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Theoretically one could exist forever in Hell, but in this case, theory and reality are very far from one another indeed. The truth is existence here is too fragile, even more fleeting than on the surface. Between threat of the void, starvation, monsters and all other forms of damnation, the dangers prove too great: the best anyone can do is to prolong their time here as much as possible, lest the next realm (if it exists at all) be even worse.

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Nothing could be worse than this. Dale had never known such brutal, whipping cold was possible, not even after all the agonies and horrors he’d suffered in all his afterlife. It was supernatural, worse than any cold on earth because it didn’t induce numbness, nor the illusory warmth of hypothermia. It was never ceasing, skin tearing ice.

He stood rooted to the spot at the helm with both hands on the wheel, eyes frosted over and joints too stiff to move. The wounds that covered him hurt worst of all, the moisture in them frozen solid so that they became like daggers of ice in his body. Who knew what Calvin felt up there in the crow’s nest – he didn’t have the luxury of  insulating meat between his skin and bone.

‘Can you see a way?’ Dale managed to call up to him, hoping his cracking voice wasn’t lost in the wind. Calvin took a long time to answer, sounding just as faint: ‘There’s nothing but White! White and Blue!’

Dale had watched Flay’s ship from the stern as they’d entered the blizzard. It was so close he heard the voices of the demon crew when they’d erupted in argument, Flay alone standing silent and holding his gaze, furious, until at last he gave the order to pull back. He hadn’t looked away as they drew apart, and neither had Dale, until the snow blew between them and Flay became merely a pair of red dots in the white, and then nothing at all. Then he’d turned to face the reality of the decision he’d made, and begin to wonder if, maybe, it would have been a better bet to jump the side after all.

He scanned the mist, eyeballs cracking in his sockets, and saw the shadows of crags and glaciers on either side of the ship. They were floating low, but it was the only way to stay shielded – the winds high above Niffleheim were wild enough to tear a ship like this to pieces. He was dwelling on this prospect when Calvin dropped to the deck far harder than he should have and collapsed at the base of the mast, groaning.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Everything hurts. Damn it, God Man, we need Souls. And warmth!’

‘We have to ration the souls,’ Dale said without the slightest hint of conviction. ‘We don’t have much of the Good Stuff left.’

‘Right. Eh, well, it’s not so much good stuff, anymore.’ Calvin scratched his head with a claw.

‘What?’

‘I mixed it all together into one bottle. It makes more sense to have an even mix,’ he added. ‘So we can ration it better. Otherwise it’d be like eating a plate of steak to begin and saving crackers for later.’

Dale grunted. It made sense, but now that he’d had a taste of the Good Stuff it would be hard to adjust – it reminded him more of mixing wine and urine: neither was improved by the combination. ‘Well, you’re right about the warmth. We could light a fire in the cabin, even, and there’d be no danger it could spread, if we could even keep it burning.’

So against his better judgement, he set the course straight for the clear white and joined Calvin back in the cabin to make another dent in their precious store. He shuddered to think what would be left if Calvin had let him give what he’d wanted to Darla. It hadn’t been long since their shared glass, but already the early symptoms of hunger were clawing like monsters in his belly. It was the cold, he was sure of it, sapping their strength through their pores and letting the forces from within take control.

They snapped one of the chairs into pieces and Calvin took a yellow paged notebook from one of the drawers to use as kindling. Dale snatched it from his hand more aggressively than he meant. ‘It could be important,’ he said, flipping through the pages – but he knew it wasn’t. It was his own notebook, and as he read some of the notes and measurements he was met with an unwelcome stab of sadness, and a vision: Darla at the ship’s wheel, glancing over her shoulder at him with a sly smile. Don’t look so down, God Man. We’re in heaven, aren’t we? They’d been coasting along the great land Blood Dweller had dubbed ‘The Fields of the Unborn.’ Here were trees bearing the fruit of souls that had never quite lived nor been devoured – newborn babies, or souls of those that had been born without, whose bodies walked empty on the surface. It was damn near impossible to reach, and too many fruit could poison a demon, but it was a place he’d never forget. It was how Darla had saved him, barely a day before he might have turned.

The last page was missing, which struck Dale as strange – he’d never been the careless type – but then it was an old book, and hell was not a place for anything to age intact. He handed it to Calvin with a sigh. ‘Burn it,’ he said.

So with the lucky strike of a single match, Calvin lit the crumpled pages, and when they had the bottle open – no glasses this time, they sat on the floor beside the table – it was burning well enough to warm them. Dale took the first swig and grimaced, conflicted. The liquid had all the warmth and euphoria of the Good, but all the bitterness of the Bad. He passed it to Calvin. ‘It’s better than nothing.’

‘Yes, and nothing’s all we have besides, isn’t it?’

They were silent for a while, the door rattling and the wind outside howling, and Dale edged closer to the fire. ‘I don’t think it will be long until we find the way out. Niffleheim hasn’t ever been explored, but everyone knows the shape of the island. It’s not large. As long as we keep to a line, we’ll last.’

‘Hmm.’ Calvin smacked his thin lips and shivered as the bitterness hit him. ‘Tell me, Dale, have you ever seen someone turn?’

Dale watched the fire. It wasn’t like Earth fire. Fire in hell burned redder, and the flames licked a little slower, and there wasn’t so much smoke. It hurt more, too. He shook his head.

‘I have,’ Calvin said. ‘I was barely two years dead at the time. You remember how I bit the bullet, don’t you?’

Dale did. Calvin had been a psychologist for the criminally insane in the nineteen fifties, and made the mistake of admitting to one of his patients, a schizophrenic who believed he received orders directly from God, that he was an atheist. The patient had escaped soon afterward, and paid Calvin and his family a visit.

‘Well I was still very bitter about that, and I ran with a gang of what I thought of as vigilante demons operating out of the outskirts of Mort City. The problem is, when you are so idealistic as to target only the evil, you have to either adjust who you define as evil, or you starve. I adjusted, but my Feeder friend James O’Donnell was an idealist. I watched him fight it for a long time. We tried to give him souls, but he wouldn’t take them unless he knew they were bad.’

‘What happens?’ Dale said, reaching for the bottle. He made a mental note to stop before they made it halfway to the bottom.

‘It starts as a hunger, and the hunger turns to pain. You waste away at first, and then you start to change. I think of the process as a caricature: your big nose becomes a snout, or your long hair becomes a mane – in a way just like becoming a demon. The ruling emotions are desperation and rage, and they overwhelm you until all rational thought is gone. You’re left with panic and murderous hatred, and nothing else. That’s when they start to eat, anything and everything. And they never stop moving, like a lion in a cage. At least that’s how it was with James. Poor boy.’

‘What happened to him?’

Calvin shrugged. ‘We knew he was going to change. So at the end we took hold of him and threw him over into the void. I thought it was cruel.’ He chuckled. ‘As though such a thing exists at all in this place.’

‘It does exist,’ Dale said. ‘That is why we fight, Calvin. Think of The Angel. Think of Flay! They’re more evil than any monster.’

‘That’s your problem, Dale. It’s not your fault – you haven’t been in Hell long enough to know any better. You say you’ve left your religion behind, but in reality you’ve only changed it to suit your circumstances. You still see everything in terms of good and evil, but that isn’t the way of it.’

‘Of course it is. Look at me. Look.’ He extended an arm for Calvin to inspect, ignoring the maddening burn of the fire. His dark flesh was pockmarked, twisted with scars and black bloody cuts. A maggot feasted on the back of his right palm – it had been there for years. ‘You think the things that did this to me had an ounce of goodness in them?’

Calvin nodded. ‘Yes, God man, I do. And I believe that their evil lies in us all. Let me tell you what I think.’ He took the bottle out of Dale’s hand, sucked a mouthful, and thrust it back, his white eyes burning. ‘I think no one really becomes a monster. I think the monsters live inside of us, just the same as demons live inside human beings. And I think starving ourselves of souls merely allows those monsters to take control. But whether we let them or not, they’re in us. Even now.’

‘You believe that?’

‘I do.’

‘Then what do you make of our mission?’

He held up his claws as if in surrender, grinning. ‘Oh, now. Don’t be like that, Dale. I agree with your goal, lofty as it is. Perhaps not so much with your methods.’

‘You have a better plan?’

‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ He leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘I think the Angel cannot be attacked from the outside. Think about it, Dale. When I died, he’d already been a demon for centuries, and yet he’s maintained power over all of Mort City. How did he do that? Walls. No one can get close to him, because the moment he sees a threat, he squashes it. He’s made a fortress to keep himself, and like all fortresses, the best attack is not a mad charge for the walls. The best attack, my friend, is from the inside, with someone he doesn’t register as a threat.’

‘Impossible.’

Calvin clapped his hands and rubbed them over the fire, grinning, enjoying the warmth. ‘Yes, well…’

He didn’t say the end of the sentence, but Dale heard it all the same: We’ll see. Innocent enough, but it struck him as out of place. He took another gulp of souls and, his mind buzzing with pleasure, he leaned back and looked around their cramped room. His eyes roamed from the fire, the torn pages of the notebook still visible, to the shelf on the wall, where the second bottle was curiously absent. Two dots connected, but led to nothing, until he spied the ink stained quill lying on the small counter in the corner of the room, where he would never have left it. Calvin was watching him, and when their eyes met Dale saw quiet laughter in the other demon’s eyes, and a deep sadness, too. Sorry, old friend.

A great helplessness descended over Dale, as he imagined the note rolled in an empty bottle, floating through the voice until Flay reached out and snatched it from the air. He was almost certain he knew what the message said, but he was in no position to do anything about it – he was as far from Will as he could have gotten.

No, that wasn’t quite true. There was something he could do.

Ship creaking under his weight, he got to his feet, and as if waking the monsters inside him that Calvin had spoken of, a bloody rage rose up in his chest, a roaring fury at this smug, false traitor across the fire that would have made Flay himself doubt.

He could only manage a single word, but it was enough to make every drop of smugness vanish from Calvin’s face, replacing it with an expression of cold terror.

The word, spat through gritted teeth, was walk.

According to Charles Darwin’s Encyclopaedia of Hellish Landscapes, written before his disappearance early this Era, almost any part of Hell’s geography can be traced in the mythology of living humans, suggesting that demons may have influenced Earth in more ways than initially thought. These areas exist on separate planes, some completely inaccessible and distant from others, and it has been posited that to fall is to travel from one plane to another indefinitely. I personally view this as ridiculous as the notion once held that Earth was flat and balanced on the back of a turtle.

  – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Things were not going well. The ship groaned and creaked and the sails threatened to tear with each gust, and before long rusty bolts and sections of old wood had torn out of the low deck, where the four cots were kept. No one would be sleeping there for a while, not with the howling void just under your bed. The holes were creating an unwelcome drag on the bottom of the ship, and Dale struggled to keep his footing in the turbulence.

‘I hate to say it, God Man,’ Calvin called down from the midsail. ‘But if we don’t double speed in the next hour they’re going to have anchors in our stern.’

Dale swore, subconsciously touching the knife he kept strapped to his belt. It was a mean looking thing, the edges carved with tiny hooks. Fighting in Hell was more about pain than damage; unless you separated a demon’s limbs and threw them into the void, anything was survivable. Pain, on the other hand, could incapacitate – a lesson Dale had learned from the very bastard on their tail that very minute. ‘Turn the back fin hard up!’ he said as Calvin dropped down beside him. ‘I want to take a dive, see if the currents are stronger lower down.’

Calvin hurried to the stern, and a moment later Dale’s stomach dropped as the ship descended into a quiet patch. A heavy gale caught them a moment later, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before their pursuers caught the same wind and made up the distance. He saw as much in Calvin’s face when he returned from the back of the ship. ‘You remember what I said? About jumping the side?’

‘Yes. But who is he, Dale? The demon with the blood clots for eyes?’

He took his time answering. There were so many unpleasant memories there, memories that still lived in him, like the worms that burrowed in his soul. ‘They call him Flay,’ he said. ‘He was the one who taught me about Hell. When Darla got me out of the Maze and showed me how to survive in Mort City, I still believed in God. I thought she was operating under divine grace.’ He chuckled, but couldn’t hide his bitterness. ‘Then The Angel got hold of Darla. She’d been protecting me, keeping me alive while she did most of the real work, stealing from him. I managed to break her out, but I got myself caught in the process, and he had me in his cells for… A long time. Flay was the cell master, then, and he only had one job. In The Angel’s words: “Teach them to fear me”.’

Calvin swallowed. ‘I suppose Flay wasn’t his given name.’

‘No. No it wasn’t. But he earned it.’

The ship caught a harsh cross wind just then, causing it to turn hard starboard and tilt madly, forcing them to grab the nearest piece of ship to keep from sliding all the way off the deck. When they levelled out, Dale managed to steer them beneath an enormous, flat island, using its mass for shelter. Calvin steadied himself on the mast and put the telescope back to his eye. Dale held his breath.

‘I’m sorry, Dale.’ Calvin’s voice was clear and light – ever the stiff upper lip of the English Doctor he’d once been, but Dale wasn’t fooled. His heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make it. They’re double our speed, at least.’

The island above shielded them enough from the wind that Dale could let go of the wheel. He stepped away from it and went to stand by Calvin, who had lowered the telescope. It wasn’t needed to see the enemy ship anymore – it was close enough that he could read the hate in the eyes of the demons who now stood at the prow beside their master. Beasts all of them, their souls made of hulking muscle, built by rage. Dale laid a hand on Calvin’s skeletal shoulder. ‘Best get the Good Stuff, my friend.’

They drank in the dusty cabin out of chipped glasses, which they clinked before each gulp. Dale guessed they had an hour at most before they’d have to make the jump and hope for the best, or else face Flay in a battle they would certainly lose.

‘At least the boy’s safe for now,’ Calvin said. ‘Their accuracy can’t be that good if they sent Flay here instead of to Freya.’

Dale grunted, and took a deep swig. It had been a long time since he’d had the Good Stuff, and it flooded him like molten lava, every part of him dancing and jumping. It was like having a heart again – one that beat two hundred times a minute.

He drew his knife and placed it on the table between them. ‘We should fight them.’

Calvin smirked and swallowed a mouthful big enough to make him gasp when it hit him. ‘Good God, it’s like waking up from a deep sleep, isn’t it?’ He shook his head. ‘But there’s no point, God Man. There’s no King or Country to fight for, now. Besides, we can’t kill any of them. They’ll torture us until one of us breaks and tells them where Will is, and then they’ll find a way to damn us properly.’

Dale knew he was right, of course. Part of him was relieved, but mostly he was filled with the horrible prospect of what they were about to do.

‘I always liked the idea that there were endless planes below. Fall off this one and you can start in another, fresh. On and on, new lives. But I don’t think it works that way, does it?’

Calvin shrugged. ‘No one knows. But I think… I think the devil is real, and he lives at the bottom of that drop. And I think he eats the souls of the fallen. Sorry, God Man. But it seems the only thing that fits in with…’ he waved the bottle. ‘All this. Never was religious, myself. I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe in the idea of heaven.’

Dale finished his glass, perhaps the last he’d ever have. ‘Maybe. Well, infinite worlds, none at all, or the devil himself, we’ll find out soon enough, if there’s no land under this ship.’ He met Calvin’s white eyes and gave him a grim smile. ‘Thank you for everything. You’ve come further than I’d ever have asked you.’

‘Ah, what can I say? You converted me. I believed in it then, and I still do. Peace in Hell.’ He tipped the bottle back and, in several long gulps, emptied it. When he set it down, his hand was shaking from the sudden rush.

Dale sat back in his creaky chair and enjoyed the feeling of soul intoxication. He’d forgotten how powerful it could be. It was like accelerating onto another plane of existence: you were still rooted in this world, but everything moved differently – you saw it all so clearly, your senses primed on hair triggers. Calvin’s milky eyes swivelled in his head, his jaw clenching and unclenching as it did when he was deep in thought, long fingers tapping a drumroll on the table.

‘Dale, what route were you going to take to Mort City?’

‘The long one – the one we’re already on. Straight down into empty space, then on below the Hadean Isles until we could navigate above the city.’

‘I see. And what if we were to take a quicker route. The quickest?’

‘You know there’s no time for that. We’d have to go around…’ He stopped. Calvin had the hint of a smile on the corner of his mouth, razor teeth shining through. Impossible.

‘No. They’d follow us.’

‘Would they? Even if we flew right into the centre, and dropped low into a blizzard?’

‘We’d wreck ourselves.’

‘Maybe.’

Dale stood, something like hope burning in the pit of his belly, a welcome warmth against the dread that had threatened to consume him a minute ago. Calvin watched him, no longer tapping on the table, his smile widening into a grin. ‘We could do it, God Man. They wouldn’t dare, not when they know we don’t have the Seer on board. There’s no guarantee we’d make it out again, of course, but then… There wasn’t to begin with, was there?’

Dale was gripping the back of the chair, deep in thought. ‘I always hated snakes, when I was alive,’ he muttered. ‘Don’t tell Darla I said that.’

‘If anyone can keep the ship steady in that place, it’s you, Dale. It’s the only chance we have.’

He locked eyes with Calvin, and saw the same hope, the same soul crazy fire he had in himself. They had another half bottle in the cupboard. Enough to keep them sane and warm, if they rationed it. And it was going to get cold.

‘When we leave the shelter of this island,’ he said eventually. ‘Pull the back fin to send us up, and then rig the sails to make use of any crosswinds.’

Calvin slid out of his chair, grinning, and gave him a mock salute. ‘Aye aye, Captain. God be with us.’

‘Pray to God if you like,’ Dale said. ‘I doubt it’ll do any good.’

Because they were going to Niffleheim.

Being back in his own body was equal parts jarring and comforting. For the first twenty minutes or so he’d felt horribly sick – his skin was ice cold, his mouth dry as coffin dust and all his joints were stiff. Once the nausea faded and his body warmed up, though, it was like slipping on an old pair of shoes – except that a demon was driving him along the highway at terrifying speeds and his dead sister was lying in the trunk amongst piles of frozen bread and steaks.

‘So,’ Darla said, winding up her window to block the sound of the roaring wind. ‘How’s it feel to be alive again?’

‘Okay. I’m hungry.’

‘For food, huh? Lucky shit. Well we don’t have time. Freya will have food for you when we get there. Can’t guarantee you’ll like it much, though. She’s always on some strange diet, trying to keep her current body alive as long as possible.’

Will didn’t want to ask what she meant by that, but after all he’d seen he knew he had to. Hell was sickening, terrible, evil, and unfair. But it was also unavoidable. Now that he’d been there he sensed it lying just beyond the folds of reality all the while, just a single death away, a few missed heartbeats, a long stifled breath – his bruised throat was a permanent reminder. The more he could find out about demons and the afterlife, the better. He sighed. ‘What do you mean, keep her body alive?’

‘She’s a Visitor – same as Dale. The way they feed is they get into a living body and just set up shop. The longer they’re in there, the more soul they absorb – that’s why Dale never comes up here if he can avoid it. Part of the reason his own soul’s in such bad shape, among other things – he just doesn’t feed it enough. But Freya’s not so thoughtful. She’ll climb in a body and just stay there until there’s no soul left and it just starts rotting all around her, and then she’ll go get a new one.’

Will stared at her, but she didn’t meet his gaze, just stared determinedly through the windscreen. She weaved between two cars and then stepped on the accelerator as they rounded a soft bend. At this rate they’d reach the coast in less than an hour. ‘She gets a new one?’ He repeated.

‘Look, we all do our best, alright? I didn’t have to eat a bloody dog earlier – I could have nabbed a baby. Then at least I’d have had enough to last me the rest of this trip, and I wouldn’t feel so sick, either. Freya’s no saint, but she takes the worst off she can find – drug addicts and suicidals and criminals. You’ll get it when you’re dead too, and you have to go find your own souls – then you can judge all you like. Till then, just shut up and help me save your damn sister.’ She took a breath and accelerated again, the force pushing them both back into their seats. Will had an unnerving image of her careening into a wall and then pointing a finger at his dead body and crowing: See! See!

‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ Will said.

She shrugged. ‘Don’t worry about it. I can’t say I didn’t have the same thoughts when I was younger. Crossed my mind to throw myself into the Void once or twice, but I never could do it. Something about seeing Hell makes you wonder that there might be no end to it, after all. Maybe you just move from one world on into the next, each one worse than the last. Horrible thought, isn’t it?’

Will didn’t reply. He rested his head against the window and watched the farmland drift by, acres and acres of green and yellow grass, home to all kinds of cows, sheep, horses, insects, birds… Life. ‘If you ate that dog,’ he said, ‘animals must have souls, too. Where do they go?’

‘Same as us. They just don’t last as long. Small souls get corrupted quicker. Or eaten… Listen, there’s some things you should know about Freya. She’s very rich, very smart, but most of all very off her nut. In other words don’t believe a word she says. There’s eccentric, and then there’s fucking crazy, and she’s the latter. Dale’s banking on her keeping you and your sister safe in her freezer room – the one she uses to keep her host bodies cool – but as far as I’m concerned it’s asking a bit much. If you want to live, I’d try not to stay dead for too long.’

They drove on in silence, leaving the farmland behind and taking a turn up a steep curve as the ocean came into view. As they climbed the winding roads, Will craned his neck to see the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs far below. Further out, the ocean was calm and shimmering with morning sunlight – the sky clear blue. It struck him as completely fake.

‘What’s the point?’ He said quietly. ‘Why live at all – if I’m going to end up in Hell with everyone else, anyway? Why bother living?’

Darla stomped on the break so hard the car nearly skidded through the barrier – which would have made his question meaningless in a few terrible moments – and they screeched to a stop in a gravel inlet by the side of the road. A truck whizzed by them, honking its horn. The smell of burnt rubber permeated the car.

Before Will could say a word, Darla had him by the collar, yanking his face so close to hers he could see – and smell – the shreds of dog meat between her snarling teeth. ‘Do you know what I would give for a single day of life? For an hour? Do you want to know what I’d do if it meant I could have an afternoon with my family again, and see everyone I left behind? Do you?’ Her slit yellow eyes burned with fury, and yet somehow they were the most human Will had ever seen them. He didn’t trust himself to answer her.

She pulled him closer, and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. ‘We’re going to freeze your pathetic ass, and then you’re going to get your shit together and we’re gonna drag your sister’s soul from the depths of hell if it ends both of us. Every minute of life saved is a spit in the face of Hell. Understand?’

He nodded, and she let him go and settled back into her seat, breathing hard. Will supposed she was so worked up she’d forgotten she didn’t have to breathe at all. Neither of them said or did anything for a minute or two, and then at last she turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life.

‘Besides,’ she said, as they pulled back out onto the road. ‘You won’t want to be up here in the real world for a while, at least.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Haven’t you worked it out, yet? Your family was murdered, and you’re in a stolen vehicle with your sister’s dead body in the back.’ She shot him a grin with the slightest hint of bitter humour. ‘You’re a wanted criminal, Will. By the end of the day, the whole country will be looking for you.’

‘Both life and the afterlife are infinite, and that border between them that we call Death is not as clear as we’d like to believe. In fact, it is as indefinable as the point at which the beach sand ends and the waves begin. The borders constantly overlap, constantly interfere with each other, and yet remain separate.’

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Introduction (So, You’re Finally Dead).

 

 

Will crawled, spluttering, out from under a moth eaten bed, into a room with peeling wallpaper, no carpet and a broken window. He couldn’t stand yet – the vertigo of moving from one world into another too much to take, and so he sat up against one wall and waited for his head to stop spinning.

Darla emerged a few seconds later, tumbling out of a rotted closet up against one wall and almost tripping over the bed. ‘Jesus, damn it.’ She steadied herself, then stomped across the room and yanked Will to his feet. He pressed his lips tight, heroically resisting the urge to vomit until the last of the spins left him.

‘Good job. We’ll make a real demon out of you yet,’ she said, patting him on the back roughly. ‘Now come on, we don’t have much time, I reckon.’

She led him through the house, a two story junk heap that appeared to be home only to rats and squatters: the kitchen sink was green with mould and what had once been a living room was now a mess of ragged blankets, empty beer bottles and discarded needles. Everything smelled like urine. Will welcomed it – after Hell, anything that represented the concrete real world was a breath of fresh air to him. Even the sight of the dirty street, when they stepped out through the front door, with its dumpsterss and litter and barbed wire fences, was a sight for sore eyes.

‘You know the way from here?’ She asked him. ‘It’s near your neighbourhood, right?’

Will nodded. He looked up and down the potholed street and recognized it immediately. ‘It’s Drader Street. My house is a few blocks over, this way.’ He started walking. It was strange to be the leader for once, but he was comfortable here, glad to be back. Darla, on the other hand, walked with her head low, snake eyes darting in seven directions at once and tongue flicking nervously behind her teeth.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said. ‘No one can see us, right? We’re like ghosts.’ Not that there was anyone to see them, anyway – it was early morning, the dawn light only just touching the chimneys and roof tiles of suburbia.

‘Yes and no. People see us, but they only see what they expect. Probably a couple of homeless junkies stumbling down the street. How far is it?’

‘Ten minutes, if we hurry. Why, what’s wrong?’

‘It’s not healthy for the dead to walk with the living. It takes a lot of soul to survive up here for long. Like breathing poisonous gas.’

‘What happens if you don’t eat?’

‘You get more… Monstrous. Or else you fade away and wake up somewhere in Hell. So hurry up, unless you don’t mind sparing a chunk of your shoulder any time soon.’

They left the shadier streets and Will took a few turns down the laneways that led into his own middle class suburb, all neat trimmed lawns and painted fences. Darla shook her head as a new BMW passed them on the street. ‘Every time I come up here it’s the same, you know that? Different styles, better tech. But same people doing the same shit. I bet it’s been the same since the start of time. People. Don’t know what life is, do they? Don’t know what they missed ‘till they’re dead.’

Will didn’t say anything. He was trying to work out how long it had been since Calvin ripped him out of his body. A siren sounded nearby and he jumped. What if the police were already there, loading his sister in a body bag? Or him? They reached his street – Whitely, and he started running.

But, despite the broken front window, there wasn’t a cop to be found. He let out the breath he’d been holding. ‘This is it, he said.

‘Nice place.’ She stood looking up at it, thoughtful. ‘Someone’s gonna see that window, though. Probably soon.’

‘I know. Darla – where’s Freya’s house? Did you say it was on the coast before? As in, the beach?’

She frowned. ‘Yeah. Shit. We need something to keep your sister cool for the drive. You got any ice?’

He was about to say no when he remembered the enormous stocks of frozen milk, meat and bags of peas his father had kept in the same freezer Sarah was now. If they kept all of that along with Sarah’s body, it might help to preserve her. ‘Um, close enough,’ he said.

‘Good. Okay.’ Darla glanced up and down the street. An early morning jogger was headed their way, but he rounded a corner several blocks down. She clapped her hands together and smiled. ‘I’ve got a plan.’

‘Okay?’

‘You get into your body, then grab as much ice stuff as you can in bags or whatever, right? I have to take care of something real quick. What car does your dad drive?’

‘A land rover.’

‘Nice. Find his keys, then load up the trunk with all the ice. Don’t take your sister out of the freezer until I get back. I won’t be long.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘That depends…’ She turned away, scratching the scales on the back of her head. She seemed to be scanning the other houses on the street for something, and when she looked back at him there was something like guilt in her expression. ‘Which one of your neighbours has pets?’

Top  100

These are my 100 favourite books. I wrote them down as they occurred to me, so the order is roughly best to worst. Your taste might not be exactly in line with mine, but I’m willing to bet that whoever you are, you’ll enjoy the hell out of most of these.

 

  1. It – Stephen King
  2. Drood – Dan Simmons
  3. The Hobbit – J.R.R Tolkien
  4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R Tolkien
  5. Harry Potter 1 – 7 – J.K. Rowling
  6. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King
  7. Coraline – Neil Gaiman
  8. Carrie – Stephen King
  9. The Terror – Dan Simmons
  10. Flashback – Dan Simmons
  11. Tommyknockers – Stephen King
  12. Needful Things – Stephen King
  13. Killing Floor – Lee Child
  14. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane
  15. Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane
  16. Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
  17. The Heroes – Joe Abercrombie
  18. First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie
  19. Game of Thrones series – George R.R. Martin
  20. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stephenson
  21. The Witches – Roald Dahl
  22. Matilda – Roald Dahl
  23. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl
  24. The Silence of the Lambs – Robert Harris
  25. The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
  26. The Ruins – Scott Smith
  27. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  28. Gates of Fire – Steven Pressfield
  29. The Last Kingdom series – Bernard Cornwell
  30. The Things They Carried – Tim O’ Brian
  31. Let the Right One In – Joh Ajvide Lindqvist
  32. Books of Blood – Clive Barker
  33. Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson
  34. Carrion Comfort – Dan Simmons
  35. Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jnr.
  36. Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
  37. The Beach – Alex Garland
  38. Post Office – Charles Buckowski
  39. A Time to Kill – John Grisham
  40. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
  41. Pirate Latitudes – Michael Chrichton
  42. Eaters of the Dead – Michael Chrichton
  43. A Series of Unfortunate Events 1 -13
  44. The Stand – Stephen King
  45. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  46. Call of the Wild – Jack London
  47. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  48. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  49. 1984 – George Orwell
  50. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  51. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  52. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  53. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  54. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins
  55. Perfume – Patrick Suskind
  56. Joyland – Stephen King
  57. Audition – Ryu Murakami
  58. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  59. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  60. King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard
  61. She – H. Rider Haggard
  62. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
  63. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  64. Dr. No – Ian Fleming
  65. Artemis Fowl 1 – 3 – Eoin Colfer
  66. When the Lion Feeds – Wilbur Smith
  67. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
  68. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  69. The Firm – John Grisham
  70. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  71. The Help – Katherine Stockett
  72. Hearts in Atlantis – Stephen King
  73. The Shining – Stephen King
  74. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Alvin Shwartz and Stephen Gammell
  75. Pet Sematary – Stephen King
  76. The Eyes of the Dragon – Stephen King
  77. Grimm’s Complete Fairytales – The Brothers Grimm
  78. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
  79. Tomorrow, When the War Began series – John Marsden
  80. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson
  81. The Princess Bride – William Goldman
  82. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  83. Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
  84. Marina – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  85. Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie
  86. Red Country – Joe Abercrombie
  87. Sharpe series 1 – 24 – Bernard Cornwell
  88. The Woman – Jack Ketchum
  89. I am Legend – Richard Matheson
  90. The Thief of Always – Clive Barker
  91. Abarat – Clive Barker
  92. 20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill
  93. Heart Shaped Box – Joe Hill
  94. Ghost Story – Peter Straub
  95. Rant – Chuck Palahniuk
  96. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  97. Minority Report – Phillip K. Dick
  98. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Phillip K. Dick
  99. Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein
  100. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

Truth

 

Tell the truth. I read this advice from so many authors, and I never understood it. I mean, the truth about what, exactly – isn’t fiction essentially a lie? For a long time, I thought it was meant the same way as write what you know, which I also had difficulty understanding. What if you wrote fantasy? I was sure it was very important and potentially useful advice, but I couldn’t get a handle on what it meant, and therefore had no idea how to apply it to my writing.

In fact, truth can even damage your writing, as I discovered on several occasions. The heart of the problem is that fiction isn’t meant to be realistic. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. Dialogue is the clearest example I can think of. When you speak in real life, your sentences are full of ums and ahs and interjections and tangents. Not so in a good book – unless the author is using it for a particular character to make them seem nervous or uncertain. If you read a book with ‘realistic’ dialogue, you would get irritated.

Characters pose another issue. The world is full of people who would not make good characters in a story. Not everyone is willing to take action to change themselves or get the things they want. The real world is, I hate to say it, full of boring, timid, or otherwise unheroic people. It would be realistic to include one or two such characters in your book, but honestly, why the hell would anyone want to read about that?

In light of these unfortunate facts, for a long time I set truth in fiction aside as something to be treated warily. The writers I admired were obviously referring to some other definition of truth that I had yet to discover.

At last, my friends, I know. I get it. And it’s all thanks to a single quote from our good friend Ernest Hemingway, and lots of deep thought. I can tell you what writers mean when they say ‘tell the truth’ and I’m happy to report that it isn’t the airy fairy directive I once thought it was. I used to put that advice in the same category I put things like: ‘Let the muse take over,’ and ‘Sit back and let your characters tell the story.’ Romantic ideas, but not useful to someone like me, who needs nuts and bolts and concrete examples. No, as it turns out truth is something you can actually use to write better.

So here’s the Hemingway quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” It seems straight forward enough, but still useless. Go ahead, try it, write a true sentence. Oranges are orange. I love bacon. Doesn’t give you a riveting story, does it? So what’s the deal, Ernest? Why so vague?

Here’s what I worked out. When he says one true sentence, what he means is think of a meaningful statement about life, something important to you, that you truly believe. Keep in mind that part of the uniqueness of your story will come from this – the fact that it’s the truth as you see it, not as you think others see it.

Here are some of my own True Sentences:

  • Addiction is dangerous.
  • Some rocks are better left unturned.
  • If you don’t overcome fear, the consequences are ultimately worse.

 

So think of one of your own, and write it down. Something you believe is true about life, an important statement you would want to pass on to your children, perhaps.

Now delete it.

Why do we delete the true sentence? Because to write it would be telling, and we are writers, so we must show. Now your whole story, whatever it may be, is about this sentence. Sure you’ve got action, love, death, etc. happening, but ultimately the point of your story is to explain to the reader your sentence. You are demonstrating why your truth is true.

So why bother? Why can’t you just write an awesome nuts space cowboy epic with heads exploding and monsters and other awesome stuff without any underlying deep truth? Well, you can, and it might even sell, but it will be meaningless and shallow. That’s cool too, I mean look at Matthew Reilly and Clive Cussler. Those guys are the Michael Bays of the book world. They provide steaming heaps of action and adventure, badass heroes, and lots of explosions. It’s possible to enjoy that, as a reader.

But make no mistake: it is what it is, and nothing more. And what it is, is a sequence of crazy and meaningless events. That’s it. The characters move from one plot point to the other, and a bunch of insane stuff happens, and it’s entertaining on a basic level, and then you finish the book and forget it within a day. It leaves no imprint on you, and you don’t think of the characters, events or anything else about it ever again. In my opinion? Better off watching Transformers. At least that has cool special effects.

It’s not just for the reader, though. Having a true sentence helps you as the writer because it gives you direction when you are lost. If you are floundering in a sea of plot lines and characters and don’t know what to do next, now you can ask yourself a simple question: What event or action will help me get across my true sentence without actually saying it? There’s no guarantee you’ll write a good story, of course, but even if you write a bad one, at least it will mean something. At least it will be true.

Go ahead and mess around with cool scenes and crazy characters, if you want, and may your plotlines be as zany and hilarious as you want.

Just make sure you tell the truth.

My Mom once gave me a tiny jewelled box just like the one in the story. Her intentions were good – as I recall I was having a lot of nightmares at the time and the idea was I could put all my nightmares into the box before I went to sleep, so there’d be none  left for me to dream. I have the box sitting on my bookshelf at home, now, and all I can think about is how many nightmares are in there by now, after all these years… Still, as long as I don’t open it, everything should be fine.

Enjoy…

Soul Box

Ben Pienaar

 

Death seldom comes quietly or painlessly, and even more seldom to those at peace with their lives. Marie Faye died in a violent chaos of twisted metal, breaking glass and fire. She would have died from her wounds: face torn to shreds, ribs, legs, arms and spine shattered, lungs collapsed. All of that would have been enough, but at the time the flames engulfed her, she was not dead yet. It was the fire that killed her, by searing strips.

 

*

 

‘She died instantly in the crash. I’m sorry.’

The news, delivered by a cop who’d done it too many times to really be sorry any more, and his twenty five year old female partner, who was herself on the brink of tears, was too much for Neil Faye. That was for the best, because instead of going to his knees with his hands to his face as he would have done, he turned and gave his only daughter the hug she needed.

Bridgette was limp in his arms, sobbing with a deep, all-encompassing grief he’d never seen or felt before. He would later, but for now he stared over her shoulder at the wall and thought of nothing at all.

More words were exchanged and the police left. Neil spoke to his daughter on the couch for a long time, they got takeaway, and she went to bed exhausted. Through all of this, Neil’s body acted without any orders from upstairs, which had gone ominously silent. He went up to bed around midnight and closed his eyes; opened them again when his alarm clock went off, though he hadn’t slept at all. He called work.

‘Hey Jim.’

‘How are you, Neil? Taking a sick day, huh?’

‘Wife’s dead.’

‘Sorry, didn’t quite get that.’

‘Wife’s dead. Not coming in. Tha…’ It was supposed to be thanks Jim, but something choked the words out of his throat and he hung up instead.

Bridgette wouldn’t wake up for a while, and he found himself driving down to the flea market, where Marie had spent so much of her time. He walked the aisles, a ghost, looking for her in the crowds. Twice he saw the back of her head disappear around a corner, another time he smelt her: fresh oranges and violets.

It was the way in which he discovered the Soul Box that he knew he’d found her. It was a powerful feeling – he knew it was her – yet when he searched for the source, he saw only a black bejewelled box the size of a closed fist. One minute he was shuffling through the crowd, the next he was staring into one of the shops that lined the alley. Not at any of the items on display, but at the black box, only the corner of which was visible to him beneath a low table stocked with jewellery. His eyes fixed on it and focussed of their own accord, his breath catching in his throat.

His sanity bent, but did not break. He fell to his knees in front of the alarmed stall owner – a plump saggy eyed woman in a kaftan – and wept bitter, grateful tears.

 

*

 

Bridgette sat on the back porch, her bare feet hanging over the edge of the deck in the icy rain, listening. Her mother had loved the rain. Her eyes were closed, so she didn’t know he was there until he sat down beside her.

‘Heya, Bridie.’

‘Hey.’

‘I know you’re probably in shock still. I know I am. But, uh, I just thought I’d get something for you, for when it gets hard, you know?’

Now she did look at him, but only for a second. ‘Oh. Thanks Dad.’

‘Here.’ He pressed the box into her hand. Black Porcelain embedded with silver jewels. Probably cheap rocks, but they reflected the grey sky with such clarity. She saw her own reddened eyes reflected back at her.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a Soul Box,’ he said. ‘It keeps the souls of those who’ve passed. As long as you have that, Marie won’t leave you. Either of us.’

She couldn’t help but smile. It was typical of him, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be sweet without being corny at the same time. It wasn’t in her to make fun, though. She hugged him. ‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s okay.’

They sat together for a while and she turned the box over in her hands until a part of it detached and almost fell into the wet grass. She hadn’t even realised it had a lid. She looked inside.

Her mother’s eye stared at her from the bottom of the box, wide with panic and pain and full of the horror of her final moments. Bridgette took a sharp breath and fumbled it. She looked again, but it was only a picture of an eye someone had painted on the bottom, bright green and white. It wasn’t even realistic.

‘What’s wrong?’ She showed him and laughed when he recoiled.

‘Jeez, Bridie.’

‘Yeah. Gee dad, no souls in here. I think you got ripped off.’

He shrugged. ‘Yeah, I guess I did. That’ll teach me to trust strange witch ladies.’

‘Witch lady? Where’d you get this?’

‘The Market. You know…’

Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. Bridgette held the box out in the rain and let it half fill up before closing the lid again. She glanced sideways at her father and smiled. ‘She liked the rain.’

‘Yeah. She did, didn’t she?’ He put an arm around her and, for the first time in two days, she found respite from the grief that had so far threatened to consume her.

She didn’t meet her father’s eyes, or she might have seen that he was already consumed.

 

*

 

Two weeks of rain and darkness. Nightmares and oblivion alternated in both her waking and sleeping life. Her father refused to acknowledge his own sadness, smiling at her whenever he saw her, making tea, watching movies, going to work as though everything was the same. She told herself that her mother was inside the Soul Box, but she knew it contained only the painted eye and some water. She kept it by her bed day and night.

Until the funeral.

After all that rain, the sun shone in a clear sky and spring was everywhere. Fuck you, Bridgette thought. Fuck you for being happy, world.

‘So we lay to rest my beloved wife, Marie Andrea Faye. Beautiful, smart, the kindest woman I’ve ever…’ He trailed off. Bridgette hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her mother’s too fresh grave, the soil tossed and smoothed over, the stone so pristine and new – but in the sudden silence she looked up. Neil was staring, misty eyed, in the direction of the high sun. No, he was staring into the sun, without so much as a twitch of an eyelid. The hand holding his notes hung by his side. A soft breeze snatched one of the pen scrawled pages and sent it twirling over the cemetery, but he didn’t seem to notice.

‘Such a pretty face, she had.’ His voice so quiet it only reached her on the back of that same breeze. ‘Skin burnt to black flakes and blisters. Pieces of bone tearing through her cheeks. Her hair melted into her scalp. I remember the way her legs were broken almost completely backwards, like a bird.’ He gave a sad chuckle. Bridgette clutched the box so hard it threatened to shatter. Some of the water spilled and wet her palm.

‘The way she used to moan always takes me back. Especially when she was trying to drag herself over the asphalt, leaving bits of herself behind.’ He wiped his eyes and smiled.

‘Once, she said to me, “Neil,” she said – ’ And then, just as Bridgette was staring at the other serious mourners wondering why don’t they do something? He screamed at the top of his lungs, but not with his own voice – with Marie’s – and Bridgette dropped the box and fell to the grass on her knees with both hands pressed against her ears to keep out the sound of it. It was so full of pain, that scream.

It stopped abruptly and she opened her eyes as two men, one a friend of her mothers, the other an uncle she’d only met once, reached under her arms and pulled her to her feet. Everyone else crowded around, peering over each other to look at her.

‘It’s alright, its okay everyone, she’s fine,’ the uncle – Ian, wasn’t it? – was saying. He escorted her away from the others and sat her down under an oak tree. Her father cast her a worried glance and then cleared his throat and continued his speech. Ian felt her forehead and then squatted beside her.

‘Are you okay?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, sorry, I must have had like a, a moment or something. Sorry.’

He had a trimmed ginger beard and crow’s feet like trenches in his face. ‘It’s too bad we had to reunite under these circumstances. Too often it takes a tragedy to bring family together.’ She tried to remember him and had only hazy impressions, of some event in the distant past, a grinning man in a suit and her mother’s laughter.

‘I didn’t, like, scream or anything, did I?’

He furrowed his brow. ‘No, no, nothing like that.’

‘Okay, good. Thanks. It’s just so soon, you know?’

‘Yes, of course. Do you think you’ll be alright?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. Just freaked.’ She took a deep breath and sat up against the tree. It was good to be in the shade and away from that sweltering, inappropriate sunlight. Her father’s words floated over from the congregation. He was talking about her mother’s beauty, and the way her smile lit up a room. No burning flesh.

‘Okay. Stay as long as you need. No one expects you to be a social butterfly today. See you later.’ He got up and then paused. ‘Oh, almost forgot. You dropped this.’ He handed her a square tile of black porcelain. The Soul Box’s lid.

‘Thanks,’ she said. He gave her a reassuring nod and went to re-join the others.

She set the box down beside her, but as she moved to slide the lid into place, she saw her mother’s eye. Not the painted thing, but a real eyeball, rolling in a soup of red nerves and blood instead of rainwater, turning as though searching for something – Bridgette? – but before it could find her she closed the box.

The sound of the lid dropping into place was a heavy, stone on stone grind. It resonated inside her, making her body and mind vibrate with the weight of it, and she lurched onto all fours and vomited into the grass. She remained that way for a few minutes, panting, until the insane buzzing in her mind dulled to a hum. What was that about?

She sat back against the oak and stared at the box, wiping her mouth with a shaky hand. Just a box. She should open it again, now, to reassure herself that she was a disturbed, grieving girl and that was all there was to it.

But she didn’t.

She slipped it into her pocket, stood on weak knees and walked back to the congregation. Her father ended the speech in tears and everyone clapped and wiped their eyes.

Marie Faye was gone for good.

 

*

 

Routine became desperately important for Neil. It was the tightrope that kept him from falling into the black hole that Marie had left in her wake. He wasn’t so much balancing on it as crawling, and the end was nowhere in sight, but as long as he kept moving forward, he could continue to function.

He would wake up and have coffee and porridge. He went to work and maintained the basic level of mental ability required, only returning to consciousness when he arrived home. He had dinner with Bridie and then sat in front of the television drinking cup after cup of strong tea, watching but not seeing, until his eyes closed of their own accord.

Bridie concerned him, and she was what kept him moving forward along the tight rope instead of simply clinging to it. She’d never been talkative, but now she was downright broody. Not that he blamed her, but it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year old girl, especially one as popular as she, to be a hermit. Her once animated face adopted the tired look of an overworked single mother. She ate without appetite and spent most of her time reading or sitting on the porch and gazing at nothing.

Curiously, she only went up to her bedroom to change clothes or sleep, and he wasn’t so sure she was sleeping much, either. On several separate occasions as he passed her room on the way to his own bed in the early hours of the morning, he heard whispering. Once he even pressed his ear up against the door and tried to hear what she was saying, but she spoke too quickly, the words running into each other like a stream hissing through leaves.

She had to work things out in her own mind, he supposed, just like he did. He wished she would talk to him, but she’d always been closer with her mother.

It didn’t occur to him that he might have been part of what was worrying Bridie so much until she came to him one night with the Soul Box. He was on his sixth cup of earl grey and couldn’t remember what show he was watching, an ad for bicep blaster 6000 screaming at him from across the living room. Her black hair was mussed and her eyes droopy, and she sat down beside him on the couch and put the Soul Box down on the coffee table.

He muted the ad and blinked at her, setting the tea aside. ‘Oh, hey Bridie. Can’t sleep?’

She shook her head. ‘Not for a while.’

He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring rather than unstable. ‘Me neither. We just have to give it time, you know? And I’m always here for you.’

‘Thanks, Dad. Um, me too, right?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve been worried. I was thinking maybe you should have the Soul Box. I really got the feeling you needed it more than me, you know? And I just… Things that remind me of her can be kind’ve painful more than anything else. I appreciate it, you know, but you need her more than me.’

He looked at the Soul Box and smiled. It was as though Marie was there in the room with them. Her warm presence comforted him more than he could say. ‘I miss her so much,’ he said.

‘Me too, Dad.’

‘Well, if you’re sure. Thanks.’ He reached for the box and she tensed up. He cocked his head, hand still outstretched. ‘What’s up?’

‘Oh, I dunno. It’s just… I have this strong feeling, you know? Like, is it okay if we don’t ever open it again? I saved some rainwater inside, and I feel like that’s her soul, and if we open it she might get lost. I know it sounds stupid.’

‘No, no. I mean, yeah, it does sound stupid.’ They laughed, the sound strange but welcome in the quiet house. ‘But I know exactly what you mean. If we don’t open it, it kinda preserves the magic of the thing, right? Like you know a magician’s trick is just a trick, but as long as he doesn’t explain how he did it, you can always believe, just a little bit?’

‘Exactly.’ She smiled.

He picked up the box, still warm from her hands, and turned it over, hypnotised by the way the light glanced off the jewels like tiny mirrors.

‘Magic,’ he said.

 

*

 

She couldn’t tell him the real reason she had to get rid of the box. He was dealing with enough on his own without having to handle the thought that his daughter might be losing her mind. There was something else, but she didn’t admit it to herself except late at night when she tossed and turned and wondered: what if I I’m not going crazy, and the Soul Box is real?

After she gave him the box, she watched him closely for signs that he was experiencing the same things she had. But he smiled at her over coffee, he asked her about her day, he watched television into the early hours, he drank more than he used to. Normal behaviour, now.

It was impossible to talk to him about it. How could she explain to him what it had been like? Her mind had twisted things so that the box became a source of dread. She left it by her bedside and didn’t go near it all day. And when she did, oh. The heaviness that settled over her when she opened her door and looked into her room; the way her stomach churned and her skin prickled, as it did strapped in to the front seat of a rollercoaster in the last moments before take off. How she’d heard her mother’s voice in the twilight hours of morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, whispering. She couldn’t quite remember the words, only that they were nasty, and mentioned things she didn’t want to hear. Once she’d woken up in a cold sweat and swore she heard the tail end of a sentence hissing at her from inside the box: Feel it burning all the way to my bones forever… How could she tell her father these things?

The night she gave the box to him, she’d fallen into a deep sleep and hadn’t woken for twelve hours of pleasant sunlit dreams. No dread, no fear – only grief, and now that the whispers were silenced, she could bear the grief.

Neil seemed comforted, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t keeping everything to himself. He laughed too easily, smiled too often. He didn’t leave the box in his room but kept it in his pocket at all times. She never heard it whisper when she was with him, but sometimes he cocked his head to one side and his smile faltered.

Bridgette took the days one at a time, and things got easier. People died, and you moved on because you had no choice. It was sad, but no one could be sad forever, and as the weeks went by and she returned to school, and friends, and normal things, she thought of her mother less and less.

Sometimes, in her dreams, she remembered the things her mother’s voice had whispered, and she woke up with a scream in her throat. On these nights, she was glad her father had agreed never to open the box.

If there really was something in there, it would be better not to know.

 

*

 

Marie was back. Not in the flesh, of course, not in person, but he could live with that because he’d fallen in love with who she was as much as what she was. Better to have her mind and not her body than the other way around.

It was magic, alright, and he wished so badly he could tell Bridie everything, but Marie wouldn’t let him. She can’t hear me, honey, she said. I tried. And occasionally she would call out to her daughter, but Bridie never responded, and in the end, as Marie told him, that was for the best. She’s better that way, Neil. She needs to move on, and that’s okay.

He could hardly sleep the first week. He talked and talked and let all his grief and worry leak away because she was alright, she was here with him, hadn’t left at all, and even when he died one day she reassured him they could still be together. He talked because he didn’t want to hear. He was too afraid to ask her what it had been like to die, or where she was now, and she didn’t tell him. He was afraid, also, that she wouldn’t be able to answer because her voice was really his own mind giving him the comfort he needed. She sounded happy, and that was enough for him.

For a while.

Curiosity gnawed in a dark corner of his mind so quietly he never knew it was there until he started asking her the questions he didn’t want her to answer.

He would set the Soul Box on the kitchen table and talk to her for hours while Bridgette was at school. Reminiscing, laughing and joking, loving each other with words. It was on one of these occasions, two o’clock on a summery Tuesday afternoon, when he asked her, ‘Is it okay, where you are now?’ He hadn’t known he was going to ask until the words fell out of his mouth.

Are you sure you want to know? She whispered.

‘I dunno. I mean, I guess heaven is a crazy idea, when you think about it – kinda just too good to be true. But it can’t be all bad where you are, right?

It’s lonely.

‘God. I’m so sorry, Marie. You won’t be alone forever, I promise you.’

She didn’t answer, and for a long time he sat at the table in silence, squirming. How bad was it? How long had he left her there, alone?

‘Listen, just tell me what happens. Where are you? Marie, maybe I can help you somehow. Please tell me?’

A pause, then, her whisper mingling with a sudden gust blowing in through the kitchen window, she answered: ‘Open the box, and I’ll show you.’

 

*

 

Bridgette walked home with her face up to the sky, letting the sun fall across her skin in between clouds and feeling okay. There was a certain sadness beneath everything, a melancholy that would never quite go away. She was fine with that. She wouldn’t truly lose her mother unless she lost that sadness, she –

The Dread.

It was like walking into a wall. She stopped mid stride and shook her head, blinking. Was there someone behind her? No, it wasn’t that kind of dread. It was something worse, a terror without cause. She was suffocating, but no matter how deeply she sucked at the air, she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. She doubled over and fixed her eyes on the cracked concrete sidewalk, willing herself not to vomit. She broke into a cold sweat and her hands shook. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped onto her scuffed school shoes.

She was less than a hundred meters from the street she on which she lived, but she doubted she could walk five. A vast cloud rolled over the sun and she went to her knees in a dark, empty street. Was she dying?

No. It’s the box. It’s the same feeling the Soul Box used to give you, only worse. For a minute she was paralysed with her grief, forehead touching the ground while tears poured from her eyes, but such an intense feeling couldn’t last for long without making her faint, and as soon as it relented she forced herself up onto her feet and stumbled forward, wiping her eyes. She dropped her school bag in the street and didn’t look back. Something’s happened. Oh, God, something’s happened.

She didn’t stop again, nor did she look up, her mind focussed on landing one foot in front of the other until she reached her front lawn. This time it was the smell of roasting pork that struck her, and the thin grey smoke that escaped the half open front door. She knew even then what had happened, only not why, and she collapsed onto all fours in dewy grass and screamed until she had nothing left.

He might not be dead! He might not be dead! This thought was enough to drag her back up and on, through the front door and, following the smoke, down the hall toward the kitchen. She heard the awful sound she remembered from the funeral: heavy stone grating against stone and settling into place with a final thump.

He was still alive.

Smoking, red embers settled in the black husk of his body, knees to chest in the foetal position at the foot of the kitchen counter, eyes like white boiled eggs bulging from a scorched face, a pair of scissors and a metal skewer lodged deep into each ear, lips peeled back from blistered gums and cracked teeth. Yet his mouth drew the slow raw hiss of a lifetime smoker; still alive.

‘Oh, God, Dad.’

She went to her knees in front of him, though not close enough to touch. His ashen flesh radiated heat like an oven. The floor and wooden cupboards were charcoal black, and the can of lighter fluid he’d used lay on its side. His eyeballs twitched at the sound of her voice and a pained cry escaped his throat. Then a hushed word: ‘Bridie?’

‘Why, Dad? How could you do this?

But whatever answer he might have had for her died in his throat, along with the rest of him. Fire tightened tendons in his right hand loosened, and the Soul Box fell from his grip and tumbled, without opening, against Bridgette’s knee. While she was weeping, she thought she glimpsed her father’s blue eyes in the reflection of one of the silver jewels, weeping with her.

When she managed to pull herself to her feet again with the aid of the countertop, she saw a note lying on the kitchen table. It was written in her father’s familiar block letter handwriting, scrawled in such a frantic rush it was barely legible. He’d signed the bottom of the page, but his wasn’t the only signature.

The other read: M. Faye.

 

*

 

Bridie, sweet Bridie.

            I’m going to do it. I’m so sorry but I have to do it. You warned me not to open the box and, Oh God, I opened it. Your mother only did what I asked, she showed me what happens. What happens.

            I had to go to her, Bridie, I couldn’t leave her to face it alone. I had to share her suffering.

             She didn’t die fast at all. It was slow, so slow. And do you want to know what happens? When you die, you die. You experience your death. Over and over.

            My eyes have been opened, and one day yours will be, too. I don’t want it to be a surprise for you like it was for Marie, so I’ll tell you now, my poor sweet Bridie.

            Your life is a tunnel, and it stops in a dead end, a cul de sac, a blank wall. There is nowhere left to go, so you just stay there, stuck in a rut. Life is a well that ends in mud and stagnant water. Life is a coffin from which there is no escape, and death is the dirt that keeps you in.

            Think of all those people, the children who drowned, the men who died bleeding and terrified on a thousand different battlefields across history. Think of the women insensible with pain who died in childbirth, of the innocents tortured to death over the centuries. Think of the ones who starved and the ones who were taken in inches by disease. Do you know where they all are now, this very moment?

            They’re living the last minutes of their deaths, over and over again. They’re stuck in the enclaves at the ends of their lives, where your mother is, where I will be.

            No one should have to suffer that alone, Bridie, so I went to join her.

            Maybe, one day, you could keep us company?

            We miss you so much, Bridie.

            We love you.

 

*

 

Bridgette was fine.

For a while.

Neil had killed himself in a rush, but he’d made a new will directly after Marie’s death that took good care of Bridgette. When she was eighteen, she moved to an apartment in the city, where the bustle and nightlife made her feel less alone at night. She got a few jobs, but couldn’t hold them down. She went out and got drunk, took drugs and tried to meet people.

But somehow, everything was pointless.

She kept the box beside the bed and tried not to listen to the words that escaped it in hushed secretive tones late at night and in the dark hours of the morning. There were two voices that spoke now, and they meant well, but she could hear madness behind the things they said. Their pain was becoming too much for their minds. At least they were together.

Some nights, Bridgette didn’t go out at all, but stayed in with a bottle of vodka and played music loud enough to drown the voices.

One of these nights, she stepped out onto the balcony with the Soul Box in one hand and the bottle in the other. It was a smoker’s balcony, narrow and minimalist, the railing made of cement rather than glass, so she could climb on top of it and balance, rainy air whipping into her face as she sang with the music.

Each time she reached the end of the railing she’d take another swig and then turn around, so the arm that hung over the bright lights of the city twenty floors below changed each time. First the bottle hung over the drop, then the box, then the bottle, then the box. When half the bottle was gone she tripped and accidentally kicked her radio from its perch. She watched it fall without breathing, counting ten full seconds before it shattered in the alleyway beside a metal dumpster.

In the sudden silence she stood, facing the empty night. She leaned forward and would have fallen if it weren’t for a correctly timed gust of wind blowing up against her. She swallowed another shot of vodka and coughed. She lifted the Soul Box in front of her and rested her thumb on the edge of the lid, knowing it would take the slightest flick of her nail to open it.

‘I miss you so much, mum. I miss you, Dad.’

Misssss you tooooooo, honey.

            ‘Why did you leave me?’

Haven’t lefffffft. Here foreverrrrrr.

            It wouldn’t be such a bad death, she thought. Soaring toward the pavement at ten meters a second, air roaring in her ears, the night enveloping her; it would be like flying through space. If that was to be her eternity, well, there were worse ways, weren’t there? They wouldn’t begrudge her a sense of peace in her final moments, when they had only pain, would they?

She wobbled again, regained her balance and took another burning swig. Only a quarter bottle left now.

Come to ussssss, Bridgette. We misssssss youuuuuu.

‘I miss you too, guys. I do. I hope you’re okay, wherever you are.’

She took her thumb away from the lid, closed her eyes, and opened her hand. She didn’t see the box fall so much as felt it, that heavy dread leaving her weak in its absence. She didn’t hear the sound of shattering porcelain because her knees gave out and she collapsed backwards onto the balcony, the bottle of vodka shattering against the cement.

The rain fell harder, but she didn’t notice, curled up under an alcohol blanket, weeping for her parents. She cried for them, and for all the dead, and for the fate that awaited her.

But she was alive tonight, and whatever lay ahead, she still had tomorrow.

In time, a smile found her sleeping lips.

 

 

Writing Badly

 

They tell you to write every day, no matter what. They tell you to revise endlessly, to omit needless words and to trim your work down; correct your grammar, close your plot holes. What they are actually telling you is that much of what you write will be total trash.

It’s just mathematics. A certain (large) percentage of what you create is junk. No one sits down and just churns out reams of gold plated words. If anything, the greater quantity of words you produce on a daily basis, the percentage of bad writing rises until, like someone in a Mills and Boon Romance Factory, you’re frantically slamming out a novel per week which consists of one hundred percent shit.

Here’s the thing: up to a point, it’s not only okay to write badly, it’s necessary, and next time you sit down to write you’d do well to remember that. If, that is, you are in the habit of editing more than once or twice. If not, then you’re better off writing no more than one or two hundred words a day and making sure they’re exactly the right ones in the right places, but minimal editing is generally a bad idea; there are some things you just don’t see in first draft.

Even the top writers at the top of their game occasionally drop something so bad it makes their own fans shake their heads in wonderment. What the hell was he thinking? I’ll tell you what – he’s reading the same book you are and shaking his head for the same reasons. He’s muttering to himself: ‘Damn, what the hell was I thinking?’

For example: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.’ That’s a hell of a percentage. Whoever said that has to write ninety two books before they have a decent one, or revise the same book ninety two times. Who said that, you wonder, Stephanie Meyer? Nope, Hemingway.

It is a painful truth my friends, but over my years of writing badly (so many years, and still counting), I have learned that it is normal to create a quantity of bad work. If you work exceptionally hard, you can lower your percentage somewhat – but keep in mind, the source of bad writing does not always stem from the execution so much as it does the idea itself. It lacks heart, it’s hackneyed, it’s bland. Lacking heart is the worst one of all, because it’s usually not fixable, and often stems from the fact that the author wrote the entire novel with the subconscious knowledge that it sucked.

So accept that you will write badly, and often, if you’re a beginner. In fact, I have a suspicion that I may be writing badly this very moment. That’s alright though, because I plan to edit this a few times. But the point of the post is to explain why this truth is a blessing in disguise, and that you should stop beating yourself up about it and in fact acknowledge it as a necessary part of the process.

Here are all the ways writing badly has helped me.

 

Lately I’ve been making a lot of false starts. I don’t like false starts. Once I’ve begun, that should be it, goddammit. There is nothing more irritating than writing five thousand words of what will probably be a seven thousand word short story and then realising to yourself that it sucks so bad you have to start again. But it happens to me all the time, and it will continue to happen. As much as I dislike it, however, I need to do it. Why? Because false starts help.

To toot my own horn, one of my recent stories, Fear, went down extremely well with my beta readers. One said it was the best thing I’d ever written, and another said it was the scariest (same thing). I was happy with it too, especially since it took me three and a half false starts before I got going. The first one, I wrote four thousand words before I deleted everything. The half is because the fourth time I did that, I just changed the title (it was originally called Pool. I know, right? Three rewrites and the very first word still sucks.)

But here’s the kicker: important things happened during those rewrites. In the first one, one of the characters tells some freaky stories in detail to the protagonist. The existence of those stories was necessary, but the thousand words detailing them was not. In the end, I allude to the stories only in a couple of vague sentences, and the effect was much stronger. In the second rewrite, I found myself over describing both characters: who they were, what they looked like, etc. In the final draft, you’ll note I don’t spend that much time on their daily lives, thoughts or appearances. But I needed that failed draft, because I had to know those things. Each time I got a better picture of what was going on, what I needed to say and what I could leave out, and when I finally got going, a lot of it was fixed in my mind.

There are many things that require a restart: you’re writing from the wrong point of view, you’ve started in the wrong place or time, your characters are badly thought out, etc. The trick about writing badly is a simple but difficult rule: know when to fold ‘em, folks. Sometimes I write a story which I think is great, and after I’ve sent it to everyone I know I start to get a sour feeling in my stomach, and a week later, even if no one’s commented on it yet, I know it was bad. Other times, I think it’s awful initially, and everyone raves about it. If one can only catch the rotten things before they escape into the world, you’re doing well.

Extensive editing is one way to do this, but it doesn’t always work. I do find, though, that I’m more likely to be so disgusted by something I’ve done during the editing phase that I won’t let it see the light of day, and that’s probably for the good. Once I wrote a six thousand word short story, spent a week thinking about it, and then deleted the whole thing without so much as a second glance. A mistake? Maybe, I’ll never know. To return to the poker analogy, it’s like learning not to cling to your flush draw when all the signs are telling you to fold and cut your losses. And like I said, even the pros get it wrong now and again – didn’t Stephen King throw the first fifty pages of his breakout novel Carrie in the bin?

The best way I’ve found to make the decision to cut your losses is to get out of it with something good. Look hard at the shit you wrote, and ask yourself ‘what did I do right?’ Then when you start the rewrite, you’ll be able to home in on that one thing and bring it to the fore.

You must accept your propensity to spill offal onto a page. This will eliminate the fear of daily writing. When I used to be more erratic, I would excuse myself from writing on a given day because I was tired, or sick, or at a loss for ideas, knowing that whatever I created would probably be subpar. Once I accepted that subpar was going to happen and I could always improve it later, I was able to write day in, day out, just like the pros. The fear of failure was gone, and ultimately, I’ve had a lot of good days at the keyboard which I thought were going to be terrible. (Note: I’m currently editing this essay for the third time and feel obligated to mention that I still don’t make my quota every day, but I do write every day, and in my book that’s a win).

Failure in general, while unpleasant, is a learning curve, just as natural as a child skinning his knees learning to ride a bike. It stings like hell, but if you don’t fall you won’t get anywhere. The real crime is not learning. The story I mentioned which I deleted without a second glance was a mistake. What I should have done was read it over thoroughly, worked out how to avoid the mistakes in future, asked myself why I started writing it in the first place and whether there was a better way to go about it, and then deleted it and, maybe, started again.

Finally, we have my favourite mining analogy. If you mine for gold, you must excavate large quantities of worthless mud. It would be nice if you could just reach down and pick it up off the ground, but the good stuff is buried way down there, and if you have to dig through an acre of putrefied faeces, you will, because it’s worth it. In writing, sometimes you’ll do a scene or have an idea or even make just a sentence, and it will be excellent and at the core of what you wanted – and you will realise that you couldn’t have got there if you hadn’t first written a bunch of other bullshit.

So next time you start something and find you have to delete it over and over, or you’re hesitant to start your daily one thousand, just remember that it is okay for you to do a bad day’s work. Try to catch it before it gets out though, because you should also remember that the same guy who wrote The Old Man and the Sea also wrote The Green Hills of Africa, and the same guy who wrote The Shining also wrote Maximum Overdrive.

Epilogue

 

After Dale’s funeral, Brian, Matt, Elyse and Steph met at the foot of the Westlake cliffs, where it all began. Brian came last, and he brought the Book of Worlds with him, held solemnly in both hands, like a priest with his bible. They were silent, sitting in an uncertain semicircle alongside the rock wall. They’d built a stack of kindling and Matt stooped and lit it with a match when he saw Brian approaching.

There were no greetings or smiles, everyone still sick from the funeral, the sight of Dale’s pale faced parents clear in their minds. Brian simply walked up to the sputtering fire, stood for a moment, and tossed the book onto it. A moment later, Steph leaned forward and tossed in the box which contained the ring of keys.

In silence, they watched the flames until there was nothing but ashes and glowing logs. Only then did Brian speak. ‘He was the best of all of us,’ he said. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked Jordan. He made himself the sacrifice.’

‘It should have been me,’ Matt said, watching the flames flash and lick at the wood.

‘It was him,’ Brian said simply. Matt said nothing, but put an arm around Steph and pulled her closer.

‘I thought it was a trick, at first,’ Steph said. ‘I thought he had some decoy or something that Jordan was attacking, and he was just screaming to make it realistic. I thought we were going to find some dummy with its stuffing ripped out, and Dale would step out from the bushes, smiling like he used to when he pulled off a really good magic trick.’

‘I remember that smile,’ Elyse said. ‘Like he already knew how good it was, and he would rather die than tell you how he did it.’

‘Yeah.’

They watched the fire burn down, and when it was nothing but cinders they hugged each other and parted ways, Matt and Steph walking back down the lane towards Wayward road, Brian and Elyse to Brian’s house. Before they’d left the park, Brian turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey.’

‘Uh. Hey?’ She said, smiling.

‘Um.’ He was remembering blades. Skin split, blood leaking from the wounds. Blisters rising from new burns. He was remembering her face lit in ecstasy as he worked a nail into a fresh cut. He forced the thoughts away. He hoped it would get easier with time.

‘Now it’s all over,’ he said, finally. ‘Will you, um, will you go out with me?’

She smiled at him, and the scars across her lips looked prettier than ever.

‘Of course I will, idiot.’

He stopped walking and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her in for a kiss and she hesitated. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heart thundering in his chest. ‘I won’t bite.’ She let out a sudden laugh, the first in a long time it seemed, and for a few moments he felt like it was all going to be alright. She kissed him then, hard – but not too hard – and it was good.

 

THE END

Epilogue

 

The Westlake Watcher: Peace Reigns?

 

After last month’s huge spike in violence in the usually peaceful suburb of Westlake, it seems that people have had enough. The unprecedented violence began with the assault on young Zane Blaire, and culminated in the torture and murder of Frank Silic by his son, Jordan Silic, who still has yet to be found (full story page 4).

Between these two crimes, hundreds of violent cases have been reported this summer, almost all of them apparently impulsive. According to the police (who were themselves accused of excessive force in over fifty percent of their criminal apprehensions during this period), many of the criminals claimed to have had no rational explanation or reason for their attacks. These were all crimes of passion, in other words.

So what was the cause, then, of this strange eruption of violence over the course of two months? Dina Silic, Jordan’s mother and a survivor of his brutal onslaught, claims her son had gone insane and ‘acted like someone I’d never met’. Similar sentiments were expressed by witnesses in Zaine’s attack, and an uncharacteristically large portion of the crimes committed were committed by citizens with no prior convictions. Many were described as normal, friendly people. ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was a common phrase. Those recently released from prison have apparently gone back to their ordinary lives. The crime rate in Westlake, since November, has dropped to below its long term average. And so the question remains: what are we to conclude?

Many interviewed seem to liken the event to a kind of natural disaster. As though a community can lose its collective mind for a period, cause great destruction, and return to normal, the same way a hurricane hits a town and then fades away. Ask an anthropologist, and it’s a case of over population coupled with a deteriorating economy. Ask a lawyer, and it’s a case of police corruption. Ask a Doctor, and it’s a case of drug and alcohol abuse. Everyone has their theories.

Whatever the cause, Westlake seems to have recovered, for now, and already the new year is looming and full of hope. The previous two months will, most likely, be swept under the rug and forgotten with time. Perhaps, that is how it should be, though Zane Blaire will doubtless remember his summer for the rest of his life, and so too will Dina Silic, both bearing scars that will never fade. Besides them, a staggering one hundred and sixty victims of assault, rape and attempted murder will no doubt be less eager to forgive and forget, and the families of Ray Deakin and Jimmy Lee, along with the relatives of ten other missing Westlake residents (including Jordan Silic), continue to search for answers.

For now, Westlake has very much the atmosphere of those rebuilding after an earthquake: families rally around each other to support those with lost loved ones, people can be seen tentatively stepping out into the streets once again to clean the wreckage left by mindless rioters, and others are beginning to get on with their lives once more. For better or worse, it seems Westlake has weathered the storm.

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