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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.

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.

This ones pretty much the twin of my other story ‘Angel’, although I didn’t have that in mind when I started writing it. I think I’m just interested with the concept. It all happened very quickly, The idea occurred, I thought it was cool, came up with the ending, wrote it, scratch to story in two hours. Enjoy!

 

Demon

By Ben Pienaar

 

Doctors, if they even had a chance to interview me, would call me a sociopath, psychopath, or maybe pure evil. If, that is, I told them everything I’d done, the whole truth. I’m none of these things, but the Doctors would never know, because they’d only have the facts to look at, the actions I’ve taken. They are rational people, who don’t believe in Demons, which is unfortunate because the truth of the matter is that there is a demon inside me, living and breathing and real. If they cut me open, I think they’d find it sitting just above my brain stem, clinging with little red claws to the top of my spinal cord and grinning from ear to ear.

I was a good kid, and I’m a good guy now, inside and mostly out. This isn’t the exorcist: no one’s crawling on ceilings and vomiting all over the place. Mostly I’m even in control. But when no one’s around, and the time is right, and the Demon is hungry, he flexes his muscles and brings a little piece of hell up to earth.

The first time I was seven years old. The Demon came to me in my dream, it was that simple. I dreamed about hell and the Demon saw me there and grabbed hold of me, and when I woke up I’d brought him awake with me, into me. It was just after midnight, and the silence was like a blanket over the house, except for the sound of my father snoring in his bedroom down the hall. I got out of bed and went into the bathroom.

I was fully aware, not sleepwalking – a little groggy maybe, but that was it. I wasn’t thinking about my movements, the way it feels when you’ve done something so many times you don’t think about it. Sometimes I drive somewhere late at night and when I think about it later, I can’t remember the drive. I still stop at the red lights and watch my mirrors, but I’m daydreaming in my head, my body and mind acting automatically. This was like that.

I took a box of matches and a candle from the mirror cupboard (we keep them there for blackouts), and took them down into the television room. I lit the candle and stood in front of the fireplace for a while. I remember wax dripping onto my hand until it had pretty much covered it, but I didn’t once flinch. The pain was a normal, everyday feeling to me, like breathing in and out; it wasn’t important.

I lit a fire in the fireplace and waited for it to get going really good, used every bit of kindling we had, and when it was roaring nicely I started grabbing burning logs and rolling them around the carpet. I set one on the couch, one at the foot of the television, and kick rolled another all the way into the dining room so it could catch the table. We had a real fluffy carpet and it burned fast.

I stood there, terror tearing through me, thinking why did I do that? Just what did I do that for? At first with a mild curiosity when I grabbed the candle and match, then with growing horror as I watched my blistering hands grab logs and roll them across the room. Why am I doing this? I don’t understand.

            I heard the Demon laugh, somewhere deep inside my brain. He and I walked upstairs together and I lay down in bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows dance across the hall and the smoke drift in through the open door.

Eventually the alarm went off and I heard my parents screaming, but not my little sister Maree, even when a section of the house fell in and buried the kitchen table. The demon was asleep by then, or else he didn’t care what happened, and all my movements (and all the pain) were my own. My parents managed to get to me and my mother climbed out of the window with me while the sirens wailed far away.

My father went to get my sister, and he was dragged out by the firemen a few minutes later with burns all over him, a scrap of Maree’s pajama top melted into his palm. She didn’t make it, and her lack of screaming, I think, was because she’d already choked in her sleep. Her room was closer to the stairs, so that is what I desperately hope happened.

I relate all this to Lara now, trying to keep my voice steady. I resist the urge to come forward and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder because I don’t want to see her flinch away. Plus, I’ve still got some of her cat’s blood on my hands. Literally. The rest of it we got rid of together, before coming back into her bedroom for this little talk.

‘I’ve done a few things like that since then,’ I’m telling her, looking honestly into her tear stained, incredulous face. ‘Nothing completely evil, you know. But pretty bad. That’s why I don’t sleep much. I mean, Jesus, poor Maree, that poor girl. I loved her so much.’

I’m crying, but I don’t think she believes me. I know she believes in ghosts, but I’ve never asked her about demonic possession.

‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ she asks, and her voice is still cold.

I nod. ‘Just one guy. A bad guy, though, some gangster who pulled a knife on me. The demon saw it and flipped out, he was threatening its… its home.’ I don’t mention that the mugger had also been interrupting our stalking of a potential other victim.

‘That’s all, huh?’

‘Yes. It wants to kill, but usually I can divert it, make it settle for small things like birds and rats and…’

‘Cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Jesus.’ She puts her hands over her eyes and breathes in deep, and then takes them away and looks at me again. I don’t say anything.

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ she says, as if I’d be joking. Sure, your dead cat was all a joke, Lara, get it? Ha ha! My eyes are streaming with tears now, but I don’t mind, it probably lends credibility.

‘I just want it to end,’ I say, and in that instant, as if I had to say the words out loud for the thought to formulate clearly, I realise how simple it is. There is only one way to really and truly end, after all. Why have I never thought of suicide? And I realise the answer to that question, too: I never thought of it because the demon didn’t let me. He hid the notion from my mind, somehow, but he’s sleeping now and I’m awake and I’ve thought of it.

Holy Christ, it’s the only way. I have to go, and soon, or it’ll wake up. How long will it be before it makes me kill another family member or ,God forbid, Lara? Or some innocent small child, like the girl we followed for half a day before I gathered the will power to close my eyes until she was gone.

I can’t comprehend the finality of that – of suicide – there’s no time. There’s no time to say my goodbyes or gather my thoughts and prepare myself. I’m locked in a dungeon and the dungeon master is sleeping and left a window open. It’s jump or be trapped, now or never.

Lara is great at dressmaking. She has a sewing machine and all different kinds of materials and needles, but most importantly she has a giant pair of material cutting scissors lying on her desk. In the time it’s taken for me to have my epiphany, she’s drawn a breath, about to say something, but I’ll never hear what it is. I grab the scissors and take two steps back.

Staring at her, wide eyed, I begin to cut.

She’s fast, getting over her surprise like that. If we switched places I think I’d have been so shocked by the surprise of it all I’d have still been sitting and gaping long after she hit the ground with blood spurting from her throat. Not Lara though; she sees what I’m doing, screams, lunges, and pulls my arm so hard the scissors go flying into the wall paper and stick there.

We fall onto the bed together and she’s sticking sheets against my wound and kissing me and crying, although there wasn’t really time enough to make the cut that bad.

‘No matter what, that’s never the answer,’ she’s telling me. ‘Never do that again, you hear me? Never. God, it’s really true, isn’t it? There really is a demon inside you.’

It’s not really a question but I nod anyway. ‘I have to kill it,’ I whisper, trying not to wake it up. ‘We have to kill it, somehow.

She looks at me and a hot tear lands on my face. Her eyes are half full of sadness and half with rage, and I understand. ‘No matter what it takes,’ she says, ‘we’ll kill it, somehow.’

We talk for a while, and hug, and I apologise again for killing her cat. She rests her head on my shoulder and puts an arm around me and tells me it’s going to be alright, and we’ll kill the demon no matter what, and I don’t want to be afraid.

But I am afraid, I tell her. I’m terrified, and I still wish I’d killed myself. I tell her it’s going to be alright now, and she shouldn’t worry, but those words aren’t mine, now. She snuggles up close to me and starts talking, but I don’t hear what she’s saying. I’m watching my free hand lift up and work the scissors free from the wallpaper slowly, quietly.

I’m watching and outwardly there is no dread, no horror or sadness or remorse. I’m watching my hand grip the round black handle with white knuckles. Outwardly I’m calm and relaxed and happy. Inside, I scream. ‘It’s going to be alright,’ I say again.

It is what you do that defines you. I think Batman said that, and it is therefore beyond question. This is my way of agreeing with my black caped idol. I have to admit though, writing it made me wonder about people a lot. Remember the last person you met, who smiled and treated you nice and gave you compliments. I wonder what they were really thinking, under that cheerful mask? How many people you meet are sociopaths who just have yet to make their first kill? Or just have yet to be caught? Makes ya think… enjoy!

Angel

By Ben Pienaar

 

When I was a boy, I set my neighbour’s house on fire. Over the course of several months I killed half the pets in the surrounding areas of my neighbourhood. Fortunately, I was a very intelligent young boy, and no one ever found out it was me. No one knew it was me who disembowelled Hamish Donner either, because they never found his body.

 

If you see him on the street, he smiles. He’s always cheerful; tells jokes and laughs and makes delightfully intelligent conversation. In day to day life, he has the charisma of the most charming of politicians, but the real charm, people will tell you, is that he has no idea about it.

People who know him well say he’s a good person. They love him, and they think he loves them too. His tongue begins to wag and everyone leans in to listen, to see what funny or interesting or just plain nice thing he has to say.

He’s a talented diplomat, and rose high in the government. May be president one day, they say. He’s rich, but he gives his money away at every turn and his living standard is modest at best. Entire charities live off his income. No poor man can enter his line of sight and then leave it still poor. He attends church every Sunday, and has friends there too, and they talk about doing good and helping people.

And he despises it.

Every day, he wakes up and begins his perfect, disciplined and virtuous routine. It consists of healthy meals, quality time with his wife and kids, a day of good work, and a night of even more work, perhaps some socialising, and finally relaxing. He does nothing in excess, never speaks badly or behaves immorally in the slightest, and he has only one enemy in all the world: himself.

 

No one knew, and while then I was only a smart boy, I was growing into a genius killer. I had plans drawn up in a secret language in several notebooks, and they were going to deliver me great power, and I was going to do great things. Terrible things, most would say, but for me they would have been great. Death, blood, murder, and absolute power. Like a God.

I was so close, so close to beginning my Grand Plan For Everything when I turned twenty and became possessed. Some hideous thing, a creature of burning light and sickening warmth crawled, slimed its way through my ear and into my brain while I was asleep, and when I woke I was no longer in control of my body.

Some things, I was able to do myself, like get out of bed and shower and eat breakfast. The first thing happened when I was on the school bus and one of the others dared to make fun of me. It had happened twice before, and the first time I’d cornered the one who did it when he was alone and used my knife to scare him very, very badly. The second time was Hamish Donner.

I turned to flip him the bird and maybe yell something dirty at him, a part of me almost hoping to provoke him, so I’d have no choice but to get rid of him in that brilliant, exhilarating way of mine. My hand came up and… waved. I smiled pleasantly, and turned back around.

None of these motions were of my own doing. Mentally, I was screaming obscenities, rushing down the aisle to beat him to a pulp, anything. I sat there for a while, outwardly calm but searching my thoughts for this odd presence I felt. Now it had used its power I could really feel it, an actual weight on my brain, pressing against my skull, pulling wires and reconnecting them in disturbing ways.

What the fuck are you? I asked it.

Your happy saviour, it said, full of merriment, and I was filled with hatred.

 

He has an odd clumsiness about him, some say, though if anything it only serves to make him more endearing. Still, there have been a few near misses, and had it not been for his habit of surrounding himself with friends and loved ones most of his life, he might even have died.

One Gavin Smith recalls him almost falling from a fifth floor balcony, despite the sturdy railing, and only escaped death when Gavin reached out and grabbed his shirt as he went over. Another time his hands slipped on his steering wheel and he almost hit a wall if he hadn’t recovered his reflexes just in time.

 

I try to kill myself almost every day, but after the first few times the Angel was ready for it and now it’s nearly impossible. It has to be distracted somehow, or at least very tired, before I can even begin. Every now and again I get past him, though, and one day I hope I might get through, maybe. All it takes is a break in his concentration and I’ll be… Where? Hell? Shit, I’m already there; it can’t be worse than this.

 

Despite his success, there have been occasional rumours, and strange moments during the course of his career that have sometimes cast only the slightest of shadows on his impeccable reputation. In one bizarre interview, he responded to a question with an expression of what can only be described as utter hatred. A moment later his face went blank, and then he smiled and answered the question normally, later dismissing the expression by saying he had a bad taste in his mouth.

He often demonstrated his love of the people by having private talks to random citizens. One of these, Harry Cane, told his family of a strange and completely uncharacteristic occurrence. All was normal and pleasant, he said, until near the end of the encounter when he said goodbye and extended his hand. The vice president took it, but instead of shaking, he squeezed it so hard that Harry cried out in agony.

‘When I looked up I saw a face on him. Or not a face a – an expression. He was just as happy as a clam, not like anything was wrong but like he was really enjoying it. His eyes were wide open and his mouth was open in this big wide smile like he just won the lottery and couldn’t believe it. He raised his left hand up in a fist and then just shook his head and let go and apologised. Weirdest thing I ever saw.’

These instances, while incredibly rare and hard to find credible information about (as he is of course so well loved) nevertheless seem to be happening more and more as the vice president ages.

 

I try to kill people all the time. Oh, yes, not a day goes by when I don’t try to slice or dice something. Even with my bare hands, if I can cause some good pain in a day, I consider it a big win. If I’m not trying to kill myself, of course. Nowadays, I don’t do that as much as I used to.

The old bastard is starting to get weak. Funny thing about having no real control over my own body: I get to spend every last ounce of energy I have on the fight. Sometimes, I just let myself rest and doze while he’s occupying himself with the day, and then, right when he lies down to get some shuteye… bam! I’m there, fighting him for the chance to grab that letter opener and ram it in my eye.

It’s taken thirty years or so, but I’m getting into my groove now. Conserve energy, strike when he’s weak. Any normal person would have given in after a week, but this guy no, this… thing is supernatural, obviously. I think it’s some kind of Angel. I mean, if Demons possess all the good guys, what else would it be? Supernatural or not, though… He’s getting weak. Every now and again, I catch him off guard, and every time it takes him a little longer to get back control.

Well, fuck him. There’s got to be a balance, doesn’t there? He’s had me, used me for his goddamn good. He took the best years of my life, too. Fine, the next thirty are mine then – if I even live that long. And I’m going to start my Grand Plan. Oh, I bet he won’t be laughing then. I bet he’ll get a spanking when the big guy upstairs realises that he spent thirty years putting me in a position of supreme power on earth only to weaken just in time for me to abuse it.

I bet he won’t be laughing then, hell no. But I will.

 

 

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