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I had this on here briefly a while ago, but took it off to try to get it published. Alas, the word counts are strict and, like Out of Hell, it was either too long or not thematically related to any magazine that would have considered it. It’s too bad – this story was a lot of creepy fun to write, and I think it’s one of my best. But enough about me – let the tale creep for itself.

Enjoy

 Her Dark Paradise

 

The day Harry Yorker fell in love was the worst in his life.

At least, so far.

That was the thought on his mind as he lay in the middle of Plunder Road, blood streaming from both nostrils, face swollen, lips cut, and ten dollars poorer. He’d begged his father not to give him the money, knowing exactly what would happen to it, but Mr. Yorker was not one to give in to bullies. ‘It’s only one kid?’ he’d said, eyeing Harry from across the table. ‘You just hit him back, son, you’re big enough. Goddamn, you let some little bastard push you around, you deserve what you get. It’s a tough world, you gotta learn to fight.’ With the word fight he’d plunged his fork down into the rib eye on his plate as though it had done him personal harm, spraying juice over the front of his shirt.

Well, Miles Braider had learned to fight, and Harry got the distinct feeling he enjoyed it a hell of a lot, too. He never reacted to anything, Miles, but he had an intensity in his eyes when he hit Harry, an internal fire that no amount of pain would ever quench.

It was four thirty now, but Harry didn’t want to go home. Better to stay out as late as possible, come back pretending he went for takeaway. When his father commented on the wounds, Harry would tell him. Yeah, you should see the other guy.

For now he just wanted to get out of the world, away from Miles, away from his father, and away from himself – this weak friendless boy who could hardly think of a reason to go on living if, well, his life depended on it. As he dragged himself to his feet, awakening a whole world of aches and pains, he thought it would be real nice to get away from his body, too.

So he went to the park.

Anderson’s Reserve was an enormous basin like a meteor crater, and the trees were thickest right in the middle, at the bottom. In the past, Harry would lie on his back and stare up through towering Pines and Gums at the sky, and drift away. But as he descended into the shade and silence he wondered if he had the balls to stay there ten minutes, let alone all night. True night was at least an hour away, but down here it had come early, and even the crickets no longer chirped.

But God, it was good to be free. When he reached his spot, a soft circle of grass beside a manhole cover, he sat cross legged and closed his eyes, hands resting on his knees like a monk. The blood dried on his swollen face, and though he still felt pain with every movement, somehow it didn’t seem so bad anymore. He breathed the rich scent of pine needles and autumn leaves and listened to the gentle creaking branches and the occasional flutter of batwings.

He spoke to himself in a low voice, a habit long nurtured as an only child with no friends. All of his deepest conversations had been with himself, and now he had more serious things to consider than ever. Suicide, for example.

‘It doesn’t have to be bad. We both know there’s no heaven or hell. It would be just like this, now. Total peace. That has to be better than this world.’

‘No way. I’m not killing myself, not if Miles gets to live. It would just confirm I’m a coward.’

‘Not if you do it in a cool way. You could go out with a bang. Get a big knife, stab Miles to death. Run at the cops so they shoot you dead. That’d be a way to go. You could write a note, blame your dad.’

‘That’s twisted, man.’

He chuckled to himself. ‘Yeah. Think about it, though. Suicide, man. If it wasn’t so great, why would so many people do it?’

He fell silent for a long time, playing his Final Stand out in his mind, savouring the way it would feel to sink a screwdriver all the way to the hilt into Miles Fucking Braider’s neck, when the unmistakeable sound of leaves crunching beneath a foot made his eyes snap open.

It was a girl.

Holy shit, she’s beautiful. She was standing half behind a tree a few meters away, one bare foot in a patch of old leaves, watching him with wide eyes and biting her bottom lip as though guilty for disturbing him. She had hair the black of deep ocean, large eyes in an angular face, and a firm, slender body clothed in a torn black dress. Even from his sitting position Harry could tell she was nearly a head taller than him.

So stunned was he by her beauty that he didn’t notice what was wrong with her hands until she came a step closer and curled one arm around the thick trunk of a pine. It was a large tree, so that she shouldn’t have been able to encircle it completely, but encircle it she did – with a hand and fingers at least four times the length they should have been, silver pointed nails scratching the bark.

He scrambled to his feet and took one step back, wanting to run but not wanting to take his eyes off this strange girl. There was something about the way she looked at him – head cocked to one side, curious – that made goose bumps rise on his skin.

‘Uh… Hi. I’m Harry,’ he managed. She took another step forward and then hesitated when she saw him move away again. Gave him a small frown, then shrugged as though it didn’t matter.

What she did next pushed him as close to the limit of his sanity as he’d ever come, an act so effortless and yet so earth shatteringly impossible that he would leave the forest that night doubting everything about reality as he knew it: Uncurling her arm from around the tree, she used one of her delicate fingers to cut through the air, a black line appearing in the wake of her sharp nail as though she’d used it to slice open the fabric of a camping tent instead of empty air. Then she gave him a sideways glance and whispered, in a voice as light and dry as the wind, ‘Please don’t kill yourself, Harry,’ and in one smooth motion stepped through the opening she’d created and sealed it shut behind her. Besides a slight shimmer, flashing and gone in a second, it was as though she’d never been there.

Harry did not dare approach the spot, and turned and hurried through the trees as fast as he could, faint with terror and casting frequent glances over his shoulder as he went. ‘Never again,’ he muttered, weaving through trunks and hopping over low bushes, ‘I am never coming back here again.’

He couldn’t have been gone long, but the park was deserted and dark, and as he ran across the great football over it was starlight and not sunlight which illuminated his way. His father was going to be mad, but that was okay, because that was something normal and real, something that made sense. ‘Never go back. No way, no way, no way.’

But he knew he would, because for the first time in his life, Harry Yorker was in love.

 

*

 

His father was too bug eyed to notice, but Mr. Salander wasn’t. Harry had made it to the last period without anyone saying a word, but Salander did a double take when he entered the classroom with his hood up, and put a hand on his shoulder after class as everyone was leaving. ‘Hang around a minute, Yorker.’ Someone stomped on Harry’s foot on their way out and when he looked up he saw Miles flash him a deadpan look. Even if I don’t say anything, he’ll assume I did. Shit.

Salander was a good guy, but he didn’t know how things worked. He was young, clean shaven, and he always wore a suit to school. He had a sense of humour, but he tried to hide it by talking in a stern serious voice all the time and not smiling much. He was probably the main reason Harry had managed to get away with skipping school for so long.

When the door clicked shut after the last kids and the room was quiet save a ticking clock and the distant sound of laughter and banging lockers, Salander leaned against the blackboard with his arms folded and raised his eyebrows. ‘So, wanna tell me what’s going on?’

Harry shrugged, hands in his jacket pockets.

Salander sighed, eyed him over his reading glasses. ‘Look, if it’s your dad, there are places you can go for help. And if it’s another student, there’s plenty the school can do for you.’

‘Oh yeah? Like what?’

‘I’d take a photo of your face right now, for starters. Then I’d go about trying to get Miles Braider expelled.’

Harry stared at him, terrified. ‘You don’t know it was him.’

‘Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t make me blind, Harry. I teach two of Miles’s classes besides this one, but I only had to talk to him for about five minutes to understand he’s got some serious mental problems. In my opinion, he belongs in a school that specialises in the treatment of, ah, special needs kids.’

This is bad. This is going to be bad for me. Harry knew he should get out of there now and pray Salander didn’t do anything about it, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. ‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.

‘Come on, Harry. I majored in psychology at university, but you don’t need a degree to see he’s on a one way path to jail unless his parents get him medicated. I don’t have much hope for that, though – I met his parents. All the staff here are concerned about Miles, but we haven’t really been able to catch him doing anything too bad.’

‘It was him that broke all the windows last month.’

‘You can prove this?’

The principal had arrived early one morning to find every single one of the P – Block windows shattered, a smouldering pile of tables and chairs in the quadrangle, and the word DEATH TO SCHOOL spray painted over and over on the brickwork.

‘He told me.’

Salander winced. ‘Sorry, not enough. What he’s done to you now, though… we can expel him for that, Harry. That’s assault.’ He sounded eager, and Harry wanted so badly for him to be right. He was a good guy.

‘That’s not how it works,’ Harry said.

‘Oh? How does it work?’

‘I say he beat me up, he says he didn’t. His parents won’t want to pay for any special school, so they’ll back him up, say he was at home with them. The principal won’t be certain either because I’ve been to school twice before with bruises from my Dad. Can’t expel a kid without solid proof.’

He watched Salander deflate as he spoke, almost felt bad for the guy. Then he remembered the look Miles had given him on the way out and hardened. Whatever Miles was going to do was Salander’s fault, now.

‘There’s gotta be something…’

‘Yeah. Just leave me alone. I’ll be okay.’

He left the classroom for the fast emptying halls, where mean words followed him, friends talked in groups about a life of parties and girls of which he would never take part, and deodorant hung so thickly in the air it made his eyes sting. He wondered if he’d ever make it out of this place alive.

 

*

 

Harry never went home when he could help it. At least his dad had eased up about him skipping, but as long as the two of them were in the same room the tension was there, stretched taut like the skin of an overblown balloon. Dinner was the crunch of chicken bones between teeth, evening was the glug of scotch down a rough throat, bedtime was a blaring Television and drunken mutterings through a thin wall. Harry had become a ghost.

It’s better this way. As long as I’m a ghost, I can be free. This thought, coupled with the idea that he might see her again, buoyed his step and put a dark smile on his face as he turned off plunder road and hopped over one of the Private Property signs that bordered the park. On the nights he couldn’t sleep he would stare out of his window at the distant stars and wonder if she was looking up at the same constellations or if she was away, in her other world.

By the time he reached the clearing at the centre of the forest he was tiptoeing, breathing light puffs of vapour into the cold air, unable to shake the feeling that he might scare her away with his movement. He settled down cross legged beside the manhole, just as he’d done that first time, but he didn’t close his eyes. He wanted to see her arrive, tearing through reality as she’d done.

He waited.

Twice he closed his eyes and reopened them, but she didn’t appear. Night fell, the cloud cover blocking the moonlight so that even his dark adjusted eyes could only make out dark lines of trees and black ground. He got up and paced, abandoned. He jammed his hands in his pockets and started back through the trees, choking back tears. She hadn’t been real, after all. I’ll hang myself right here. Get a rope from Dad’s garage and tie it to a tree branch right over where I first saw her. No one will ever find me.

‘Don’t do that.’

He spun around, air catching in his throat, and there she was, standing in the clearing he’d just left, long fingered hands by her side, mouth turned down at the corners, concerned. Her black dress was badly torn at the hem, revealing a perfect white leg.

‘You’re real.’

She nodded, coming forward tentatively as though afraid he’d run again. But he couldn’t have run if his life depended on it – he was hypnotised. When she was a meter or so away she stopped and regarded him. Her neck was twice as long as his, and she looked down on him with as much curiosity as he did her.

‘W… Where did you come from?’ he asked, his dry mouth struggling to form words.

She looked confused at his question, and without answering turned and walked back to the manhole cover. He followed, terrified that she would leave him again, but she turned when she reached the clearing.

‘Would you like me to show you?’ she said.

When he nodded, heart in his mouth, she bent down and, with a single finger, flipped the manhole cover from its opening. It spun around in a lazy circle and then landed in the grass with a dull phum. The hole it left was blacker than the forest, as black as the opening she’d made. He knew immediately that this was it – an entrance into that place, wherever it was.

To his horror, she stood aside and gestured for him to go first.

‘Don’t…  don’t you go first?’

She shook her head. ‘I have to close it.’

He leaned over it, but there was nothing to see but void. She waited beside him patiently, a smile on her face that was half knowing and half challenge. Go on, it seemed to say, I dare you. That, coming from a girl like her? Harry would have jumped off a cliff.

He extended one foot over the opening, held his breath, hesitated. Fuck it. You were going to kill yourself anyway. He tucked his chin and dropped.

 

*

 

The first seconds were utter terror. The circle of dim light vanished above him as he fell, his stomach dropping out of him the way it did on a rollercoaster. He tumbled, tried to orientate, but there was no wind resistance, and the sensation of falling was replaced with one of floating. How is she going to find me? He thought with a rush of panic. I’ve gone too far – this place is too big. I’ll be here forever.

But just as that unsettling notion took hold she appeared, floating gracefully beside him with a wide grin. Her teeth were pearly white, small, and neatly tapered to points, but somehow he was no longer afraid of her. She put a reassuring hand on his back and he broke out in pleasant goose bumps.

‘Where are we?’ he asked. He searched for a source of light, but couldn’t find one. How could he see her so clearly?

‘Home,’ she said. Before he could press her about where home was, she tugged at his shirt and he experienced a strong sense of deceleration, though he hadn’t realised they were moving at all. They’d been spread eagled, like skydivers in freefall, but now their feet swung underneath them and they descended slowly. She pointed into the blackness below them, and an enormous landscape materialized from the nothingness – not emerging, but being created – fields and lakes and even a castle popping into existence on a giant floating rock about the same size as the reserve from which they’d come.

‘Oh my god. Are you doing that?’

Instead of answering, she waved her hand and the entire landscape disappeared without so much as a sound, and in its place she made a lake, its calm waters extending as far as Harry could see. An island of white sand and palm trees floated in its centre, and it was here the two of them landed, floating gently down to its narrow shore.

Harry went to his knees and dug both of his hands into the cool sand, hardly able to believe that it existed. But the island was real alright, though the sand was softer than any beach sand he’d ever felt, and the waters of the lake didn’t lap at the shores the way they did naturally – the ripples travelled instead away from the island, perhaps to lap at some other distant shore.

As he took everything in, from the palms illuminated with that otherworldly light to the bright green moss covered boulders, the word heavenly came to mind, and on its tail a worrying thought. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked.

She laughed, a high cold sound that struck him as mean until she said, ‘You are funny, Harry Yorker. I like you.’

He stood up, trying not to betray his relief that he hadn’t been beaten to death by Miles and come to such a lonely, if beautiful place. Not entirely lonely. I wouldn’t mind being dead if I could be with her forever. She’d turned away from him and was standing with arms folded, looking out over the lake, and he came up beside her. ‘I like you, too,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I don’t have a name.’

‘Oh. Do you… were you born here?’

‘Yes. I floated for a long time, until I learned to make things. I made my body, too, when I went to your world for the first time and saw people. I added some things, though…’ She raised a long hand and waved her fingers, smiling. ‘Do you like them?’ But before he could answer, she ran one nail along his face, the light touch enough to make him shiver.

‘Yeah. You’re beautiful.’ He could never have said such a thing in the real world, but in this dreamlike place, anything seemed possible. Maybe he was losing his mind?

She didn’t reply, far more comfortable with silence than he was. A million questions fired through his mind, but he restrained himself. He had a feeling that he was here only because she was curious about him, and if he disappointed her in any way she would take her world and vanish from his life for good. He made himself wait until she spoke again.

‘Do you like this place? I can never make the things I want. I don’t know what they look like. That’s why I always visit your world. To find beautiful things.’

‘It’s… It could use some sunlight. And like, maybe a breeze?’

She nodded, and a moment later a ball of burning red appeared in the sky, bathing everything in a pleasant orange glow, though not quite like sunlight. A warm wind blew in across the lake, making her long hair flow. Harry stared up at the makeshift sun, trying to guess how large it was, and how far away. ‘Can you do that with anything?’

‘No. Only in this world. And I can’t make anything alive. Nothing like you.’ She stared at him for a long time, and when he met her gaze she reached out and touched him again, her hand running the length of his arm. ‘I’ve never seen one of you up close before. I’ve been visiting your world for a long time. I was always too afraid.’

‘You don’t have to be afraid of us. Uh, no, that’s not true – but you don’t have to be afraid of me. I mean, you’re like a goddess in this place. No one would…’ he swallowed, a thought occurring to him that jarred him as much for the evil at the core of it as for its potential. ‘No one would stand a chance against you.’

‘A goddess,’ she said, turning her chin up and smiling. ‘I like that word.’

‘I can tell you anything you want about my world. I could show you things – stuff you don’t have in this place.’

‘Really?’ her eyes lit up, childishly hopeful, and another jarring thought came to him, this one not so unwelcome: Sex. Holy shit, I’m going to lose it to a supernatural being. The thought terrified him almost as much as it excited him. For all her additions she was still the most stunning girl he’d ever seen. ‘Yeah. And I could bring more living things here, if you wanted. Animals – maybe even people, if I could find the right ones. Good ones.’

‘You would be my guide to your world? And bring life?’

‘Anything you want.’

‘How can I repay you?’

Say it. Grow a pair and say it. You’re in another universe, talking to an all powerful goddess, who wants to give you something. If you don’t say it I’ll make you cut your wrists tonight. He said it, with an expression of the deepest seriousness and only the hint of a smile. ‘You could kiss me.’

She furrowed her brow. ‘I don’t know what that is.’

‘It’s good – you’ll like it. It’ll be the first thing I show you. But you have to let me touch you.’

She took a half step back, wary. ‘It’s good?’

‘Definitely.’

She nodded and let her arms hang by her sides, waiting to see what he’d do. Heart racing madly, he stepped in, one hand settling on the back of her head, and kissed her before he lost his nerve. Her whole body was rigid, but she relaxed and opened her mouth for him, passively allowing him to explore with his tongue. He pulled back after a moment, watching for her reaction. She considered, shook her head as though uncertain, and then to his amazement pulled him in and kissed him again. This time, she bit down on his tongue just as he got going, hard enough to draw blood, and held him there for a second or two before letting him withdraw.

He staggered back in the sand, shocked, and she licked her lips with a mischievous smile. ‘What the hell?’ he said. She laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘It was nice. But I liked the second one better.’

‘You almost took my tongue off.’ But he found he was laughing along with her, and soon the pain faded to a mild throb.

‘Thank you, Harry,’ she said, turning back to look up at the burning red sun. Though it hadn’t moved or changed at all, she must have read something on it because the next thing she said was, ‘It’s getting late. I should take you back.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ll be back soon, though, won’t I?’

‘Of course,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re my guide, remember?’

And with that pleasant affirmation reverberating in his mind, she took his hand and the two of them flew back through the empty sky for home.

 

*

 

Harry was not his usual alert self the following day at school, and he kicked himself for it later, thinking how he’d wandered so carelessly through the school after fifth period, aware of nothing but the impossible memories playing through his mind. He deserved what he got, really.

The sunlit parking lot was so close, just a few steps to the end of the hall, when a door opened behind him and a hand took hold of his backpack and wrenched him off his feet. A second later Miles was pushing him against the back shelves of a janitorial closet, door swinging closed behind them.

‘What you tell him, Yorker? Did ya tattle on me?’ He mimicked a child’s voice.

Harry didn’t reply. He dropped his bag and stood with clenched fists, hoping a beating was the only thing Miles had in mind. His teeth were still loose and his bruises would be there for days yet.

‘It’s okay if you did. It wouldn’t change anything. You can’t get away, Yorker. Even if they expelled me you couldn’t get away.’

‘Yes I would. I’d call the cops on you. You could go to jail for assault.’

‘Ooooooh, I didn’t think of that. Assault, huh? Wow, that’s a serious crime. I bet I’d be in jail for a whole week.’ It was unnerving, the way he spoke. His voice was condescending, animated even, but his expression void.

Harry held his gaze, looking for a flicker, a sign that anything was in there besides whatever evil cogs and screws kept him turning. ‘What are gonna do, beat me up for my lunch money your whole life? Is that how you’re gonna make a living?’ He tried to inflect a mocking tone, but his heart was beating too fast, muddling his words and making his voice shake. He swallowed. Just hit him. Get it over with.

‘You know what you don’t get, Harry?’ Miles took a small step forward, hands dropping loose by his sides. ‘I don’t do this shit ‘cos I hate you. I don’t do it ‘cos I want your fuckin ten dollars either. I do it ‘cos I’m a dog and you’re a rabbit. It’s just who we are.’

He took another step and now he was in striking distance, but Harry was leaning back against the shelves, couldn’t do it yet, couldn’t overcome that formidable barrier between speech and violence that Miles crossed with impunity. ‘You’re not a dog, you’re just an asshole,’ he said, but he felt the truth of Miles’s words in his heart.

‘You wanna fight me, little rabbit?’ He was real close now, breath blowing in Harry’s face with each word. ‘Cos you know what’ll happen, you try to fuck with me? I’ll come back with a blade, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’

He spoke the sentence with such calm, the tone sharing none of the threat that the words held, that Harry didn’t see the strike coming. It was a gut punch, as shocking for its suddenness as its power. Harry’s legs buckled but Miles didn’t let him go down, one fist gripping his collar while the other unleashed slug after slug into his abdomen until his body revolted against the onslaught and he vomited. Miles saw it coming and took two quick steps back in time to avoid it. Harry collapsed and lay on his side, mouth opening and closing while his diaphragm spasmed, huge black waves passing across his vision, flashes of death.

As he was taking his first desperate gasps of air, Miles came forward again and crouched on a clean patch of floor beside him. His words would repeat themselves in Harry’s mind in the days that followed, while he waited to see if Salander did anything. ‘I know you think I’m threatening you, rabbit, but I’m not. I’m just telling you. If I get expelled, my Dad’s gonna chop my pinky off and tell people I got it stuck in the blender. And if that happens, I’m going to kill him and mum too, and then I’m gonna come find you. So if I was you I sure wouldn’t be telling anyone anything. Bye, rabbit.’ He gave Harry’s hair a playful ruffle and then stood up and slid out of the room, leaving him to suck in precious lungfuls of air until he was fully conscious.

Luckily, he had everything he needed to clean up his vomit.

 

*

 

He brought her the neighbour’s dog – a plump beagle named Rusty that liked to yelp at possums at three in the morning. As an afterthought, he also brought a dead magpie from the roadside, folding its soft body into a plastic bag. Once they landed, in an ocean of wavy green hills and fields, he let go of the Rusty and watched him go tearing across the grass at top speed. She followed him with comically wide eyes. ‘A real live thing,’ she whispered, ‘in my world.’

‘I brought this, too. I dunno, I thought maybe you could do something with it.’ He dumped the magpie onto the grass at their feet and she stared at it for a long time, glancing from it Rusty, jumping around with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

‘Why doesn’t this one move?’ she said.

‘What? Oh, it’s dead.’

‘Dead?’ She knelt beside it and prodded it with a long finger, her nail sinking disturbingly deep into its feathers. ‘What is dead?’

‘You haven’t… well I mean it’s, it’s like the opposite of what we are. It’s like if I stopped thinking and talking and moving and just became a piece of meat. Just a thing, a dead thing.’

She held it up by one limp wing, analysing it. ‘I didn’t know things could go from living to not living.’

‘Yeah. In my world, it happens to everyone eventually. If you damage a living thing enough, it can die as well.’

She looked up at him, alarmed, as though he might drop dead at any moment. ‘Will you die?’

He nodded, then shrugged as if it were no big deal. He supposed it wasn’t, but she made him feel brave all the same. ‘Yeah but not for ages. Years and years.’

‘I don’t like that,’ she said, and didn’t smile when he broke out laughing a second later.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just. I dunno. I don’t like it either.’

‘I don’t want the living things in my world to stop living. Then I’d have to find more to replace them. Can it be undone?’

He opened his mouth to say no and then stopped himself. ‘Not in my world,’ he said at length. ‘Not by people. But maybe here, with you?’

Rusty, tail wagging madly, yapped at them from a few meters away, wanting their attention. She twirled her finger and the sound stopped, though Rusty wasn’t fazed. Harry wondered if he could still hear his own noise. ‘He might want food in a bit,’ he said, considering for the first time that he might have made a mistake bringing the dog here. She didn’t reply, her attention fully on the dead magpie in her hands.

The bird’s wings fluttered and Harry’s heart skipped a beat, but just as he was about to ponder the implications of knowing someone who revive the dead he realised that she hadn’t done that at all. The bird was moving alright, but its wings turned strange circles and its head nodded and twisted unnaturally, its body jerking unnaturally, handled by external forces. The frustration was clear on her face. ‘I can’t make it move by itself,’ she said. ‘It’s just like all the other things, not like the dog at all.’ She let it fall to the grass with a wet thump.

‘That’s alright,’ he said. ‘I can get you more living things. As many as you want.’

She smiled at him and then kissed him with the casual ease most people gave hugs. ‘That would be nice,’ she said.

 

*

 

Harry stayed invisible for a fortnight. On earth, he was quiet and obedient until even his father struggled to find reasons to punish him. He took side streets and went the long way round to his classes. He made no eye contact, nor did he speak, except to answer questions. He stole pets from back gardens and tore pages out of National Geographics in the library, so he could show her different parts of earth.

He was a mouse living a grey, empty life. With her, though…

They travelled through galaxies together, floated across warm oceans, explored caverns that extended, for all he knew, forever. She asked him questions, and he told her everything he could. He told her about Miles, and his father, and how he’d wanted to kill himself the night he first saw her. Those long nights were the best he ever spent, and if only he could have gone on living like that he might have been happy. If only.

Then one night she showed him what she’d been doing with the animals.

She took him there without warning – hardly able to contain her excitement as they flew through the dark, yet she refused to answer any of his questions. They landed in a place unusually bare for her: a wide stone slab, empty but for a single house. It had an oak slab of a door and no windows at all. It was made entirely of wood, and stretched for at least hundred meters over the flat land, one long hallway.

‘What is this place?’ he asked her when they touched down in front of the huge door. This time she relented, facing him with a certain light in her eyes he didn’t like any more than the answer she gave him.

‘It’s my collection,’ she said.

‘Right. Your collection of what?’

Instead of answering, she pushed open the door and gestured for him to enter. He hesitated. A long hallway stretched before him, a scarlet carpet aligned down the centre and candle chandeliers along the ceiling, casting shadows across walls of rich mahogany.

Only when he’d taken a few steps inside did he see the doors. They lined either side of the hall, spaced several meters apart, each with a golden handle and a carved wood sign hanging above the threshold. The signs bore only a single word, and they followed a disturbing trend. Drowning; Crushing; Bleeding. One said simply: Knives.

‘What are these? Where are the animals?’ The doors stretched all the way along the hall, though he couldn’t see what was at the very end. He stopped in front of one marked Burning, halted by a sound from within: a crackling fire, a sizzle of bacon in a pan.

‘That’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Do you want to open it?’

He didn’t. He wanted to turn and run from this place. He wanted to fly back to the sunlit beach with the soft sand and the palm trees and drink cocktails with her and forget that this place existed. But he found himself placing a hand on the gold handle. It was curiously warm. He pulled.

It was a possum he’d taken from the primary school. Each of the grade one classes had a pet animal: hamsters, a rooster, a mouse, and each child got a chance to take it home with him or her during the term. He’d been planning to steal at least one or two more from the other classes, but hadn’t got a chance yet. The walls and ceiling of the room were made of sticks, and straw covered the floor. The possum crawled towards him, staring with its enormous brown eyes, but a thick wall of glass divided them.

Harry was about to ask her what she was feeding it when the straw in the back corner of the cage burst alight, flames licking the back walls and spreading across the floor. The possum panicked immediately, scurrying into the far corner and huddling there, paralysed with fear. Oh, no. It can’t be what I think.

Only when the flames licked its fur alight did it move again, pelting around the room at full speed while hair melted and skin fried. Here was the sound he’d heard outside, the sizzling and cracking of meat in a pan. Harry’s stomach turned, but he couldn’t look away. Something still didn’t quite add up in his mind. The picture wasn’t complete.

When the room was filled with smoke and charcoal, the fire burned out, leaving the possum’s charred corpse in the middle of the room, a twitching heap of crispy skin and white eyes. She rested a hand on his shoulder, her fingers hanging over it like vines, and said, ‘Watch.’

The process that followed was not quite a reversal, though the result was the same. First the smoke and ash disappeared, replaced with fresh straw and sticks. The corpse shivered, then twitched again. Its skin loosened, new grey hair sprouted from fused pores, ligaments stretched and flexed, and a minute later the possum returned, squeaking, to life. ‘If they die in this world, I can make them come back,’ she said. ‘They can live on forever here.’

They watched the fire light up again, but before it reached the quivering possum Harry shut the door. He stared down the long corridor, wondering how many rooms there were, and how many were yet to be filled. ‘Why do you kill them?’

She frowned. ‘I have to kill them. You told me so. Everything alive has to die. If it didn’t die, it wouldn’t be alive.’

‘So this….’ He squinted down the corridor, trying to read more of the signs in front of the doors. ‘This is a collection of deaths?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s a collection of lives. Endless, beautiful lives.’

 

*

 

Harry vowed he would never go back. This world, he told himself, made sense, for all its ugliness. It had taken that possum, burning and being reborn – perhaps even with a memory of all its previous deaths – to bring home to him how utterly helpless he was in that other place. Did she have a room there for him? If you don’t go back, maybe she’ll make one.

But he couldn’t really believe that, either. Sometimes he caught her looking at him with a warm smile and soft eyes. She wasn’t sick, he knew that – not the way Miles was sick. Miles had nothing inside of him, but she did. It was just she’d had no one to bring her up. She’d simply existed, with unlimited power and a lonely soul. She was only curious.

He wanted to help her, but he was afraid of her.

So he went to school. He ignored Salander’s meaningful looks, and made sure he knew where Miles was at all times, every bit the frightened rabbit Miles told him he was. He told himself this would be his life for the next few years, at which point he could get a job, any job, and move far away from his father, from the dense forest, from her.

But as each midnight rolled around he found himself wide awake, eyes fixed on the moon, and his mind in another world. Thoughts of a different future, one in which he didn’t work an empty job in the big grey city, worked its way into his mind.

In his dreams, he saw the two of them driving down a seaside road somewhere in Europe, exploring, hunting. She could make anything they needed, money, food, a house. He would help her finish her collection of lives (and deaths), and teach her to take only those evil people from the world who had no right to exist in the first place – those who deserved a place in her great hall. With power like hers, nothing could stop them going where they wanted, doing good things – great things, even. He would teach her how to love, and earth would be their endless honeymoon. Sometimes he was still awake at sunrise, heart slamming in his chest, his head full of dreams.

It was only a matter of time before he started getting ideas.

All he needed was a single phone call.

 

*

 

Harry hitched up his school bag and headed back around the gym, wind blowing dead leaves against his ankles as he walked. He left the school via the back gate – the gate he always took. The one Miles would be watching.

Streetlights flicked on as he turned onto Plunder road, but he didn’t need their dull glow to know he was being followed. He didn’t look yet, though – he needed to keep up the pace until he could see that familiar, comforting sign.

‘Hey.’ He didn’t turn. The tone of Miles’ voice chilled him more than the night air, and that alone was enough to tell him his plan had worked all too well. Quick feet crossed a road behind him. ‘Rabbit.’

There it was: a low wooden sign in front of a narrow grass causeway. The path led a steep downhill, and there were no lights in the park, but that would be to Harry’s advantage. He turned at the entrance, heart slamming in his chest. All those long midnight hours spent dreaming and wishing, and here he was. No turning back.

Miles slowed to a stop, silhouetted by a streetlight. A truck rumbled by, but a row of trees and bushes separated Plunder Road from the highway. They were alone. Just as promised, Miles had a long knife in one hand. He let it hang there in full view. His eyes were wide and empty, and Harry found they reminded him almost of hers.

‘You told,’ Miles said. ‘I heard Dad talking to Salander on the phone last night. Telling him about things I’d done. I had to sneak out the back before he could get me. Slept in the fuckin’ bushes last night.’

‘Yeah. You’re gonna go to prison for sure. Assault, vandalism. Some boys home at least.’

‘No, I’ll definitely go to prison,’ Miles said, eyes flashing. ‘But it’ll be for murder.’

The next minutes were primal. Harry’s past and future vanished, and all that existed for him was the subtle shadows that showed him humps and ditches in the ground, the heavy thumping behind him, and his destination. He rushed, cold wind in his face, and for endless seconds that was all he knew.

Miles caught him on the football field, his long strides thumping with mechanical persistence. Harry could see the edge of the oval, but before he could throw himself down the slope Miles slammed into him and the two of them tumbled through the leaf strewn grass to the trench at the bottom. Miles buried the blade to the hilt into Harry’s back on the way down, but when they hit he lost his grip and rolled away. Harry got up first and staggered, dazed, into the trees.

For the next minute, the only sounds were loud breaths and thumping feet. No time for screaming, and no point. Harry dragged himself deeper into the woods, trying to suck air into a deflated lung, feeling hot blood soak his shirt. It was darker than it should have been, and when he laid eyes on the clearing it was barely visible, the corners of his vision closing him out.

But a moment later, he smiled.

Because she was here, after all.

The manhole stood open in the clearing, and her head hovered at the opening, watching him. Harry reached for her, but Miles’s arms closed around his legs in a rugby tackle and brought him down, winding him. Unconsciousness crept a shade closer.

Harry met her eyes, and reached.

He was too far away, but that was alright: her arms were long, and she had the strength of a goddess. She took his hot hand in her cold one, gave him a small, perfect smile, and pulled.

Miles didn’t even have time to scream.

 

*

 

Universes blurred past as she wrenched them through space, but Harry was oblivious to all of it, wrapped up in the agony of healing. She pulled out the knife and fused his flesh together where it had been parted, a crude but effective solution, though the process hurt far more than the wounds had, a hot melting pain that left no room for thought.

It stopped when they landed, and he gasped and rolled over onto his hands and knees, blinking. Floorboards. We’re in the collection hall. He scrambled to his feet and almost fell over, half expecting Miles to fall on him with the blade, but of course he was gone, whisked away in an instant. She alone stood in the middle of the hall, watching him.

‘I thought you weren’t coming back,’ she said. He rubbed his head and fought a wave of nausea as his stomach settled. He leaned against the nearest door. It was marked FALLING. He wondered how she’d managed that one.

‘I’m sorry. It took me a while to get him to follow me. But I got him. You got him. Where is he?’

Without smiling, she extended one of her black nailed fingers and pointed down the length of the hall. He followed the gesture, but the last door was too far away for him to make out the sign. A nervous chill ran through him. Is this really happening? He pushed away from the wall and started towards it. She padded behind him on pale feet.

‘The others won’t take that long, will they?’ she said.

‘No. No way. I’ll get better at it, I promise. Especially now he’s out of the way. I’ll be unstoppable.’ He half whispered this, as though to himself, and it gave him another thrill. His future was dawning on him. He would never return to his father’s shitty asbestos riddled unit. School was out forever, and the only job he’d ever have was to rid the world of monsters like Miles and send them to a hell of his own devising.

He turned to her before they reached the door and smiled, heart full to bursting. In that moment she looked more stunning than ever, rich dark hair hanging over the loose black rags she wore for clothes because, as she’d told him once, she liked to wear the darkness. He wanted to tear them off her then, but she wouldn’t understand. He’d have to explain it to her, later. ‘Do you love me?’ he said before he could stop himself.

She didn’t reply at first, searching his eyes for meaning. ‘Love you?’

‘Do you want to kiss me?’

She considered that, then nodded, and this time it was better than before, her tongue more eager and her teeth less so, letting him go with only a nip. ‘Did you like it?’ he said when she pulled back, still watching him so curiously.

‘Yes.’

‘That’s love.’

‘Oh.’

‘And there’s more we can do. Stuff that feels a lot better. I can show you.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said, and for the first time since he’d met her in the forest he found he had real hope that things were going to turn out alright, that he could teach her to love him and that his dreams might come true after all. Her eyes left his, darting to the door at the end of the hall and then back again.

‘Can I see?’ he said.

‘Yes. You’ll have to help me think of new deaths, later. I don’t have your imagination.’ At the last word, she traced a finger in a circle on his forehead, as though imagination was a physical thing, a liquid perhaps, locked in Harry’s skull.

This door was larger than the others, and made of a kind of wood so dark it was almost black. The sign above it read STABBING. He hesitated, something in his soul telling him not to do it, the same thing that had made him feel so sick and horrified when she’d shown him the Possum. This is different, he told himself. Miles deserves it.

‘Go on,’ she said, her voice high and breathy. ‘Open it.’

And God help him, he did.

 

*

 

Miles stood in the centre of a steel room. The left and right walls were lined floor to ceiling with bright blades, steeply tapered; they made for minimal internal damage and maximal flesh wounds. Miles didn’t so much as glance at these brutal instruments, arms loose by his side and head up. He faced the doorway, expressionless, not a hint of fear in him.

He really is empty. The thought jolted Harry, though he wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Even in his wild imagination Miles had never begged for his life or whimpered in fear – it just didn’t fit. But surely there should be something – an animalistic rage, some cold words of defiance. No, Harry saw now that Miles was not even an animal. Animals, at least, had souls.

A mechanical grinding sound started up, so deep Harry felt the floor vibrate. It was enough to make his adrenaline surge as if he were the one inside that death room, but Miles kept his steady, blank look, his eyes unfocused. Maybe he’s in shock.

The walls shuddered into motion and the blades began their slow progression. Still Miles didn’t move. Harry watched him with clenched fists, wanting him to scream, to beg, to threaten or plead or anything at all, but Miles didn’t so much as twitch, not until at last the razor points touched him for the first time, piercing his arms and shoulders first, instantly raising spots of blood like red beads on his skin.

And he smiled.

‘No,’ she said. So small a word, and whispered, but to Harry it seemed to freeze the universe. The walls certainly stopped moving, though the tips of the blades remained just inside Miles’s flesh, centimetres away from pinning bone and piercing vital organs, seconds from entering his twisted brain and severing whatever abnormalities existed within to make him the way he was.

His eyes, Harry realised, hadn’t been unfocused after all – they’d simply been fixed on something over Harry’s shoulder. Her. Harry knew this even before he turned and saw that she was staring right back at Miles, hypnotised.

‘He’s just like me,’ she said, and smiled a real smile. Harry would think of that smile often, trying to work out exactly what was behind it. In the end, he couldn’t believe it was real love. It was something else, something more like recognition.

There was time for Harry to feel his stomach drop out of him as he saw his future change. Not much time – the space of a few heavy heartbeats – but in a way it was eternity, because he left a part of himself in that space. He left his hope.

She sighed, and waved a long fingered hand.

 

*

 

Death wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it.

In a way, it was like sleeping. His days were short, compressed to the space of a minute or so, in which he stood in an empty room; in which he watched the walls closing in; in which he braced himself for six seconds of agony, followed by the blink of an eye, a single instant of oblivion which he learned to cherish.

He yearned for more of that, in time. If only he could be dead for a day, or a year, free from this reality. He yearned for that almost as much as he yearned for her.

She came to visit him, sometimes with Miles, who never tired of watching him die, and sometimes alone. She rarely spoke, only stood at the glass and looked, with a distant sadness in her eyes, but also, he told himself, fondness. He was after all the agent of her happiness, the one who’d brought her her soulmate.

‘Are you happy?’ he asked her the last time she’d opened his door – years ago, now.

She cocked her head to one side, considering, and he wondered if she really knew what happiness was. But the smile she gave him left no room for doubt. She was happy.

And that, he often thought to himself, as he was reborn in the bare room for the thousandth time, and the familiar grinding of unseen machinery began, was all he needed.

He closed his eyes and waited for death.

I had high hopes for this story, but unfortunately anything over 10,000 words tends to be a tough sell in the markets I submit to, so ultimately I decided it would be better off on this website – another nightmare to add to the collection.

If you’ve ever been addicted to a video game to the point that you started seeing your life in terms of levels, bosses and special items, you’ll understand my inspiration.

PRESS START

 Out of Hell

 

Damien didn’t find the game. The game found Damien.

 

*

 

‘You gotta relax more, man,’ Andrew told him. They’d received their results for the midyear English exam. Andrew barely glanced at his own paper as Mr. Rowe dropped it on his desk. He was chewing gum, hands behind his head, leaning back on his chair with a big smile on his face. He knew he’d aced it, and he knew it was killing Damien.

‘God damn it, man. How do you do that?’ Damien’s own neatly written essay, the one for which he’d studied exhaustively, had a large red C in one corner. As Rowe passed through the class, he left in his wake a chorus of groans and curses. ‘I mean, did you study at all?’

‘That’s what I’m sayin’, Damien. You overthought everything. You went, like, over the word limit.’

‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

Andrew smirked and rocked his chair forward with a clunk. He patted Damien on the head. ‘Ah, you have much to learn, young one. Studying works for maths and science, but when it comes to English…’ he tapped his chest, ‘it comes from your heart.’

‘Oh yeah. So what the hell did you do?’

‘I played video games.’

‘You played video games?’

‘Yeah, man. Listen, I know you, you’re a maniac. You think too much and you work too hard. You gotta learn to let your mind play for a while, have some fun. One, two hours a day, guaranteed you’ll be better off. You’ll be more relaxed. Shoot a few monsters, maybe get rid of all that aggression, you know?’

‘I’m not aggressive.’

‘Ha! I was there when Brian Dunning called you a dick. You wanted to choke him out. You gotta get out and shoot some people with guns or something – in a game, that is. I’m telling you, you’ll be able to focus, think clearer.’

Damien laughed, but a moment later his eyes dropped to the mark on Andrew’s paper and the sound died in his throat.

‘Video games?’ He said again, eyeing his friend.

Andrew kept a straight face, crossing himself like a devout Christian. ‘Swear on my life, bro.’

So instead of reading Invest, Compound, Succeed, or doing a workout, or practicing his guitar, he found himself scrolling gaming websites after school. He almost stopped before he’d been on for ten minutes, an urgent voice in the back of his mind telling him he was wasting his time. But in the end, it was that voice which kept him going. Damn, if you’re freaking out this much about playing a stupid video game, maybe you are wound too tight. He couldn’t shake Andrew’s relaxed, happy smile out of his head. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he managed to get such good grades. Hadn’t Damien read somewhere that video games improved your problem solving ability?

Five minutes later, he found it. He’d narrowed the search to ‘New Horror Games’, and the first one on the list caught his eye immediately. It was called: Out Of Hell. It was classified as a survival horror game, and it was so new – the link to download was dated one hour earlier – that no one had bought it yet. The cover picture was a bird’s eye view of a dark city with maze like construction, and the description was a few short lines: A lost soul, you must navigate your way through the depths of hell while demons seek to eat you alive. Collect keys to access new areas of the map and level up. Can you find your way Out of Hell?

It was three dollars, cheap in any currency. Damien’s initial reaction was that it most likely sucked. Then again, if it did he’d only be down three dollars and he could at least tell Andrew to shut up. He bought it.

The download was less than a minute, and an icon popped up on his desktop when it was done: a black skull and crossbones. Damien leaned back in his chair and stretched. He glanced out of his window at the waning afternoon. His bedroom window looked out on an empty plot with a few trees and a children’s playground. You should be outside, you know. Getting some sun, being healthy. But he knew himself, and he knew that a pleasant walk would soon become a hard run. He shook his head. ‘No. I said I was gonna play. So let’s play.’ He clicked the icon.

The screen went black, and then his computer emitted a human scream that made him jump in his chair. The start menu popped up in red block letters and, chuckling at his own reaction, Damien pulled his headphones out of his desk drawer and plugged them in. Before he could strap them on, someone knocked urgently on his door.

‘Honey? Is everything okay in there?’ His mother’s voice.

‘Yeah, I’m fine! Just playing a game Andrew gave me.’ He said, smiling.

‘A game?’

‘Yeah. I’ll turn the sound off.’

‘Oh, that’s okay. Dinner’s in an hour.’ When she left, he got up and locked the door. She never opened it unless he told her to come in, she was good like that, but the scream had made him nervous, somehow. He didn’t want her to see him looking at… things. He got the feeling it was going to be an intense game.

The start menu had only three options: PLAY, CONTROLS, and EXIT. He skimmed the controls, which were easy enough. There was no attacking in this game, only movement. Guess you were stuck being the victim, here. He let the cursor hover over play for a second, savouring a sharp thrill, a feeling of exhilaration he couldn’t remember ever feeling before – certainly not from any kind of game. He realised he was smiling. Maybe there was something to this after all.

He clicked it.

Darkness swallowed the next twelve hours.

 

*

 

There was no music, only a steady heartbeat, which quickened when he ran, or when a demon howled nearby. It was a first person perspective, but the main character had no possessions, nor a health bar or stats of any kind. You were simply dropped into a dark forest and left to find your own way out. The trees were thick in some places and thin in others, the terrain limiting you to certain pathways, some of which came in the form of animal burrows or along tree branches.

It was also utterly terrifying. The forest was populated with several kinds of demon, but you never saw any of them unless you got too close, and even then you only caught a glimpse. The first time he ran into one Damien almost screamed, and spent the next few minutes furiously tapping keys to escape, the sounds of heavy footsteps and breathing loud in his ears. What he had seen of the thing – it was half covered in shadow and crouching behind a cobwebbed bush – had been enough to convince him that the makers of the game were exceptionally talented. The thing didn’t have the unnatural feel of Hollywood CGI, and whoever had designed it was an artist in their own right. The crooked, unhinged jaw and pulsing white eyes were enough to give anyone a nightmare. He escaped it by climbing a tree and waiting in the topmost branches until it gave up and left. The heartbeat soundtrack matched his own: heavy and fast.

He didn’t get caught, but though he found a rusted iron key at the bottom of a shallow stream, he couldn’t find the door it was supposed to open. In that sense the game was incredibly difficult, yet rewarding at the same time. He’d wander the through the same areas, growing more and more frustrated, barely escaping the clawing beasts, and then he’d notice a vine covered hole he hadn’t seen before and grin in triumph, knowing he’d solved the next puzzle.

Always there was the sense of movement, of getting closer to something. The effort of remembering the intricate pathways hypnotised him in a way, and only when he found himself passing and repassing the same area again and again, his unblinking eyes turning red, teeth grinding in frustration, did he give in. The game had saved automatically when he’d found the key, so he simply exited. He took off his headphones and pushed back from his desk.

It was dark outside, and for the first time it occurred to him no one had called him for dinner – or at least he hadn’t heard them. The house was dead quiet. He unlocked his phone and swore under his breath when he saw the time: four am.

Downstairs, his mother had saved dinner for him on a plate and he ate it – dry steak and salad – without tasting. His mind was in another place, a goofy smile on his lips. He was tired, that was for sure, but Damien didn’t think he’d ever felt quite so relaxed. It was just a game, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made some real progress, done something of worth. He hadn’t died once after all, and he’d found that key. He couldn’t wait to find out where it led.

Normally, sleep came after an hour or two of incessant tossing and turning, but tonight he was out in an instant.

He dreamed of nothing.

 

*

 

Mr. Rowe didn’t believe in learning. He believed only in tests. ‘You learn by doing,’ he said at the beginning of every class, standing beside his desk and tapping his knuckles on the wood for emphasis, being sure to make eye contact with every student in turn. ‘And I hate to break it to you guys, but if you want to do well in school, get good grades, then you have to pass exams.’ Tap. ‘Tests.’ Tap. ‘And the only way you get better at passing tests is by doing them.’ Tap.

He passed his stern eye over the miserable students. The previous week’s assignment had been creative writing, and even the best students, Andrew included, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. He leaned across and nudged Damien. ‘Hey, dude, how’d you do? I did mine last night. It was about a guy killing a bunch of werewolves with an ice pick.’

Damien blinked at him and just shook his head. The plan had been to pull an all nighter and finish the story Wednesday night, but he hadn’t been able to find the door for his key, and he’d discovered a new area on Thursday night and stayed up to explore it. He’d only slept for three hours.

Rowe went on. ‘Now, the last test was challenging, I’ll give you that. Some of you were a little, uh, paralysed by the prospect of the blank page. Let that be a lesson to you when exams come around: better to write two pages of trash than a hundred pages of nothing at all. Others,’ and here he lingered on Damien, who shrank into his seat. Why hadn’t he handed something in, anything? ‘Rose to the occasion.’ What?

            He handed out the tests, accompanied by the usual protests and chatter and faces in hands. Andrew shrugged when he saw his own mark – a C plus – and then raised an eyebrow when Rowe dropped a pile of evenly typed pages in front of Damien. ‘Damn. How’d you do all that in one night?’ Then he saw the thick red A plus and clapped Damien on the back. ‘Hey, there you go, buddy. I told you, all you gotta do is relax. Did you get a game?’

Damien stared at the pages he hadn’t written. They were neatly formatted. The title of his story was LOST BOY, and his name was printed beneath that. ‘Uh… yeah I did, yeah.’ He gave his friend a weak smile.

They read the story together at lunch, Andrew hunched over it while Damien looked over his shoulder on the pretence that he wanted to see if Rowe had made any corrections. He hadn’t. Their area of the yard was a wooden bench under the shade of a willow, and Andrew dropped down on it and started reading immediately, the sandwich in his hand wilting, neglected, until he finished.

‘Wow,’ he said, setting it aside. Damien, unable to keep still for a second, paced in the spring sunlight. A group of kids played football behind him, their shouts and laughter sounding off kilter, at odds with the haze of fear and darkness inside him. He didn’t know how that story could exist. He definitely hadn’t written it, but something about it was familiar all the same.

‘That was some dark stuff, Damien. It was good though, I gotta say. Did you just pull that off in one night? You look like shit by the way.’ He grinned.

Damien gave him a weak smile and rubbed his eyes for the fiftieth time. ‘Yeah, I guess. It was late, I guess I was in a weird mood. I was playing this game for most of it.’

‘Ey, nice. You took my advice, right? What did I tell you, man! I bet it got the juices flowing. Like, you could publish this. It’s good to chill now and again, huh?

Chilling was the word for it, but not in the sense that Andrew meant. For the past week, Damien hadn’t been himself. No more early morning workouts. No more reading. He barely had time for food, where once he’d calculated each calorie he consumed and made sure he was meeting dietary requirements. He hadn’t written in his journal. He hadn’t thought about his future, or his future career, or what university degree he wanted to take.

He thought only of tall trees and dark swamps and monsters.

 

*

 

The English paper was one of many A plusses Damien scored that term, and it was a matter of time before Andrew’s enthusiasm turned to something closer to suspicion, which in turn bore jealousy.

‘Come on, man,’ he said on more than one occasion. ‘I’m not buying it. You gotta be putting in some work to score like this in all your subjects. I mean, you can’t just write two thousand words on the Viking invasion without even reading the textbook.’

‘I told you, it’s the game. It’s just, like, putting me in the zone, somehow.’

‘Yeah, the game.’ They were on the way home, schoolbags over one shoulder, dead leaves and gravel sidewalk crunching underfoot. In the past they’d always unconsciously taken Ward Road and headed for Andrew’s place to drink milkshakes and toss a ball for a couple of hours, but Damien hadn’t done that for weeks now. He wanted it, but inevitably he’d remember what level he was at – always so close to the next landmark, the next hiding place – and he’d wave goodbye and head home. The thought of sitting down to his computer with a fresh coffee and listening to the sinister tones of the game’s soundtrack start thrumming in his ears was enough to make his heart race.

‘Oh yeah? Funny how I can’t find that game in a single online store.’

‘What, so I’m lying to you?’

Andrew shrugged. ‘Nah, man. It’s just you’re not being yourself, lately. If it’s such a good game, how come you don’t want to show me?’

Damien opened his mouth and then closed it again. He’d been about to say that of course he didn’t mind, that Andrew could come over and check it out if he wanted – it was such a cool game, right up his alley… But in fact he did mind. He minded a lot. Something was happening between him and the game, and it was giving him an edge, putting him in front of everyone else somehow, and until he knew how to use it better, he wasn’t keen on letting anyone in on his secret. Not even his best friend.

‘It’s just a one player game. I don’t think you’d enjoy it, anyway,’ Damien said eventually.

‘Whatever, man.’ They were coming up on Ward Road now, a narrow lane that split off Darrow Street, which led to Damien’s house. They stood awkwardly at the parting, a strange distant look in Andrew’s eyes that Damien hadn’t seen there before. ‘Just let me know if you ever want to catch up sometime.’

‘Yeah, ‘course. Anytime.’

‘Catchya later.’

‘Maybe after exams or something.’ But Andrew was already walking away. Damien stared after him until he was gone, and then the game called to him, and he smiled to himself. A long night lay ahead.

 

*

 

And it was a long night. His mother was dumfounded when he declined desert and headed straight up to his room after dinner. ‘I’m on a health kick,’ he said, though of course even a cursory glance could have revealed that for the lie it was: between his pale skin, dark circles under his eyes, and the doughish quality of his body, there was little of health to be found. He thought of his grades. Success took sacrifice, didn’t it? He’d look just the same if he spent each night studying, and that wouldn’t even be fun.

Headphones on, lights off, sound up, and he was in. Just as he was getting into it, ducking beneath a canopy of vines and rotted bark in search of a path, a pack of wolf demons started tracking him. They howled and barked and their lean silhouettes weaved between the trees. As he evaded them he stumbled on a place he’d never seen before, a long field of tall grass swaying in the wind. A night breeze drifted in through his open window and he broke out in goose bumps. His stomach clenched when he saw what he had to do. What happens when you die in the game?

The chase was on, and for the next six hours Damien’s gaze remained fixed on the screen, his heartbeat matching pace with the heady rhythm in his ears, and he navigated the ditches, wet patches and clearings within the field. All the while he kept just ahead of the hounds, but safety was elusive. He could not have been more terrified or more focused if his life was in real danger. Who knows, maybe it is.

The last five minutes was a mad dash across a barren stretch of dust and rocks. Once, his avatar tripped and sprawled across the ground and Damien jolted in his seat as if he felt his elbows scrape. The hounds were right on his heels now, twenty or thirty of the slobbering things, but it was alright because the end was in sight: a towering gate, the same bright golden colour as the key in his hand.

He reached it, but while he fumbled to jam the key into the lock – his index finger mashing the spacebar urgently – the hounds fell on him and the sound of tearing flesh reached his ears, his vision going red with heat and blood. At last, an echoing clank sounded and the screen went black.

Damien stared at it, horrified, each breath so strained it ended in a slight wheeze, his chest tight.

The following words appeared in silver blade letters on his screen: YOU HAVE PASSED THROUGH THE WILDERNESS. CONGRATULATIONS. YOUR GAME IS PERMANENTLY SAVED.

He took off his headphones, the silence an assault on his ears, and clicked the exit button in the top corner. Then, exhausted, he slid from his chair and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling without a single thought or emotion in his mind. Sunrise wasn’t far off, judging by the tone of light streaming from his window, and he was so drained he felt he could sleep all the way through the weekend.

Your game is permanently saved. He had no idea what that meant, but he suspected it had to do with death. Perhaps now if he died in game he wouldn’t lose any progress. He smiled at the thought, and less than a minute later was asleep.

 

*

 

He knew even before he opened his eyes that something was different. Tingling anticipation pervaded him, a dark voice whispering in his ear: wait ‘till you see this. At first, dragging himself off the floor, he couldn’t figure what it was. Only when he opened his window did the feeling manifest itself. Even then, it was subtle, a dimming only visible here and there. A tree that should have been vibrant green was bare of all but a few rotten black leaves. A raven perched on a windvane, watching him with a predatory eye.

As he entered the kitchen his mother was just dropping the last pancake onto a pile of them as tall as she was. She clicked the stove off and beamed at him so widely he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in question. ‘There he is, my famous boy,’ she said, spooning lakes of golden syrup onto the pancakes. ‘Sit down, sit down, I’ll bring it to you.’

‘Uh. Oh, okay. Thanks.’ She served the plate in front of him with a flourish and kissed him on the forehead, an action so unlike her that he froze in his seat. She sat down across from him, resting her chin in her hands, and smiled again.

‘So what’s the occasion?’ he said, hesitantly starting on his breakfast.

‘Oh, you know. I always knew you were talented, but I had no idea…’ She sighed, half lost in a faraway place. ‘I suppose I’m just relieved. Here your father and I thought you were disappearing into your room to play video games all night. We had no idea you were creating all of those incredible things.’

He chewed slowly, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but before he could ask her any more questions she stood up, squeezed him on the shoulder, and left. The pancakes were delicious, but he couldn’t focus because of the way his stomach was churning. The game had done something, but despite his mother’s curious warmth, he wasn’t so sure it was good.

One way or another, it was going to be a strange day.

Andrew didn’t meet up with him on the walk to school like he usually did, and he was already in class for  roll call, sitting near the front next to Christine Sullivan, one of the quiet A plus types. She was blonde and delicate, and when Damien entered the classroom late and all eyes swivelled in his direction, it was hers he fixed on. Her pupils dilated when she saw him, becoming huge black discs like those of a doll, and she smiled openly – the first time he’d ever seen her do so.

The whole class chattered and whispered as Damien made his way to the only available seat at the back of the class. Andrew kept his head down, scribbling something in his school journal. Even after Rowe cleared his throat and brought order to the room, Damien caught several more discreet glances. All of them had the same large pupils, as though they were high on a powerful opiate drug.

Rowe made the roll call and for once everyone was present. Usually he would launch straight into their first lesson of the day – English – but this time he paused beside his desk, contemplating something.

‘Well, I can see you’re all struggling to hold back, so I suppose I should take a moment to acknowledge a certain young entrepreneur before you explode with enthusiasm.’ He gave Damien a wry smile and all heads turned again, revealing expressions of admiration, curiosity and dislike, sometimes all three emotions on the one face. ‘After all,’ Rowe went on, ‘True achievement does merit some sort of recognition. Why don’t you stand up, Damien?’

‘Okay,’ he said so quietly he couldn’t hear himself. He stood up on shaky knees. What the hell is going on? I gotta get out of here.

‘I have to say, Damien, for most of the year you’ve been a terrible student.’ This was accompanied by a few grins and smirks. ‘But for you to put in all the time and effort it must have required to produce such amazing art, I can only commend you for every D minus I gave you. I don’t advise any of you kids to neglect your schoolwork, but if you really love something and have a talent for it, well, I think you should go for it. What do you think, Damien?’

He shifted on his feet, the whole room waiting for him to say something. ‘Um, I mean, yeah, you know. You just gotta, you just gotta go for it. And you gotta love whatever it is, too. I probably just got lucky though…’ He trailed off, but no one seemed to mind. The room erupted in applause, and no one clapped harder than Christina Sullivan.

At lunchtime they crowded him – kids who’d barely ever given him a second glance – asking him questions he couldn’t answer. They made fun of him, too, but in a no harm meant kind of way that he wasn’t accustomed to from anyone but Andrew. Just as he was beginning to warm to it, they started producing the things they said he’d created.

Music CDs, books, even a few movies he’d supposedly directed – all had to be signed. Damien didn’t dare scrutinize these objects, not now when everything was a blur of noise and madness. But when Reg Towney stepped up with a bag full of merchandise he couldn’t help himself. ‘Hey, that’s great Reg!’ he said, speaking in a hearty voice that belonged to some fake celebrity. He found himself slipping into the role of the famous prodigy that he wasn’t. ‘You mind if I keep a few of those? You know, just for souvenirs?’

Reg gave him a funny look, but he let him have one of each of his ‘masterpieces’, and shortly afterward Damien made an excuse and left the school grounds, a group of his more hard core fans hounding him some of the way. Just when he thought he was free, he heard footsteps pounding pavement behind him and turned to see Christina Sullivan running up. She kept pace with him for a minute or so, as if waiting for him to ask her something, but he didn’t look over.

‘I’m sorry I’ve been so cold to you, Damien,’ she said.

He tried to hide his surprise. ‘Cold?’

‘I mean, I know we’ve never spoken at all, really. I guess I just – all this stuff you’ve done, you were never like, that popular before and I never really had the confidence to, you know, speak to you out of the blue.’

‘Oh.’

‘Anyway,’ she ploughed on, taking a deep breath, ‘I kinda always liked you a little.’

‘You did?’ He glanced at her sideways, expecting to see a lie in her face, but her pale skin was flushed, and she didn’t meet his eyes.

‘Anyway, I totally admire all this stuff you’ve created. You’re so talented, and it really, like, speaks to me, you know? I was just hoping we could catch up sometime?’ Her voice caught there, as if it was a long shot and she believed he might reject her. He almost considered it, too, out of sheer nerves. In the space of twelve hours his life had dropped out from under him and he was in unexplored territory. Then his eyes strayed from her hopeful face to the shape of her young, firm body, and something more powerful than fear took hold of him.

‘Sure.’

‘Okay! I mean, cool. Here.’ She passed him a piece of paper, scrunched up and warm from the heat of her fist, and then kissed him on the cheek. ‘Call me later.’

He walked the rest of the way home in deep thought, the weight of his creations in his backpack pulling at his shoulder straps and the phone number of one of the best looking girls in school in his hand. His internal voice ran a thousand words a minute, urgent and persuasive. Nothing bad had happened, had it? He was creeped out, that was all, but the truth was there was nothing to suggest he was in any danger.

When he reached his front door step, Damien paused and stared at the piece of paper in his hand again. None of it made sense. How could something like this just happen, all at once, to someone like him? But the internal voice spoke again, and the words it spoke gave him such a surge of brilliant satisfaction that he didn’t see the lies they hid: Who else has worked as hard as you for success at such a young age? If anyone deserves it, you do.

He slipped the piece of paper into his pocket, nodded to himself, and pulled open the front door. He couldn’t wait to hear what kind of music he’d created.

 

*

 

His parents greeted him with crooked, uncertain grins on their faces. Damien gave them a reassuring smile and asked what was for dinner.

‘It’s ready now, in the kitchen – your favourite,’ his mother said with an eager smile. She took his hand and led him into the dining room, where the table was set, tablecloth, silverware and all, and his father sat ready at the head. This time of day normally found the old man reclining in the lounge room with the paper and a cup of coffee and in no mood for conversation, but tonight he was all smiles. He indicated two glasses full of golden brown liquid and winked at Damien as he entered. ‘Got us a little whiskey.’

‘Thanks. Is someone coming for dinner or something?’

His mother laughed so hard she nearly dropped the pot of hot chilli chicken she was carrying. ‘Oh yes, Damien. We’ve got ourselves a celebrity over, tonight. His name’s Damien Jones, and he’s the youngest professional artist in the country.’ She gave him an exaggerated wink as she put the pot down and then clapped her hands, delighted. ‘And he’d better eat to replenish his energy, hadn’t he?’

His father questioned him about what he would do with his life and his newfound fame, his tone serious but his mouth turned up at the corners in an expression of pride. His mother told him at least fifty times how happy they were, how they couldn’t believe he’d been hiding such talent from them all this time. Damien had never felt so uncomfortable in his own home, but a part of him couldn’t help but enjoy it. Sure it’s strange, but it’s good, isn’t it? Eating here with your family, talking like this? The fruits of your labour.

They were bittersweet fruits, though, and Damien breathed a sigh of relief when he locked himself in his dark room and separated himself from the world. It was getting late by then, but he was wide awake, and this strange day wasn’t over yet.

He emptied his schoolbag onto his bed and set each one of his creations side by side, staring at them in the dim light of his desk lamp, fascinated. The album cover had a picture that had never been taken: a black and white of Damien standing in a smoky alleyway and cradling a black guitar. He had no emotion in his expression. A hollowness that seemed appropriate given Damien himself had never been there. Maybe you were, though. Maybe you were there when you were playing the game.

The CD itself was black, the title of the album printed in sharp silver letters: DeadBoy. He slid it into his computer and pulled his headphones over his ears. The track list popped up and he raised his eyebrows. Ooookay. So I guess this is the kind of music I write. Among the titles were Slit Your Wrists First, Dogs Are On My Tail, and Stare Into The Abyss. He clicked on the last one.

The runtime of the song was one minute, but Damien didn’t make it past fifteen seconds. The moment he heard the first chord, guitar strings shrieking like someone was drawing a blade across them made him sit bolt upright in his chair. What followed it could only be described as the sound of dread: A heavy bass building to something, a climax Damien knew he did not want to hear. It reminded him of the first time he’d watched Jaws as a boy and heard the iconic deep tones that made him feel as if he was out there, alone in the water.

He took off the headphones and stopped the song. His hands shook for a minute or so before he got control of himself again and ejected the CD. What the hell? People actually listened to that? Liked it?

He tapped his fingers on the table, glanced at the dark window. It was late, he should be asleep, but curiosity had the better of him. With each passing minute he felt more and more as though he’d been dropped in another universe, and he needed to know as much as he could.

He fired up his computer and went online. Typed his own name into the search engine. When he saw the results, he slid back in his chair and took a deep breath. ‘Wow.’ The first three articles were all accompanied by pictures of him, and at least the first ten were all about him. No, not you – just a guy who looks like you. But after reading through a few interviews and articles, he found himself wishing he really was this character.

‘I meet Damien in a dimly lit studio, where he’s apparently in the middle of painting several different works. The canvasses are draped in cloth, and he politely refuses to let me near any of them. Instead, he shakes my hand firmly and gives me a mischievous grin as he offers me a seat on a rickety chair. He apologises for the mess.

            ‘My first impressions of this artistic prodigy are all jarringly counter intuitive. He does not strike me as a sensitive artist at all, nor does he quite fit the stereotype of the drug addicted obsessive. He appears fit and confident, and he speaks clearly and honestly. If I could give his dark minded fans anything romantic to seize on, it would be nothing more substantial than a spark in his eyes, a crookedness to his smile. As you’ll see from the interview, he had quite the knack for slipping direct questions I put to him about his life…’

Damien blinked and shook his head. He could almost see himself, but not quite. It was an ideal version of him, someone he could aspire to be. But it isn’t you. But… It was how they saw him, wasn’t it? To the rest of the world, he and this stranger were the same person.

He closed the computer and shut off his light, though he knew it would be a long time before he went to sleep. If he didn’t play the game tonight, would he wake up in this world again tomorrow? He thought he would – after all, his progress had been saved.

As he lay on his bed, hypnotised faces and eager voices flashed through his mind. His parents, so proud and happy, not of him, but of that other man they thought he was. Did it matter how he got there? If he was inspiring people, giving them happiness? He recalled Reg Towney’s joy as he watched Damien sign all of his merchandise. Thanks so much, man, he’d said. I’m your biggest fan, for real.

No, it didn’t matter.

Much later, after midnight but still long before dawn, Damien gave up on sleep and went back to his desk. The screen lit up before he’d touched a single key, and Out of Hell started without prompting. The glow illuminated his smile.

He had so much work to do, yet.

 

*

 

The next level of the game was infinitely more difficult than the first. The enormous gate led down a highway which took him into an abandoned city, as big as New York or Tokyo. There were more demons than ever, each of which had a unique way of hunting. His only sanctuary lay in basements, rooftops and hidden rooms. The alleys and streets were terrifying, overrun with demons; Rats with black leather skin and rusty teeth swarmed in and out of sewers, blind but equipped with keen noses. Giants stomped between skyscrapers. Every building hid beasts in its shadows, and Damien found that it was only possible to save when he made himself completely safe. He had to be in a locked room in an empty building, and he couldn’t be injured. That last part was difficult – a fall or a scratch or bite from a pursuing demon made the screen flash red at the edges, and he would leave a trail of blood until he could find medical supplies.

Not that it mattered. Damien never felt more alive than when he was playing the game. His body was just as invested in that dark universe as his mind was, his senses fully attuned to the sights and sounds far more intensely than everyday life. When he managed to secure himself and exit the game, he invariably collapsed onto his bed, exhausted, only to wake up a few hours later and start the day. Mornings dragged on him. He was numb until the afternoon waned and night drew near, and then everything was all right again.

Three weeks of this madness went by, and Damien grew used to his new status. He woke with red eyes and tired body and dragged himself downstairs. His mother had bacon and eggs and pancakes ready for him, as she did every day. She’d pack delicious ham sandwiches for lunch and it would be curry or roast or homemade pizza for dinner. He was gaining weight, but it didn’t matter – no one cared. He left for school two hours late, and Rowe winked at him as he entered. ‘Up late again last night, were we?’

‘Yeah. Composing, you know. I was kinda on a roll.’

‘Ah, yes, the plight of the artist. Watch and learn, students. Real artists don’t wait for inspiration, they cut the time out of their day and make it happen. Now, on to history…’

He’d been holding off on calling Christina since she gave him his number, part of him too caught up in everything that was going on, but she finally gathered the courage to pull him away from everyone else at lunch time, leading him down to the bottom of the oval. Andrew was sitting under a hanging tree, and when he saw the two of them coming he stalked away, scowling back over his shoulder at Damien as he went. Whatever. He’s just jealous.

‘So what is it?’ he asked her, when they were out of earshot. They’d stopped walking, but she didn’t let go of his hand. She smiled at him and brushed her long hair aside.

‘Come on, Damien. Stop acting so cool. Just ‘cos you’re all successful now. You think that gives you the right not to call me back?’

‘I’ve been busy.’

‘I know. I’ve been listening to all your music. Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?’

Damien had no idea, but he suspected that all it took was for her to believe it, and it would become true. He could hardly wait to read them himself. ‘Maybe,’ he said.

‘I think you’ve been working too hard.’

‘Maybe,’ he said again. The last of his exhaustion slipped away, and he was alive again, the heartbeat thrumming in his ears just as if he had the headphones on. In a way, his life was the same as the game. Moving from one thing to another, navigating the world and trying to survive, always searching for the next thing. Maybe Christina was the next doorway for him.

‘Why don’t I come over later, and we can relax a bit. Watch one of your movies, maybe?’

He kept cool. ‘Okay. Is it alright if you leave around midnight, though? I’m working on something big right now. I don’t want to lose momentum.’

She nodded, eyes huge with admiration. Damien still hadn’t quite gotten used to those black discs on everyone else, but on her they looked beautiful. ‘Of course. I wouldn’t want to disturb your genius.’ She gave him a mischievous half smile, kissed him on the cheek, and left him there.

He left school early, knowing none of the teachers would care, and within an hour he was running down cracked sidewalks, rats on his trail, a steel key in his inventory and so, so close to that next gateway. He could almost taste it.

Time drifted on in another place, unnoticed. Someone knocked on his door, first quietly and then louder and louder, but he was charging down a fire escape while a giant demolished the building he’d been inside a moment ago, and heard nothing. Someone slipped a note under his door that said: DINNER, LOVE MUM. He didn’t notice it, because he’d found the way out at last. It was a manhole the size of a car, and it was guarded by a demon with the body of a dog and a head made of squid tentacles.

For an hour or more, drenched in sweat, Damien distracted and dodged and avoided the beast, but at last he managed to lure it with a trail of his own blood into an underground parking lot, and returned to the manhole. He turned the key, held his breath, and dropped into the darkness.

The message appeared: CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP.

Damien pulled off his headphones, slid off his chair onto the floor, weak with relief and exhilaration, and passed out in minutes.

 

*

 

His room was still dark when he blinked awake, and when he crawled over to the window and pushed aside the curtains, moonlight flooded the room. It was so bright he had to shield his eyes, and when he squinted up at the sky he realised it wasn’t the moon but a silver sun, one that bathed the clouds and earth in grey rather than yellow light.

The world had changed again.

He felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the note under his door, and then another when he remembered he was supposed to meet Christina. She’d left missed calls on his phone, but he didn’t call her back. Better to be cool. He was the famous one, after all. In fact, he realised with a happy jolt, he was more than famous, now – he’d levelled up. The game had granted him something else, and he couldn’t wait to find out what it was.

Breakfast awaited, a steaming hot bowl of buttered porridge, but neither of his parents were around. His mother had left him another note on the table: GONE HUNTING. BACK SOON. It was a joke, of course, but goose bumps raised up on the back of his neck all the same, and he made sure he ate quickly.

He made the walk to school in a haze of paranoia. Everything was different and yet familiar. He jumped as a rat demon emerged from a gutter and scuttled across the road, and then he blinked and saw that it was only a black cat with shining eyes. The strange silver sun created a harsh contrast that made the world seem black and white.

The game is leaking into reality. Your success in that world leads to success here, but it lets in everything else, too. Better not play the game tonight – just wait a while, get everything under control.

He discovered his newest success as soon as he arrived at school. It was his memoirs – the ones he’d mentioned to Christina just the day before. He’d been working on them, then, but now it seemed he’d not only published them, they were a worldwide bestseller. The whole school seemed to be carrying a copy, and people began to cluster around him from the moment he entered the school grounds, demanding he sign them. They blocked him, crowding him with eager grins like hyenas fighting over the corpse of a zebra. Somehow, he broke through and slipped into his form room, only to turn and find the whole class, Rowe included, standing and clapping for him. Rowe had a pile of the thick black books on his desk and Damien, nodding and smiling, comfortable with celebrity now, went over to sign one.

Through conversation with his breathless, starstruck fans, Damien discovered that his memoirs had made him rich, and not just popular author rich – superstar rich. Reg Towney broke it all down for him, enthralled to have Damien’s full attention. ‘You could like, quit school and go travel the world or live in a mansion on the beach or something for the rest of your life! Like, how does that feel, man? How come you’re still coming to school and stuff?’

Damien shrugged. ‘I’m still getting used to it all, you know. But I’ll probably leave soon. Take a holiday or something, maybe come back and buy a house here.’ Plans were beginning to blossom in his mind even as he spoke. He knew the game was a trap of sorts, that it there had to be a catch in there somewhere, but it had given him everything he wanted. No doubt he was supposed to want to keep playing and push his success as far as it would go, but he was willing to bet this world would keep changing too, and more of the darkness would leak into this world until the demons inside the game escaped. That, of course, was why it was called Out of Hell.

But Damien wasn’t going to fall for the trap. He was going to cash his chips and leave.

‘Hey, Reg,’ he said in a low voice, while everyone else chattered away. Half the year level, as usual, was crowded around the bench he was sitting on, as if he was at a press conference. ‘Do you know where Christina is today? Did she call in sick?’

‘Sorta,’ Reg said with a half smile. ‘She skipped today. Actually, she told me she was going to meet someone at the beachfront. By the way, I was kinda tinkering with a piece to send in to the Rolling Stone, you don’t think I could interview you or something, do you?’

Meet someone at the beachfront. It was like a blade twisting in his guts. Damien had never understood jealousy before – there were plenty of fish in the sea, weren’t there? But now he did. He could no more have stopped himself from moving than if the law of gravity itself was pulling him to her. He stood up from the bench so abruptly he bumped Reg, who stumbled back and then collapsed on his rear, surprised. ‘Hey!’ But he was already going, pushing through the crowd and then jogging through the quadrangle, ignoring the shouts behind him.

Ten minutes out from the beachfront, that cosy nook shielded by a rock shelf where so many of the older kids liked to camp out, Damien realised how crazy he was being. A monster had grown inside him without his knowledge. She’s mine! It screamed, just as it had convinced him that he was deserving of all his success. It’ll all be okay as long as I stop playing the game.

He strolled along the beach with his hands in his pockets, watching dark grey waves roll onto shore with an icy wind that blew sand against his face. The sight of the water calmed him, and when he saw her at last, alone, he realised she’d been playing him along, and a smile lit up on his face before he could rein it in. She was standing with her arms folded, hair blowing out behind her, squinting out over the sea. He stopped beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders in what he hoped was a casual manner.

‘Hey,’ she said.

‘That was a mean trick. I was going to apologise, you know. I just kinda got caught up…’

‘Writing?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I read your memoir. I can’t believe you’ve been through so much, done so much, Damien. You’re so young.’

‘Sometimes I can’t, either,’ he said. He made a mental note to read his book at the first opportunity.

‘I couldn’t believe someone like you, so good and admirable…’ Her voice caught in her throat and he glanced sideways at her, catching a dampness in one blue eye. ‘Could have such darkness in your soul.’

‘Everyone has demons, Christina. I’m sure you do, too.’

She turned to him, and when she smiled he pulled his arm away from her as though he’d been burnt. Her face had changed again, warped by the game. Her eyes were smooth black pearls, and when she smiled her skin stretched like old leather.

‘It’s what made me realise I had to have you,’ she said, curling a hand around the back of his neck. ‘I had to have you in me.’

‘What – now?’ He swallowed.

‘No, not that,’ she said, sucking in a breath. She was kissing his shoulder, scraping his skin with her teeth. ‘I want your soul.’

She bit into his collarbone like a hungry dog, and in the split second before a harsh scream escaped him, he heard her moaning with pleasure.

But he’d been here before, hadn’t he? In an instant his mind switched over and he was back in the game. He tore away and kicked her, sending her railing into the cliff wall with a mouthful of his flesh. He slipped in the sand and then sprinted up the beach. He looked back over his bloody shoulder and saw her coming, hands outstretched and black eyes rolled back in her head.

She was fast, but she wouldn’t catch him. He had plenty of practice, after all, and a minute later he was hopping over fences and sprinting through backyards. He passed a small boy playing in a sandpit and small sharp fingers graze him as he went by. As he ran through a freshly mown garden a grown man emerged from his house, running on all fours like a dog, a tongue made of worms hanging from his mouth. Damien was in the zone,and this time he wasn’t controlling a character – he had his own body. Never in the game had he been able to move with such speed and agility.

At last he crossed an empty street and collapsed to his knees in his own front garden, dizzy. He winced as some of his sweat dripped into the open wound. He couldn’t see it, but the muscle there was swollen and blood stained half of his shirt. Just get to the game, and you can change something. Load one of your saves, something.

Clutching his wound with one hand, he got up, fumbled for the keys in his pocket and unlocked the front door, praying his parents hadn’t returned home.

 

*

 

His mother was standing in the front room as he stumbled in, hands on her hips. ‘There you are!’ she said. ‘Oh, no, what’s happened to you? Poor baby. Come, I was just putting dinner in for you.’

Before he could stammer an excuse, she took his hand and pulled him into the kitchen, where vegetables simmered on the stove and the oven glowed red. ‘Will it be long?’ Damien said. ‘Just because I’ve got some stuff I’m working on I should really get…’

He paused mid-sentence. Movement had caught his eye, but the place he thought he’d seen it – the oven – made no sense, so he ignored it. ‘Should really get onto it. Could you just call me when…’ There it was again, but this time there was no denying it: a heavy black thing thumped against the glass iron door. His mother turned at the sound and shook her head, clicking her tongue. ‘Should be unconscious my now, honestly.’

The thing twisted round and two bulging eyes raised up to meet Damien’s. Although he couldn’t make out any other part of the ‘meal’, he knew just who it was.

‘Mum? Who’s that in the oven?’

‘Mm?’ She turned, raising her eyebrows. ‘Oh, that’s Andrew. The boy you used to be friends with. He turned up here in some kind of a hysteria, saying all kinds of awful things about you. Well, I couldn’t take it, and on top of that I hadn’t bought any meat for dinner. So, you know.’ She shrugged.

She’s not my mother, she’s a monster. Damien’s shock broke at last and he pushed her, sending her down hard on the kitchen tiles. She shrieked, surprised, as Damien wrenched the oven door open and grabbed his friend under the armpits, screaming as his hands touched the metal grill. Andrew came out with difficulty – he’d been cramped into the oven, clothes and all, with such force that his knees and elbows jammed against the sides. When he came free at last the two of them collapsed against the cupboards under the kitchen counter. Andrew’s shirt and pants were smoking.

Damien heard his mother before he saw her – high heels banging the tiles hard enough to crack them as she stomped around the corner. She had tears streaming down her face and a pork slicer in her right hand. ‘How dare you, Damien! I spent hours on that roast!’

But Damien didn’t wait for her to come for him. He lunged forward, clamping her legs together in a low rugby tackle. She wasn’t the most coordinated at the best of times, and this time she smacked the back of her head on the tiles with a nasty crack. It’s okay, she’s not my mother. She’s not my mother, and this isn’t my world.

            He snatched the blade from her limp hand, grabbed Andrew’s arm, and dragged him to his feet. He was covered in grill burns and his breaths came in tight, short gasps. Damien got him upstairs as quickly as he could, keeping his ears primed for the sound of his father’s car in the driveway.

When they were alone in his room, the door locked, a minute passed in which neither could speak. Then Andrew said, in a numb voice: ‘You just killed your own mother.’

 

*

 

‘No way. She wasn’t my mother any more than you are.’

‘You’re insane.’

Damien said nothing. Andrew’s eyes were bulging out of his head, but they had none of that star struck quality. They looked normal.

‘Andrew. I’m cool, okay? A lot of crazy stuff has been going on lately, and I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to you or anything. I don’t know what people have been telling you, but I’m not crazy.’ He wasn’t used to seeing his friend like this. Absent was the relaxed smile, the half closed stoner eyes, the loose body language. This Andrew was rigid, back pressed against the wall, face taut and alert.

‘Damien, where are you, man?’ he said, and then, bizarrely, waved a hand in front of him. ‘Are you in this fucking world? Can you hear me?’

‘Yes I can hear you.’

‘Okay, then listen: you are not sane right now.’

‘I’m not sane? Are you serious? Do you have any idea what it’s like to live like this? People following me all the time, my own parents so hypnotised by me I can’t even talk to them. Everyone’s turning into monsters, Andrew, do you understand that?’

Andrew swallowed, holding his hands out in surrender. ‘Dude. Do you hear the shit coming out of your mouth right now?’

‘I just saved your life! Do you not remember being in the fucking oven a second ago? Huh? Now why the hell did I have to do that?’ His voice cracked at the end, and even to his own ears it sounded hysterical. He was waving the knife in front of Andrew’s face and he forced himself to take a deep breath, back off.

Andrew was shaking his head. ‘Do you believe that?’ he said. ‘That you saved my life?’

‘What? You saw what I saw.’

‘No. What I saw was, I was talking to your mother in the kitchen, and you came in and started freaking out. You were threatening us with the knife, and then you pushed her down, like, real hard, and then you dragged me up here.’

‘No way.’ Damien shook his head, running everything over in his mind. The game had something to do with this. It had changed everything. ‘You’re lying.’

‘I’m lying?’

‘You’re part of the game. You’re just another demon, trying to get to me. What, you’re gonna make me drop this knife, and then your mouth will get all big and you’ll eat me or something? Do you see this?’ He pointed at the wound in the side of his neck. ‘Christina did this to me, man. She bit me. She was trying to eat my – she was trying to eat me.’

‘That’s not what I heard.’

‘What?’

‘That’s why I’m here, Damien. Everyone was saying you tried to rape Christina. The cops are probably on the way here now.’

‘No way.’ Damien thought back to the beach, searching his mind for faults, supressed memories. He found only her gaping mouth closing on his shoulder, the pain and shock jolting his whole body like an electric shock.

‘You’ve lost it, man. Just give me that knife, okay? I think you burned out, that’s all. You’ve been working too hard. You just need some counselling.’

Damien gritted his teeth and then, before he could chicken out, he tossed the knife over his bed. He was sure Andrew would dive for it, teeth bared and slobbering – in which case he’d go for the door and start running again. But it was Andrew who went for the door, pulling it so hard it almost came off its hinges, and Damien heard him thump down the stairs two at a time. The front door slammed a second later.

All he could hear was his own breathing.

What if it really happened the way Andrew said? What if there are no demons?

But on the heels of this thought came another. What if this was the game? What if that was how it worked – by first granting you everything and then plunging you into your own personal hell. First he was famous, now he was a murder rapist? No, this was a special hell constructed for him by the game. There could be only one way out. One level remaining.

He was going to have to play.

 

*

 

The final level was unlike any other that had come before it. The manhole led into the city sewers, and the only way forward was down. The concrete tunnels and foul water soon gave way to slimy rocks, cliffs and cave networks. The screen was almost pitch black, but Damien could make out dim shadows and patches of deeper black, and each step he took sent visible sound waves echoing against the walls. He closed his curtains and turned off the light in his room so he could see better.

He’d never been so terrified in his life. The demons stalked him every turn, their growls and slithering steps audible wherever he went. All it took was one close call, a claw lashing out at him in the dark, and they could trace him by the smell of his blood. He ran, panicked heartbeat loud in his ears, taking turns at random, praying he found the last exit before whatever was behind him caught up.

It was impossible to tell how much time passed, hunched over his screen in a cold sweat, fingers tapping madly at the keys, no longer playing for fun but for desperation. He needed to regain his sanity, his old life. He needed to wake up to a world with sunshine and parents who were sometimes irritable and a friend who teased him about being too uptight.

He hit a dead end, practically ran into it head first. The things chasing him sensed it, and they let out ravenous screeches of triumph. When they reached him they didn’t bother to kill him – they simply took steaming bites from his body. Damien screamed, in the game and out loud, and then fell deadly silent as he watched himself die, pieces of him dripping from hungry mouths, a pale hand stretching out as if pleading for mercy, only to be torn apart by grabbing hands.

Finally, the screen went red, and two words appeared on the screen in silver letters: GAME OVER.

Five long seconds later, Damien’s computer powered off, leaving him in a quiet, dark room.

 

*

 

When he opened the door to the landing, he was met with an empty, silent house. Outside, a strong wind blew, and the windows showed a starless midnight. Dread welled up inside Damien as he descended the stairs and made his way through the kitchen. His mother was gone, and the house was dusty and ancient, as though no one had been there for centuries.

The streets were deserted, houses broken and vacant. The only light came from the silver moon, but it was enough to illuminate the way.

Damien kept to the sidewalk, moving as quietly as he could. His heart thudded steadily, too loud in his ears. Somewhere in the distance a jarring song played, and he recognised it as one of his own, a disharmonious string of notes and verses that made no sense and served only to chill your soul.

It wasn’t long before the demons took up his scent, and he started to run.

He was looking for a key, but he had no idea what it looked like, and a small part of him knew that he would never find it.

Somewhere on the next street, something howled for blood.

 

 

 

 

This was an experimental one, because the idea itself – essentially a monster under the bed tale – is not original. But I wanted to do it as a test of my own ability, to see if I could take a plain, cliche idea and write it in an original way.If I succeed, it means I have created my own originality outside of the crazy ideas I’m always coming up with. If I fail, well, back to the drawing board. Either way, I had a blast. Enjoy the tale of Charlie and the Monster…

 

Monster

Ben Pienaar

 

The shed, where the monster came to live, had always been a source of dread for Charlie Grove. It stood apart from everything else, hunched in the far corner under cover of the elms as though it were hiding. Old wood groaned beneath the weight of rotted leaves and two splintery doors hung on old hinges. It had no windows, and a single light bulb hung from the middle of the ceiling which never turned on the first time you flipped the switch and never completely illuminated the interior.

One night, not long after his tenth birthday, he heard it.

It was a still night – that was how he knew. One of the doors creaked and something snapped strips of rough wood as it brushed by. The door bumped shut, and a full minute later a series of bangs sounded as things rolled across the floor.

Charlie didn’t breathe, blanket pulled up to his neck, sure his father would hear the racket and stomp outside, baseball bat in hand, commanding the thief to come out or be dragged. But the bedsprings in the adjacent room did not whinge and no further noises sounded from the shed. Charlie wasn’t fooled: The monster had arrived.

 

*

 

 

The next day was a Saturday – the sky bright with spring light and his mother’s friends were over for tea, filling the house with chatter and frequent laughter. Charlie went out into the garden with his Swiss army knife, telling himself he didn’t have to go anywhere near the shed if he didn’t want to.

Curiosity prevailed. It was, after all, such a nice day – and his father was close at hand, reclining on the porch with a book and a beer in one brick sized hand. Charlie took the Y shaped branch he’d half carved into a slingshot and moved over to the patch of elms, close enough so that he could see the shed door and his father. Nothing seemed strange, but he shivered all the same. The shade stole the pleasant warmth and safety of the day all at once. Spring may have come to the rest of the country, but this corner of the garden hadn’t forgotten winter. The leaves were dead.

Charlie wasn’t a big kid – was in fact considered on the scrawny side by the boys at school – but none of them ever picked on him, because something of his father had rubbed off, and it was that same something that acted on him now. He dropped the slingshot and walked all the way up to the half open shed door.

Too dark to see. The light switch was stuck in a corner, so he’d have to walk two full steps blind to switch it on. Charlie decided to look from a distance, first. He used a couple of rocks to prop each door open as wide as it would go, and then stood back and looked straight in.

Empty, save the tools and sacks of fertiliser that lined the walls, and though he couldn’t see all the way to the back, he sensed there was nothing there. Everything looked as it should, and he breathed a sigh and shook his head, smiling at himself. No monster after all. Triumphant, his fears slain, his bravery solidified, he marched forth into the shed to claim his territory for good.

And knew immediately that he’d made a mistake.

It was the smell: A sweet tang of overripe fruit underlay a mixture of dead fish and manure. An animal had been in here. A dark patch stained the floorboards against one wall, and its significance was not lost on Charlie, who at his young age was still in tune with his primal instincts: An animal had been here, and it was going to come back.

He backed out, hairs prickling, and placed two large stones in front of the double doors. The sun had never been more welcome on his skin.

 

*

 

Richard looked up, squinting into the sun, and saw his boy coming up from the shed. He took in Charlie’s pale face and clenched fists, and wondered what the hell could have him so shaken up on a day like this. He set down his lukewarm lager and waved.

‘Hey Charlie, what’s up?’

Charlie shrugged and shuffled over, hand up to shield his face.

‘See you put some stones there on the shed doors, eh? Why’s that?’

‘I think… there’s an animal or something getting in there, so I wanted to keep it out.’

‘An animal?’ Richard put the eye on his son, a trick he’d learned from his own father. You leaned forward and squinted with one eye, unblinking, and didn’t say a word. If he was lying, the truth came out soon enough.

One, two, three seconds. ‘A monster,’ Charlie said.

Richard rocked back in his chair and laughed, slapping his knee. ‘There’s no such things as monsters, lad. The only monsters in this world are men. If there’s a man in there, maybe we’ve got a problem, eh?’

Charlie shook his head.

‘Ah, then you were right the first time, weren’t you? It’s an animal. But why’s there anything in there in the first place?’

‘It peed in there.’

‘What?’ Goddamn cats, wild all over the neighbourhood. Next he’d be finding bird heads strewn all over the front doorstep. ‘Let’s have a look, then.’

The boy showed him a dark patch on the sawdust strewn floor, and he bent to sniff it. Ah, it was piss alright, the tangy and rancid leavings of a feral. The whole place smelled like a doghouse. ‘Christ,’ he said, rubbing his nose and getting back up to his feet. ‘Well, not a lot we can do about that just yet. Maybe it won’t come back.’

He looked around the shed, thinking he had to give it a good clean anyway, and caught Charlie squirming in his peripheral vision.

‘What’s the matter, son?’

Charlie shook his head, shrugged, mumbled.

‘Come on, I didn’t raise you to mumble! Speak your mind.’

‘I just think the stain’s too big for a cat. And I… the thing I heard last night was bigger.’

Richard squatted to Charlie’s level for a minute and met his eyes. The boy was scared enough alright. ‘Course he couldn’t say he didn’t jump at a few shadows when he was ten. It might all make a good life lesson. He put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and smiled.

‘You can say it. You think it’s a monster, don’t you?’

‘Well… Yeah.’

Richard leaned in closer, looking left and right. ‘You know, son, now you mention it, I think you might be right.’

‘You do?’

‘Yes. The stain is definitely too big for a cat, and it smells rank. A monster is a definite possibility. But that’s no reason to panic now, is it? Oh no.’ He stood up, stroking his grey beard with one hand. ‘Just because it’s not an animal, see, doesn’t mean it won’t die like one. And I can show you just how to do the job. Forget about that slingshot. Actually, don’t forget it – you can use that to shoot the bloody cats once you’re done with your monster. Come over here.’

He took the boy to the far corner of the shed, where he kept his favourite toolbox – a stainless steel beauty that until now he’d forbidden Charlie to touch at all. He swung it open and selected a few choice pieces, which he handed to Charlie, chuckling at the look of awe on the boy’s face. Among the tools were a ten inch length of flat steel, a carving blade, glue, sandpaper and some blocks of dense wood.

Charlie carried the bundle in both arms toward the door, but Richard steered him around by the shoulders. ‘Not there! This is our shed, isn’t it? No monster’s going to take it away from us. There you go. Now take the bit of steel. You’re going to sharpen that good. We’re not making any rat killing blade. This has to be a monster killing blade.’

Like magic, Charlie’s fear was replaced by a joy Richard wished he could remember from his own childhood. The two of them sawed and sharpened and sandpapered until their fingers hurt, and the weapon Richard envisioned took shape with impressive speed. It was a knife, in the end, but to call it a knife would be to call a machine gun a water pistol. It was seven inches of exposed steel sharpened so keenly on both edges that to touch it was to draw blood. The handle was smooth dark wood, with a twist of rope glued near the top for grip.

Richard told Charlie to carve some designs in the handle to symbolise that it was his. ‘And, you have to give it a name, too boy. The Vikings used to name their weapons, you know.’

When it was done (Charlie having christened it ‘Slayer’), Richard showed him how to coat the handle with varnish so it would dry smooth and solid. ‘That’s it, boy. Now we leave it here to dry and hope your mother left us some dinner.’

‘I can’t take it now?’

‘No, no, leave it to dry. You can come back for it tomorrow.’

Sore and sweaty, the two of them left the shed with smiles on their faces, and leaving the cold blue twilight for a hot meal of buttered corn and roast chicken.

Full darkness descended an hour later.

 

*

 

Charlie dared to return for Slayer alone, when the sun was at its highest and his father was outside pulling weeds from the rockery. The monster had come again that night.

Its steps were too heavy on the grass to belong to a cat, yet not evenly spaced like that of a man. Charlie was certain, because he listened extra carefully, tense and breathless beneath his covers. His window was open a crack, and as the steps rustled past he wondered if a hand might snake through the gap and claw his face apart. He didn’t dare move away in case it heard him. But the monster’s many legs pattered past, dragging something – perhaps a distended belly – through the grass.

Now, he stood just out of range of the shade, looking from the large stones tossed aside to the hanging doors. The inside was as dim and musty as ever, though nothing appeared out of place. Except the work station, where only a varnish stain marked the place his knife had lain.

 

*

 

Richard watched his son pace the perimeter of the garden, carving his slingshot with furious concentration. Why the hell wasn’t he playing with the blade they’d made? Maybe it hadn’t dried? Yes, the boy had gone to the shed, so if he didn’t have it with him the cool dank atmosphere must have kept the varnish wet.

At least he thought that must be it until he looked up from his weeding half an hour later to pause for a breath of sweet air, and something metal glinted from behind the rockery, where his herb patch met the back fence. Some drunk chucked his bottle over. The thought angered him, but when he saw what it was, he wished it had been broken glass after all. At least then he’d have felt only anger, and not the painful sinking of his heart that accompanied it.

It was Slayer: the blade broken in half, semi buried in fertiliser, varnish ingrained with dirt.

He turned it over under the garden tap, cleaning it and shaking his head at the damage. On his way into the house he noticed one of the large stones Charlie had insisted on placing in front of the shed doors lying far from its station, most likely what the boy had used to crush the metal. And for what reason? He’d seemed to enjoy himself the day before – this wasn’t any rebellion. It’s a damned fantasy. One which you’ve encouraged. Charlie would claim the monster had done it and point to the blade as proof, hoping that his father would join him in his fairy tale. It was Richard’s own fault for playing along.

Tonight, Charlie’s mother would be seeing a movie with her girlfriends, and it would just be Richard and Charlie and some takeaway. He slipped the broken knife into his pocket and went inside. One way or another, this nonsense would have to end.

 

*

 

Charlie’s Dad was in a strange mood. Normally they would have made the trip to Donner’s Burgers together, but tonight Richard left alone, grunting at Charlie to watch the shed and make sure his monster didn’t escape. It must have been a joke, but no smile nor wink accompanied the suggestion, and then Richard was gone with the slam of a door and the roar of an engine.

Charlie stood in the driveway for a long minute, shivering as a whirlwind of dead leaves blew against his legs.

Inside, the central heating lent him no comfort. He paced the house, made sure the doors were locked. The dining room looked out onto the back porch via two tall panes and a sliding door, so he could stand in the brightly lit room by the dinner table and watch the frosty garden.

What if his Dad was right? Richard seemed to be right about most things, and especially things which concerned being a man. He was strong, respected, stern, brave, if at times bad tempered and harsh. What if it had been him lying in the bed and listening to the monster make its way to his shed? Would he have pulled the covers up to his neck? More likely he’d have headed straight out and beaten the thing to death with a stick. That was how Richard Grove dealt with monsters.

Charlie smiled. That was how you did it – you just went. He tapped his fingers on the tabletop once or twice, nodded to himself, and went into the kitchen. It took his knife? So what – there were plenty more. Maybe he’d get Slayer back.

Imagining himself seven feet tall and thick with muscle, he took not one but two steak knives from the kitchen drawer and opened the sliding door with such force it cracked alarmingly against the frame. Eyes narrowed, he stepped out onto the porch with arms out on either side like a gunslinger ready for a dual. A chill wind hit his face, warning of the cold to come. He took it with head up and eyes on the back fence.

Twilight came and went. Charlie could see every inch of the back garden from the porch, and he would stand guard here and prove to himself that his father was right and that there was no monster.

The minutes ticked by, and the fence fell under the deep cover of the elms, and then disappeared altogether. The world drew closer, and the streetlamps switched on, casting shadows at odd angles across the garden. Charlie’s feet turned numb on the porch step and he shifted from one to the other. He was covered in gooseflesh. A car hooted far away. The back garden remained still, and the house quiet. He breathed mist.

What was that?

Something dropped down from the fence in the far corner of the garden and disappeared behind the rockery. Had it been a black cat, or was it too large? He licked his lips, opened his mouth to shout ‘Who goes there?’ in a commanding voice, but the words didn’t come and he took a step back instead.

Quick feet tracked along the edge of the garden and Charlie followed with his eyes, but the light of the stars and streetlamps were not enough to see anything, until a silhouette crossed a lit part of the fence from the bushes to the elms and he made out the shape of the thing for a split second: an arched back, naked and ridged with a knobbled spine, supported what might have been a head. Four spindly legs carried it across the visible gap and a pointed tail flicked by, and then it was gone. Charlie only saw it at all because a car had driven past and cause the shadows to move for the crucial moment.

It was all he needed to see.

 

*

 

Richard found his son cowering behind the dining room table, staring out at the garden with a steak knife in each trembling hand. He placed the burger boxes on the counter and Charlie spun round, startled. The boy looked guilty, and as he came to the counter he glanced back at the sliding doors twice more.

‘Hey, Dad,’ he said.

Richard said nothing, took the burgers into the living room and dropped them onto the coffee table. Charlie came in a moment later with a comic in his hands as if nothing had happened, though he didn’t make eye contact. Richard let the silence drag out for a minute or so, the clock in the kitchen ticking loudly. He didn’t touch his food.

When he sensed Charlie squirming, he drew the blade from his pocket and lay it on the table.

‘O – oh. It’s Slayer. Where’d you get it?’

‘Listen, I don’t care about your damn monster games. But there’s no reason to break the things I give you, understand?’

Charlie jumped at the last word, swallowing his burger. His voice shook. ‘Dad, I didn’t do it.’

‘Don’t you dare lie to me, boy. Who else did it? Your monster?’

He didn’t answer at first, just looked down at the comic book in his lap, grinding his teeth.

‘Why did you do it, Charlie?’ The plaintive sound of his own voice surprised him, and it was enough to break Charlie’s resolve. Tears spattered the open pages. He sniffed.

‘Charlie…’ Richard couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. Whatever his reasons, he seemed genuinely frightened.

‘I saw it, dad,’ he said. ‘I saw it tonight, creeping around at the back of the garden.’

Richard straightened in his seat, an unwelcome prickle running up his neck. ‘Is that right? Tell me exactly what you saw.’

Charlie swallowed. ‘It was… I mean I didn’t see it exactly, just a, a kind of shadow. A car went by and the headlights shone for a second and – but I know it was definitely the monster!’ He looked up as he said the last, his eyes wide and teary. He knew how ridiculous his story was.

Richard stroked his beard and settled back into his chair. Charlie’s strange behaviour made sense, now. The poor lad genuinely believed there was a monster living in the shed, and the tricks his own mind was playing on him weren’t helping. He’d broken the blade in an effort to convince Richard of the thing’s existence. It was another way to get his father to check under his bed and in the closet for him.

But Charlie was ten years old. It was time he started learning how to be a man, and leave the ways of boys behind. Now would be as good a time as any.

‘Charlie,’ he said. ‘I know you believe you saw something. But I also know that monsters do not exist. Now I could go and search the shed tonight, and find nothing, and you could stop being afraid. But real men don’t rely on others to conquer their problems. Real men face their own fears and solve their own problems. I think you should do that tonight.’

Charlie put his face in his hands and let out a dry sob. Richard sighed and set his burger down. ‘When I was your age,’ he said, ‘I was bullied by a big lad called Andy Poss. He beat me till I bled every day and I never fought back. I told my father, and my father told me that I had a simple choice to make. He said I could choose to hit Andy Poss, or I could choose to be hit by Andy Poss. I made my choice, and it was scary and difficult, but it was the right choice.’

Charlie nodded and sucked in a breath, wiping his eyes. ‘But what if it’s r-real, Dad?’

Richard lifted the broken blade from the table and lowered it into his son’s lap, folded his arms and smiled.

‘Charlie, call my name and I’ll be right behind you. But listen: there is no monster, only your imagination. If you stab anything it’ll be one of those bloody stray cats, and I’m fine with that, eh?’ They laughed, Charlie wiping his eyes and grinning.

‘Come on, son, what do you say?’ He put on a hearty medieval voice. ‘Let us make our final stand against the demons and show them what real heroes are made of? Eh?’

‘Dad, that’s corny.’ But he was smiling ear to ear, gripping the knife like he meant to use it, eyes bright and keen.

‘That’s my boy,’ Richard said, ruffling his hair. ‘Let’s go kill some monsters.’

 

*

 

Charlie’s bravado vanished the moment he laid eyes on the shed. The stones weren’t in their places: they were absent. The doors hung half open and the interior was impenetrable darkness. The apple sweet compost rot filled his nostrils with its richness, making him scrunch his face.

‘It’s just a shed, Charlie, remember that.’ His father put a warm hand on his shoulder. Charlie knew he was right. He’d never heard of any monsters killing anyone in the news, after all. And what evidence did he have? Sinister sounds at night, a shadow caught against a fence, a mysterious smell. And Richard Grove, the man who owned the property, the man who’d have the most reason to be worried about an imposter, was telling him that there was no such thing.

‘I’ll kill it dead, I reckon.’

‘If you don’t, I will, lad. Just call and I’ll be there with you.’ He stepped forward and pulled the rusted doors open as far as they went. ‘Tell you what. Go and touch the back wall of the shed with that knife of yours, and I’ll let you take off school tomorrow. Heroes don’t have to go to school every day of the week.’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

He gripped the wooden handle, the patterns he’d carved digging into his skin, the sharpness of the half broken blade reassuring. He stepped into the shed and tried not to breathe. Cat piss, he told himself. Something real, something explained. Not a monster. His father, the man, knew what was real and what wasn’t. If he wanted, Dad could sleep all night in the back of the shed without stirring. Monsters didn’t bother real men.

Charlie took another step, and then another. He put out a hand he touched the workbench, which meant he was close to the back, the place a part of him still believed the monster resided, watching and waiting.

He had never been in the shed after dark. It was like being deep underwater, or in outer space. Sound and fresh air were far away, as was his father. His eyes were open but he couldn’t make out the slightest shapes, and he moved with exaggerated slowness, like an astronaut, so that he didn’t trip. He breathed loud and slow.

As he took another step toward the back wall, holding the knife in front of him like a sword, it occurred to him that he’d already won. He was here, at night, in the middle of the shed, the very place that terrified him. The wet stench of the beast was here, as was the creeping sense of a presence nearby – but so was Charlie. He’d beaten his fear. The thought gave him the strength to take the last two strides, and when he reached the back wall he planted the blade into the wood with enough force to hold it in place.

‘Hey dad, I did it!’

Arms rising above his head, triumphant, Charlie turned his back on the dark. His father’s huge form was silhouetted by the moonlight, close and yet distant. Now that he was walking out of the blackness, Charlie felt a powerful urge to look behind him, to quicken his pace and sprint into his father’s arms, but he resisted. He was a man now, and he wouldn’t let his fears rule him any longer. He kept his head up and walked with measured paces, though his knees were weak with adrenaline. He was still grinning.

He was inches from the threshold, his trial complete, when his father’s face transformed. His eyes flicked up to something just above Charlie’s head and his mouth fell open in surprise. He unfolded his arms and made as if to step forward, but the move was reflexive and not purposeful, an inbuilt reaction that he restrained at the last minute as if what he’d seen was not what he’d thought, after all. Or impossible.

Charlie met his father’s eyes and saw the truth there, and bitter dread filled his belly as a broken shard of steel touched the soft flesh below his Adams apple and then curved all the way to the back of his neck in a single neat motion. No pain, but a flash of white across his vision as his eyes took a final snapshot of life: The Man himself staggering backward, a guttural sound escaping his open mouth as if someone had slugged him in the belly.

He of stern words and unwavering strength, turned his back on his son and ran.

Charlie was glad, as the wet hands settled on his forehead and mouth, that he would not see what had him.

The look he’d seen in his father’s eyes was enough.

 

Don’t really know where this came from, but it must have been somewhere evil. Didn’t have an end in mind when I started, and half the time when I sat down to write I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do. Definitely starting to warm to that method of writing. Perhaps there were other forces at work, Gods… or Demons. Enjoy.

Bled

Ben Pienaar

 

Emma found Bled while clearing ivy from what she thought must be a long forgotten birdbath, at the bottom of the garden where the tall oaks lined the fence and cast everything in cool shade. Her parents were moving furniture into the new house and she was in the way, so she’d come to see what her new back garden looked like, and found nothing but long grass, small trees, and this pillar of overgrown stone. Partially hidden carvings on the side prompted her to clear away the ivy, though what she found when she did made no sense to her: a single cryptic word: BLED.

It was a pedestal, not a bird fountain. The cracked base was square, but the top slightly rounded and, beneath the plants, Emma made out sculpted features that clearly belonged to a face: a bust, like one of those memorial stones she’d seen in the cemetery. It was taller than her, so she had to come forward and stand on her tiptoes to get a good handful of vines, hoping to pull them all down in one savage motion.

‘Emma!’ She spun around and put her hands behind her back, though she hadn’t been doing anything wrong. Her father was standing on the rotted back porch, wiping sweat from his face and squinting at her in the afternoon light. ‘Wait ‘till we’ve been in the house a few weeks before you tear everything apart, alright? Mum’s in the kitchen making us all lunch, why don’t you give her a hand?’

She glared at the neighbour’s cat, an old ginger that eyed her from the fence, tail flicking. ‘Okaaaay!’

She left Bled where he’d been for who knew how long, but with a whispered promise: I’ll be back tonight.

 

*

 

It rained, and hard. Emma had never imagined rain like this in a seaside town. She’d always imagined Port Elson would be permanently sunny and warm, even in winter, like Hawaii. Now she lay awake in a dark room, the whole house asleep and rain hammering her windowsill like someone knocking desperately to get in. New house, new town, new part of the world; she’d never felt so alone, and she was breaking a promise to the only friend she had.

Only friend? He’s a statue, and you haven’t even seen his face. Terri was right, you are a dummy. Her ever chattering internal voice had been sounding more and more disdainful of late. She forced the negative thoughts away, but there was one she couldn’t dispel: an image of the tall stone bust in the lower back corner of the garden, sitting dark and abandoned in the rain, as lonely as she.

It was after midnight when she changed into some of her old clothes and crept downstairs. Each step creaked like a shipwreck but no one stirred in the house. When she opened the back door, icy air and rain pelted her and made her face red and her nose numb before she even stepped out, but step out she did.

She took the rest of the ivy down with difficulty, her nerveless fingers tearing at it and wrenching until roots and vines snapped and she could drag large armfuls of it away from the pedestal.

And then, her heart brimming with joy, she looked upon the face of Bled.

It was both the ugliest and most beautiful face she had ever seen. The mouth was a torn ruin in an otherwise unlined, smooth skinned face: lips, gums and teeth all messed together and half open as though in a threatening snarl. The head was round and bald, but it had been decorated with intricate lines that formed a maze with no end. Bled had no eyes, only two deep cavities, which, when she leaned up to look, were actually holes, though it was too dark to see inside.

It was strange, but standing there staring at his distorted visage, Emma found herself warming, somehow. The rain lost its sting and she was content to stand and look, her eyes playing over his finely sculpted features, ghastly as some of them were. Mostly the eyeholes, in which she knew there must be nothing but somehow couldn’t keep from craning her neck to look every now and then. She considered getting something to stand on next time, but dismissed the idea. It struck her as fitting that she be below him, looking up, and him snarling down at her.

She crawled into bed later – she didn’t care how much later – and fell asleep immediately. The next morning, her sheets were drenched and muddy. She found she didn’t care about that, either.

 

*

 

Emma played her first practical joke the next day, one she’d heard about at school. She wasn’t sure what drove her to it, except that she wanted to do something different for once. Something a bit naughty. She watched as her mother poured salt from the sugar bowl onto her cereal, thinking that it was about time, really. Lois had come to expect it of her – being a goody two shoes all the time. It wasn’t fair.

Lois coughed half her mouthful back into the bowl. ‘Ew. Oh, my god. Was that…’ She made a face and looked up with an expression of mingled disgust and surprise. Emma wondered if it hurt her mother to see that something had changed in her, and found the thought delightful.

‘Emma, that is not funny. Did you do this? Where is the sugar?’

Emma giggled. ‘I threw it away.’

‘You what? You wasted sugar for a joke?’ Her mother stood up, her tired eyes burning, and slammed the bowl down in front of her, taking the untouched portion for herself. ‘Right. Now you bloody well finish every last bit of it or you can forget about dinner.’

Emma glared, but her mother only returned the look and folded her arms. Inside, a new feeling boiled up inside her: hatred. She had always been told it was a horrible, evil feeling to have for another person, but now that she experienced it, the hot, urgent need to injure, she wasn’t sure she didn’t like it a little. It was alive in her. She picked up her bowl and threw it at her mother’s face. Lois raised her arms reflexively at the right moment and deflected it, sending it skidding across the floor.

‘I don’t care! Starve me if you want. It’s not my fault you don’t have a sense of humour.’

She stomped her way upstairs, ignoring her mother’s usual threat: ‘You wait until your father gets home!’

 

*

 

Bled was even more beautiful in the daylight. He had an aura about him, so that as soon as she stepped up before him she was entranced. The sun shone through the oak canopies and cast shadows over his features, so that when the breeze blew his face seemed to move, from snarling to grinning to crying, his eyes growing and shrinking, looking left and right. It was like watching a fire, the way the flames flicked randomly here and there.

She was careful never to get caught, though of course she still wasn’t doing anything wrong. It just seemed best not to bring her father’s attention to it. As part of her punishment for what she’d done to her mother he’d made Emma weed and mow the whole front lawn, and she’d hardly seen Bled that whole day – she’d had to visit him late at night again.

It wasn’t long before she found herself whispering to him and staring long into his eyes. At first just for her own amusement, then as though he were a real person, and there was a relief in venting her frustrations: at having to move again and again, never having friends, having a strict father and mean mother.

Soon there was more than relief. He made things better, though not in the way she’d expected. If she was sad when she went to him, she was sad when she left, too, only now she found some kind of joy in the sadness. She was able to delight in her misery, the way she’d delighted in her hatred of her mother.

After long enough away from him, the feeling would pass, leaving only emptiness.

 

*

 

‘I’m worried about her, you know?’ Jerry had always been a quick sleeper, but since they moved, despite all the physical work of renovating and getting the place up to scratch, he found himself lying awake for a long time, most nights, staring at the ceiling or out at the sky through his window. He was like this now, as Lois undressed and got in beside him, the springs creaking.

‘Tell me about it. She was the sweetest girl, wasn’t she? Then she hits thirteen and it’s like… boom, and she hates her mother.’

‘You’re implying this is a teenage girl thing. And she doesn’t hate you.’

‘Maybe not now, but you didn’t see her eyes, Jerry. And of course it’s a teenage girl thing.’

‘You don’t think there’s something wrong?’

The sheets ruffled as she turned over and he felt her eyes on him, but he didn’t look around. He was guilty, but the feeling he had was so strong he wouldn’t sleep unless he said something.

‘Something wrong? Like what?’

He shrugged.

‘What?’

‘She was in the garage, today, rooting around in all the stuff I just moved in.’

‘Okay?’

‘Half a dozen boxes open, lying around, like she was looking for something. She didn’t see me come in at first, and she was really going for it, throwing stuff over her shoulder, tearing boxes, hurrying. And I cleared my throat and she stopped and then looked around at me with big eyes – you know that face, the one she used to get when she was three or four? I’m innocent, daddy?’

‘Oh yeah.’

‘So I asked her what she was looking for. “For my old chess set, daddy”. Those were her words.’

Lois was silent, not getting it. He turned to look at her, and found her with one eyebrow raised and a half smile. ‘Wow,’ she said at last. ‘You’re right. She’s messed up.’

He didn’t laugh. ‘She doesn’t play chess, Lois. Never has. She barely touched that chess set when we gave it to her. Besides which, why would it be in with the power tools and weed killer?’

Lois sighed. ‘I don’t know, Jerry. It’s weird, I’ll give you that. But how bad can it be? It’s Emma.’

‘Yeah.’ He rolled onto his back and looked back out at the moon. ‘Our sweet little Emma.’

 

*

 

The cat almost made it, a ginger flash darting through the thick bushes in the corner of the garden. The last row of these were blackberries, however, and the cat became entangled in the thorns and vines just before it could reach the fence. Emma was there a moment later, grabbing the squalling thing by the skin on the back of its neck while her other hand wielded the gutting knife from her father’s fishing box, stabbing and twisting until it was dead, one leg still twitching in the thorns and blood dropping down rain dampened leaves.

‘Good kitty.’ She grinned and then made the incredibly slow and painful retreat from the blackberry bush. She looked around, but no one had seen her, which was just as well, because her face and arms were covered in tiny bleeding scratches, many of them from the frantic cat. They stung badly now, but she knew Bled would make it all better.

There was no hiding the scratches, so she hid the knife and then concentrated for a few minutes, trying to develop some believable tears. In the past she’d always been able to do it by thinking of sad things, but this time nothing seemed to work at all, so in the end she dabbed some water in her eyes and then ran to her mother.

‘I fell in the blackberry bushes, mum.’

‘Oh, God, you’re a mess! You poor thing, Emma.’ She hugged her tightly and then looked at her wounds, long searing lines through her skin. ‘Bloody hell, darlin’. What were you doing? Hang on, I’ll get some Betadine.’

She sniffed. ‘I just wanted to climb the tree and I fell in.’

‘Climb the tree? Oookay.’ She couldn’t meet her mother’s eyes. Emma had never been much of a tomboy. She’d been dolls and pink dresses from day one.

‘I just thought… I’d be different this time. In a new town. Maybe they’ll like me better if I climb trees and things.’

‘I see.’ Her mother finished patching her up and then kissed her on the cheek. She held her eyes for a minute, full of concern and worry, and Emma knew she had her fooled.

‘Listen to me, Emma, you just be yourself, okay? And if they don’t like you, they can go to hell.’

She smiled. ‘Okay mum. I will.’

 

*

 

She was so excited for the night she barely ate her dinner, and after bedtime she couldn’t bring herself to lie down. Instead she paced the room, revisiting her window, though the view was nothing more than a narrow asphalt driveway. No rain tonight, which was good – only a little wind. The sky was clear and stars and moon so bright they hurt to look at. She hoped Bled liked what she did.

It was near midnight when she snuck out the back door with practised ease, this time barely making a sound at all. It was more difficult extricating the cold ginger cat from the bush, but she got there in the end. She laid him beside her other materials: the gutting knife, a small pile of sticks, and a box of matches.

Bled watched her with those deep eyes, the torn corners of his mouth hinting at a smile. She wondered what he was thinking, who he was, where he’d come from. Somehow, she knew that if she just did this one thing, he might tell her about himself, and that whatever he told her would only serve to make her love him more.

It took her three matches to light the fire at the base of his pedestal, her hands were shaking so badly. Her heart shuddered along in anticipation of some intense climax, so that what might have disgusted her before now seemed so enticing she could hardly stand it. When the flames were crackling hot and high, she picked up the dead cat and the knife and stood up, holding them towards Bled.

It was time. She almost couldn’t contain herself – could practically feel the blood in her mouth as she cut into the cat’s chest and heard bones pop and flesh tear. She found his heart by the bright moonlight, dropped the knife and reached in to rip it out with her fingers. She held the small, slippery thing with both hands and let the body drop to the ground.

Kneeling, she held the heart out to Bled, his pitch black eyes watching. Though they weren’t totally black, were they? Somewhere in their depths shone two sparks not unlike the glowing red cinders in the fire, flickering on and off.

‘For you, my Great Lord Bled,’ she said. At least, she tried to say. Her mouth formed those words, it seemed, but what she heard with her ears was something else, a deeper voice saying foreign, thick words that she could never have pronounced. It didn’t matter – they meant the same thing. She repeated them three times, and then at last lowered her head and leaned forward until she was holding the heart over the flames with her bare hands.

She’d never felt such pain in her short life before – but it wasn’t like real pain, because she was blessed by Bled, and she found that the more agony that coursed through her, the more she liked it, even when her own skin blistered and shone red and the heart was popping and sizzling in her hands.

Stand.

At last she stood up, brought the heart to her lips and bit it in half, chewing the tough gristle and veins and letting hot blood drizzle down her throat. She stepped forward with the second half and pushed it into Bled’s leering mouth, and his broken teeth closed, nearly taking the tip of her finger.

She took her time cleaning away the evidence of what she’d done, and when she finally made it up to the bathroom to soak her hands in cold water she could barely stand. The ecstasy she’d felt earlier dripped away, and nothing replaced it but bone deep exhaustion and a kind of hollowness that would haunt her until she saw him again. Only he could make her feel anything, now, but God, when he did…

She managed a smile, but when she looked up into the mirror, the water running over swollen hands, the smile faded quickly. She saw a pale girl looking back at her: half dead, old, dark eyed and bloody mouthed. A zombie.

That night, she cried herself to sleep. Now and then she looked at her closet and thought of the things she’d taken from the garage and hidden there, and what she planned to do with them. In those lonely minutes, she discovered that it was possible to be afraid of yourself. She told herself she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t do the evil things he wanted. A compromise – that would be all she’d allow. One, but not two.

Bled waited patiently in the far reaches of her mind.

 

*

 

She did not visit him again the next day, or the one after, and she told herself she never would. Instead she was sweet little Emma, helping out with everything around the house, putting things were they should be, cleaning dust from every corner, and even helping move furniture with her stick figure arms. Her parents looked on, amused, and shrugged their shoulders. She apologised to her mother for the salt.

The world seemed cold and dead. She went for a walk on the beach but the air was icy and the sky vapour grey. She stood and watched the waves come in for hours, let the rain fall on her, and it was as though she were a rock in the sand. Often, she found herself standing in the street and staring at pictures of a missing ginger cat. Nothing touched her. She walked in the evenings until her mother called and told her to come home already, it was too dark. She smiled at her parents with lips like a rubber mask, spoke with someone else’s voice.

She’d never felt so vacant.

But Bled was there. Waiting.

And the memories. She relived those over and over. The heart thumping rush when she’d killed the cat, the intoxicating thrill of pain, a feeling almost too real to contain. It made her laugh to think of the devious ways she’d been hiding her burns from her parents, wearing gloves all the time, first against the cold, then for fashion. They were so stupid, they couldn’t even see – they didn’t care.

Down in the far corner of the garden where the ivy grew, Bled waited.

 

*

 

Three AM.

Emma’s eyes opened, seeing nothing. She sat up and tossed the covers aside. It was the middle of winter, and rain was once again falling, but she didn’t put anything over her thin night clothes. Instead she wandered, swaying as if drunk, to the door. Each step took her a minute, and she breathed the long and slow inhalations of a coma patient. In this way she moved soundlessly from her bedroom to the back door and into the living room. She drew a pair of paper scissors from her mother’s writing desk, and then headed outside.

The cold should have woken her, but it didn’t so much as raise goose bumps on her skin. She wobbled down the lawn into the darkness at the bottom. Bled watched her come, and the distant embers in his eyes flared up, sparks to flames. She stopped in front of him, and tears of sorrow leaked from her eyes.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she mumbled, hanging her head in a caricature of the chastised schoolgirl. ‘Please accept my… accept my… remorse.’

Perhaps.

            She bent over at the waist so that she was looking down at her toes, white worms in the mud. She wiggled them. She closed the scissors around her right pinky, and squeezed, slow and steady pressure. She wasn’t watching – her mind was on another plane, in another world, but her body knew what to do. She squeezed and squeezed until the toe popped off, and then she picked it up and stepped forward, holding it up to him.

She slid it into his mouth and he chewed on it, his eyes warming her with their heat, making her happy.

For now.

She returned to bed with a loopy smile on her face.

 

*

 

‘You’re right, something’s wrong.’

It was his turn to be surprised. He’d come up to read Andy Reynolds Pro Guide to Renovating for Profit in bed while she finished watching some cooking show downstairs. Now that she’d come in and distracted him, it occurred to him that he hadn’t heard the television for at least half an hour.

‘What happened?’

She didn’t come into bed right away, but sat down on her side, massaging her temples. ‘It was weird, Jerry. She’s never been the most emotional girl, but she practically threw herself on me in tears just now.’

‘Oh. Why?’

‘She said she had a secret that she really wanted to tell me, but wasn’t allowed to.’

‘Says who?’

‘That’s what I said. I mean, it’s not like she’s made any friends here yet, so who wouldn’t be allowing her? But she just shook her head and said it didn’t matter. And then she asked me… If I’d ever felt empty before.’

‘If you’d ever felt empty?’

‘Yep. I told her I got really sad sometimes, or exhausted, and that it was all part of life and it would pass, probably when she starts school and makes a few friends. She nodded, but there was a sad look on her face, as though I hadn’t told her what she’d wanted to hear, and she said. “Not like that, Mum. Have you ever felt dead?” I said no, and she hugged me and told me she’d never hurt me and that I was the best mother she could ever have wished for.’

She looked as bewildered as he felt. There was a long silence.

‘Have you ever felt dead,’ he repeated.

‘I know. Jerry, do you think it’s depression? I don’t know why she came to me in the first place – she’s always been closer with you.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I dunno.’ He set the book on the bedside table and rested against his pillows. He was remembering a boy he knew once in school. Tommy Collins. In final year, Jerry had witnessed Tommy and four other boys pin a first year on his back and hit him until he fell unconscious, head rolling back and forth and blood leaking form his mouth. Tommy’s face had remained neutral during the ordeal, even when his own friends pulled him away. Placid, uninterested.

Empty.

‘I’ll find out what it is, Lois, don’t worry. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.’ And maybe watch her, too. See if she knows where that weed killer is.

 

*

 

The day was uneventful, but busy at the same time. Lois was out for most of the day, looking for possible teaching positions in the area. Jerry decided he would get as much work done on the house over the next couple of weeks before he too would have to get looking for something to last until they sold on. Admittedly, he was also putting off the talk he knew he’d have to have with Emma. Maybe it would be best to wait for Lois to be home. They could have it over dinner, a nice comfortable environment: we’re worried.

So he was occupied for the most part, taking the back deck apart and replacing rotted boards with new, etcetera. But he kept track of her movements, half of him feeling guilty that it was the first time in a while he’d really paid attention to what his daughter spent her time doing.

It didn’t seem like much.

In fact, it bothered him, because as the day went, he got the distinct impression he wasn’t the only one watching.

While he was out on the deck, she was on the couch reading just inside. The book:  Andy Reynolds Pro Guide to Renovating for Profit. When he went upstairs to measure the bathroom in case they wanted to extend it at some point, she was on the landing playing minesweeper on the computer. Just after lunch, she asked him what he was planning to do with the garden.

‘The garden? Uh, hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest – I usually do that side of things last, you know. It’s pretty weedy and messy back there, I guess I’ll clean it up a bit, tear up that jungle down there and start fresh. Why?’

‘Do you think you’ll keep the statue?’

‘There’s a statue?’ Then he remembered – he’d seen it the first time he’d given the back garden a proper once over when they first arrived. It had been mostly hidden under everything else, and it wasn’t anything special: A pedestal with a bust of a woman’s head, a young determined gaze on her face. Probably she’d contributed to politics or something in the area, but he’d got an ugly feeling it was a grave. ‘Oh, yeah. I dunno.’

‘Can’t we keep it? It’s so nice, I love it there.’

‘Huh. Yeah, sure. Maybe it’s got some kinda heritage value or something. Why not.’

‘Thanks, Dad.’ And she’d hugged him for the first time in, hell, years. Over a statue.

 

*

 

He started dinner early, and Emma surprised him by offering to help. ‘It’ll be good practice for when I move out of home one day,’ she said. ‘I’ll make the drinks. Chocolate milkshakes?’

‘Yeah, sure Em, that’d be great.’

She was quiet, but strangely enthusiastic about the work, a light in her eyes he didn’t often see as she went scouring the kitchen for a million different ingredients to put in: a pinch of cocoa powder, a sprinkle of cinnamon. Once dinner was sizzling he left her to it and went into the other room to watch television and think about what he and Lois were going to say later on.

When she arrived in a bustle, arms full of shopping bags, he still had nothing. Ah, screw it, we’ll just wing it. Emma had the table set and ready, their drinks at their places. When Lois saw the tall glasses of chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles she raised her eyebrows at him as if to ask: what did you say? But he shook his head.

In the end, it was Lois who spoke first once they started eating Jerry’s steaming beef stew – Emma’s favourite. ‘So, Emma,’ she said. ‘I… We’ve been thinking. We’re a bit worried about you.’

Silence while Emma chewed and swallowed, not looking up from her meal, spoons clinking on plates.

‘Why would you be worried?’

‘You’ve just been a little…’ She looked to him for help.

‘Different,’ he said.

More silence. Emma took a long sip from her chocolate and Jerry followed suit. ‘Hey, this stuff is really good by the way. Em, if you ever move out you might want to consider just living on these bad boys.’

No smile, more silence. Staring at her food, though Jerry swore he saw her eyes dart towards her mother, a look of annoyance flashing across her face.

‘Just because of what you said to me the other day,’ Lois ventured. ‘You seemed very sad, and we’re just worried you might be… depressed? Was there anything you wanted to talk about?’

‘I’m in love.’ She said.

Of all the possible things, that was the last Jerry would have expected, and by the look in Lois’s eyes as they met his across the table, she felt the same.

‘Oh? With who?’ she said.

‘With Bled.’

‘Bled? Lois, you know any Bleds in the area?’

‘He’s not a person,’ she said, the disgust at the word person present in every syllable. ‘He’s a God.’

Jerry sat up a little straighter, wary. ‘Em?’ he said, an edge to his voice now. ‘Just how old is this Bled guy?’

‘I told you, he’s not a person.’ She said. She wasn’t eating anymore, but staring deep into her stew as though she saw something in it, the reflection of a face that wasn’t hers, perhaps.

‘He’s a God. He’s the God of pain, death, hate and destruction. And love, too. He’s the God of love. He showed me that you can love all those things more than any of the other stupid stuff. And that if you can fall in love with suffering, than you can fall in love with life, because all life is suffering.’

Lois’s eyes were as wide as Jerry’s were narrow. He didn’t want to grill her just yet. Let her talk for a bit and she might drop some clue as to who this guy was. Lois took a long draught of her milkshake, clearly wishing it had something with more of a kick than sugar.

Now, a smile wormed its way across Emma’s pale face, though the look in her downcast eyes remained hateful. ‘Bled takes away all of the fear, when I’m with him. Fear comes from all those things, from pain and death, and if you can love those, then you can’t feel fear anymore. Bled taught me that I’m the one to be afraid of. I’m the thing hiding in the dark. I’m the monster.’

She looked at Jerry as she said those last words, and in the same moment Lois, who’d been looking steadily sicker with each sentence, leaned forward over the table and vomited blood across the white cloth. ‘Oh… God.’

‘Lois? What happ…’ He stared at his milkshake, and then back over at Emma, who laughed at the look on his face.

‘Don’t worry, Dad, I couldn’t do it to both of you at once. One of you had to be alive to see the beauty in your suffering.’

‘What – ’

Lois vomited again, her chair screeching as she stood up and leaned forward, her stomach heaving. The blood was a little darker this time, arterial. ‘Honey, maybe call an ambulance,’ she said faintly.

‘Jesus.’ He dialled the number and told the dispatcher his wife had drunk weedkiller by accident. He confirmed that suspicion a second after hanging up when he opened the cupboard just beneath the sink and saw the bottle sitting there, the cap missing.

He filled a glass of water, having no idea if it was the right thing to do, and offered it to his wife, who promptly threw up all over him and then collapsed to her knees. He helped her up and the two of them staggered out into the front garden, where he lay her out on the grass. It was a nightmare, a hellish nightmare. Hadn’t they been talking quietly over beef stew just a moment ago? How could this have happened so quickly?

Lois’s eyes flickered like a candle in a breeze, moments from being blown out altogether. Her face was so pale it made the blood around her mouth a shocking bright red. She was shaking, from the cold or blood loss he didn’t know.

‘Stay with it, Lois. It’s gonna be okay. Just stay awake, don’t go to sleep.’

But she was fading. He had to roll her onto her side so she could vomit again, and he watched black blood gush over the grass, her life sinking into the mud forever. When the ambulance arrived, she was hardly moving at all, and her head had become so cold it chilled him at the touch. He watched them load her body into the ambulance and wondered if that was the last he’d ever see of her. One of the paramedics asked if he wanted to ride in the back, but he shook his head. ‘I need to stay here with my daughter.’ Five or ten minutes couldn’t have passed since he met her eyes over the dinner table.

When the ambulance had disappeared around the corner, Jerry turned to see Emma watching him from the front steps with eyes just like her mother’s. She had a broken smile, the wind blowing tears across her cheeks. She turned and ran back inside.

He stood in the cold wind and stared at the leaning house for what seemed a long time. Then he went after her.

 

*

 

Bled was alive with joy when she saw him, and she was in such a rush to reach him that she fell face first into the mud along the way. She crawled towards him, blessing him, thanking him, feeling a wash of brilliant happiness flood her as she arrived at his feet. His eyes shone the bright orange of a bonfire and his wrecked mouth laughed to see her, knowing that she’d passed the point of no return, and having given so much couldn’t help but give more and more and more.

‘Save me,’ she said, hugging his pedestal as though he were a being standing there instead of a statue. ‘Please save me so I can serve you. I’ll give you all of them, everything you want. Please.’

She didn’t hear her father until he was halfway across the garden, a heavy footfall landing in a puddle and making her look around.

He was carrying a hammer in one hand, striding purposefully toward her, his face twisted in a rage she’d never seen before. She realised that Bled was influencing him even then, feeding on the grief he felt for his wife and fuelling him with hatred, more hatred than any father was capable of feeling for his daughter. ‘What have you done, Emma?’ His voice was half a roar, hysterical and strained. ‘What did you do to her?’

‘Save me,’ she whispered.

You failed me.

            ‘No!’

The sacrifice is not dead.

‘She is! She will be soon!’

Her power does not belong to you until she dies. You are on your own.

‘Wait! No!’

Jerry was there, then, and it was too late. At the last second Emma threw herself at him, lunging for his face with claws bared and mouth open, screaming, clamouring for a bite. Two sacrifices, she thought madly, tearing at his skin, trying to blind him. Imagine that ecstacy!

            Then the hammer connected and she landed hard on her side at his feet. He kicked her in the chest, winding her, then the face, then struck her back with the hammer as she tried to get to her feet.

She was going to die, but she was before her Lord and Master and the thought of death didn’t bother her at all. In fact, it exhilarated her. What a beautiful death, to be beaten, to feel such pain, and at the hands of her father! She couldn’t imagine a more horrific, agonizing end, and with each broken bone and rupture she cried out with exultation.

It had to be soon, now. She wondered if He would take her soul, too, and she could spend eternity with Him.

But the end never came. As Jerry was raising the hammer for the final blow, a very sick woman drooled the last of her lifeblood from a slack mouth, shook violently once more, and died.

Bled laughed.

 

*

 

Jerry felt it hit him, but at the same time he didn’t, because the Jerry of a moment before and the Jerry of a moment after were in many ways different people. The former was overcome with hate and sorrow to the extent that he was moments away from driving a hammer into the grinning face of his own daughter. The latter, however…

The insanity melted away from his face and his grief slipped away with each beat of his heart. He lowered the hammer and then let it drop. Emma wiped blood from her eyes and smiled up at him. ‘Can you feel it, Dad?’

He could feel it, alright. It had the effect on him, this immense relief, as if someone had tapped him on the shoulder and told him that his wife wasn’t dead at all. And not only that, but that the two of them and their daughter were going to live forever in utter happiness. Death, fear and pain no longer existed for him, and he wept in the face of this truth.

His eyes turned slowly to the presence before him whose gift this was. She was no less than a Goddess, he saw now, and nothing like the plain statue he’d seen before. She wasn’t beautiful. Her eyes were huge discs in a screaming face, her mouth a hole that stretched from ear to ear with fat shredded lips and no teeth at all. Her hair was an intricately carved mass of long worms draped over her shoulders. No, she wasn’t beautiful, and yet she was, and more so than anyone or anything Jerry had ever seen or imagined.

Her eyes captivated him, a strong white light glowing from somewhere deep inside her head, making them like two full moons without craters or shadow.

‘I see it, now,’ Jerry said, coming slowly to rest on his knees.

Beside him, Emma sat up and caught her breath, leaning back against the pedestal to savour her agony for a minute. Jerry envied her.

They were content to sit at the feet of the Goddess for a while, even as it began to hail, and enjoy the inner warmth and benevolence. It was so nice, such a happy relief, to be able to sit and wait for the Goddess to direct them.

But they did not have to wait long.

Dunno really how this story came about, except that I’ve been watching a lot of American Horror Story and I wanted to try and capture the creepy, disjointed mood you get in the intro to the episodes. The idea itself is actually pretty run of the mill, and I’ve done similar ones before, but I’m a solid believer in the old ‘it ain’t the story, it’s how you tell it,’ directive. Hope you enjoy!

Call to the Dark

Ben Pienaar

 

It was his first abduction, and he had to admit he was nervous.

In retrospect, everything had gone perfectly, even though all of his plans had been rendered pointless in an instant by that miracle, unheard of in this day and age, of a little girl wandering alone. He’d seen the opportunity, taken it in one swift minute, and there hadn’t been a single eyewitness. The Crimestoppers ad concerning her had only mentioned that she’d last been seen skipping class at school and heading home, and that her usual route was being searched. The presenter was urging anyone with information to come forward when Derek turned off the live news stream on his laptop.

So after weeks of planning and sweating, it had gone without a hitch. Only now he was like the dog that caught the car: what the hell did he do with her?

He had ideas, of course. He wouldn’t have gone to all that effort if he didn’t have thoughts. He wasn’t a sicko or anything, all of that disgusting stuff was off the table. He just wanted to hurt her a little. And she hadn’t seen his face yet, so he could always let her go afterward. It wouldn’t even matter if she could lead them back to this place – it was just a rundown old house he’d been lucky to find. And the moment this was all done he was flying back across the pacific. Even if they somehow managed to catch him, he’d only be up for a few years of hard time. Not murder or paedophilia or anything like that.

But that was half the problem. He’d been so careful, coming all this way, going to all this effort – only now that he had her did he realise the true value of the situation. It would be years before he could contrive this situation again. So how could he make use of it? How could he suck every last bit of joy from this whole experience?

He sat on a moth eaten couch and stared at one of the boarded up windows. He lit a cigarette with a shaking hand and tried to think.

 

Connie didn’t like this house, and it had only a little to do with the man who’d brought her here – a stinking, pasty white man with yellow eyes and fumbling fingers. Lying here, tied spread eagle on a bed with rotten mattress that smelled faintly of urine, she had her first chance to get her bearings.

It was a basement with a tiny window directly above her, yellow afternoon light streaming down from above. If she craned her neck she could see the stairs leading down from the ground floor, but not much else. A broken bulb hung from the ceiling.

The first sign that something about the house was wrong was that the darkness moved. Even in her panic when he first dragged her inside, gagged and struggling, she’d noticed this in some peripheral part of her mind and it came back to her now, confirming her suspicions: The darkness moved.

It was physical. This basement was quite large, but even so the light from the little window should have been more than enough to reveal every corner of the place. Yet she couldn’t see more than a meter or so further than the edge of her bed: there, the darkness loomed like an ill-defined wall. Upstairs, she’d seen similar things: an open cupboard which was pitch black even though there was enough daylight in the house by which to see; a space behind the couch in the living room that was similarly impenetrable.

And she heard things. Voices, so distant it was as if they called to her across oceans.

Connie remembered that the man had given her a prick in the neck when he abducted her. Whatever he’d given her had made her body relax, flooded her with a kind of benign weakness, but maybe there was more to it. Was she hallucinating? It must have been working, because she’d been thinking about the shadows all this time instead of trying to escape. She hadn’t even struggled against the ropes he’d cinched around her wrists and ankles. She thought she could fit through the window if she could only get free long enough to open it.

Instead of trying, she turned her head and stared into the darkness, so close beside her, wondering if her eyes would grow accustomed to it. Maybe then she’d be able to see what dim shapes moved there, or from what recess the voices came.

 

Derek mixed a fresh batch in a milk bottle using the chemicals from the back of his car, which he lined up on the dirty sink. It was a lot, but then he wasn’t sure how long he was going to be here. Every time he set a limit for himself he daydreamed and the next thing he knew, he’d stretched it. One day only. But maybe he could make it last two, or three, or a week. He could keep her alive that long if he paced himself.

She didn’t seem afraid when he descended the concrete steps into the basement, deliberately moving slowly and taking heavy steps. It was all part of the routine he’d set up in his mind – the way she’d scream and struggle and plead every time she heard his big steps thundering towards her. Fee Fi Fo Fum. Screw her. He’d make her afraid. The chemicals would help with that.

She didn’t even look at him as he stopped at the foot of her bed, staring instead into the pitch black basement. Why was it so dark in here, anyway? This whole house was full of odd angles that manipulated things in the corner of his eyes all the time. He kept getting the creepy feeling that there were things moving around him that stopped when he looked at them. Never mind. He could always burn it down after. In fact, that would be the best way to get rid of any evidence.

‘They want me to do things,’ she said in a small voice.

‘Oh, you’ll do things, little girl. You’ll scream.’ He was speaking in his horror voice, a deep rasp he’d taken from the latest batman movies. It went well with the mask he wore, a

 

Version of the Donnie Darko evil rabbit mask he’d found online. It had terrified even him; he couldn’t imagine what it would do to a small girl who was tied to the bed and awaiting pain. He felt a thrill ripple through him at the thought of the fear he inspired, and when the girl finally looked at him and recoiled against her bonds, the thrill became bright excitement. A taste of what was to come.

‘You will drink this,’ he said in his rasp, and went to her bedside. He pinched her nose shut with one hand and, when she finally opened her mouth to take a breath, he tipped the milk bottle over her mouth and poured until she choked on it. He left her spluttering and took the bottle back upstairs. He waited for a few minutes before he returned, letting the drugs work.

Once again, she was staring into the dark, but now she had a slightly gazed look. She’d be physically weaker and uncoordinated, and her mind would be slow, but she’d be perfectly capable of feeling all the pain he was going to inflict on her. And she could scream. That was important.

This time, he didn’t say anything, only stood beside her bed and waited for her eyes to focus on him. They did, but it took so long that he felt awkward. He was considering saying something in his voice when she finally looked up, first at him, and then at the sharp knife he held in his right hand.

And there it was: the delicious terror, the widening eyes and quivering mouth; the welling tears. He could feel her quick heartbeats as though they were his own. When he lowered the knife to her bare shin, the beats quickened, his own breathing as fast as hers, and her whimper as the metal touched her flesh sent shivers up his spine.

The scream was even better.

 

Connie thought she was going to die, sure that each time he cut her he’d push the blade deep into her and twist it. She screamed as much for fear as for the actual pain, and when the man finally stepped back to observe his finished work and then miraculously just left her, she broke down with tears of relief.

The voices came to her again when he was gone, and soon she stopped crying and tried to listen. Some of the things they were telling her gave her hope, even though she knew they were bad voices. She knew that because they wanted her to do bad things, and they wanted to join in. They wanted to be inside her when she did them.

Let us in, they whispered.

Don’t let him do this to you, another said, running its cold finger along one of the cuts he’d made in her leg.

It will feel so good, said another.

She could make out some of their forms, now and again, but only in the corners of her eyes. They would be there, clear as day, even in the darkness, and then her eye would flick over to that corner of the room and there would be nothing there. She didn’t like what she saw at all. Yes, they were definitely bad things. They had big teeth, much bigger than the ones on the man’s mask. Some had claws and some had spider’s eyes and some were insane.

But she was so scared, and they were not.

They knew what to do.

 

When he came back, he noticed she’d loosened both of the nooses around her wrists, to the point where they’d almost slipped off. That was bad. He tightened them until they cut into her skin and then forced her to drink more from his milk bottle. He couldn’t risk her getting free – not in a house as unsecured as this.

She moaned and said gibberish things to him, and he laughed in a cold voice, feeling the power he had over her fill him up like fine wine. He was having fun alright, even more than he’d anticipated, and he’d dreamed about this moment for months. It was only the second session, and he planned to have another one before night. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. He laughed again and she cried.

He cut her shirt to threads and focussed on her torso this time, always small cuts – he was only just beginning after all, but deep enough. She was so young, she’d never experienced pain like this before in her life, and it was all because of him. Sometimes when she begged him to stop, he did, and other times he did not, and the power was in his hands. Imagine if I just kept going, he thought more than once with a burst of excitement so strong he broke out in a sweat. What if I went all the way?

            He managed to pace himself, but he left her sticky with blood and already half mad with the pain. He wondered if he could break her mind. Something to think about, anyway.

He went back upstairs and stood in the badly lit living room, smiling at nothing.

The thing came at him out of nowhere, a vast shadow, an eight foot tall monster that rose from behind the couch and lunged for him. He cried out and lashed with his knife even as he fell backwards, his feet slipping on the hardwood. It cut nothing but air and as he landed he saw that there was nothing there. Christ, but he’d seen it! He was sure he had.

He sat there for a few shocked minutes and let his breathing steady. It was just nerves. He got up and went into the kitchen, where he’d left his laptop. He sat at a table so rotted the wood was soft to touch, and surfed the internet mindlessly, looking for things of interest or games to play, nothing stimulating, just to calm himself.

When dinner time came, he went to a drive thru McDonalds. No danger there, either. He somehow couldn’t imagine the bored girl in the window speaking to a cop later. ‘Yes officer, I remember exactly, out of the hundred customers I had there was a regular looking guy who got a big mac.’ No – she’d forgotten him even before she took the next order.

 

He returned and locked the door, savouring the way his heavy steps echoed through the house. He imagined the girl flinching with every sound. ‘Honeyyyy, I’m home!’ he said in a sing song voice. Already the thoughts of what he might do tonight made his stomach churn with anticipation. He forced them away for now in case they stole his appetite. He needed all the food he could get for the coming days. He had a small bag of white pills that were going to give him all the energy he needed to run far away.

He’d take one as soon as she was dead.

No, no, you’re not going to kill her, remember? She still hasn’t seen your face.

Of course, of course.

He paused halfway through his burger, something twigging in his mind that something was wrong. He chewed the last bite slowly and then held his breath, listening. Silence. That was it. When he left, he’d been able to hear her moans and whimpers from up here, and even when she wasn’t making sounds deliberately he’d heard the bedframe creak every time she moved. Now there was nothing at all.

He stood up quickly, his stomach flipping over and threatening to send the burger back the way it came. She’d escaped. And for how long? Perhaps the sirens would sound at any moment. But she was drugged – and he’d barely been gone twenty minutes. Surely it would be hours before they could get her name out of her, let alone a location.

You’re panicking. Stop it.

            He lifted his knife from the kitchen sink, only at this moment realising how foolish he’d been not to take it with him while she was gone. Imagine if she’d taken it and ambushed him? Still, the fact that it was still there, and that the front door had been closed, gave him hope. Dried blood flaked off the dull metal.

He paused again halfway down the stairway, just when he could make out the foot of the bed, and the darkness. Everything was so quiet. He decided to scare her, if she was there – sleeping perhaps, and in a booming voice he chanted as he came down the stairs. ‘Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum…’

And stopped, now two steps from the bottom, staring at the bed. The ropes he’d tied so snugly were severed, cleanly cut at all four points. The second thing he noticed was that the small window just above the bed was still tightly closed, and unbroken. So where had –

A small, high voice sang out from the dark to his right. A pretty voice, in any other context, the kind that might even one day grow to be a real talent, finishing his rhyme for him: ‘I smell the blood of an En – glish man…’

He came the rest of the way down and stood facing that second dark half of the room from which the voice had come. He knew he should feel relieved: that she was still here, that she was cornered, that she was still heavily drugged from the sound of it. But for some reason his gut was still churning, and no longer in a pleasant way. He opened his eyes wider, trying to see into the dark, but it was impenetrable despite the last golden rays of sunlight coming in through the window.

The girl didn’t show herself, nor sing again. He wanted badly to leave and fetch a flashlight from his car, but who knew where she’d be by then. He had to get her back on the bed as soon as possible. Glancing back at the reddened sheets, he saw a trail of blood drops and barefoot smears on the cement floor. It led straight into the dark.

‘Little girl,’ he said slowly, forgetting his rasp and realising as he spoke that he wasn’t wearing his mask, either. ‘If you come to me now, I’ll let you live. If you try to escape, I’ll make sure you die. Slowly.’

He waited, but there was only silence. Then he took a step forward and thought he heard something, a school girl giggle, hand to the mouth and eyes twinkling with mischief. She’d lost her sanity. He had succeeded in breaking her after all, because if that wasn’t the sound of a broken mind, he didn’t know what was.

He came forward one more step, watching his peripheral vision in case she tried to slip past him. She didn’t so much as shuffle her feet, though, and when he moved even further into the dark he found he could see something, after all: a pale white form not far from him, almost luminescent in the dark.

It occurred to him that she shouldn’t be standing at all. Besides the hundred or so cuts he’d laid out across her upper and lower body, he had finished their last session together by severing her Achilles tendons. At the time he’d been almost feverish with excitement, but he remembered doing it distinctly. Yet there she was, standing before him.

She was whispering something in a low voice and he found himself listening for the words intently. Was he going insane, also? Was he hallucinating all of this, just like the shadow that had attacked him upstairs? Nothing seemed to make sense to him. The words she sang were disjointed, the tune erratic but strangely beautiful.

‘Don’t fear the night. Don’t fear the night.

            Taste the blood and feel the heart.

            Lick it clean, make it cry.

            Yours to die, yours to die.’ A lullaby sung by a child to give an adult nightmares. She had lost it, and the sooner he had her on the ground or under it, the better. This was getting too much for him.

As the last word echoed around the basement, he lunged for her, aiming the point of the blade at her lower abdomen. At least then he’d be able to make her death last, like he’d promised himself.

The pale form blurred and his blade hit nothing. He took a giant step to avoid falling head over heels and then spun around, waving the knife blindly. ‘Fuck!’

At first he thought she’d made a bolt for the stairs, but then he blinked and she was there, coming straight for him with unnatural speed. He sliced for her head and missed. She collided with his midsection head first, winding him and pushing him backwards into the concrete wall. The knife fell from his limp hand on impact and he heard it clatter to the floor somewhere to his right. That was fine – he’d be able to grab her from behind as she went for it.

But she didn’t go for the knife, nor did she take advantage of his state to make a break for it. Instead, he heard something tear as she ripped at his crotch with sharp fingernails, her head pushing against his hips like a battering ram. He rained blows on her upper back, expecting such a small girl to collapse immediately, but she didn’t so much as cry out. There was another rip, and then a sensation of hot breath on his balls a moment before she bit. The pain didn’t come then, just a pinching around the base of his genitals, followed by a tugging sensation. The two of them stumbled a couple of steps away from the wall. He screamed, but only in surprise. What was happening?

She pulled away and he felt a surge of satisfaction as one of his panicked blows caught her on the side of her head and her teeth cracked behind the force of it. He heard her rolling over the floor nearby, but couldn’t see her. He turned that way and heard her quick feet scrabbling up and then backward, not running, just putting distance between them.

He took one step before the first wave of pain struck him and he dropped to one knee on the hard floor, both hands dropping to the suddenly very wet place between his legs. He felt shreds of his pants and something soft that didn’t feel like anything he recognized. It was impossible to tell how much damage she’d done – the agony was so all consuming that it was numbing. He didn’t know whether she’d torn his ball sack or bitten it off completely.

He turned and crawled toward the place he’d heard the knife fall, moving awkwardly with one hand pressing on his wound, his eyes wide in the dark, grunting like a pig with each movement, still in a state of total shock. What’s happening what’s happening what’s… his mind ran on blandly, his free hand scrabbling for the weapon that didn’t seem to be anywhere.

His whole body was shaking, and he felt another wave of pain so strong he vomited his big mac across the floor and then collapsed, pools of black swirling into the darkness in front of him.

 

He was unconscious, he didn’t know for how long. He had a minute or so of lucidity, his eyes opening to focus, unblinking, on the pale silhouette of the girl standing nearby, her stance lopsided because her hobbled feet were at right angles to the concrete. There was nothing but the sound of breathing.

And of chewing. He could hear her chewing something, her teeth grinding rhythmically.

 

A few seconds (minutes?) later there were small hands around his ankle and he was being dragged along the wet ground, the smell of blood and vomit thick in his nostrils. He was bathed in cold sweat and his whole body felt weak. Was he dreaming? There was no way to know what was going on, or where he was. Too much pain.

 

He rolled over on a bed and found his arms and legs tied tightly to the posts. Where was he? The room was utterly dark, though he could make out a small square window somewhere above him backlit by moonlight. It wasn’t enough to penetrate this place. He couldn’t feel his genitals, only a burning so hot it made him groan aloud.

‘Oh, God. Help me.’ His voice was weak and raspy. Where was she now? He strained his ears for sirens, certain he must have been lying here long enough for her to get help by now. She would have tied him up and gone straight to the nearest police station. It was only a matter of time before the police come and, please god, the ambulances…

But he heard no sirens: only a little schoolgirl’s giggle from the foot of his bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my rare non supernatural stories, which in a lot of ways I think makes it more horrific. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions… Enjoy the trip!

 

Lost Cause

By Ben Pienaar

 

It was good to be home after so many hospital stays, but Toby Morrow’s relief was short lived. In the days following his last visit, his parents been increasingly depressed, and when they thought he was asleep they’d argue in hushed voices downstairs. He’d caught both of them wiping tears away at the last minute and then denying it when he asked. As if they were guilty.

‘Your father and I need to talk to you,’ his mother said after breakfast the following Sunday. Janine Morrow had never not looked tired and depressed in her whole life – even her kindergarten pictures were of pudgy, sad eyed little girl – but today she looked worn down solid. His father was the same, only for him it was a little more uncharacteristic – he was usually just expressionless.

Victor Morrow was waiting for them in the study, and when they entered he didn’t turn around from the window. He had one hand on the chair and stared out at the rainy day, as if deep in thought. Toby might have been only thirteen, but he knew his father better than to think that was the case.

‘Your test results came back last night, Toby,’ he said. His voice was choked, and Toby realised with a stab of worry that it was genuine. ‘It… Wasn’t what we hoped.’

‘Oh.’ Toby wiped his perpetually runny nose and sat down on one of the soft chairs. He’d been feeling tired a lot lately – it was one of the reasons they’d taken him to the hospital in the first place. Janine went to stand behind him and rested an ice cold hand on his shoulder.

His father finally turned around and Toby saw tears brimming in the corners of his eyes. The worry deepened and turned to fright, but it was nothing compared to what he felt at the next words. ‘They say you’re dying, Toby.’

There was a long silence. Toby’s mother squeezed his shoulder and let out a choked sob, also genuine.

‘It’s not a hundred per cent but, well… Ninety nine is the same thing, isn’t it? They’re all sure of it. We’re sure of it. We think, deep down, you’re sure of it, too.’ His bottom lip trembled. ‘There’s a surgery that might delay the onset of it, but not for very long. And it would cost a lot of money – more than we have.’

‘How long then?’

‘I… what do you mean?’ he was taken aback at Toby’s abruptness, but Tony hadn’t even begun to comprehend the truth of it all. For now there was only the electrifying terror and speed of thought that came with it.

‘In the movies the doctors usually tell people how long they have,’ he said. ‘So I want to know. Usually it’s six months.’

‘I…’ He looked up at Janine, and she squeezed his shoulder again.

‘We’re not completely sure, dear,’ she said in a shaking voice. ‘The doctor did tell us, though, that for boys around your age, with this particular condition… it’s usually between about two and six mon… two and six mon…’ she let out an especially hard sob.

Toby was speechless. The thought that he’d be dead, gone, zippo – in as little as two months was just too much. How could it be possible? He felt fine! Well, not really, he felt terrible, but definitely not that! Definitely not dying. It was impossible. He was shaking his head.

‘I don’t want to,’ he said eventually. ‘I won’t do it.’

‘I’m sorry, son,’ his father said. ‘It’s just the way it is. You’ll see, in time. Janine and I thought that maybe – ‘

‘We’d go on holiday!’ she cut him off sharply and he looked up, surprised. Toby spun around to look at her but whatever look she’d shot him was off her face and she was smiling down at him. ‘We decided we’d go to… to Hawaii. I was going to book the plane tickets tonight, in fact.’

‘I don’t feel like a holiday,’ Toby said. He stared down at his thin hands in his lap and wondered what they would look like in two months. Would they turn yellow first or would they look completely fine, right up until the end?’

‘Don’t worry, it’ll be brilliant,’ she babbled on. ‘We’ll go swimming and eat all the delicious American food and do whatever you want.’ Toby nodded almost imperceptibly, and both of his parents moved in to drown him in watery hugs, which he accepted, his mind a whirlwind of doubt and horror and morbid curiosity.

When he fell asleep that night, he wondered if he’d ever wake up.

 

While he was around, both of Toby’s parents made an effort to be happy. They took him snorkelling and hiking (though he felt so tired and sick they had to stop early and turn around), and all the while they wore smiles so stretched he thought it was that and not the hot summer sun that was making them sweat so much.

In their luxurious hotel suite the rooms were closer together and Toby could hear them argue more clearly, though he could only make out a few of the words. For some reason, several of their arguments were about the youth in Asia, and he couldn’t figure out why until he realised it was probably they who were researching the cure for his condition. He hoped they worked quickly; the daily expeditions only seemed to be making him weaker – soon he’d be too sick to leave the hotel.

He seemed to sleep a little longer each day, or at least he wanted to, but more often than not his parents would wake him up so they could take him to some exotic place or do something ever more (they hoped) uplifting: scuba diving, fishing, parasailing, whatever crossed their minds. There was one night in particular, about a week after their arrival in Honolulu, that cured Toby of his habit of sleeping in – and almost entirely of sleeping.

It was past midnight, and though the sickness made him muggy and drowsy at all hours, this night was especially humid and Toby was only half asleep, tossing and turning every twenty minutes to get a cool breeze on his leg, then snatching it back when it was too cold. The images he remembered later came to him as if in a dream, and that was what he thought they were at the time – a draft on his face, a door creaking open and closed; a presence in the room.

A mosquito landed on his arm and tried to sting him but he rolled over and it went away. He drifted between consciousness and dreaming and when it stung again he slapped it away irritably and sat up, and that was when he saw his mother on her knees at his bedside, crying.

‘What’s going on?’ He said, rubbing his eyes.

‘Nothing honey, nothing. I’m sorry I woke you. I was… I was just praying.’

‘Praying?’ He’d never seen either of his parents praying in his life before.

‘Yes. I’ll go back to sleep now, you need your rest, okay? I’ll wait here until you sleep.’

‘Okay.’

He lay back on his bed and closed his eyes, but not all the way. After ten minutes or so, he slowed his breathing and made it sound like he was fast asleep. For a while, his mother did nothing but rock in place and cry silently, but every now and again she would look at something in her lap and shake her head. After a long time, she got up and walked to the door, and in the few moments her form was silhouetted by the hallway light he caught a glimpse of something in her right hand: a long syringe. Mosquito bites? He thought, as the door clicked closed behind her. Poison? A hysterical voice asked in his mind. Medicine, he answered, and then remembered the way she kept looking down at the needle and shaking her head.

The next morning he told them he needed some time alone, and wanted some money to explore the city. They exchanged significant glances. ‘Why, what’s going to happen?’ he said. ‘Someone gonna kill me?’

His father shook his head. ‘Son, there are worse things that could happen to you than that, you know. It’s not that simple.’

‘It’s ten in the morning,’ he said, and looked up at them with his most helpless, pleading look. They gave him three hours and a hundred dollars. ‘Don’t go too far!’ they called after him.

He ate an enormous lunch at the Hard Rock, if for no other reason than he was worried he wouldn’t be able to stomach much food in future, the way he was going these days. Feeling queasy, he went to the internet café and surfed the net, but after a few minutes he typed the inevitable phrase into the Google search bar: ‘Youth in Asia.’ The first link was clearly irrelevant, but the second got his attention. A Wikipedia article about something called ‘Euthanasia’. It didn’t take him long to read it.

They were trying to kill him. It was mostly mentioned in relation to old people, but that didn’t fool him – it was about dying people. They were trying to kill him… why? So he wouldn’t have to die? It didn’t make sense, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought about their arguments and the needle in the night, he knew it was true.

He stayed out far longer than the agreed three hours, walking along Waikiki beach, wondering if it was possible to swim to America. He didn’t think so. Maybe you should just let them do it. The thought came unbidden and for a moment he found himself wanting it. An end to the constant terror, to the waiting. He was going to die anyway, wasn’t he? Maybe you will. Probably. It would be so easy. He wouldn’t even have to say anything. Just go to sleep and never wake up.

‘There! That’s him!’ He spun away from the sunset and saw his parents running towards him, an overweight and somewhat relieved policeman trotting in their wake. He didn’t run to them, but watched the sun and let the fresh air cool. He hoped it would be a cooler night.

 

For a while, he couldn’t get himself to sleep because he was so terrified of death, but eventually he convinced himself it had all been a false alarm anyway and he drifted off just after midnight.

And woke up. They hadn’t come for him after all. There had been no repercussions for his excursion the day before, and most of the meaningful looks and hissed words had been between his parents. He had a feeling he’d find out what was going on today, one way or another.

He made an orange juice and stepped out onto their little balcony to watch the surfers catch the morning waves. There weren’t many, but they looked like they were having fun all the same, floating in the water. He found he was enjoying himself, and when he took a long sip of juice and felt the first of the sun’s heat on his arm he decided he wanted to live. He wouldn’t let his parents kill him, and he wouldn’t let the disease kill him, either. What had the doctor said? He still had a small chance. He didn’t feel too good today, though. He’d woken up with a fever and the world rocked around him with each step. It wasn’t pleasant. Still worth living for, though, even if it lasts forever.

His parents waited until after lunch to have another talk, and this time it was his father who sat beside him on the couch and his mother who stood by the scenic view with a broken expression and explained it all.

‘We should have talked to you about it first,’ she began. ‘And I’m – we’re sorry we didn’t. But we did it in your best interest. We thought maybe if you didn’t know… It would be easier on you.’

‘Didn’t know what?’

‘What we were doing. Or trying to do – to help you, see? It’s just.’ She put a hand on her forehead and looked down, shaking her head.

‘I think the best way to put it is to remember Wellington,’ Victor began, but she put a hand up and he stopped.

‘Wellington?’ Toby said, dimly remembering a big fluffy husky from his childhood.

‘Your father means, I mean never mind about that,’ Janine said, casting her husband a look. ‘It’s just. Your condition is… It gets a lot worse, before you, you know.’ She paused to sob for a few minutes and Toby waited quietly. He had been feeling worse.

‘How much worse?’ he asked.

She shook her head and fluttered a hand in front of her face, unable to speak.

‘Horrible, son,’ his father said. ‘It gets worse than you can imagine. The doctor said it’s not uncommon for people to try to kill themselves because of the pain.’

Toby’s heart, which had been sitting in the back of his throat for the past few weeks, fell into the pit of his stomach and rolled over. He gulped. He didn’t think he could imagine that kind of pain.

Finally, his mother regained herself. ‘So we just thought, before it got too bad, we might hurry up the process a bit.’ She finished.

‘So you didn’t have to feel too much pain.’ His father added.

Holy shit. All of a sudden, another memory, partially forgotten, flashed bright in his mind: His father three nights ago, trying to persuade him to drink a foul smelling cocktail which he called a nightcap; his adamant refusal because of his nausea; his mother’s tears moments later.

He stood up, knocking his father’s hand away. ‘NO!’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you? You were trying to kill me!’

He was half expecting shocked faces and stern denials, but he saw only sympathetic, sad eyes. He felt sick. ‘I might live, still – I might!’ His parents exchanged a look with each other that seemed to say: the poor child, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. ‘I don’t feel that bad yet – just wait till I feel worse!’

His father stood up, tears spilling down his face. ‘Toby, please, you don’t understand. You don’t realise how bad it gets, how… horrific. And by then, you’ll be trapped in the hospital – even if you want it to end there’ll be no way for us to help you. I’m sorry but we agreed to talk to you.’

‘We don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a say, dear,’ his mother said. ‘We’ll do it just how you want, and when you want, okay? You can go in your sleep, or – or lying down in a hot bath eating pizza. Whatever you want.’ She smiled, but the expression was offset by her thickly running mascara and shaking hands.

‘Okay,’ he said. It felt as though every thought had to be pushed through swirling lakes before it could surface with any clarity in his mind. He hated being sick. ‘I choose three days then. And I want to be asleep.’

They exchanged another look, and this one was mostly grief, sure, but there was no shortage of relief there, either. They didn’t want to force me, he thought. If I’d refused, they would have forced me, somehow – killed me. ‘We’re so glad you accept it,’ Janine said, maintaining that painful smile. ‘And it is such a nice, calm way to go. Isn’t it, Victor?’

‘Yes it is. Very sensible. There’s no need for you to suffer anymore, Toby. And until that time, you can have absolutely anything you want, you name it! Okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said.

‘Good. Now there’s no need for us to talk about this again, is there?’ his mother said. She spread her arms. ‘Hug?’

 

He went to bed early, but although he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, he didn’t sleep. Instead, he waited until his mother came to check on him and pretended to be asleep, and as soon as she was gone he crawled over to the door and pressed his ear against it.

It took almost half an hour of listening to the droning television, and he almost fell asleep for real, but at last it flicked off and he heard his father say: ‘You think he’s asleep yet?’

‘He was when I checked on him.’

‘Poor kid, must be exhausted.’

‘Yes. Oh, Victor, it’s so sad.’

‘I know. The worst thing of all must be the dread of it. Just knowing it’s coming…’

Toby shivered and the feeling of nausea rose again. He was sweating, but the air felt bitterly cold around him. It was true, he thought: the dread was the worst.

‘I just wish there was some way to take that away from him – the fear.’

‘Me too, honey. Maybe there is, only…’

‘What?’

‘Ah, I don’t know. Never mind.’

They fell silent after that, and a few minutes later the television clicked on. Toby stayed by the door until his eyes were drifting closed of their own accord, and then he managed to crawl half into the bed before he passed out from exhaustion. His last thoughts were of wild plans to run away or hide somewhere until he was sure he’d survived, but in the end they came to nothing but fantasy.

Lately he’d been moving a lot in his sleep, but this night he practically went into a coma. It was only when a fresh draft chilled him that he tried to get under the blankets and found he couldn’t. His arms and legs were stretched out on either side of him, tied down with what felt like thin sheets. He couldn’t move an inch.

One of his eyes half opened but he was still so sunk in his previous dream in which he’d floated on his back in the ocean that he didn’t register what he saw: his father standing over him with the same long syringe he’d seen his mother holding.

He tried to sit up and couldn’t, and then he felt a weight on his legs and saw his mother sitting on the end of the bed, looking at him with a mixture of sadness and warmth. Then it came to him. No, no, they said three days they said three days. His father put a hand on his forehead, not too hard, but there was weight behind it. He glanced over at Janine and shook his head. ‘His forehead’s so hot,’ he whispered.

‘No, stop. I’b awage.’ He said groggily through a sinus full of phlegm. ‘I’b awage please.’ He felt so weak. He tried to sit up but it was impossible.

‘Ssssh, honey,’ his mother said in a soothing voice. ‘Go back to sleep now.’

His father lowered the needle to his neck and panic fell over him like a blanket. He struggled madly with every ounce of strength in his body, wrenching at the ties on his wrists and shaking his head back and forth to get away from the cold prick of the needle.

Victor Morrow was a man driven by love, and no amount of struggling could convince him that he wasn’t doing the right thing: his grip was steady as iron. It was only a few moments before he had a hand pressed over Toby’s mouth and turned his head to one side to expose his neck. ‘Ssssh,’ he said, struggling not to burst into tears, ‘ssssh now son, it’ll just put you to sleep, that’s all. Just something to help you sleep easier.’

Toby felt the sting as the needle entered his neck. He tried to fix pleading eyes on his mother but she was standing just out of his line of sight, sobbing. There was another clear thought that struck him with its absurdity: the last thing I’ll ever see is a lamp.

There was a pressure, and he felt it, actually felt the poison entering his veins, pumping in as if through an external heart, circling his whole body and settling in his heart and brain. He sucked in a breath and the world shrank. He let it out and it shrank again, to a pinhead now, and all the black around the edges held nothing but terror. He took his last breath.

And the phone rang.

Victor paused with his thumb on the plunger and turned to look at his wife. Two more rings went by. She shrugged and shook her head. ‘I don’t know… it’s after midnight!’

There was a horribly long pause and then Victor said, ‘better check just in case, honey.’

She went over to the little stand in the corner of the room and picked up the receiver, and in the silence Victor clearly heard the voice on the other end. It was familiar, but he didn’t place it until the caller introduced himself.

‘Hello? Is this Mrs. Morrow?’ He sounded out of breath, rushed, panicked even.

‘Yes, who is this?’

‘It’s Doctor Truman. You remember me?’

Victor certainly did: he was the doctor who’d done all of his tests. His mother only nodded dumbly and the doctor continued as if she’d spoken. ‘I don’t know how… I’m so sorry about this, I don’t even know where to begin. This is going to cost me my job and god knows what you’ve been going through. I would have… I’ve been trying to get hold of you but they said you’d left the country and no one seemed to know where you’d gone.’

‘Doctor Truman, please get to the point.’

‘God, yes, I’m sorry. I… screw it, I’ll just come out and say it. I mixed your son’s diagnosis up with another patient. I’m sorry. It happens, and yes it was all my fault. My first call was to the other guy who’s been walking around for two weeks thinking he just had a fever. Ah, Jesus.’

There was a long silence. Janine Morrow’s voice shook badly when she next spoke. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’

Doctor Truman uttered a loud, weary sigh. ‘Mrs. Morrow. Toby isn’t dying. In fact, if you just give him a week or two of good rest and plenty of fluids he should be perfectly fine. I… again I’m so sorry I can’t even begin…’ she took the receiver from her ear and lowered it into the cradle, the doctors voice babbling on the other end until it clicked home.

As one, they turned their heads to the small boy laid out on the bed. He seemed relaxed in the way only the dead can, and cliché or not, he looked peaceful. There was no pain where he was, none at all.

In the silence broken now only by two heartbeats, Mrs. Morrow began to cry.

 

I’m sure I’m not the first one to make this observation, but doesn’t it just freak anyone else out how much trust we put in strangers on a day to day basis. Hell, even walking down the street, in a way you’re trusting everyone you pass to not just flip out and kill you. You’re trusting the people who serve you food not to poison it, the people driving on the road not to collide with you at 100 miles an hour. Crazy ain’t it? Enjoy

Playtime

By Ben Pienaar

 

When he started, the kids were colourful and interesting and funny; they made him see the world a different way. It was one of the reasons he decided to become a kindergarten teacher – that and it was easy, and he was good with kids. At first.

After two years he realised that all the kids were essentially the same. They weren’t individual and interesting – the kids in his second year were just like the kids in his first year: they said the same kinds of things, laughed at the same things, acted the same. The ones with dumbass or abusive parents beat up the others, or were teased by them – sometimes both, but even that stopped being interesting after a while.

As far as teaching went, there were only so many times that you could teach the alphabet and finger paint before you started to get bored. He wasn’t teaching them anyway – he was supervising them, end of story: making sure the parents didn’t have to deal for eight hours, and if something happened to them it wouldn’t be their fault, for once.

It was only a matter of time before he started conducting a few experiments. It began innocently enough: he’d leave the grounds for a while and watch from a distance, see what developed. The kind of things kids got up to when they thought no one was watching was incredible. He managed to avoid serious mishaps by turning up at the right time – although he only did that if it was a kid whose parents would actually care. If it was one of the others…

The Kindergarten was across the road from the primary school, on its own in a little park. There was a sandpit and miniature jungle gym surrounded by tall green bars, adjoining a large classroom full of art equipment and worksheets. He would sneak around into the surrounding park and watch them from behind a tree.

The longer he left them, the wilder they got; the more like animals. They’d exclude a few, and those few would gang up and fight the others, for land: the sandpit or jungle gym or the corner with the hopscotch. Everything escalated. One kicked sand in the other’s eyes; the other retaliated with a plastic spade. The first got his friends and threw sticks; the other got her friends and threw rocks.

The colours drained from them like a pencil sketch doused in water. They were not cute and innocent. Just black and white, mean spirited animals. Rats.

They were his rats, though, and they never disobeyed him. Everything he asked them to do was fun – like the time he brought in a batch of acid and gave them each a tab with their lunch. That was wild. He spent a couple months giving them a different drug every Monday. LSD, Marijuana, cocaine. He could have killed any one of them, and any cop with two brain cells would have seen who was to blame… but they were resilient little bastards.

That was back in his six or seventh year teaching. After that surge of creativity, he’d fallen into a black slump and hadn’t recovered. He started bringing a gun to school. None of the kids or parents ever saw it, of course, and it wasn’t loaded. He’d take it with him when he went out to the park and hide in the trees, pointing it at the kids and pulling the trigger. Hearing that frustrating, dry click.

It got more interesting when he put bullets in it and did the same thing, taking aim and seeing how far he dared to squeeze the trigger. That was a rush, that was almost real, and it kept him going a little while longer.

He had grown to hate them, in his long years. His view of them as bright, capricious children had changed to one of hateful malevolent rats, and his view of himself and his life had changed just as dramatically. The world had lost its colour and become bleak. He’d never got on with people, but now he despised them, and he despised himself too.

When it was time for arts and crafts he sat with the gun in his desk drawer, loaded with the safety off. He thought about how incredibly easy it would be to completely change the course of his own life and countless others. Hell, with a few swift movements and a keen eye he could change the history of the country. Make worldwide news, even. There’d be memorials and candlelit vigils, and why? All because one man moved his arm, stood up, and pulled a little lever a few times.

He’d seen them playing with guns, too. Not real ones, but sticks that looked like guns in their mind’s eye. They’d pull an imaginary trigger and scream Pow! At each other and the victims would dutifully fall down – or, more usually, they’d instigate an intense argument about who shot first and whether or not they should really die.

They didn’t have a clue. They should see real killing; real death and war. See what happened to their goddamned innocence then! See if they were so damned cute then! They should get a good shot of real life, about what the real world was like. God damn! now that would be teaching them. Keep a bullet for himself and who cared what happened afterwards?

Sometimes he opened his drawer and pulled out his gun and thought about it, hard. He was discreet, but a few times he thought he caught a couple of the boys looking at him when he did it, thinking something. Did they know what he was thinking?

‘Alright! Playtime!’ He shouted, because the sight of them scribbling mindlessly on messy scraps of paper was already too much to bear. He considered getting hold of some heroin for next week. The classroom erupted in noise and cheers and they abandoned papers and crayons in favour of flying projectiles and wild screaming.

He left them that way for a while and went out into the park, though for once he didn’t spy on them or conduct an experiment. Even that had lost its charm for him. He stood in bright sunlight, but his mind was overcast and stormy. He saw his life failing, spiralling down, becoming blacker and blacker.

He remembered himself as a rat – child, just like them, and realised they would all become him. He was them, and they were him, and just like that he decided suicide wasn’t enough. This despair was bigger than one person. This darkness was worldwide. He nodded and went inside.

The kids were all over the place, playing with their miniature stick/guns and falling down, not realising they were about to see just what real murder was like. At last he’d be able to show them that, teach them something for once. He sat down behind his desk and watched them jump and crawl and run and shout POW at each other. He smiled, imagining what would happen if he fired his gun at one of them and it just went POW. That would be funny.

One of them dove over a table and crawled around his desk, using it for cover. He was laughing hysterically and calling out taunts. ‘No fair, no fair!’ one of the others called out. ‘You can’t use the teacher’s desk!’

‘Yes I can!’ he yelled back. ‘I can use your desk, Mr. Gallby?’

‘Yes,’ he said, without looking down.

‘SEE?’

He pulled open his top desk drawer, his eye on little Mary, who was pulling another girl’s hair and giggling. She’d be the first to go. He reached into the drawer, felt only a few papers and pencils. Reached a bit deeper and felt the back. The gun was gone.

‘Hey mister Gillby, wanna play?’ The rat hiding beside his desk stuck his head around and looked at him. ‘I found your gun, but if you play I get to use it, okay?’

He stared at the boy, expressionless. He tried to think of the best response. Give it back! No, that would never work. Please let me use it? No. In fact, he didn’t know that there was anything he could to do –

‘Mr. Gilby’s playing now!’ the rat shouted, standing up and raising the gun. He turned to face Mr. Gilby, grinning mischievously, some cruel trick playing behind his eyes. He raised the gun.

‘Not quick enough, Mr. Gilby! I win!’

POW!

 

 

Ever been lying in a dark room long after bedtime, whole house asleep, certain that some razor toothed monster was lying under your bed? Waiting for you to fall asleep, maybe roll over and drop a hand over the side of your bed, when it’ll seize it’s chance to grab you and pull you down and tear your insides to ribbons before you can open your eyes? And when you scream your breath catches in your throat and even though you should be dead you’re still alive and you can see parts of yourself spilling onto the carpet, and all you hear is the monsters greedy chewing as it gorges itself on your liver? Well, if you haven’t had that feeling, you will now. Enjoy!

 

Into Dark

By Ben Pienaar

 

He and his brother were in separate rooms, but even so the sound of whispering reached Graham, through the thin walls or maybe a vent in the ceiling. The sound simultaneously woke him and froze him in place with fear, even though by now it wasn’t unfamiliar.

 For the past week, around three or four in the morning (Graham’s watch glowed in the dark), he heard his older brother whispering to someone in the adjacent room. He almost never heard the someone’s voice, but when he did it made him sick with fear. Not necessarily because of that dry inhuman accent it possessed, but the fact that it was there at all. Because if it wasn’t, Graham would have been able to tell himself his brother was all alone in the next room and talking in his sleep.

 Tonight, the whispering went on for less time than usual, and at about four thirty there was silence. Graham lay in bed and stared at the little glowing stars and planets on his ceiling and listened to his heartbeat. He thought about going over to the other room, but decided against it; why face that sickening, insurmountable fear, when he knew he was just going to wake up tomorrow feeling fine and rush down to see Terry already eating a bowl of Froot Loops and reading a comic?

 So instead, he closed his eyes and went to sleep. And the next day, his brother was missing.

 

***                              ***                              ***

 

 The police searched Terry’s room and the house inside and out, from all angles, exhaustively. They found absolutely nothing. The window was open, but it hadn’t been forced and it was too tiny a gap for anything larger than a cat to fit through anyway. The family had no enemies and no one had a bad word to say about Terry. There were no similar disappearances in the area, and no suspects. If Terry had vanished into thin air, he wouldn’t have left less trace.

 Every night at three in the morning Graham sat up in bed, wide eyed, ears straining to the point of pain for the slightest sound. He heard his heart thundering, his breath rattling, and the blood rushing in his ears, but night after night he heard nothing else. Not a whisper.

 After a month, he too was losing hope. He knew something had taken his brother, if not what or where, but he couldn’t tell a soul. Even at twelve, he knew that if step one was telling someone that his brother was kidnapped by a disembodied whisper from the dark, step two was seeing a counsellor and step three was going to ‘special treatment’ and worst of all, ignored.

 Instead, he clammed up completely when it came to his brother. He became dark and sullen and his grades descended three letters of the alphabet. He did see Counsellors, as it happened, but not one of them could get more than a sad little smile and a hello and goodbye. Smart, very disturbed, but not seriously damaged, they said. Give him time, they said.

 That was fine by Graham, because it gave him a chance to search for his brother in earnest and care about nothing else. Bad grades, no friends, depression, isolation? All normal for a boy who’d just lost his older brother. Maybe not so much after six months, or a year had gone by, but he was certain by then he’d find him. Dead or alive.

 Graham didn’t share the view the police had – that his brother had either been kidnapped by someone or run away. The latter he knew wasn’t true, and the former implied that the culprit was human, someone based in this reality. No one who’d heard that thick sliding whisper would believe that. So where had his brother gone? Into the dark. The whispers had only started late at night, when the air was so pitch black it seemed solid. And they never went till dawn – in fact by the time the first hint of light in the sky showed the whispers had always stopped. So his brother had gone into the dark, and the only way to find him was to follow, come what may.

 It was winter, so there was no shortage of darkness, and what he had Graham made the most of. His curtains were always drawn and he taped the corners to the walls so not even starlight could penetrate. After he got home from school he would eat a hearty a lunch so that his parents wouldn’t nag him too much to come down for dinner. Then he’d close and lock his door, cram some clothes into the crack under the door, and turn off the light. By now he’d already taken down the luminous stars and planets from his ceiling and thrown them away.

 There, in the quiet dark, he’d wait, and think. It occurred to him to wait in his brother’s room, but somehow he didn’t think it mattered. The whispers came in the dark and that’s where he had to be. But they didn’t come to him, and slowly he despaired.

 He never expected to hear his brother’s voice again, but he did. He was walking home from school one day. It was overcast and raining heavily. He’d forgotten to bring his raincoat and he was soaked through, but still he dawdled along the sidewalk, shivering slightly and staring at the slabs moving under his feet.

 ‘Gray!’ It was definitely Terry’s voice, the one he used when he was trying to whisper and shout simultaneously. Graham turned so fast a jolt of pain shot through his neck, and he took a step back into the gutter. The voice had come from the alley joining the old Chinese Restaurant on Way st. It was a narrow alley, and though he could usually see right to the end, on an overcast day at five o’clock in the middle of winter it was black as a sewer.

 ‘Gray,’ the voice said again, though this time it was fainter. Graham stared into the darkness, wanting badly to run forward and grab his brother, but he couldn’t. For all his desperate searching, he realised he’d never expected to find anything. He never really believed that something so horrible could be true. His brother was really there, out there in the dark.

 ‘Terry?’ He replied at last, unaware that he was whispering.

‘I’m scared Gray. I can’t see anything in here.’

 ‘Where are you?’

 ‘I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look? I didn’t believe their lies so they took me.’

 Graham took two steps forward, trying to home in on the location of the voice. He hovered on the brink of the alley now, hesitant to venture further, even though it felt like the two of them were standing only a few meters apart.

 ‘How do I get there?’

 ‘No! Don’t come, just get me out of here! If you come we’ll both be lost. Get me out!’

 ‘I’ve got to go after you.’ Graham said. His whole body was tensed now, as if he was prepared to run headlong into the alley. He wondered if that would even work.

 ‘If you… Wait. Something’s coming…’

 Graham held his breath and tried to listen into the dark, but before he could hear anything a car drove past behind him. Then there was only silence, dragging on for minute after minute. He wrinkled his face at the stench of what he thought must be rotting shellfish and eggs from the Chinese Restaurant.

 ‘Terry?’

 ‘Bring a light,’ came the soft reply.

 Graham stood at that alley for a long time, but he didn’t hear anything else besides the pattering of rain on concrete.

 His mother’s mouth fell open at the sight of him as he came through the front door, soaked in water and late, but before she could say a word he dropped his bag at the front door and hurried upstairs. ‘Don’t worry about dinner for me!’ he called from the hallway.

 He ruffled around in the bathroom until he found the candles and matches they kept there in case of a blackout. He took the matches and headed into his bedroom. He locked the door, pushed the clothes under the crack, and just like that he couldn’t see a thing. He flopped onto the bed and stared at nothing.

 ‘Terry?’ he whispered after a while. There was no response. He tried again every ten minutes or so for an hour but nothing happened. No secret world opened up in the dark – he didn’t feel himself being sucked into another dimension. Maybe he did have to go to his brother’s room, after all.

 He wondered about the darkness, about where it was and what lived there, and soon his wonderings turned to daydreams, and his daydreams became real dreams as he passed into slumber. At length, they became nightmares.

 He woke again, and it was immediately obvious to him that he’d been asleep for several hours. The house had that dense silence it only got when it was late at night, and the rain had stopped. He got the feeling someone had shouted his name, but he wasn’t sure if it had been in his dream or not.

 ‘Terry?’ he whispered, forcing himself up on his elbows and trying to get accustomed to the dark. Of course, it was impossible. Even the light in the hallway was out, and there was no moon tonight. No light from anywhere.

 It was only then that he really thought about the things Terry had told him in the alleyway, and he recalled one strange remark in particular. I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look?

 He hadn’t looked, had he? You were too afraid, a voice in his mind told him. Because secretly you knew that’s where it was all along.

 The more he shook the remains of sleep from his mind, the more things, small as they were, he noticed. Did he smell some remnant of that alleyway? Those rotten shellfish and eggs he’d been sure were from the Chinese restaurant? Why did his hand feel warm when he held it up in front of his face and ice cold when he let it dangle over the side of the bed. And why, when he did that, did he suddenly feel the urgent need to pull it away and hide under his covers?

 Graham pushed the covers down to the end of the bed, exposing his damp clothes to the air. With a force of will that only another young child in a similar situation could comprehend, he got off the bed and then lay down on the floor beside it. In the dead of night, lying beside that gaping abyss beneath his bed, Graham understood fear.

 I wouldn’t believe their lies so they took me. They Took Me. He pushed open the matchbox and was glad to see it was completely full. He struck one and felt utter relief as the warm firelight surrounded him. For now, the smell of rot and icy air was gone, and he was only here alone, in his dusty room.

Using his free hand to cup the flame though there was no draft, he wiggled sideways until he was exactly centred under the bed, and there he stayed, match warming his skin, hypnotising him. He waited.

 The flame burned low, chasing his fingertips as they ran from it, until at last there was no more wood to burn and it guttered out. Graham’s stomach clenched tight and he felt sheer fear take hold of his lungs. ‘I’m coming for you, Terry,’ he whispered, as the ground fell away.

 The carpet seemed to twist and turn under him, softening and dampening, and then it dropped and let him slide into it. If it weren’t for the cold, he’d have imagined himself dropping into the mouth of some great toothless beast. He came to a stop, curled up in a ball and propped up against something hard and jagged. It felt like a frozen thornbush.

 This place was quiet, but not quiet enough. There was breathing apart from his own. It was wet and thick, but thankfully it didn’t sound close. It didn’t sound aggravated, like it knew where he was. From the sound of it, he was hidden away somewhere, a hollow or a cave separate from the rest of it.

 Without thinking, he popped the matchbox open again and lit one of the matches. For a moment, he was certain something had seen and attacked him in the split second its light sputtered into existence. His feet jerked out and his back came down hard on… carpet. He was back in his room, staring at the underside of his bed.

 For a moment, that was where he remained, breathing hard. As much as he loved his brother, the first thing he felt was incredible relief to be out of that foul smelling place that emanated evil so clearly it shocked him. But the hope was there, too. Bring a light, Terry said, and so he had. And now he knew, no matter how far he ventured into that place, he’d have a way back.

 Graham closed his eyes and blew out the match.

 This time, when he stumbled to the end of the short ride he hit that jagged thing a little harder and felt one thorn pierce his arm. He pulled away, biting his lip, and collided with what felt like a slippery boulder the size of his head. A moment later, it rose on a hundred stick thin legs and scuttled over his back.

 Graham tucked the box of matches into one pocket and decided to proceed on all fours. He was shivering now, and gagging on the stench. It was so concentrated here that it was barely recognizable from what he’d smelled earlier. Like that voice, this was a thing not of the Earthly world. It was the stench of demons.

 He was following a feeling rather than any actual sense of direction, specifically the feeling of wind. If he could get somewhere out in the open, maybe it would be easier to get his bearings. In the back of his mind was the hope he’d be able to see something somehow, but of course that couldn’t be possible, not if the slightest light transported him home. No, this was the Land of Dark: there was no light here.

 He followed the light whistling wind up a slope and through a tunnel so tight he almost suffocated going through it. When he broke out on the other side, the wind was all around him and he realised he was out in the open at last. He looked up, hoping to see a sky of some sort, perhaps with a few stars and planets hovering… but of course there was only nothing. A deeper black, perhaps, like the kind you saw when you looked out over the ocean on a moonless night.

 The things were all out here, too. He couldn’t exactly hear them, or not clearly (though there was that odd slithering somewhere behind him), but he could sense them. Great shapes, predators and carnivores. Any prey that existed here must be dead, or dying. Imprisoned, like his brother. Graham became suddenly more conscious of the blood leaking from his arm and he wondered if they could smell it. He certainly could. He raised the wound to his mouth and began to suck.

 He stopped after a minute or so as it occurred to him what he was doing. Even then, it took another minute to convince himself that the delicious substance melting on his tongue was his own blood – it felt like trying to gather willpower enough to step out of a hot shower on a winter night.

 He dropped to his knees in the mud – everything seemed to be made of mud – and gasped for breath. How long had he been here? Hours? A day? Surely not even that long, and yet he was sure it was changing him. He had to think.

 He slowed his breathing and tried to concentrate on his senses. He didn’t have his eyes, so what did he have that could help him find his brother?

 ‘Terry?’ The vastness swallowed his voice, and he heard nothing back for a long time. Then, at last, so close it seemed almost in his ear, his brother replied.

 ‘Gray! I’m here, follow my voice.’

There was something wrong with that voice, though. There was no question it was Terry speaking, but this was a different Terry. This one sounded happy, even excited. He knows I’m here now, Graham thought, that’s all it is.

 There was no time to ponder it then, because Terry’s next words chilled him to the bone: ‘Hurry, Gray, they know you’re here now.’

 They did, too. He could hear them coming – could almost smell them over the putrid offal stench of the world. He dropped lower to the ground and slid through the mud (if that’s what it was) grabbing anything he could for purchase. Down an embankment here, across a patch of razor sharp rocks, through a cobweb full of stinging ants. These were the pictures he conjured in his mind as he went, because in the absence of sight he had to revert to images he knew, though the realities of these things would have horrified him far more than his mere imagination, had he known it.

 He was close to his brother, very close, when a hand shot up out of the mud and grabbed his ankle. He gasped and then cried out aloud as he felt nails dig into his flesh. He twisted around and clawed at the hand, but then Terry called out to him: ‘Stop! It’s me, Gray! I’m down here, in a cage.’

 Graham stopped his frantic clawing and instead gripped the hand with mad relief. ‘Terry! It’s really you!’ He felt for some kind of opening, but the ground here was not solid. Instead, his hand slipped over what felt like thick steel bars, with a gap only large enough to fit his wrist and perhaps his forearm through.

 He reached down into the cage and felt his brother grab hold of him almost desperately. His nails were so long they made shallow cuts in his arm, and his skin was so cold. The things in the dark were close now. Another minute and he’d feel hot breath on his feet, and a minute after that the only thing left of him would be the part of his arm in the cage with his brother. Then he felt Terry’s teeth on him and had time to think maybe not even that before the pain hit.

 Instead of distracting him, the pain shot through him like a bolt of electricity and focused his thoughts into perfect clarity. This was not him, he knew, but the demon he was becoming.

 In all his wildest dreams, Graham never would have believed that one day his life would depend on whether or not he could strike a match one handed in less than a minute. He jammed the box into his mouth, afraid that if he laid it down it might get wet or fall through the bars of the cage. He pushed it open and several matches fell down through the bars. He drew another out and pushed the rest back in. He tried to strike and the match broke.

 Terry’s teeth hit bone and dragged a little before he began to close his jaws. Now Graham did see stars and planets, but these ones were all in his mind, as brightly as they shone. He opened the box, drew another match, and tried again, gently. It didn’t strike, and the box slipped halfway out of his mouth. Something was clawing its way up a steep incline behind him – he heard its irregular steps and frantic breathing and imagined a sick three legged dog.

 Terry tore his mouthful free. Graham didn’t scream like a boy but roared like a beast, and it was the demon’s rage and sheer focus of energy that rose up in him. The world slowed to a crawl, and when as the matchbox fell from his open mouth he caught it a second before it would have slipped between the bars. In a flash he’d opened it, snatched four or five matches in a go and closed it. He jammed the box in his mouth and struck again with all the matches, hard. Three snapped and two lit. The fire exploded in the darkness like a sun, and just like that the cage bars disappeared along with the wild shrieks of hungry monsters and everything else that lived in the dark.

Carpet slammed up against Graham’s back and his vision returned to him. Still gripping the guttering matches, he pulled his brother – who was still clinging to his mutilated arm, out from under the bed.

 The thing that Terry had become was so far changed from the brother Graham had known that besides the familiar red pyjama pants he was wearing when he disappeared, he was unrecognizable. He had a huge, misshapen mouth filled with razor teeth, skin paler than paper and eyes like jet.

 Had Terry not been blinded by the flare of the match, Graham would have stood no chance. But the effect of seeing a flash of real light, no matter how small, on a thing that had seen nothing but pitch black for over a month, was akin to a person staring at the sun for several minutes. It wasn’t simply blindness but pain, and while Terry shrieked and struggled Graham pushed him into the closet and slammed the doors.

 He braced against them with all his might and held them closed against the first assault. He didn’t wait for a second, but grabbed his small wooden desk (with his unmauled arm), and dragged it in front.

 After that, he collapsed on his side and watched the carpet soak up congealing blood from the wound in his arm. The howls and cries of his mutant brother took second place to the rush of blood in his ears and intense nausea. The world went white for a split second. When the room came back to him all was silent and he realised he must have fainted from shock. His arm was heavy and hard to move, as though the pain had numbed the muscles. His hand hung limply at the end of his wrist, the crucial tendon digesting somewhere in his brother’s stomach.

 Without standing – he thought he might vomit if he did – Graham turned his eyes upwards and squinted in the dark. The closet doors were splintered and broken badly, with considerable cracks from floor to ceiling, and the desk was now sitting a good inch back from where it had been. There was no sound.

 Shaking, he got onto all fours and crawled over to his door. He reached up with his bad arm – it couldn’t support his weight – and flicked on the switch. He half expected to hear that terrible shrieking again, and the deadly sound of snapping wood as Terry broke free for good. It didn’t come.

 He crawled back to the closet, squelching through the half dried blood and not caring, and used his shoulder to push his desk out of the way, inch by inch. At last the doors swung open and the real Terry fell out.

 If possible, he looked even worse than Graham. They were both as pale and sickly as each other, but Terry had been reduced to skeletal proportions. There couldn’t be so much as an ounce of fat on him, and his torn pyjama pants hung from bony hips. He was covered in a thousand little scratches and punctures, some old and some fresh. His eyes, once clear, looked milky and unfocused, and his teeth were broken and cracked. But when he blinked and glanced up at Graham, he was once again Terry.

 ‘You got me out,’ he said. His voice was so broken it was a whisper, and it would stay that way for months afterwards.

 ‘You tried to eat me,’ Graham said, lifting his arm up. Terry looked as though he was going to throw up so Graham put it down again. A second later they were chuckling like the school boys they were, and more than a little of it was the bright, persistent light that flooded the room. Even the bed held little shadow now, and the Land of Dark seemed further away.

 Moving with shaky energy, Terry went to the curtains and tore the tape on the bottom corners as he parted them. Fresh dawn light flooded the room, and Graham didn’t think he’d seen anything so beautiful in his life. He stood up with one hand on the desk for balance and grinned widely at his older brother. Soon they were laughing again, each infecting the other with his own mirth until they were both on the floor and had to stop for fear of passing out.

 ‘What happened to you in there?’ Graham asked after a little while. They were sitting beside each other on the bed, unable to take their eyes off the sun as if to do so would cause it to vanish.

 ‘I can’t remember much. They kept me in a cage with a couple of other kids, I don’t know where from ‘cos they didn’t speak English. They ate the kids one at a time. Just reached in and chewed them. I remember bits dropped down through the bars and I…’

He didn’t finish the sentence, but Graham knew all too well how it ended. He remembered how his own blood had tasted in the other world, and how pain had felt.

 ‘Anyway, they went off again and never came back. I think something bigger ate them.’

 ‘What?’

‘I dunno. But I think in that place, everything eats everything, and there’s always something bigger. I think it was hell, Gray.’ 

Graham thought the smell alone was enough proof of that statement.

 ‘I started turning pretty fast,’ Terry went on. ‘I remember talking to you, but it was like a dream. After that I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the closet.’

 ‘Wow.’

 ‘Where do you think it was, Gray? That place?’

 Graham shrugged. ‘The Dark,’ he said. ‘It was 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.

I was reading an article about common concepts that come up repeatedly in popular movies. This one came from the ‘Ship of Theseus’ clone related one, obviously, with the main question being ‘if you cloned yourself, would you still be you?’ Or if you want to get deep, ‘what makes you you?’ Anyway, I didn’t want to just repeat old stories so I decided to present the concept in the most twisted and disturbing way possible. Enjoy!

 

Perpetual Suicide

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

‘Supress your nature all you want, you sick bastard. It’s still in there, waiting to come out. Not fighting, no, just waiting. Because it knows that if it just keeps hanging around in there, eventually you’ll have to let it out or go crazy. In the end they both come to the same thing, anyway.’

In truth, the man staring back at Anton Kave through the mirror and saying these words with him looked pretty damned crazy. His hair was messy, his eyes were so black around the sockets he looked like he was wearing two layers of eyeliner, and he hadn’t shaved or eaten in days. Not a good look, but then it was exactly fitting, considering the kind of things that were going through his head.

He looked down at the basin and saw a few drops of sweat fall onto the porcelain. When he looked up again, he thought he looked a bit more composed. Someone it was conceivable to do business with, maybe. He hoped so, but he was mainly relying on the fact that someone seedy enough to sell him a Cloner wasn’t used to dealing with trustworthy types, anyhow.

He cleared his throat.

‘At any rate,’ he went on, watching his reflection to make sure he maintained an air of respectability, ‘it’s none of your business what I want it for. You’re a seller, and I’m a buyer, and that’s all there is to it.’

He slammed his hands on the sides of the basin, stood up, and nodded at himself.

‘Now let’s do business.’

The central New York City business district was simply named B1. In a world where there were simply too many districts, streets and cities to name, everything was reduced to letters and numbers. There was still slang, though, and so B1 was also known as ‘Shark City’. That was the place where the high rollers and the big dealers and the real business tycoons went to build their empires, where the streets were squeaky clean and not a single begging hand could be seen extended from a dingy alley. That was not where Anton went this day.

Anton went to B9, ‘Dark Towers’. It was the kind of place you’d get if you condensed the whole of 21st century India into one city and then propelled it two hundred years into the future: better technology, same problems.

As he shuffled down B9-19th street, he found he was glad for his dishevelled appearance, because he fit right in with everyone else. Hell if anything, he was overdressed. People saw him, but a rough snarl and a wild look deterred anyone who gave him a second look. He was just another broke nutcase in the city to them, and that was good, because if anyone had so much as guessed that he had over sixteen million dollars under his tattered overcoat they’d have fallen on him like starved wolves.

He made it to the Ragman without any holdups, but he had an idea the journey back was going to be harder. He wished he’d thought of buying some piece of trash bike to ride in, so no one would bother stealing it. Then again, it would have made the whole crazy hobo act a little harder.

‘No shit. You got the money, huh?’ These were the Ragman’s first words as he brushed past the dirty curtain in the shop front.

‘That’s right, I got it.’

The room was small and cramped, but it was just a front, like the dirty curtain. To a casual eye the Ragman was just that, a poor bastard trying to make his way with a cramped little shop. Truth was, he owned most of the building this little room was in, and most of that was storage space.

‘Sure I got it,’ Anton said, pulling out the wad of cash from his inside pocket. He sat down in a splintery chair and laid it out on the table in front of him. It was all in ten thousand dollar bills, and as a result didn’t look like much. The Ragman raised a grey eyebrow at it and rolled his fat body forward in his wheelchair. He leaned right over the wad and brought his head in close, analysing it. After a few moments, he nodded, grinning.

‘That’s the real deal, alright,’ he said.

‘Okay, so where’s my Cloner?’ Anton said, leaning over his cash protectively, for all the good it would do.

The Ragman chuckled and winked, pushing away from the table and swivelling around to the door in the back. ‘Just gimme a second. No need to be on guard so much, buddy. I gotta do business, ya know. I’ll rip you off, but I won’t steal. I’m an honourable man.’ This last was called back to him from the next room, which Anton already knew was a place the size of a cathedral.

When he came back, he was holding a bundle of electronic parts and wires. He rolled over and dumped it on the table in a grey mess, which he began to separate into its various elements.

‘That’s it?’ Anton said, frowning.

‘That’s it? You a dumbass? You come askin for a Cloner, I give you a Cloner. You think this isn’t a Cloner?’

‘No, I’m sure that’s it. I mean… But how’s it work?’

The Ragman rolled his eyes. ‘Give me a minute, will you?’

Anton gave him a minute, though he wanted to get the hell out of this dingy, oily den as fast as he could. It smelled so strongly of petrol he swore he was getting high on the fumes.

Finally it was all separated into different components across the table. Anton noticed, to some dismay, that his money had vanished.

‘Okay. So you got the processor here,’ the Ragman said, pointing to a long rectangular compartment. He slid open the top and showed that the insides were clean and empty. ‘You stick a bit of yourself in this part,’ he said gleefully. ‘Could be anything, but the more matter it’s got, the quicker the clone. So, you stick in your baby toe, it’ll be a few months before you got a full clone. Put in your leg and you got one in a week. My advice, kill the first clone and freeze him so you got body parts for the next ones.’ He chuckled, ‘and they wonder why this shit was outlawed.’

He slid across the desk and pointed at a pile of four metallic cones.  They were dark silver, and not connected to any of the other pieces. ‘These are the makers. You stick em up around a room, any room. The one that has TOP engraved on it, goes highest up, and you gotta have the pointy part aiming at the middle of the room, where the compartment is. Next one says TOP MIDDLE, then BOTTOM MIDDLE, then BOTTOM. You get it?’

‘Yeah.’

He nodded and pointed at the final piece. It looked pretty unimpressive in Anton’s opinion: just a metal box with a few knobs and dials on it.

‘That’s the operator. See all those different knobs and dials and shit?’

‘Yes,’ Anton said, anticipating a headache.

‘Ignore that shit. I already set it up for you. Don’t touch it or your clones are gonna come out like fucking mutants. Same thing if you pass through the room where the cones are while it’s going on. See the green button on the side? That’s all you gotta press. It’s that simple, man. You set up the cones right, you dump the body part – the fresher the better – in the compartment and close the door, and you press the green button. The clone will come up in whatever room you set the cones up in. Leave the machine running until your clone moves away from the original spot, and I dunno, says something or gives you the finger or whatever. Then you press the green button again and it shuts off, and you got yourself a clone.’

‘Okay. That easy?’

The Ragman chuckled again. ‘Sure. He gives me sixteen million and then asks if it’s that easy. Yeah, sure. Listen, I’ll give you some advice because I feel sorry for you. Put the cones in a secure place. Don’t let your clone out for a while.’

This time it was Anton’s turn to chuckle. ‘Don’t worry, that won’t be a problem.’

‘Oh yeah? So what, you gonna talk to him for a bit? Explain to him why you so desperately need a clone army to take over the world?’ He gave that dry chuckle again. ‘I mean, shit, you wouldn’t believe the reasons I’ve heard. I had this one chick come in to buy a Cloner one time, no joke man, she was planning to put herself out on the streets as a whore. Use herself to make money. Oh, and she told me she was gonna make six. Six! You believe that shit?’

Anton smiled blandly. ‘Sure.’

‘Anyway. Nine times out of ten, dudes that clone more than once get arrested in about a month, so good luck. And don’t come crying to me, either, this baby is untraceable. Oh yeah, one final thing.’ The Ragman leaned forward so far across the desk that he would have touched noses with Anton if he hadn’t reeled back at the last moment, surprised. ‘You point so much as a finger at me if the law comes… I’ll kill you.’

He didn’t need to say more than that – didn’t need more detail. It was all there in his eyes. Anton nodded. He stood up and packed the three parts of the Cloner into a compact bag he’d brought with him, realizing for the first time that it was going to be much harder getting out of B9 than it was getting in.

‘Hey, by the way. What the hell do you want this for, anyway?’ Anton looked at him sharply, all his prepared answers and suave retorts disappearing in a moment. He was in a hole within a hole within a hole: It didn’t matter.

‘I’m going to satisfy the lifelong homicidal urges I’ve had by murdering my clones,’ he said. And then, because his mouth had already started running, he added: ‘I’ll probably torture them, too.’

Ragman stared at him with a look that was shocked but not totally surprised, and as always, there was a hint of s mile there. ‘Shit,’ he said after a moment’s silence. ‘You think you heard it all.’

Before he finished the last word Anton shoved aside the curtain and stepped back onto the street.

How he made it out of there alive he wasn’t sure, but he again he attributed his luck to his acting and attire. Whatever, it didn’t matter. He was home, and the Cloner was set up. The past eight years of fantasy had suddenly become reality, and now he didn’t think he could deal with it.

‘You sick bastard,’ he told the mirror. ‘Don’t even do it. Go back to the Ragman and get a refund, and if he won’t take it back then chuck it in the street.’ He said this with conviction and determination, but he didn’t believe his words. He didn’t believe that he was a sick bastard – in fact he knew he wasn’t. A sick bastard would have started killing as soon as he got those strange, compelling urges. But he hadn’t, he’d held out, fought them for eight years. He’d never so much as harmed a hair on the head of an innocent, and he wouldn’t for the rest of his life, either. It wouldn’t even be murder, what he was doing – just suicide. Perpetual suicide. He chuckled, didn’t like the look of the grin in the mirror and turned away.

The Cloner was exactly as easy as the Ragman had told him it would be, except for one part. The salesman had so nonchalantly mentioned putting a finger or a leg into the compartment, but he’d neglected to go into detail about the removal process. Anton spent about half an hour with a butcher’s blade poised a foot above his left hand and his teeth gritted. Try as he might he couldn’t bring himself to chop.

Eventually, he decided it would be enough to cut all his hair off and drop that, along with weekly nail clippings and daily drops of blood into the compartment. After a month he thought he had enough. The compartment was packed with these scraps of him, and as he looked down at them he couldn’t help but wonder if it hadn’t been a swindle after all.

But there was no going back, now. He’d spent too long on this project to stop – his whole life, it seemed. The clone room alone had taken an eternity, and not least of that was getting hold of the Halothane gas that waited to be pumped into the room from a large black container fitted into the wall like a perverted air conditioner.

He went into the darkened room, and put the compartment in the middle, laying it down as though it were made of glass. He couldn’t help but feel the prickle of the ‘makers’ as though they were loaded guns pointing at him from the corners of the room, and as soon as it was down he backed out of the room fast and shut the door.

He’d installed a thick window into the room (one way tinted – Halothane gas was sensitive to light and he couldn’t risk his clone waking up early) and he looked through it now. He could practically feel the potential for life radiating from the metal box, as though another version of himself could explode from it at any moment. He bent down and picked up the operator, and the sense of potential grew.

He moved his finger to the green button and let it hover there for a moment, running over the process in his mind. The clone would appear in the next room, which was locked from the outside. It was airtight, and there was no escape, and if he knew that then so would his clone. He’d flip the switch and the gas would pump into the room, knocking Anton 2.0 out long enough for Anton 1 to enter and set up the kill room. After that…

The thought of things to come turned his stomach to jelly with excitement and goose bumps rose on his forearms.  He closed his eyes and listened to his quick breaths, savouring the moment, the same way a sky diver might savour the moment before jumping off the plane. His eyes still closed, he placed his finger firmly on the button… and pressed.

There was a sensation of being pushed on the back, hard, and he fell forward with both arms out to protect his face. But instead of falling into the adjoining wall, he kept going until his forearms hit the cement floor.

He lay there for a moment, his eyes screwed closed. Something was wrong. The floor in the living room was carpeted. The only room in the house with a cement floor was…

He opened his eyes and saw nothing at all. The room was pitch black, which meant the door was still closed and locked from the outside, just as it was meant to be. He swore and then flinched at the loudness of his voice in the small room. As he struggled to his feet he knocked the compartment and froze. There was something wrong with it.

It took a few minutes of scrabbling on all fours before he realised that the metal box was no longer a box. It had unwrapped, opened up like a Christmas present with all sides flat on the floor. And it was empty. His hands should have touched the crusty mess of hair and nails and blood but they hadn’t.

That was when he heard the hissing of gas entering the room from a small hole in the wall near the tinted window. That was impossible – that had to be manually turned on with a dial that was outside the room and there was no one… He froze.

‘No.’ His instinct told him to back away from the gas, press up against the far wall and hold his breath, but his despair was far stronger, because it was born of everything he knew of himself. And everything he planned. Numb with horror, he could only wait for the gas to take effect and pray that he’d calculated the wrong amount and that he’d never wake up.

He woke, and God help him he woke exactly the way he expected to: tied fast to a steel chair in the middle of the kill room. Next to him was a fold out table decked out with over thirty different tools. The idea, he recalled, was to test out as many different things as possible on the first clone to see which were the most fun. The light was on, and so the next thing he laid eyes on was himself, standing in the open doorway.

Anton Kave was not used to feeling strong emotions of any kind, but he felt something at that moment, and it was pure and unadulterated terror. Terror because no sooner had he seen himself like a reflection come to life, he knew there was no hope. Still, he tried.

‘Stop, please. You don’t understand what’s going on. I am not the clone, you are! This should be the other way around.’

The clone stared at him, eyebrows raised, a mildly curious expression on his face.

‘I know you think you’re real, but just hang on a minute and try to remember the rest of the day. What were you doing this morning? Do you remember the rest of the week – or the rest of your life?’

The clone nodded slowly, fixing Anton with that bloodshot stare he’d seen just that morning in the mirror. ‘Yes, I can. I’m sorry, but I’m the real boy, it’s you who has the fake memories.’

Anton stared at himself, speechless at first. But as the clone chuckled and reached for the shears, a thought occurred to him and a thin, mad smile broke out on his face. Anton 2.0 hesitated. ‘What?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said in a shaking voice. ‘I just realised that whatever you do to me, you’re going to get worse yourself. Much worse.’

‘Really?’

‘Damn straight. You know why? Because I’m only the first one, remember? After me, you’re going to want to make another one, and when you use the machine, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You’ll be sitting in this chair yourself in a month or so, looking at Anton 3.0, and he won’t believe you either because he’ll have all your memories. And I’ll be laughing, alright – dead or not I’ll be laughing. Unless you stop this now. Let me go, who knows what we can achieve with two of us? We’re too smart to get caught out.’

The clone stared at him for a moment, his brow furrowed. He shook his head, slowly. Anton managed to hold his gaze, but he had an idea the other saw only the sick fear of death in his eyes.

‘You really believe you’re me, don’t you?’ the clone said. He put down the shears and reached for the pliers instead. Anton struggled, but his heart wasn’t in it even then, because he knew exactly how he’d planned to restrain himself and there was really no hope of escape. And now the clone had his index finger between the two blunt edges of the pliers, right at the second knuckle.

‘I’m kind of disappointed in myself, you know?’ he said. ‘I mean, of all people who should have known me better than to make stupid arguments, it would be you, right?’

Anton gave up and just sat, blinking cold sweat from his eyes.

‘I mean, what were you expecting? Hey, you’re right, you really sound like your memories are the real ones, and I’m the clone instead of you. I guess we should just switch places now, huh? I’ll strap myself into that chair there, and then you can have all the fun.’

He shook his head, chuckling, and Anton closed his eyes as he felt his own hot breath in his face and this time felt not just terror but revulsion. Only now did he realise what a monster he was – in a way worse than a serial killer who’d given in to his urges, because at least that man would have looked after himself.

‘God damn,’ said the clone, grinning as though he’d heard the best joke of his life. ‘I can be so dumb sometimes, huh?’

And then he gripped the pliers with both hands, and began to squeeze.

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