spread of gasoline over as much of the lower floor and up the first flight of stairs as he could. He left great puddles of it in every room, streaked it up the walls, made sure all the rivers and lakes were connected.

  It didn’t take much longer to decide where he should wait: the bathroom adjoining the kitchen on the ground floor. He didn’t think the Loon even saw most of the rooms, usually. It was all a façade. Chris wandered how long it’d been living here alone. Had it bought the place itself? Judging by the absence of furniture, and its desire to keep a low profile (1. Blend) it must have. He settled in and waited.

 Ten minutes after he’d taken his place behind the bathroom door, he heard the front doors open. The Loon was back. There was a long silence as it took in the gasoline covered floorboards. If it had anyone with it, they were silent. Dead, Chris thought. Would it come looking?

 Heavy, quick footsteps sounded over the boards, and there was the familiar dragging of bodies behind it. Then a rapid thump thumping as it dragged them up the stairs to the bone room. Silence.

 About fifteen or so minutes later, it came back down again, and this time it had nothing with it. Chris squeezed his eyes shut and waited, not daring to breathe. It left the manor. He opened his eyes, and loosened the vice grips he’d had on both the steak knife and the lighter. It had gone back for more, he realised. It had a quota to keep (capture 11) and only one more day to do it in.

 It was recess, now. That meant it’d probably head back to the school, then duck up here with some fresh meat for lunch. Maybe get two or three more after the final bell. And then what? Tonight was a full moon and the end of the ‘feasting days’. Then it would all be over. The Loon would go back to where it came from and Chris would be left behind, one more dream from death.

 He couldn’t burn the place down without the Loon here, and if he did it while it was here, it would surely escape. He recalled the way it had climbed that fence in the alleyway. He couldn’t kill it with fire, in other words. Worse, judging by the way it had passed through the gasoline soaked floor with barely a pause, it knew. At the first spark it would murder him, finish off whoever it had trapped here, and put out the fire. Even if it couldn’t do the latter, who said it needed the mansion anyway? More than likely it was just a hiding place, somewhere convenient to take meals – not essential in the least.

 He’d have to kill it with the steak knife.

9

He held it up, flipped it over in his hands. The blade was sharp and short, the handle metal. It looked really good for slicing potatoes, maybe. Lunatic monsters, though?

 His hands were shaking bad, and it had nothing to do with the caffeine. He wondered if they’d be much use when it came to it. Would he fumble the knife, or fall over like they did in the movies? Would he lose his nerve and run? Whichever it was, he thought, he would find out. Because no matter which was he looked at it, it was do or die. Fight, or face the final dream.

 He put the lighter in his pocket and opened the bathroom door. The front door was closed but he decided it would be a bad idea to wait there since the doors opened inward – it would be too hard to take it by surprise. Instead, he went to the one place it wouldn’t see him coming – the only room in the house it would feel safe and secure and accustomed to: the bone room. He found himself a spot close to the door, in just the right position to right hook the knife into its eyeballs.

 Two hours, though, that was a long time to wait. Eventually he started to get restless. The doubt set in, and the questions. After a while, he left the bone room and went to the top of the staircase. He sat on the very top one, so that if he stood up he’d be able to just see the front doors. If he didn’t like what he saw, he could hide in one of the other rooms up here, maybe revise his plan. It would have to come back after school, anyway – he’d have time.

 And that was exactly what he did, only when the front doors opened fifteen minutes or so after the lunch bell went, and he stood up to catch a glimpse, he realised he wouldn’t have time after all.

 He didn’t see all of it. A glimpse of the top of its head and back, something that looked like a shard of bone sticking out of… He didn’t see that – he’d already ducked into the nearest room and shut the door. He huddled in a ball against the wall with his hands up to his face, trying to keep from shaking. No way would he have enough time. A million years wouldn’t be enough.

 He’d seen enough to know that, and also that it would have to be fire. Nothing that huge – how had it even fit through the front doors? – could be killed with anything but a hurricane of flames. He was going to need more gasoline.

 It finished just as quickly as it had before, and he heard its creaking footsteps coming back down the hallway. The footsteps stopped just outside the door to his room. He held his breath. He heard a noise halfway between a lion clearing its throat and a hyena’s laugh. It was chuckling, laughing at him because it knew he was there.

 Then the footsteps went on down the hall, down the stairs and out of the front door. Chris let out his breath a second before he would have passed out, and wiped the tears of terror from his face.

 He would go mad, he realised, if he actually saw the whole beast. If he set eyes on the thing itself, its body in its entirety (and its mind, too: you couldn’t look into those eyes without seeing something of the mind), he would lose himself. There would be no eye plucking for him, unless it was a last resort.

 Chris got to his feet and opened the door, half leaning on it for support. As he stepped out into the hallway he smelled the fresh blood, sensed the heat of newly demolished bodies. This must be what the entrance to hell was like. Maybe that was even what it was – maybe that was where it ‘descended’ to in the end.

 He left the house at a sprint, although he had a full two hours at least to get back. He took his bottle with him, and stopped by his own house long enough to retrieve ten empty red bull cans, which he stashed in a plastic bag. Then he went to the nearest Shell.

 It was hard to be accurate, and he spilled a lot, but after about ten minutes at the pump he’d filled up every can and the bottle. The cans he taped closed with some duct tape he’d taken from his garage. As he hurried out of the place, he saw the man in the service station on the phone, watching him with dagger eye. It didn’t matter: if he survived long enough to get caught for this he’d be happy. He’d do the community service with a smile, that was for sure.

 Back in the vast empty spaces of Loon manor, he found himself wishing he’d taken more cans. The ten he had were enough to give a decent pour in most parts of the second floor, and the bottle doused the top floor and sent a waterfall down the stairs, joining the floors.

 He knew he should wait on the bottom floor. He should stay in the bathroom until the Loon was in the bone room, then light the place from the front door. It was fear that stopped him. Actually, it was one fear fighting another. If he didn’t see it through, make sure the Loon died, then he’d have to face the moon again. He’d have to wake up on that bleak plane for the last time, and die alone.

10

 He went to wait in the room opposite the bone room. It was risky, sure. Very risky, but that fear nagged at him, the fear of the moon. Through the window, he could see it already, pale in the darkening sky, full and already rising.

 He was resting with his back against the wall by the window, trying to avoid the gasoline fumes that filled the place, when the Loon returned. The red bull was wearing off and he almost – incredibly – fell asleep. At the sound of the front doors he sprang to his feet, his eyes wide open, his heart running double pace.

 He drew the lighter with his right hand and the steak knife with his left. He didn’t really expect to use it, but he might have to. He really just wanted to see, now. It had terrified him before, but he suspected that was just him, his own mind messing with him. Whatever it was, it had to be some kind of animal, in the end. It was something real. Crazy, evil, whatever, that didn’t matter, but it was real. And that meant that when you stabbed your knife into its eyes, it would go blind.

 The Loon thumped and dragged and chuckled its way up the stairs. It splashed down the hall, where Chris had concentrated much of the gasoline, and into the bone room. Once he was sure it was distracted, he twisted the knob of his door and nudged it open.

 This was the first and only time he ever heard it feed. He found that he knew what each sound represented, and he cringed as though it were being done to him. That sound like the tearing of wet card board – that was flesh being peeled from the bone. The crunch of twigs underfoot was bones breaking in its mouth. But the gurgling slurping, the sighs of ecstasy… that was nothing he’d ever heard before.

 He pushed the door open fully, and stepped back into the gasoline soaked hallway. He could see part of the bone room – the door was wide open – but only a portion of the Loon was visible. He could see an alien leg, twisted in an odd way so that it looked like it had been broken in four places. He could see the lower half of the body it was working on, too, and it was jerking and shaking as though the top half was going through an industrial sized blender.

 He took another step up to the threshold, and the whole thing came into view.

 The Loon sensed him and looked up with headlight eyes. Now, in that split second, was the only time he could have had a chance.

 The moment passed, though, and then Chris’s conscious mind caught up with him and he began to comprehend what he was looking at, or rather, the details his mind could deal with: The mouth, without teeth or gums but simply a mess of jagged meat and bone, grinning wide enough to eat his head. The black red skin, torn and shedding and open in random places. The mess of limbs that didn’t seem to have any logical placement or purpose. Legs that were broken and arms that were wrong in undefineable ways. It looked like a monster that had died in the most horrifically violent way imaginable and been brought back to life.

 And the eyes. Chris hadn’t seen them close up yet, and he threw himself from the doorway before he could. What he had seen was enough to glimpse the insanity that awaited him. He dropped the knife and took out the lighter as he sprinted down the hallway.

 It wasn’t chasing him. It was only making that sickening hyena laugh and chewing meat. He made it all the way to the ground floor before he dropped to his knees and flicked the wheel on the lighter. The flame came on the first try, and he pressed it against the floorboards until it caught.

 He caught, too, but he made it out of the front doors before the whoosh of ignition caught up with him. He rolled around in the driveway until he put it out, and then he stood up and stared at the Manor.

 It lit quickly alright, and before long he had to retreat a good twenty steps just to bear the heat. The whole place was alight in under a minute, and he could even see the flames rising above the rooftops. He heard a heavy roar from somewhere in the house and several windows shattered near the back, on the third floor.

 He felt something like relief spread through him as he thought of how much meat the beast had left to go. Full moon was here, it was almost night, and he’d lit the house with a body and a half remaining. It might escape the house, maybe, but it would be unable to sleep without its feasting day complete.

 Chris watched the manor burn, and he listened for sounds other than the crackling of fire. He waited to hear the screaming of the Loon, or even its terrible laughter. When it didn’t come, he reached into his pocket and took out the moon coin it had given him, and threw it as hard as he could through the front doors. It disappeared into the fire.

11

 When he heard the sirens approaching a minute later, he turned and headed down the hill. The third floor had already collapsed onto the second and it was only a matter of time before the whole thing went down. If there was anything left in there, Chris thought, it wasn’t alive.

 He took side streets until he hit Warner Street, and then it didn’t matter because everyone was up at Loon manor anyway. He crept back into his room and lay on his bed, smelling like gasoline and covered in sweat and burns. It felt like one or two in the morning, but it was only five thirty. Of course, he hadn’t slept.

 He could hear the sirens in the distance. He was still full of adrenaline, his mind was rushing, and he was cold. None of these things were the reason he couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep because of the coin.

 He’d thrown it into the fire, sure. But then, hadn’t he tried to throw it away before? His eyes moved to his top desk drawer, but he didn’t get up to open it.

 He wondered how long the Loon had been at it, here. Maybe fifty years, he thought. He didn’t think Loon manor had even been built more than sixty or seventy years ago, anyway. That was probably how it all worked: the Loon took a place, stayed around for a century or so, had a feasting day every now and again, then disappeared, slept, went somewhere else. He tried to forget what he’d seen again, and half succeeded. Why had it been so happy?

He pondered this while he looked at his top desk drawer.

 Eventually, he couldn’t bear it any longer and he opened it. The coin glowed back at him atop a stack of exercise books. It was almost three dimensional in the twilight, like an orb instead of a coin.

 He took it from the drawer and stared at it, hypnotised. It didn’t have to mean anything, he told himself, as his eyes tried to close. It’s just a remnant, like the giant pile of charcoal on top of Church Hill.

 ‘I beat it, Nick,’ he whispered. ‘I swear I did.’ But he didn’t believe it himself, and he knew he wouldn’t until he went to sleep.

 He fought it for as long as he could. The next three days were a blur. He only left his room to make pots of coffee with mud-like viscosity. His mother didn’t care, and neither did the school – they were still dealing with the disappearance of eleven other students. He was truly alone.

 The sugar and coffee he consumed kept him wide awake for a while, but at the dawn of the third day the effect had mostly worn out. He looked like someone had draped a tent over a boy shaped sculpture of coat hangers. His eyes were sunken in his skull and dark around the edges. It hurt to blink.

 The worst part was, he knew it only amounted to procrastination. The final dream was yet to come, but somehow he knew it would. He’d overheard the news reports about four times while he made coffee downstairs. Bones found, possibly from the students who’d recently gone missing from St. Johns. No furniture recovered. Prime suspect of arson was Chris Hoggs, who had been spotted stealing large amounts of gasoline and is currently missing (his mother didn’t know he was home, and he’d hid in the back garden while the police searched his room). There were no reports of the Loon.

 Was he alive, or was he dead? They’d showed the pictures of the missing students on television, and his had been included, but that didn’t mean much. It didn’t really matter in the end, because the moon coin was still in his desk drawer, and it wasn’t going anywhere. He was just procrastinating.

 It was dusk on the third day when Chris Hoggs fell asleep. He already knew it was coming: every now and again he’d blink and wake up five minutes later, with a vision of the moon clear in his mind’s eye. When he finally went, he was sitting on his bed, staring out of the window at the rising moon. His eyes flickered open and closed, and sleep weighed on him like a mountain.

12

 He blinked and woke up on the moon.

 For a minute, he felt only relief: the weight of sleep was gone – he was not tired any more. He stood up and looked around, feeling the cold, seeing the black sky and knowing what it meant, but for now not caring.

 He made for the crater. It was very close now, and he was sure he’d make it before he ran out of oxygen. Who knew, maybe he’d wake up first, and then he’d have three or four more days before he had to dream again.

 The strangeness of the whole place hit him as if for the first time, and he marvelled at the silence and desolation. The isolation was the best part, though, and he felt it whenever he looked up at the earth. The Loon was still down there, he thought, but I’m not.

 As the crater drew near, he thought he could accept his death. Not like it, not embrace it, but accept it: it was going to happen and there was nothing he could do.

 The ground rose as he approached the crater, so he couldn’t see what was in the crater until he was right at the tip. He realised very quickly that it wasn’t a significant place, not like the sea of tranquillity or anything like that. This crater was much too small, just a minor dent in the pale face of the moon man. It was full of bodies.

 Nick’s was surely in there somewhere, and if it wasn’t, then it was somewhere close. The place had, after all, drawn Chris, if for no other reason than that it was the closest landmark. And now he’d found the others.

 Chunky white suits piled on top of each other or scattered randomly. They’d all made it here on their dying dream. There were probably others littered all over the moon. Maybe one day someone would find them, if it was real.

 He knew that it wasn’t, though, because Nick’s body had been found. Chris’s body was probably in his bed, now, tossing and turning. Up here, he felt every part of him just as he did when he was awake – this was no kind of dream at all.

 He walked among the bodies and tried to see their faces through their helmets, but he couldn’t. All he could see was the black reflection of empty space, and the earth.

 His air was running out fast, now. Every breath had to be sucked in, and pretty soon he felt like he was trying to suck cement through a straw.

 He stood in the middle of the crater and stared at the sky, willing himself to sleep. Even a day, he thought, even an hour, would be enough. He could say goodbye to the world. Eat a meal, tell his mother he still loved her, breathe the air, that precious air. Even thirty minutes would be alright.

 There was no oxygen left in him now, and he was just breathing recycled air. He saw black patches appear in the corners of his eyes, and sunk to his knees. He kept his eyes on the sky, on the floating earth above, the colourful place.

 Wake up! He shouted at himself. You’re on earth, so wake up! But he didn’t, because he wasn’t really on earth, he was on the moon, and would remain here forever. Whether the Loon was dead or not, it didn’t matter.

 Chris put his white gloved hands to his face and wept into his helmet, while the black patches grew larger and larger.

 After a time, he did feel tired again, very tired, but it wasn’t from lack of sleep. The rushing sound in his ears disappeared as though someone had shoved cotton balls into them. His face was warm and his body was weak. He flopped onto his back.

 In the absolute silence, he lay there and watched the earth floating in the black sky. It was a peaceful way to go. He wondered if anyone else would come here, to this white place, and die with him, and he didn’t think so. The Loon was gone for good, and he was its last victim.

 Finally, he surrendered his eyes to the dark and listened to his breathing through muffled ears. It slowed, and slowed, and softened, until he heard nothing at all.

 Chris Hoggs died with a smile on his face, and a bright silver coin in his fist. His mother was the first to touch it, but while she wondered over it for months and kept it well, she never dreamed of the moon.

 Not once.

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