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

 

Monster

Ben Pienaar

 

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And knew immediately that he’d made a mistake.

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

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

 

*

 

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

‘Hey Charlie, what’s up?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie shook his head.

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

‘It peed in there.’

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

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

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

‘What’s the matter, son?’

Charlie shook his head, shrugged, mumbled.

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

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

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

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

‘Well… Yeah.’

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

‘You do?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I can’t take it now?’

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

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

Full darkness descended an hour later.

 

*

 

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was that?

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

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

It was all he needed to see.

 

*

 

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

‘Hey, Dad,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

‘I’ll kill it dead, I reckon.’

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

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

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

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

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

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

‘Hey dad, I did it!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Bled

Ben Pienaar

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

Emma giggled. ‘I threw it away.’

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Something wrong? Like what?’

He shrugged.

‘What?’

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

‘Okay?’

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

‘Oh yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

‘I fell in the blackberry bushes, mum.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. ‘Okay mum. I will.’

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand.

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

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

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

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

Bled waited patiently in the far reaches of her mind.

 

*

 

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

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

She’d never felt so vacant.

But Bled was there. Waiting.

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

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

 

*

 

Three AM.

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

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

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

Perhaps.

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

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

For now.

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

 

*

 

‘You’re right, something’s wrong.’

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

‘What happened?’

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

‘Oh. Why?’

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

‘Says who?’

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

‘If you’d ever felt empty?’

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

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

‘Have you ever felt dead,’ he repeated.

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

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

Empty.

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

 

*

 

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

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

It didn’t seem like much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

‘Yeah, sure Em, that’d be great.’

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

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

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

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

‘Why would you be worried?’

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

‘Different,’ he said.

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

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

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

‘I’m in love.’ She said.

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

‘Oh? With who?’ she said.

‘With Bled.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What – ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

‘Save me,’ she whispered.

You failed me.

            ‘No!’

The sacrifice is not dead.

‘She is! She will be soon!’

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

‘Wait! No!’

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

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

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

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

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

Bled laughed.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they did not have to wait long.

Well, I didn’t win the competition. Unfortunately, I find that I am a chronic optimist, especially when I’m working a first draft. Every novel is the best thing I’ve ever done, every short story brilliant. Only in the cold light of the first edit does that change, and the more I edit the worse it gets. Never mind, the one I’m working on right now is amazing, just wait…

Don’t Look

 

There are few things more terrifying than isolation. Human beings are and always have been pack animals. A caveman without a mate to pick the lice from his hair became ridden with sores and disease. The more separate from humanity a man is, the further out of his element, and the more he feels it too, for while human beings may be an unstoppable force in their numbers, the modern man is rendered utterly helpless when alone, his soft body and specialised knowledge unhelpful in an indifferent wilderness.

And there were few wildernesses like the Australian Outback.

Such were Jerry’s thoughts as he wound his way along the trail, the only sounds those of cicadas and the wind in the low brush. He shivered, though he’d been hiking for two hours. It was near dusk, sure, but wasn’t this country supposed to be hot?

The flies didn’t seem to mind, and he was covered in them despite the uncharacteristic weather. Never mind – he could see the final rise ahead. After that, the trail curled around and it was a short twenty minute walk to the carpark. There’d been a motorbike there, too, and Jerry had kept his eye out for this kindred spirit, a fellow dedicated hiker, but he’d long given up hope by the time he started up the final steep hill and saw him standing at the top.

The guy was in a cheap leather jacket and jeans, standing right up there and looking out at the view of the Blue Mountains. Jerry picked up the pace, the flies and cold forgotten for a moment, a smile already touching his lips.

‘Hey!’ The stranger called out to him without turning around. ‘Hey, is there someone there?’

Jerry had come to a stop at the top of the hill, about ten meters or so away. He watched the guy for a minute before he answered, noticing something odd about the way he was standing, how he swayed on his feet and stood hunched over, staring into the wind so intently.

‘Yeah, I’m here. Sure is a nice view, huh?’

‘Yeah, it sure is mate, it sure is. Come stand over here, will ya? It’s great from here.’

Jerry was still getting used to the Australian inflections and intonation, so it was possible he’d heard something wrong there, but he could have sworn the guy was terrified. You could hear fear in a voice, a little shaking, some urgency – but it was mostly just intuition, and even in those few words Jerry’s needle flicked all the way round to red.

He came over, his eyes no longer on the view but the man, and kept his distance, so that he came to stand a few meters to the stranger’s right and a little in front of him. The guy had greasy black hair and a weathered face. He looked rough, too, like he’d been sleeping hard and drinking harder. He had a ragged beard, and his eyes were fixed in a tight squint, crow’s feet making trenches through his face. Jerry stared openly at him, but he didn’t return the look.

‘Are you alright, buddy?’

‘Yeah, yeah mate. Just uh, just really tired, you know, but I swear I can see something out there. I dunno what it is, I was just waiting for someone to come along for a younger set of eyes, you know. Could you come have a look with me? Just come over and check it out?’

Thick arms, and Jerry could see tattoos creeping up onto his neck from his chest. A real biker. And there was another strange thing: this kind of guy didn’t talk this way. So many words stumbling over each other like a nervous teenager asking a girl on a date. Scared. Jerry could see it on his face.

It was human nature, in the end: Jerry wanted to know, on an instinctive level, what the guy was scared of.

So he looked.

At first he didn’t see anything, so he stepped a bit closer to the guy. ‘I’m not getting it.’ The guy pointed with a hand that was visibly shaking. Jerry squinted and stepped forward, as though one meter closer to mountains kilometres distant would make a difference. But he saw it, then, at the foot of the nearest mountain, just where the bush gave way to rock. This far, it was little more than a speck, but it had a humanoid shape.

‘I see him,’ Jerry said. ‘It’s a hiker or someone, standing there at the foot of the mountain.

‘You see him? You definitely see him?’ The guy sounded curiously relieved. He must have thought he was going insane, seeing things on the mountain. But it was no vision or trick of the light, Jerry was sure of it.

‘Hey mate, do me a favour, yeah? Keep looking at it for a sec.’

‘Uh, okay.’ Jerry continued to stare at the distant figure, but he watched the biker out of the corner of his eye. The guy was breathing hard, his head bent and his hands massaging his eyes, rubbing them hard. He looked up a couple of times and muttered things that Jerry couldn’t quite hear. Maybe the guy was insane.

‘Is he coming any closer? The thing – the guy on the mountain?’

‘Nope. He’s just standing there.’

‘Thank Christ.’

Jerry turned to look at him again, an inquisitive smile on his face. There was some story here, that was for sure: being a travel writer, he had a nose for these things. But the biker didn’t return the look. Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. ‘Alright, I’ve just got one more thing, yeah? Just do this one more thing for me and I’ll get out of your hair and you can enjoy the view, okay?’

‘Um. Sure, man.’ The biker handed him the note and clapped him on the shoulder, his expression curiously serious, his tired eyes steady and red rimmed.

‘Stay here and read that note as soon as you lose sight of me, alright?’

‘Okay. Sure. Listen, are you sure you’re okay – ’ But the biker was hustling out of there, jogging down the hill and off down the path to the carpark. Only when he was gone did Jerry notice he’d left a motorcycle helmet and a pair of binoculars lying in the grass near where he’d been standing.

‘Hey! You left your stuff!’

In the silence that answered, it occurred to Jerry how weird it was that the guy had asked him to stare at the man on the mountain when he’d had a perfectly good pair of binoculars right there. Shaking his head, he smoothed out the note in his hand and looked it over. One way or another, this was going to make a great chapter for The Big Island.

The handwriting looked like it was done by a five year old in the midst of a hurricane, scribbles and cramped lines. It was on the back of a store receipt for three bottles of cheap wine.

The note:

 

Listen buddy I’m really sorry to do this to you but I got no choice mate I swear.

The thing on the hill I saw, I don’t know what it is. I just saw it coming out of the mountains, and it stood there. Look up at it right now. Is it where it was before? I bet it isn’t. I bet it’s closer.

I saw it and what I noticed was, every time I looked away it came closer. It knows when you can see it. I’ve been standing here a long time when I wrote this note. I thought I was going crazy. If you’re reading this note, it means I’m not crazy, because you saw it too.. The thing is, I can tell when I look at it, its focusing on me. It’s coming for me. If I can get it on to someone else, it’ll leave me alone. It’ll get closer while you read this note but that’s okay cos it doesn’t move that fast that I could tell. You’ll be right, just wait on until someone else comes and pass it on. I don’t know what’ll happen when it gets all the way, but I don’t want to be there when it does. Just look and you’ll see what I mean.

Sorry mate, I didn’t have no choice.

Best of luck.

 

Jerry felt a twinge of unease, a worm squirming inside him. What the hell is this? He looked back out at the mountain.

The man wasn’t there anymore. He was closer.

Not by much, but definitely closer.

It was a hoax. Had to be – the setup was just too perfect. Scare Factor or whatever that show was. But man, if it was? That guy was a good actor.

            But no one came out of the bush to laugh and clap and point out all the cameras. So the guy was paranoid, freaking out over some random hiker. Jerry bent and picked up the binoculars. Only one way to find out. He put them to his eyes and traced the mountainside until he reached the bottom, the place he’d initially seen the speck. Nothing there, so he moved a bit further down. Then further.

When he found it, it was no longer a speck, but nor was it a man. The magnified lenses showed something else entirely. The form was similar, but the head was too large in proportion to the body, tilted back and in shadow. The fingers were too long, reaching nearly to the ground. The legs were short, as though the thighs were joined directly to the shins without knees; the torso was elongated and hunched over by a backbone too long to properly support the body to which it was attached. He could not see its eyes, but he knew it was staring.

Jerry lowered the binoculars. ‘What the hell?’ His voice sounded foreign to him. It was full of fear, just like the biker’s had been, though he didn’t really feel it. This wasn’t real. It was impossible.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep for a hundred heart beats, then looked again.

The thing was closer, now at least five hundred meters from where he’d first seen it.

Jerry laughed out loud, but it was a hollow, scared sound, half torn away by the wind. He forced himself to turn away. This wasn’t happening. He would walk back to the car and drive back to the hotel and it would be a funny anecdote for the book. A practical joke. The lenses in the binoculars had been fixed.

He left the binoculars next to the helmet and headed down the path for the carpark, his appetite for the view somewhat diminished. That twenty minute walk was the longest of his life, checking over his shoulder every few seconds and seeing nothing, walking fast and with purpose while his mind worked, trying to figure out what it could have been, some rational explanation.

But in the end, what your eyes see is just what your eyes see.

And he’d seen a monster.

He didn’t so much as glance in his rear view mirror on the drive back. When he pulled into the motel’s empty lot, he sat in his seat for a long time before he got out. You’re being stupid, Jerry. Just get out and take a good long look down the highway. Put your mind to rest or you’ll be tossing all night.

So he did it: he got out of the car and looked.

The highway was empty.

Jerry allowed himself a smile and a shake of the head. Such a fool. Man, it was a good joke though, so well thought out. It was almost as if…

Thinking of the Blue Mountains, he looked in that direction, though by now it was much too dark to see them at all. Across the road, the land was pretty much barren – exactly the flat red landscape he’d imagined covered the whole of Australia before he actually came here – so it wasn’t hard to pick out the one thing standing up. The sun was minutes from setting, and the figure cast a long shadow, one with a hunched stance and dangling limbs.

Jerry sat on one of the two chairs outside the front office, and tried not to blink. He felt sick. Nothing could move that fast. It would have taken a car hours to get from the foot of the mountains to where that thing now stood. It’s because you couldn’t see it. Your eyes freeze it, like Medusa’s gaze, but when you’re not looking it can go wherever it wants.

He was still sitting there when the toilet adjoining the office flushed and Bill came out onto the porch a moment later. Bill was the motel’s owner and, in the off season, the only other patron. He was a fat bearded man who spoke with such a thick accent Jerry wasn’t sure if it was natural or the result of being constantly drunk. He was sociable enough, though, and when he saw Jerry sitting out there he took two beers from the fridge and came to sit beside him.

Jerry thanked him without looking away from the figure. The sun was setting now, and darkness was falling fast. What would happen then, he wondered? Already he felt it moving closer as the dusk obscured it.

‘Howaya buddy?’ Bill said. Jerry felt his eyes on him but he didn’t look.

He tried to sound natural. ‘I’m fine Bill, thanks for the beer.’

‘Naworries mate. You look tired as, ay? Howas the hoike?’

‘It was long, I guess…’ He paused then, and gritted his teeth, wanting not to do it, knowing he would. When he spoke his next words, he felt as though he were killing that honourable part of himself, something he’d always believed about himself that he now knew was fiction: that he would put others first, and always be brave in the face of danger and protect those around him.

‘Hey, Bill, do you see anything out there?’ he said.

Bill squinted out into the twilight for a few seconds and then shook his head. ‘Sorry mate, me eyes can’t even see me toes without glasses. Why, whataya see?’

‘Ah, I dunno, probably nothing.’ His heart sinking, his stomach churning with fear. His mouth was dry, so he took another sip.

Bill didn’t notice anything, but kept up a constant stream of conversation for nine beers, bid him goodnight several times over the course of three more, and finally waddled off to bed.

It got cold at night, but Jerry didn’t get a blanket. He just sat in the chair and stared into the dark and shivered. It had come closer, like he thought, and now it was just outside the pale circle illuminated by the streetlight.

He could only see its feet. They were wide, the toes spread apart and such that they gripped the sand like hands. The nails were black, the skin white as linen. He stared at them until his eyes watered. He used the ankles as a measuring point, and he noticed that whenever he blinked, a little more leg was exposed in the light.

He waited out the night.

He shivered, he cried, tears of fear dripping down his face like they had once when he was twelve and still believed in the boogeyman, he talked to himself, he made desperate plans. He learned that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to save his own life. He learned he was capable of murder.

But he did not look away.

The sun rose by painstaking inches, and the monster had crossed the road. Soon enough, it was completely visible in all its ugliness.

Greasy black hair hung in tendrils around a mostly bald head. Its face was not a face but a mouth, and the mouth was not even that so much as it was a gaping crevice filled with teeth. The bottom jaw hung open, no tongue visible, its gums bleeding. No neck to speak of. Its arms had an extra elbow, and the fingers had no flesh on them – they were long slivers of bone protruding from stumps. He’d been wrong about the legs, too. They weren’t short, they only appeared that way because the knees bent backwards instead of forwards, making them appear short from a distance. Amidst all this, its most sickening features were its eyes. They were tiny, placed high on its forehead above the lipless mouth, but they bulged a little from the flesh, and they were blood red and had no pupils. It looked nowhere and everywhere. It saw nothing and everything, and it watched you.

He looked back. He blinked, and it was infinitesimally closer. How close did it have to be, he wondered? If it could reach you with one of those long arms, would it? Or would it come all the way up to you, face to face, and then bite when you next closed your eyes? He saw his own death in a hundred ways, in those long claws, in every one of its hundreds of narrow yellow teeth.

The sun rose, slowly, and the monster crossed a few more centimetres of asphalt. It was soundless. Jerry wondered, if he clamped his eyes shut, how long it would take to reach him. What would Bill find? A mutilated, tortured body? Nothing at all?

What are you?

It was noon when Bill waddled back out with two beers and sat down beside Jerry. Jerry hated drinking in the morning, but he lifted that beer to his lips and took a long, cold pull. His eyes didn’t waver from those two bulging red cysts, now less than ten meters away. They had no eyelids with which to blink. The creature itself did not move in any way at all, not so much as a twitch.

‘Jesus Christ mate, you stay up all night didya?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fuuuuuuck. What’s wrong, ay? You right?’

‘Can you see it now, Bill? In the light?’

‘See what?’

‘Look.’

He watched the old man in his peripheral vision, squinting, leaning forward on his chair.

Please. Please. God help me.

Bill stood up, as if to see better. He stepped forward off the decking and onto the parking lot.

He dropped his beer and it shattered, but he didn’t so much as look down at it.

Thank you, God. Later Jerry would wonder if it really was God he should have thanked.

‘Do you see it?’ Jerry asked.

‘Y…’ Bill swallowed, lost for words for the first time in his life. ‘Yeah, I see it, mate.’

Jerry closed his eyes for two full seconds and then opened them again, his heart racing. The monster was no closer.

He stood up. ‘Listen to me, Bill. I know what it is, okay? I can help you.’

‘You know what it is?’ Bill’s eyes were as wide as teacups. He was in shock. He didn’t know what was happening.

Jerry said, ‘Bill, I need you to look at me. It doesn’t exist if you don’t look at it.’

And Bill, poor old Bill who wanted nothing out of life other than his motel and a few beers and a wife one day, he turned his head.

It made no sound as it crossed the parking lot. Two seconds, maybe three, and it was there, one long arm reaching out, the points of its fingers piercing Bill’s intestines and then slicing upwards in a smooth, even motion, unzipping him. Those fingers must have been sharp indeed, because his skin parted neatly as paper under a guillotine.

The last thing Jerry saw before he started running was the monster sticking two fingers into Bill’s eyes, pulling them out of his head and sucking them into its enormous mouth. After that it was just Bill’s screams that followed him, the kind that split the air and tore vocal chords.

Jerry was in the car, gunning the engine, squealing out of the car park, but those screams overrode everything and ground themselves into his brain, where they would echo for the rest of his life. The screams, and the way they ended, too, with a high pitched gurgling sound as Bill’s airway filled with blood.

A monster like that, it could have killed him with one or two quick strikes. Bill shouldn’t have had time to scream at all, but he was still going long after he shouldn’t have been able.

Jerry kept his eyes on the road, the needle kicking up to eighty, then a hundred, then one twenty. Don’t look, he told himself. Don’t look, just drive, don’t look.

 

 

He looked.

The motel was there, not too far in the distance, the red tiled roof glowing hot in the sunlight. Atop it, the monster stood. It held Bill’s head out towards him like a trophy, and as Jerry watched, it took the whole thing into its mouth and began to chew, dark blood pouring down its body in a flood.

Jerry watched the road. He told himself it was nothing. He told himself it had eaten and it was satisfied. He told himself he was free.

 

He flew home early, the next day in fact, and spent his time off work at his beach house in Waikiki. He didn’t know how long it would take the monster to cross the ocean, but he knew it would have to come by sea. He drank during the day. Nights, he sat out on the beach with a 9mm in his bag and watched the sea, and waited.

The waves crashed, one after the other, and with each one he heard Bill’s last liquid screams. The lights of the city extended only so far as the white water on the sand, and beyond that all was blackness.

Somewhere in that blackness, he knew, it was coming.

He waited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I got this one just by being naked. It got me thinking about skin, and how weird it is. It clings to you, so soft and fragile, but crucial for your survival. A very useful organ, skin is, and none of you should ever take that for granted. Why, what would happen if the only way you could have skin was if you had to borrow it from other people? Actually, you don’t have to think about that, I already did. Enjoy!

Skin

Ben Pienaar

 

He didn’t remember being born. At least, not in any kind of visual way. He knew there was pain, though, lots and lots of pain. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure if he could still feel it, reverberating through his nerves like an echo, and he’d just grown numb to it.

Many other things were lost to him. His name, everything from the life he must have had before his birth. Truth told, he wasn’t particularly curious. Asking questions about the past was useless – after all, it couldn’t be changed. You just got on with it, lived by your instincts. He was what he was, and he was alive. That was the important thing. He was alive, and hungry to keep living.

Ray Barron was paranoid, but he’d never been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He liked to point that out to people, because there was an important distinction: he didn’t see things that weren’t there. ‘The things I see,’ he was telling the fat guy, Ernest Wells from next door, ‘The things I see, they exist. You understand? I was never diagnosed skitzo because they see pink elephants and shit, you know? Whereas the stuff I see, I mean regardless of what conclusions I drawn about it,’ he chuckled, ‘whatever I see is real. It was really there. Even my shrink admitted it.’

‘Uh, okay.’ Ernie was glancing up and down the hall in the let me out of here way that Ray was very accustomed to. Not that he cared – he thought it was funny. As long as the guy got the message he was sending to him, that was the important thing.

‘Point I’m trying to make here, Ernie. The guy moved in down the hall? Skinner or whatever he says his name is? He’s a shape shifter.’

He nodded and gave a knowing half smile and Ernie gave him an uncertain smile. ‘I see.’

Ray raised his eyebrows, a little annoyed. He was going out of his way to give this guy a pointer and he was just brushing it off like Ray was some retard. ‘Thing I’m trying to warn you about, and I told this to Angeline and Gary as well, he’s dangerous. See, he kills people, too.’

‘Oh, he does?’ Ernie made a show of checking his watch.

Ray decided to do his good deed for the day and try one more time to get through to the guy. ‘Listen,’ he said, leaning in closer to Ernie and eyeing the door to 126 at the same time. ‘I see that guy leave in the morning, sometimes afternoon, carrying a big briefcase really light, you know. I keep an eye out ‘till he gets back. Still the same guy, now the briefcase is heavy. With me so far?’

‘You think he has a body in the briefcase.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m just telling you what I see, okay? You draw your own conclusions. Anyway, he goes into his room. I keep watching, because I’m a suspicious guy like that, right? He stays in there the whole time, then the next day I see a different guy leave the house. Sometimes a woman, with the same briefcase. Sometimes they don’t have a briefcase at all, and sometimes two people come back to the room, but not usually.’

‘I, uh, I’m not one hundred percent following.’

‘Let me finish, okay, here’s the weird part. I mean, we could be looking at just a social guy, right, brings home people now and again. So I’ll tell you the weird part. Sometimes, one of the people he’s brought back, I see leaving the next day with the briefcase. Now why would they do that? Why would his friends be doing his job for him, or whatever he does?’

‘Look, I don’t know Mr. ah, Barone? But I really gotta go. I have lunch with family and…’

‘You not listening? I’ll spell it out, buddy, and this is the only warning you get. The guy’s a shapeshifter, and he steals people’s bodies, maybe learns how to imitate them like in that movie The Thing. I’m on top of it, but I’m warning you to stay the hell out of this building for the next week. Or at least stay in your room and don’t answer the door to people you don’t know, I mean intimately, you get me?’

‘Uh, thank you Mr. Barone, I will definitely keep that in mind.’ He looked at his watch again and pushed awkwardly past Ray and into the hallway. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m getting late already now, so I’ll see you around okay, thank you for the, ah, the warning.’

And he was gone into the lift, giving an obviously fake wave and a smile before the doors closed in front of him. Ray stared back, deadpan. Just because he came off a little weird people assumed he had two and a half brain cells. They heard paranoid and added the rest in their minds. They didn’t think about what paranoia really was: awareness. He was aware, and they were not.

‘Yeah, late,’ He muttered to the empty hall. ‘Late to stuff your face with fifty fuckin burgers. Asshole.’

He called himself Skinner, when people asked. It was accurate, after all, and he found he smiled whenever he said the name – he had a sense of humour, it seemed. It was the kind of last name no one ever asked for a first – they just called you Skinner.

His instincts were basic, his directives straightforward, his whole life spread out plain before him, the way he imagined it was for an animal: survive, procreate, thrive, spread, and enjoy yourself along the way. Such simple needs, and so joyful to fulfil. It fascinated him how other people had invented so many other needs and desires and then depended on those inventions for their happiness.

Survival was sometimes hard, though. At the moment, he was looking out through the peephole in his doorway, and he could see the crazy guy from down the hall talking to the fat one, glancing his way often. He’d been onto Skinner’s case since day one, watching him at all hours, pretending to be crossing the hall to visit people whenever Skinner came and went, asking all his different skins about their lives, even watching him walk past through his own peephole. Despite the perfection of this residence, Skinner had already decided that he had to either get rid of him or move somewhere across town. There would be other places.

Skinner moved away from the door and into his apartment, his good mood ruined. Who knew what the creepy bastard was telling the others? Who knew what he was capable of? He shook the thoughts away as he passed through his bedroom and slid open the door to his bath. The mere sight of it, filled with blood (and a little hot water) sent chills up his body. He was far too dry already, some of his meat blackening and flaking on the surface.

He slid into the bath, letting out a hiss of relief through gritted teeth as the lukewarm blood engulfed him. It felt like heaven, an all-encompassing thirst quenched in full. Coming out of a bloodbath was like having a ten hour sleep, drinking three cups of coffee and taking a cold shower on a hot day all in one. All he needed was one a day, provided he could slip into a skin between baths.

When he did get out, dripping blood all over the tiles and not caring, the tub was only about a quarter full. He’d be able to use it one more time before he needed a refill, but that was fine. He hadn’t had trouble acquiring blood lately. He could take it from one of his procreation experiments. Offspring was easy to replace. Blinking in the dimness with lashless lids of pale flesh, he headed back out into the sitting room and checked the time on an old wall clock: six. The light against the window panes was dark blue, and the glint of moonlight on the glass gave him a jolt of excitement. It was time to get moving.

He went to his walk in wardrobe and pulled open the doors. It was chilled inside. In this apartment block that had been a hard thing to hook up discreetly, but he’d accumulated wealth very quickly over the years. The only reason he stayed in places like these at all was for the anonymity. This way he could live in places with high crime rates and low class citizens, people easy to snatch from the streets without having anyone come looking. One of the reasons the crazy guy pissed him off so much: a setup like this wasn’t easy to establish.

The robe was lined on all walls with meat hooks dangling from metal bars. On each hook hung a different skin, naked, the clothes for each person folded neatly and kept in a pigeonhole in the wall behind them. It would have been hard to make out the differences between the drapes of shapeless flesh, but Skinner had the memories to go along with each one. This one had a tattoo on the arm of a dragonfly, a young waitress he’d seduced wearing the skin of the young lawyer which hung opposite her. That one had a scar on the right leg, so he knew it had to be the scrawny teenager who was home alone. That one hung almost to the floor, so it was the fat guy, the one who’d taken so long to die.

In the end he chose a chef, the freshest skin and the only one he hadn’t used yet. He didn’t’ like to overuse any of the skins, in case police were watching him – though he was already working on that problem with his children. Still, it paid to be careful.

He lifted the skin from the hook and found the hole in the back, stepping into each leg and shivering with the cold of it. Once he got moving the skin would insulate him but he always shivered badly for the first ten minutes or so. He put each arm through the shoulders one at a time, his fingers wiggling at the ends, like putting on a long, wet glove. Finally, he pulled the face and hair over his head, massaging it into place and making sure his teeth were just behind the lips before he put his hands behind his back and began sealing closed the opening behind him, pressing the sides together and feeling them fuse closed with the aid of his natural excretions.

He checked himself in the mirror before he put on the clothes, turning slowly around and making sure the skin was on. There was a large Y shaped scar on his back where the opening was, but no one would see that. Besides that, the only signs that he was anything other than human were the way his eyes and mouth didn’t quite fit with the skin. The eyes were too small and narrow, so his pupils and irises looked too large, and his mouth looked too full of teeth. He smiled as wide as he could, showing too much gum, and judged that it wasn’t noticeable.

It was time to go.

Ray saw a chubby Asian man in a chef’s outfit leave room 126 carrying the large briefcase. Ray was watching through the tiniest crack in his door, so as soon as the Asian passed him he couldn’t see anything. He waited a few moments and then closed his door quietly.

Now why, why the fuck would a chef need that briefcase for anything? Ridiculous. Am I the only guy in the building with eyes, with brains? Shit. He slid into a sitting position, back against the door, and thought. There were three things he knew. One. The guy was a shape shifter. Two, he killed people. Three, he had to be stopped.

It was difficult to explain to a guy like Ernie, because he hadn’t seen what Ray had. He hadn’t seen how the party girl had gone into 126 the other night, drunk and falling all over the place, chewing gum, laughing too loud and talking incessantly, and he hadn’t seen her leave: cold eyes, smiling slightly, walking purposefully. She’d abandoned the high heels in favour of male shoes, and walked like a man. She hadn’t been herself, just like every other person that had left 126. How could you explain such a subtle but significant difference to a numbnuts like Ernie?

Ray closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, in and out. His room smelled like mould and dust, an old smell but one he suddenly savoured.

What would the police say? He was a paranoid, but even if they didn’t know that, even if none of them knew who he was from the other half a dozen times he’d called them for shit that didn’t pan out… A shape shifter? Don’t say that. Say serial killer, or something. No. He knew it was useless without proof. And besides, there was a part of him that was curious to know whether it was all real or not. He saw what he saw, yeah, but… maybe this was just like all those other times? Maybe he was getting crazier. He had to know. If he could just know, then he’d call the cops in, anonymous.

‘Okay, Ray. Listen up. Proof’s in the room. He just left. Go in, see proof, call cops, get the fuck outta there. End of story.’

He nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. But what if he comes back early? What if there’s more than one of them in there?’

‘Right. Uh, okay. You take a big fucking knife. See him shift his way out of that, huh?’ he laughed, and couldn’t help but hear a bit of madness in it. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. It didn’t matter, as long as he trusted himself. He was just on reconnaissance, after all. Just look, don’t touch, then get out. Easy, easy.

‘Yeah, right. Get your shit together, Ray. You don’t know how long he’s gonna be. Best get started.’

The guy locked the door, but Ray could pick locks, especially these old ones. He’d bought the tools online, reasoning that it was an easy skill to learn and one that would surely come in use. They were always doing it in movies, anyway. The door clicked open after twenty or so minutes, but the hall was dead quiet and no one saw him. Skinner was usually gone for a few hours, so he had plenty of time. He slipped inside.

The place stank of blood. Ray had never really smelt blood before, but he knew it on a base, instinctive level, a heavy metallic smell that settled in the back of his throat. There was no furniture, and the carpet was a dark ratty brown covered in dark stains. Surely no one could live in a place like this. There was no fridge, and the kitchenette had no plates nor bowls. When Ray opened the cutlery drawer, he found it full of knives. They were all stained and razor sharp, ranging in size from a short flaying knife to a long, thick bladed butchers knife that could chop through bone. He looked from that one to the paring knife he held in his hand, then nodded to himself and tucked his into the back of his pants and took the other.

Across the room, a door stood half open, and Ray stared at it, wondering if he had the balls to keep going. Truth was, he should call the cops right now. They could wait for Skinner together and nail him. But no, there was time and much more to see here, and Skinner wouldn’t be back for a while. Besides, the rational side of him, the side that fought his paranoia, was urging him that the Skinner guy was just a drug dealer. That would explain the people going in and out all the time, and the old briefcases, and the state of the place. Surely this wasn’t an uncommon place for a heroin addict? As for the knives, maybe he was a cutter, one of those depressed people that had to hurt themselves to feel alive? Yeah, that could be it.

But the smell.

Ray shook his head and moved slowly into the adjoining room. His ears primed for the slightest sound. He pushed the door open and stepped into the musty dimness, his eyes taking in the rooms only inhabitants while his brain rushed madly to keep up with what he was seeing.

He had found Skinner’s children.

Skinner stared at the woman, leaning against an alley’s corner, skirt hitched up over a provocatively extended leg, fishnet stockings and a cigarette dangling between long red nails. She caught him looking and dropped the cigarette, grinding it out under her high heels.

A prostitute. Why hadn’t it occurred to him to add one of those to his collection? Now he thought of it, she could be the perfect tool – what better way to get prospective Skins alone, perhaps all the way into the safety of his own apartment? And to get money also, since her clients would always come prepared with plenty of cash? Her skin would be quite tight on him of course, may split here and there, but as long as she got them into the bedroom there would be no need to show them anything more than a gleaming blade.

He smiled at her, trying not to repeat the leer he’d seen in the mirror and, he suspected, failing. But she was coming towards him now, her heels tapping over the sidewalk, glancing casually down the street. The victim coming to him, and he’d barely gone a block from his apartment. This hunt was turning out to be too easy.

‘Hey there,’ she said, leaning against the concrete wall as she reached him. Her voice was put on, too deep and husky to be natural. She smelled like smoke.

‘How much?’ he said. He wasn’t sure how humans did this kind of thing yet, but he found the safest route, when in doubt, was to get to the point.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Well you’re an eager beaver, huh? Guess that depends what you want.’ She looked him up and down, taking in his chef’s uniform. ‘Gonna cook me a meal after?’

He stopped smiling when he caught a familiar look in her eye. She’d already seen something different in his appearance, or his manner. He’d have to hurry this up before she got too freaked out. ‘Just normal. The usual,’ he said.

She shrugged, almost seeming disappointed. ‘Not a request I get often, but I’m not complaining.’ She gave a small smile, looked down the street again and folded her arms. ‘Three hundred.’

‘Okay.’

She raised her eyebrows and it occurred to him she had been expecting him to haggle, or refuse her. ‘I mean, two hundred.’

‘Two fifty.’

‘Okay, but it must be at my place.’

She gave him an uncertain look, but after a minute she nodded and said, ‘lead the way.’

They were lined up against the curtains, floating inside six large fish tanks that stood from wall to wall. They looked just like unborn foetuses, down to their curled up bodies and overlarge heads. They had no umbilical cords, and they had no skin. Ray could see the veins trailing along the surface of their raw meat flesh, pulsing with each heartbeat. Their lids were thin flaps, the pupils almost visible darting left and right in dream sleep. The liquid in which they floated was pale green tinged with red; each tank had a drip beside it feeding them what looked like blood.

‘What the… Jesus.’ He gagged on the chemical smell and put a hand out on the table beside him. It was the only other piece of furniture in this room, a large metal bed not unlike a surgeon’s table. It was covered in congealed and dry blood, and he pulled away as though he’d touched a hot stove. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to vomit.

When the feeling passed, he lifted his phone to his pocket. He had no idea what went on in here, but it sure as shit wasn’t legal. He got the operator and spoke, trying to sound as sane as possible.

‘What is your emergency?’

‘I need police. I was returning something to a guy in the apartment down the hall from me and his whole place is like a – a serial killer’s… there’s blood everywhere, there’s weapons. I found a dead baby. Please come quickly.’

He gave her the address and then hung up before she could ask questions. They’d come, he was sure of it, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the story for Ray Barron. Ray Barron had now done his part and he could return safely to his room and only emerge when the psychopath from room 126 was safely in custody, just long enough to tell them all ‘I told you so!’

The fear was pulsing through him in dizzying waves, and he was on the point of getting the hell out of there when a key turned in the front door lock and he froze beside the table, his mind a white sheet of terror. The knife was clenched tight in his fist but for the life of him he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it. He’d never thrown a punch at another human being, and the thing entering now was no human.

A woman’s voice came to him. ‘Oh, wow. Okay I get the price now. This place is…’

‘I know, I am sorry. Very old place, only just moved in, lots of cleaning to do.’

The second voice was Skinner, Ray was sure of it. He was putting on a Japanese accent to fit the body he inhabited but the tone was unmistakeable.

Ray looked around desperately for an escape and found it in the heavy metal door opposite the fish tanks. All he had to do was hide out until the police got here. He swung the door open quickly, praying the hinges weren’t rusty, and slipped inside. Thankfully, the voices in the next room drowned out whatever noise he made and he breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped back from the door.

It was ice cold in here, and a halogen light shone in the ceiling. Ray turned to see what new hell he’d stepped into here, and as his eyes fell on the hooks and the neatly hung skins that lined the walls, a scream welled up inside him. He held it down, but the horror around him pushed in on his mind, challenging his sanity.

In the end, only one thought saved him: the cops are coming, the cops are coming. He turned to face the door and raised the butcher knife with a badly shaking hand, his quick breaths steaming in front of him. The back of his neck prickled and itched, and he imagined the skins sliding from their suits and reaching for him with slack arms, boneless fingers curling around his neck and tightening, bodies weighing him down like wet blankets.

He shut his eyes tight and prayed.

Skinner gestured for the girl to go before him and she took two steps into the next room before she froze, her eyes stuck on his latest batch of children. She was reaching into her handbag for her mace, or tazer or whatever they held when he pushed his favourite skewering knife through the centre of her throat, grabbing a handful of her hair with his other hand to keep her head from going forward.

The blade was narrow at the tip and wide at the base, so it severed the top of her spinal cord and blocked her airway and jugular. Death came in a matter of choking seconds, her legs kicking involuntarily in the air as he lifted her up and carried her, knife still lodged in her throat and blood cascading down her body, to the skinning table.

He laid her out and left her to bleed, a bucket at the end of the tilted table to catch it all, and went into the kitchen to get the necessary tools. He was in good spirits, his face twitching and his tongue flicking out to lick his skin, a habit he had, used to being dry in the open air as he was. If he could get skins with such ease his collection would grow exponentially, and his children would have ever more suits to employ. Perhaps he could even start a separate collection of suits – doctors and nurses and even military. Faces to get his foot through coveted doors.

When he opened the cutlery drawer something strange tugged at his attention and he hesitated. Of course – the chopper was missing. It should have been right there in the middle of the drawer, but it wasn’t. Skinner looked up from the counter, his eyes narrowing. He inhaled deeply, but the chef’s nostrils were too inefficient, dulled.

He went back into the room with the operating table and, pulling the knife from the back of the prostitute’s neck, used it to open up his suit so he could step out of it. The slack skin pooled around his feet, he took another deep breath and this time the unmistakable aroma of intrusion filled his nostrils: foreign sweat, with a hint of fear. Someone had been in this very room, and recently.

He took two steps toward his bedroom, knife raised in a still wet hand, but the trail fell away almost immediately. He stepped back to the centre, nose poised like a dog’s, ignoring the unpleasant sensation of blood drying on his body. Slowly, his head turned until he found he was facing the door to his closet.

He stepped forward, blade still in hand, and sniffed the doorknob. The smell hit him almost like a physical thing, so strange did it taste in contrast to that of the blood and meat he knew so well. Tangy and ripe, terror and dirty clothes. A man.

Skinner stood in front of his closet, listening to the steady drizzle of blood into the bucket behind him, and found he could hear breathing on the other side of the door. It was very fast. He suspected it was the crazy guy from down the hall. Who else would have had the notion to investigate his apartment while he was away?

Just like that, two problems solved with one knife.

He whipped open the door, hard, bursting forward as soon as he had the room, meaning to slit the man’s throat before he had time to scream, but his blade fell on empty air and he realised, as his legs went out from under him and he found himself flying towards the back of his closet on his own momentum, that the man had been squatting the whole time.

Skinner slid across the metal floor, the pain of the cold and dryness on his chest and stomach almost too much to bear, and slammed into the back wall. He looked up, lips bared in a grimace of agony, in time to see the door to the closet slam shut.

Ray did not attempt to hold the door shut on the thing. His thoughts were not on killing it but on running as far away from that monstrosity as he could get. He had been crouching mostly because of the cold and in the hopes of surprising Skinner if he did open the door, and he was glad he had too, because he’d no time at all to react before the slippery thing had tripped over him and tumbled into the cool room.

If it weren’t for his fists clenching in fear, he would have already dropped his knife. Ray hit the doorway to the first room on the way out, throwing a horrified look over his shoulder at the pale body on the table, still dripping blood, and half fell into the front room.

He had barely recovered his balance when the door swung open and three police officers stepped inside, guns already raised and badges flashing.

‘Get back, get back! Against the wall, sir!’

Ray put his hands up in a comical surrender and backed up against the wall, one cop moving towards him with a gun pointed directly at his head, finger on the trigger.

‘It’s not me, it’s not me!’ Ray was screaming, ‘He’s in the freezer room, in the freezer room!’

‘Jesus Christ,’ he heard one of the other two cops exclaim as they entered the next room, no doubt seeing the mutilated body and the foetuses in the tanks.

Ray stared at the eye of the cop holding the gun on him, the man glaring at him as though he was the criminal, and then he realised he was still holding the knife in one hand. ‘Shit!’ he dropped it, but the cop’s expression didn’t change.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Ray said, wondering suddenly what would happen when they found the skinless freak in the freezer room. Probably the thing would die once they took it away from its nutrients and its skin suits. What would they believe then? That a man without any skin on his body, or a man with a large bloody knife in one hand had done the deed?

The reality of the situation began to sink in and Ray sank to his knees with the gravity of it. The cop moved in closer, pressing the barrel of his handgun to Ray’s temple. In those moments, Ray almost hoped he would pull the trigger. He saw his future ahead of him, trial and conviction as a paranoid mass murderer, a collector of skins. He tried to imagine Ernie Wells, or anyone else for that matter, saying anything good about him in a court, and couldn’t. He would be given death.

He looked up into the policeman’s eyes. They were dark brown and bloodshot. The rest of his face was drawn and tired looking, panicked, understandably. He had a blond beard which sat at a strange angle on his chin, as though it was trying to go one way and the rest of him was going the other. His ears also looked at odd angles on his head.

The freezer door opened, and then there was a brief silence. Ray experienced a few moments of confusion. He’d been expecting gunfire, or perhaps screams and curses as the cops saw what was inside. Instead, he heard a few muffled words exchanged, their tone that of mild concern.

His paranoia began to work again, but this time he wasn’t so sure it was paranoia after all. His eyes strayed to the front door behind the blond bearded cop in front of him and he noticed that not only was it locked but the chain was drawn across the frame. One of the cops had taken the time to do that.

The cop in front of him wasn’t shaking, which was also strange, because he was very young, not more than twenty or twenty one. This was likely the first time he’d drawn his gun, yet he was pointing it directly between Ray’s eyes, unshaking, unflinching, unafraid.

And his eye, what was it about his eye? It was bloodshot, but a little too red around the corner, like there was blood collecting, seeping through from the meat beneath. As he watched, Ray saw a teardrop collect there and run a little way down the policeman’s cheek.

‘Turn around, sir. You’re under arrest,’ the cop said. He neglected the Miranda, and that was when Ray knew it was all over.

He nodded at the cop and turned around. He was doomed, but there was a sense of relief even as he stooped and picked up the knife he’d dropped, knowing that at last, he’d been right, he’d known the truth from the beginning and he’d done something about it. He wouldn’t suffer any more.

He twisted around with the knife, watched it push through the cop’s eye and saw the surprised expression even as he pulled the trigger.

‘FUCK Y – ’

BANG!

The cop stared at the body in front of him for a moment, shocked, numb to the low chuckle his father gave behind him. He holstered his gun and pulled the knife slowly from his eye, shuddering as the goop slipped out of its socket and hit the floor like a broken egg.

He turned to look at the others and they were laughing at him too, but he didn’t mind. He was the youngest, but he’d taken a second kill before any of them. He nodded his head and puffed out his chest, and the others came to help him lift the body to the skinning table.

There was much work to do.

I think everyone’s experienced the central theme here: a sense of social suffocation. You feel you must impress the people you’re with, or at least avoid their judgement, and so must be on your best behaviour. Eat with a straight back and hold the knife and fork correctly; be painfully polite and have impeccable manners; smile and answer questions. If you’re like me, your behaviour is the result of a polite mask you acquire, while inside you suffocate, slowly. Or maybe I’m just a psychopath… Anyway, enjoy!

 

Matriarch

By Ben Pienaar

 

If a stranger looked in during the evening, they would see the family of five sitting around a fire in the living room: the straight backed mother focused on her knitting, the father perhaps still in his suit and reading a book about politics or history; the sixteen year old son perhaps also reading or maybe just sitting in intense thought; the fifteen year old daughter helping her ten year old sister work on a puzzle laid out on the floor. The stranger would probably grow bored very quickly and move on. The horror of the situation would be lost on all but the most perceptive.

The sixteen year old son was Cedric Dillon, and on the evening in question he was fighting a fierce internal battle with his mother. As usual, it was short lived, and he exhausted himself within minutes. If the stranger had looked very closely just then, he might have seen a single tear well up and roll down the boy’s cheek.

‘Cedric,’ Agatha said, only the smallest hint of annoyance present in her voice, ‘why don’t you play a game of chess with your father?’

That was the end of it, of course. It took every ounce of focus and effort just to put up the slightest resistance to her, every bit of willpower. After a game of chess he’d be drained completely. It was amazing she even let him try anymore, though he knew why she did: having him sit quiet and motionless was her way of punishing him, and of reminding him how little power he had. She knew how badly the boredom got to him, how it suffocated him.

His head nodded and his arms pushed him up out of the soft couch.

‘Sounds like a plan. We’ll see how you’ve improved,’ his father said, standing and moving to the little table in the corner, where an ornate ivory chessboard was set up. He didn’t answer, letting his legs walk him over to the table and sit him down. She could make him shut up and she could change the words that came out of his mouth, but she’d never been able to make him speak. For whatever reason, that was still his.

They played a long game, and by the end of it Colleen and Janet had both gone up to bed, stopping to give Agatha a kiss and a cheerful goodnight. Cedric smiled whenever they did that, knowing that when each of them opened their mouths they were cursing her in their own way, screaming bloody hate in her face. She changed what came out, of course, but in order to do that she had to know what was going to come; she heard every horrendous word.

‘Good game, son,’ his father said, checkmating him. ‘I should get to bed, though. It’s a big day tomorrow and I can’t wait to snatch a little sleep and get started. See you bright and early tomorrow morning!’ Cedric could tell from the robotic way he spoke that she wasn’t making him say it. As his father kissed Agatha goodnight and ascended the stairs, Cedric sighed. James Dillon was broken. He was the sheep that no longer tried to scale the fence, only grazed peacefully on the bland dry grass in the paddock and waited for slaughter.

While he was thinking this his body had lifted him up and walked him over to Agatha’s rocking chair. She put down her half knitted scarf and looked up at him. She only ever looked at him that way: tight lipped, her hair pulled into a vicious bun. Sometimes he wondered, if he cut her bun off, whether the skin on her face would sag and fall off her skull.

‘How many nights must we go through the same thing? How many times must we learn the same lesson? Mmm?’ She was giving him free reign to speak, he could feel it, but he said nothing. Instead he used the brief freedom to scowl at her.

‘You were ever a stubborn boy, Cedric. But I am just as stubborn and luckily for you, not only do I have the power but I am also right and you are wrong. My way of life is the happiest way for all of us. I will remain persistent, and one day you will see the truth of it. One day, when you’re a wealthy lawyer – or perhaps Doctor or even politician, I haven’t decided yet – and when you have a big house and a beautiful wife and children. All of it will be because of me and you will thank me for it and be grateful. It is only unfortunate I’ll need to wait so long for your gratitude.

Fuck your gratitude you old whore!

‘Thankyou, mother, of course you’re right, as always,’ he said, an apologetic smile stretching his face.

Now it was her turn to scowl. ‘I’ve a mind to give you a stern punishment for that. In fact I think I will, but we should wait for the school holidays, so I needn’t be afraid of leaving marks.’

Once, when his father still had some fight left in him, they’d managed to communicate enough to organise a sort of mutiny against her. Mr. Dillon had even grabbed her around the neck with both hands at one point, but in the end the whole thing had been finished in under a minute. They had all filed into the kitchen and cut each other with knives while she watched, unflinching, until the effort of it had leeched her anger away. All of them still got nightmares about that. In fact Cedric was convinced that had something to do with her as well – her reaching into their dreams and warping them to her purposes. There was no escape.

‘Yes mother.’ She gave him a funny look. She hadn’t made him say the words, this time, and neither was she forcing the smile on his face now.

‘Perhaps you will learn, after all,’ she said. ‘But all for another day. Bed now.’

‘Yes mother,’ he said again, and his body took him upstairs, his hands brushing his teeth too hard, mechanically, and changing him into his pyjamas.

He had a room on his own now, the two girls sharing bunk beds in the next one over, and once he was lying face up in the darkness, eyes shut, he was perfectly alone. Usually it stayed like this all night: his body stuck in the same stiff position, motionless until morning. An itchy nose or an exposed foot could keep him up all night, but exhaustion almost always won over in the end. Tonight, however, was different.

It happened late, well after midnight, though he couldn’t be sure. Something woke him up – a sense of… relaxation. She’s asleep, he thought. He’d felt it only once before a few months ago, and when it happened then he’d fought her viciously, pushing off the covers and trying to throw himself out of the window. She’d woken up and regained control in seconds, and they’d been up the rest of the night. The punishment for that attempt had been the worst he’d ever suffered at her hands.

This time, he didn’t fight. Instead he gave her a kind of mental nudge, and wriggled the fingers on his right hand. Nothing. No resistance. He did the same with his left and got the same result. Adrenaline rushed into him and he forced himself to calm down. After years of fighting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Cedric had no shortage of willpower.

After an hour, he was sitting up in bed and making, slow, easy movements with his arms and legs. The idea, he figured, was not to surprise her. He would push her aside just as he was now pushing aside his blanket, letting her roll away without any sudden movements. It was incredible he’d got this far – how much further would he push it? All the way, he thought. I’m going to push it all the way.

            Another hour passed but it was still the dead of the night when he was on his feet beside the bed. The air was ice cold but his movements were unhindered, unwatched – he was free! He shivered. How long would it last? And what could he do? What should he do?

Kill her.

But he had no idea how his father would react. He hadn’t known his true father for years, only the happy puppet his mother paraded about the house. For all he knew he’d collapse in grief and then call the police. Or even murder him for revenge.

So what, Run? There’s nowhere to go, and for all you know distance makes no difference. After all, she can still control you at school. Maybe she’ll just turn you around in the morning and march you right back home.

            Kill her. It’s the only way.

His inner voice whispered these thoughts to him as he tiptoed out of his room and downstairs to the kitchen. He was being quiet, but he wasn’t so much worried about making noise – but about setting off some unseen tripwire. He’d spent years trying to work out exactly what her powers were, but he was sure he didn’t know even half of her tricks. If he walked into the wrong room she might wake up suddenly, a silent alarm ringing loud in her mind. But if that was the case, surely she would have woken up as soon as he left his room?

He cocked his head outside his parents’ bedroom door and listened. Only soft breathing, no movement. Not that she’d need to get out of bed to bring him to heel anyway – and he was still free. He smiled and started down the stairs.

A glance out of the ground floor window, along with the still bright embers of the fire, told him there was plenty of time before dawn. He resolved to take his time, moving as slowly as possible and keeping his eyes half closed all the while, his mind relaxed. If she stirred in her sleep and checked on him, perhaps he could trick her with his thoughts into thinking he was still asleep. While he lifted a knife from the rack by the sink he was visualising himself in bed, thinking of the soft covers and warmth, trying to make his thoughts fragmented and dream like.

It took him another hour to reach the bedroom door with the knife, and still she had not woken. He was drenched in icy sweat now, his whole body tense. This door had to be it: the alarm that would wake her up. He closed his fist around the knob and turned it, slowly. The door swung open, creaking a hundred times louder in the silence and tension. The lumps in the bed didn’t stir.

The smell of varnished wood hit him, stronger than in the rest of the house, and also the mothball stench that seemed to follow her around wherever she was. It made his head dizzy.

He stepped into the room, taking infinite care with every step, until he was right by her bedside. He could see his father’s blank face beside her. She was lying on her back, blanket drawn up to her neck, breathing slowly.

Cedric brought the knife up and stared at it, hypnotised for the moment at the way it shone with moonlight. The leafy oaks outside the window swayed in the wind, masking his sigh. This was it, as close as any of them had ever come – probably as close as they ever would come. It was all up to him.

He leaned over her, knife poised just above her chest, and took a deep breath. He wanted to say something, some final, bitter goodbye, but it might wake her up in time. He was risking enough as it was. It was time to finish it.

He pushed down on the knife. Nothing happened. It stayed exactly where it was, poised just a couple of feet above her. He pushed again, even resting some of his weight on the back of it, but it was as though he were trying to push the blade through solid steel.

That was when her eyes opened.

Cedric stopped pushing and stared into them, and in those moments his body and mind paused save a single, all-encompassing terror: I’m dead.

He still fought her, at the end, and to his credit he managed to slow her down. The knife turned, inexorably, but instead of turning with it his wrists stayed where they were and the bones in them snapped one by one as the knife performed a full one eighty to look him in the eye.

He could have lifted a car with the strength he exerted to fight her, but her power was not physical in the first place and the blade approached his right pupil, wrists bent at obscene angles. When it pierced his cornea, he didn’t stop fighting, but a centimetre later his mind was lost in a lake of pain and his only desire was for it all to end. He gave in.

 

***      ***      ***

 

James Dillon woke up as the bright rays of dawn shone in through the window. Agatha had already been up and opened it, and the breeze hit his face, bringing coolness and country fragrances that never failed to cheer him up, however short lived the feeling was. He got dressed and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

He always treasured these few moments of freedom afforded him. As time went, he noticed Agatha’s grip loosening somewhat, especially with all the recent spats she’d had with Cedric. As long as he did what he knew he was supposed to do, she’d let him get on with it. He made sure to comb his hair and clean his teeth.

Downstairs, the others were gathered around eating breakfast, Agatha at the head of the table as usual. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down. He smiled at everyone, and they smiled back.

It was bright and cheerful as usual, and only when James looked across at Cedric did his smile falter for the first time. Luckily, he regained it before Agatha could glare at him.

Cedric’s eye was a bloody mess, and it was very fresh by the looks of it. Must have happened during the night at some point. The left side of his face was a mess of black, gummy blood. ‘Hello father,’ he said. ‘Awake at last?’

‘Yes… Did you sleep well?’

‘As always.’

He glanced sideways at the two girls, but they were oblivious to the exchange, delicately spooning food into their mouths with their usual ladylike grace. Today, though, the image was ruined by the huge red gashes along their throats, where the blood had not yet dried.

Colleen turned to look at him with vacant eyes were her sad ones had once been, and she opened her mouth to say something but blood spilled out instead of words.

After breakfast, James’s body took him upstairs to the study to begin the day’s work, and as he sat down in front of his great desk by the window he heard Agatha talking to the kids. ‘Best get cleaning now, hadn’t you? Just a few chores to get done and then you can enjoy yourselves for a little while before school starts.’

‘But mother,’ Janet said in an uncharacteristically scratchy voice, ‘School starts at nine.’

‘No, dear, not anymore. I’ve decided to home school you from now on. Much better for all round education. Teachers these days will put all kinds of nonsense into your brains.’

‘Ooh, that sounds fun.’

‘Can we go for a walk out in the woods today, mother?’ Cedric said.

‘Yes. Yes I don’t see why not. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Ah, well, get to work now. Looks like we’ve got a big day ahead of us, and your father will want dinner when he’s finished with work.’

Yes, James thought, his hand reaching down by itself to turn on his computer. They had a big day ahead of them alright. A big, busy day.

I tried to write this one a few times over the past year, but each time the idea seemed to stale in my mind, better things would come along, and I’d give up. This week it was still there, sitting in my mind, and I decided it would never go away unless I wrote it, so in the end this was done out of angry spite. Enjoy!

Medusa’s Eye

By Ben Pienaar

 

I reported my father missing after two days, but I was only going through the motions. His final letters made it clear that he didn’t intend to be found, and Elmore Kendrick Sr. tended to get what he wanted.

The day before I made an official report, I arrived at his house to visit him, which I did on the first of every month, as he well knew. I found the place empty, or at least as empty as his house could ever get: my father was a hoarder, but of a very neat and organised kind. His house was full of large rooms but no open spaces, every inch of space filled with something: statues, jewellery, sculptures, paintings, ancient artefacts that should have been in a museum. On my way through the long hallways and curling staircases I passed hundreds of shelves and glass cases and displays of these, all gathering dust.

I reached his study and found it empty as well (save the bookshelves, piles of papers and notebooks, ships in bottles and his beloved ivory skull paperweight). I was about to leave and search the rest of the house when I saw that his Great Black Journal was open, and the entry was signed in large bold letters: TO LIAM. Oh God, I thought, he’s committed suicide. It seemed unlike him, but he was gone and here was a note and he always had been a strange, isolated man.

My heart was sinking fast, but what else was there to do? I sat down and began to read.

 

TO LIAM:

Son, I’m addressing this to you because you will almost certainly be the one who finds it, and because I trust you more than anyone to take the message seriously. My only worry is that your mind is so rooted in what you believe to be real that you won’t believe the things I tell you, even taking into account the proof I have for my tale. All I ask is that you think hard about it, and realise that I’d never lie to you about something so serious as my own death. Anyway, I’d better get on with it, time is short for reasons you’ll see soon enough. It’s taken me nearly half an hour to write this single paragraph.

I’ve always been an adventurer and a collector, travelling to the ends of the earth to acquire this or that thing, knowing it will never satisfy me. You know this, but what you don’t know are the details of my most recent expedition to Greece. A friend of mine living there told me that some archaeologists had started digging on the southwest coast and were turning up some interesting statues, intricately carved, realistic beyond belief. His theory was that the statues were turning up in a pattern that was leading them further south down the coast.

I’m sure you know me well enough to see out what I wanted to do: travel to the far south of Greece and make a few digs of my own before any new artefacts were claimed by the museums.

I was there less than a week later, but as I discovered on my first reconnaissance mission to the coastline, no digging was going to be required. The beaches there turn abruptly into a serious of cliffs, which are absolutely littered with caves. The archaeologists might have been dubious about finding anything of interest in them, but I was not.

It took weeks of searching, of climbing, scratching my hands, slipping on wet rocks and seeing my own life flash in front of my eyes, weeks of swearing and cursing at myself for being an idiot – and no doubt you’d agree. But on the day I found Medusa, Liam, it was all worth it, and even now I wouldn’t take back a thing.

I was barely twenty meters into the cave when I saw the statues. There was a moment when all I could do was stare, and that was my mistake. I remember it perfectly, the salty air in my nose and the wind whistling at my back, staring straight into Medusa’s Eye.

I say eye because her other one was pierced by a long stone arrow. I should mention here that there were two other statues in the chamber, both of them ancient Greek warriors of some kind. The one on the right was holding a bow and the one on the left was holding up a silver platter the size my office window.

Medusa herself was huge, like one of the Amazonian princesses you hear about in old adventure stories, and her face would have been exquisitely beautiful if it weren’t for the utter hate written in her expression. Her teeth were bared and her remaining eye was looking up at the silver platter. And yes, she had that bizarre head of snakes, which is how I knew for sure who she was.

When I got over my shock I investigated the scene up close, and I must tell you that the stonework was of a kind I’d never seen in modern sculpture – let alone that of ancient Greece; if someone had poured a bucket of grey paint over a real women it wouldn’t have looked as realistic. Her skin was so perfect and smooth I could make out the individual lines on her palms. Her teeth were bared and pointed, and the scales on the snakes had been perfectly carved. There were hundreds of them, knotted and hissing and curled around each other.

All I took was her eye. I might have claimed the statues if I wanted and even had them transported back here. I even considered removing her head and just taking that, but in the end I realised it was only her eye that had me so hypnotised, only that which I really wanted. So I took a knife and pried it free from her head. It was as round and large as a cue ball, that eye, dark emerald green all over, with little black pupil. Beautiful.

I arrived home cheerful and victorious, but for the time being something persuaded me to keep my new treasure a secret, and thank god for that. I took it out of its hiding place now and again, just to look at it. It was mesmerising, so smooth and perfect, with hundreds of tiny black seams running around it like veins. I could look at it for hours while my mind wandered.

A month passed, and it passed quickly. I checked my email one day and saw to my shock that it was almost the fifteenth of June, and I’d arrived home from Greece in early May, but in all that time I’d done little other than amble around my property and gaze longingly into the eye. I thought nothing of it at the time, besides cursing myself for being lazy, but when I went into town to go shopping the following week I discovered there was something sinister going on.

I don’t know how to describe the sensation to you, except to say that it’s like living in a movie that is always on fast forward. For a while I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and gaped around like a lunatic. The cars were zooming by suicidally fast – I was certain there would be a crash any second, but somehow there wasn’t. Then I saw how the people around me were moving, rushing by so they were almost running, talking in avalanches of words than ran on to each other faster than I could comprehend.

I took a deep breath and went into the grocery store to buy everything. In line, the cashier tapped a drumroll on the counter and the people behind me muttered insults too quick for me to make out. No sooner did I arrive home that I went and stared at the clock on the kitchen wall.

Impossible, it must be broken. I checked my watch, and then the grandfather clock in the hall, but they were as perfectly synchronised as always. And moving about twice as fast as they should have been. I timed my heartbeat, which by then was hammering wildly in my chest, and found it to be at sixty beats a minute.

You aren’t stupid, Liam, and by now you must realise where this is going, so I’ll be quick. God knows I have to be, anyway. I started this letter at ten o’clock this morning and it is already nightfall.

I’d noticed a few more grey hairs than usual, but when I ran to the mirror and looked again I saw that it had nothing to do with age: my hair wasn’t the only thing becoming grey and brittle. The horrible stiffness I felt every morning had just as little to do with age. My skin had taken on a sickly pallor, and it was dry and scaly to the touch. Now, as I run a hand through my hair, dust comes out.

I tried to destroy the eye, with hammers, saws, fire, nothing worked. I think I know how to hide it so no one will ever find it, but if you do, Liam (and I fear you’ll look for it, no matter what I tell you) please for the love of God don’t look at it. It’s wrapped in a leather cloth, DO NOT unwrap it. If you find it, I beg you, this is my dying wish, then find a way to destroy it, or at the very least, hide it irretrievably.

It’s already Wednesday. God. I must move now. I know it will be hard to believe any of this, but the latest addition to the statue room, if I make it that far, must convince you. Please believe me, Liam, you are my only hope. Destroy the eye, but better yet, don’t look for it. Soon I will see the end of the universe. I wonder what it will be like. I love you, son.

 

And that was it. I let out a long breath and shook my head. I read the letter twice more, trying to get some clue as to the truth, see some reason behind this madness. I didn’t think he’d really gone insane, and nor did I believe a word of his story. If you knew my father you would have understood: he was a born storyteller, and he relished in tall tales like no one I’ve ever known. He rarely lied, but he often exaggerated, so it was unusual for him to make up something so bizarre. Nevertheless, I was sure he had.

It was an escape, I thought: either he’d committed suicide or run away from his life for some reason. The story was a cover, something to make sure he went out with a bang, as a legend, something he no doubt hoped would revive my belief in myths and magic again.

Eventually, I went down to the statue room. He was there, and true to his word, it was a phenomenally well crafted statue. All the other statues in the room were lined along the walls, forming a kind of passage down the center, and he stood at the very end before the lone window. He had one hand in his pocket, the other raised to shield his eyes from the now non-existent sun (it was overcast).

I sighed and shook my head. He was a good, if absent father, but he’d taken the time to get to know me he’d have learned long ago that I am a man of science and reality, a believer in a long, secure and sensible lifestyle. I suppose I appreciated the effort he put in, in his roundabout way, to reach out to me in the end, but I am who I am.

He left everything to me. I auctioned off almost all of it, keeping only the things I judged useful to me. Most of it I sold to museums at prices that would have made my father’s jaw drop in dismay, but I don’t regret it – it was where they belonged and he was selfish to keep them to himself. I got rid of it all, room by room, but I have to admit I left those statues till last, and as I went through every inch of the house, I kept my eye out, so to speak.

But Medusa’s precious eye was nowhere. At last, the great house was completely empty, including the statue room. Only one statue remained, gazing eternally out of the window. One hand up, one in his pocket.

Wait. His pocket.

I looked down, my pulse rising in anticipation. I’d given up hope of finding the thing about five rooms ago, but in an instant I saw what he’d done. What a hiding place it was! Right there in his pocket, in plain sight and yet far from it, literally the last place I thought of. One never thinks of statues having real pockets, after all.

I broke it open with a hammer and chisel. The first thing I noticed was not the heavy green gem as it rolled with a thump onto the hardwood floor, but the stone hand I’d broken through. Whoever had made the statue had actually gone to the effort to carve – expertly at that – my father’s hand inside his pocket. I shook my head, amazed, and then bent down to pick up the eye.

It is one thing to read the words describing its beauty, another to see it. The patterns that seemed to twist and move in the marble even as you watched them, the dark green shades, like a tropical lake rich with life. It was cool in my hand. The pupil bored into me as if it could actually see me, and it seemed to sparkle like a black diamond.

At any rate, I ramble, and my description doesn’t do it justice any better than my father’s did. Needless to say, I could never keep such a treasure for myself. The very same day I found it I contacted a museum of sculptures and offered it to them, along with the brilliant statue of my father, for free. They took it with many thanks.

So, dear readers, that is the official story of how my father, Elmore Kendrick Sr. discovered Medusa’s Eye and disappeared from the face of the earth with the flourish he intended. I have to admit, in the end it turned out to be a very entertaining tale after all. Maybe I have learned a thing or two about adventure, after all.

I may never go on such bold travels as my father has (and probably still is this very moment), but if he is reading this I’d like him to know that I genuinely hope he is enjoying his new life. For myself I’ve also developed quite a few more grey hairs than I’d like, and a quiet life in the country sounds best for me. They say time moves faster with age, and I’m certainly finding that true as well – it seems like only yesterday I started writing this article, but it’s taken me nearly two weeks. A holiday, I think, is long overdue.

 

The infamous eye discovered by Elmore Kendrick is now open for viewing by the public: simply visit the East London Historical Museum, entry fee twenty pounds – opening hours Monday to Friday 8am to 7pm.    

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

 

Into Dark

By Ben Pienaar

 

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

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

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

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

 

***                              ***                              ***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘Where are you?’

 ‘I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look? I didn’t believe their lies so they took me.’

 Graham took two steps forward, trying to home in on the location of the voice. He hovered on the brink of the alley now, hesitant to venture further, even though it felt like the two of them were standing only a few meters apart.

 ‘How do I get there?’

 ‘No! Don’t come, just get me out of here! If you come we’ll both be lost. Get me out!’

 ‘I’ve got to go after you.’ Graham said. His whole body was tensed now, as if he was prepared to run headlong into the alley. He wondered if that would even work.

 ‘If you… Wait. Something’s coming…’

 Graham held his breath and tried to listen into the dark, but before he could hear anything a car drove past behind him. Then there was only silence, dragging on for minute after minute. He wrinkled his face at the stench of what he thought must be rotting shellfish and eggs from the Chinese Restaurant.

 ‘Terry?’

 ‘Bring a light,’ came the soft reply.

 Graham stood at that alley for a long time, but he didn’t hear anything else besides the pattering of rain on concrete.

 His mother’s mouth fell open at the sight of him as he came through the front door, soaked in water and late, but before she could say a word he dropped his bag at the front door and hurried upstairs. ‘Don’t worry about dinner for me!’ he called from the hallway.

 He ruffled around in the bathroom until he found the candles and matches they kept there in case of a blackout. He took the matches and headed into his bedroom. He locked the door, pushed the clothes under the crack, and just like that he couldn’t see a thing. He flopped onto the bed and stared at nothing.

 ‘Terry?’ he whispered after a while. There was no response. He tried again every ten minutes or so for an hour but nothing happened. No secret world opened up in the dark – he didn’t feel himself being sucked into another dimension. Maybe he did have to go to his brother’s room, after all.

 He wondered about the darkness, about where it was and what lived there, and soon his wonderings turned to daydreams, and his daydreams became real dreams as he passed into slumber. At length, they became nightmares.

 He woke again, and it was immediately obvious to him that he’d been asleep for several hours. The house had that dense silence it only got when it was late at night, and the rain had stopped. He got the feeling someone had shouted his name, but he wasn’t sure if it had been in his dream or not.

 ‘Terry?’ he whispered, forcing himself up on his elbows and trying to get accustomed to the dark. Of course, it was impossible. Even the light in the hallway was out, and there was no moon tonight. No light from anywhere.

 It was only then that he really thought about the things Terry had told him in the alleyway, and he recalled one strange remark in particular. I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look?

 He hadn’t looked, had he? You were too afraid, a voice in his mind told him. Because secretly you knew that’s where it was all along.

 The more he shook the remains of sleep from his mind, the more things, small as they were, he noticed. Did he smell some remnant of that alleyway? Those rotten shellfish and eggs he’d been sure were from the Chinese restaurant? Why did his hand feel warm when he held it up in front of his face and ice cold when he let it dangle over the side of the bed. And why, when he did that, did he suddenly feel the urgent need to pull it away and hide under his covers?

 Graham pushed the covers down to the end of the bed, exposing his damp clothes to the air. With a force of will that only another young child in a similar situation could comprehend, he got off the bed and then lay down on the floor beside it. In the dead of night, lying beside that gaping abyss beneath his bed, Graham understood fear.

 I wouldn’t believe their lies so they took me. They Took Me. He pushed open the matchbox and was glad to see it was completely full. He struck one and felt utter relief as the warm firelight surrounded him. For now, the smell of rot and icy air was gone, and he was only here alone, in his dusty room.

Using his free hand to cup the flame though there was no draft, he wiggled sideways until he was exactly centred under the bed, and there he stayed, match warming his skin, hypnotising him. He waited.

 The flame burned low, chasing his fingertips as they ran from it, until at last there was no more wood to burn and it guttered out. Graham’s stomach clenched tight and he felt sheer fear take hold of his lungs. ‘I’m coming for you, Terry,’ he whispered, as the ground fell away.

 The carpet seemed to twist and turn under him, softening and dampening, and then it dropped and let him slide into it. If it weren’t for the cold, he’d have imagined himself dropping into the mouth of some great toothless beast. He came to a stop, curled up in a ball and propped up against something hard and jagged. It felt like a frozen thornbush.

 This place was quiet, but not quiet enough. There was breathing apart from his own. It was wet and thick, but thankfully it didn’t sound close. It didn’t sound aggravated, like it knew where he was. From the sound of it, he was hidden away somewhere, a hollow or a cave separate from the rest of it.

 Without thinking, he popped the matchbox open again and lit one of the matches. For a moment, he was certain something had seen and attacked him in the split second its light sputtered into existence. His feet jerked out and his back came down hard on… carpet. He was back in his room, staring at the underside of his bed.

 For a moment, that was where he remained, breathing hard. As much as he loved his brother, the first thing he felt was incredible relief to be out of that foul smelling place that emanated evil so clearly it shocked him. But the hope was there, too. Bring a light, Terry said, and so he had. And now he knew, no matter how far he ventured into that place, he’d have a way back.

 Graham closed his eyes and blew out the match.

 This time, when he stumbled to the end of the short ride he hit that jagged thing a little harder and felt one thorn pierce his arm. He pulled away, biting his lip, and collided with what felt like a slippery boulder the size of his head. A moment later, it rose on a hundred stick thin legs and scuttled over his back.

 Graham tucked the box of matches into one pocket and decided to proceed on all fours. He was shivering now, and gagging on the stench. It was so concentrated here that it was barely recognizable from what he’d smelled earlier. Like that voice, this was a thing not of the Earthly world. It was the stench of demons.

 He was following a feeling rather than any actual sense of direction, specifically the feeling of wind. If he could get somewhere out in the open, maybe it would be easier to get his bearings. In the back of his mind was the hope he’d be able to see something somehow, but of course that couldn’t be possible, not if the slightest light transported him home. No, this was the Land of Dark: there was no light here.

 He followed the light whistling wind up a slope and through a tunnel so tight he almost suffocated going through it. When he broke out on the other side, the wind was all around him and he realised he was out in the open at last. He looked up, hoping to see a sky of some sort, perhaps with a few stars and planets hovering… but of course there was only nothing. A deeper black, perhaps, like the kind you saw when you looked out over the ocean on a moonless night.

 The things were all out here, too. He couldn’t exactly hear them, or not clearly (though there was that odd slithering somewhere behind him), but he could sense them. Great shapes, predators and carnivores. Any prey that existed here must be dead, or dying. Imprisoned, like his brother. Graham became suddenly more conscious of the blood leaking from his arm and he wondered if they could smell it. He certainly could. He raised the wound to his mouth and began to suck.

 He stopped after a minute or so as it occurred to him what he was doing. Even then, it took another minute to convince himself that the delicious substance melting on his tongue was his own blood – it felt like trying to gather willpower enough to step out of a hot shower on a winter night.

 He dropped to his knees in the mud – everything seemed to be made of mud – and gasped for breath. How long had he been here? Hours? A day? Surely not even that long, and yet he was sure it was changing him. He had to think.

 He slowed his breathing and tried to concentrate on his senses. He didn’t have his eyes, so what did he have that could help him find his brother?

 ‘Terry?’ The vastness swallowed his voice, and he heard nothing back for a long time. Then, at last, so close it seemed almost in his ear, his brother replied.

 ‘Gray! I’m here, follow my voice.’

There was something wrong with that voice, though. There was no question it was Terry speaking, but this was a different Terry. This one sounded happy, even excited. He knows I’m here now, Graham thought, that’s all it is.

 There was no time to ponder it then, because Terry’s next words chilled him to the bone: ‘Hurry, Gray, they know you’re here now.’

 They did, too. He could hear them coming – could almost smell them over the putrid offal stench of the world. He dropped lower to the ground and slid through the mud (if that’s what it was) grabbing anything he could for purchase. Down an embankment here, across a patch of razor sharp rocks, through a cobweb full of stinging ants. These were the pictures he conjured in his mind as he went, because in the absence of sight he had to revert to images he knew, though the realities of these things would have horrified him far more than his mere imagination, had he known it.

 He was close to his brother, very close, when a hand shot up out of the mud and grabbed his ankle. He gasped and then cried out aloud as he felt nails dig into his flesh. He twisted around and clawed at the hand, but then Terry called out to him: ‘Stop! It’s me, Gray! I’m down here, in a cage.’

 Graham stopped his frantic clawing and instead gripped the hand with mad relief. ‘Terry! It’s really you!’ He felt for some kind of opening, but the ground here was not solid. Instead, his hand slipped over what felt like thick steel bars, with a gap only large enough to fit his wrist and perhaps his forearm through.

 He reached down into the cage and felt his brother grab hold of him almost desperately. His nails were so long they made shallow cuts in his arm, and his skin was so cold. The things in the dark were close now. Another minute and he’d feel hot breath on his feet, and a minute after that the only thing left of him would be the part of his arm in the cage with his brother. Then he felt Terry’s teeth on him and had time to think maybe not even that before the pain hit.

 Instead of distracting him, the pain shot through him like a bolt of electricity and focused his thoughts into perfect clarity. This was not him, he knew, but the demon he was becoming.

 In all his wildest dreams, Graham never would have believed that one day his life would depend on whether or not he could strike a match one handed in less than a minute. He jammed the box into his mouth, afraid that if he laid it down it might get wet or fall through the bars of the cage. He pushed it open and several matches fell down through the bars. He drew another out and pushed the rest back in. He tried to strike and the match broke.

 Terry’s teeth hit bone and dragged a little before he began to close his jaws. Now Graham did see stars and planets, but these ones were all in his mind, as brightly as they shone. He opened the box, drew another match, and tried again, gently. It didn’t strike, and the box slipped halfway out of his mouth. Something was clawing its way up a steep incline behind him – he heard its irregular steps and frantic breathing and imagined a sick three legged dog.

 Terry tore his mouthful free. Graham didn’t scream like a boy but roared like a beast, and it was the demon’s rage and sheer focus of energy that rose up in him. The world slowed to a crawl, and when as the matchbox fell from his open mouth he caught it a second before it would have slipped between the bars. In a flash he’d opened it, snatched four or five matches in a go and closed it. He jammed the box in his mouth and struck again with all the matches, hard. Three snapped and two lit. The fire exploded in the darkness like a sun, and just like that the cage bars disappeared along with the wild shrieks of hungry monsters and everything else that lived in the dark.

Carpet slammed up against Graham’s back and his vision returned to him. Still gripping the guttering matches, he pulled his brother – who was still clinging to his mutilated arm, out from under the bed.

 The thing that Terry had become was so far changed from the brother Graham had known that besides the familiar red pyjama pants he was wearing when he disappeared, he was unrecognizable. He had a huge, misshapen mouth filled with razor teeth, skin paler than paper and eyes like jet.

 Had Terry not been blinded by the flare of the match, Graham would have stood no chance. But the effect of seeing a flash of real light, no matter how small, on a thing that had seen nothing but pitch black for over a month, was akin to a person staring at the sun for several minutes. It wasn’t simply blindness but pain, and while Terry shrieked and struggled Graham pushed him into the closet and slammed the doors.

 He braced against them with all his might and held them closed against the first assault. He didn’t wait for a second, but grabbed his small wooden desk (with his unmauled arm), and dragged it in front.

 After that, he collapsed on his side and watched the carpet soak up congealing blood from the wound in his arm. The howls and cries of his mutant brother took second place to the rush of blood in his ears and intense nausea. The world went white for a split second. When the room came back to him all was silent and he realised he must have fainted from shock. His arm was heavy and hard to move, as though the pain had numbed the muscles. His hand hung limply at the end of his wrist, the crucial tendon digesting somewhere in his brother’s stomach.

 Without standing – he thought he might vomit if he did – Graham turned his eyes upwards and squinted in the dark. The closet doors were splintered and broken badly, with considerable cracks from floor to ceiling, and the desk was now sitting a good inch back from where it had been. There was no sound.

 Shaking, he got onto all fours and crawled over to his door. He reached up with his bad arm – it couldn’t support his weight – and flicked on the switch. He half expected to hear that terrible shrieking again, and the deadly sound of snapping wood as Terry broke free for good. It didn’t come.

 He crawled back to the closet, squelching through the half dried blood and not caring, and used his shoulder to push his desk out of the way, inch by inch. At last the doors swung open and the real Terry fell out.

 If possible, he looked even worse than Graham. They were both as pale and sickly as each other, but Terry had been reduced to skeletal proportions. There couldn’t be so much as an ounce of fat on him, and his torn pyjama pants hung from bony hips. He was covered in a thousand little scratches and punctures, some old and some fresh. His eyes, once clear, looked milky and unfocused, and his teeth were broken and cracked. But when he blinked and glanced up at Graham, he was once again Terry.

 ‘You got me out,’ he said. His voice was so broken it was a whisper, and it would stay that way for months afterwards.

 ‘You tried to eat me,’ Graham said, lifting his arm up. Terry looked as though he was going to throw up so Graham put it down again. A second later they were chuckling like the school boys they were, and more than a little of it was the bright, persistent light that flooded the room. Even the bed held little shadow now, and the Land of Dark seemed further away.

 Moving with shaky energy, Terry went to the curtains and tore the tape on the bottom corners as he parted them. Fresh dawn light flooded the room, and Graham didn’t think he’d seen anything so beautiful in his life. He stood up with one hand on the desk for balance and grinned widely at his older brother. Soon they were laughing again, each infecting the other with his own mirth until they were both on the floor and had to stop for fear of passing out.

 ‘What happened to you in there?’ Graham asked after a little while. They were sitting beside each other on the bed, unable to take their eyes off the sun as if to do so would cause it to vanish.

 ‘I can’t remember much. They kept me in a cage with a couple of other kids, I don’t know where from ‘cos they didn’t speak English. They ate the kids one at a time. Just reached in and chewed them. I remember bits dropped down through the bars and I…’

He didn’t finish the sentence, but Graham knew all too well how it ended. He remembered how his own blood had tasted in the other world, and how pain had felt.

 ‘Anyway, they went off again and never came back. I think something bigger ate them.’

 ‘What?’

‘I dunno. But I think in that place, everything eats everything, and there’s always something bigger. I think it was hell, Gray.’ 

Graham thought the smell alone was enough proof of that statement.

 ‘I started turning pretty fast,’ Terry went on. ‘I remember talking to you, but it was like a dream. After that I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the closet.’

 ‘Wow.’

 ‘Where do you think it was, Gray? That place?’

 Graham shrugged. ‘The Dark,’ he said. ‘It was the Dark.’

 

 

 

 

 

   

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

Quiet Night

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

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

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

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

‘Gabe.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Or the road.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it unlocked?’ Russ said.

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

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

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

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

‘Alright genius, you got any matches now?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russ shrugged. ‘You think they have food?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh yeah? What you do?’

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

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

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

‘Huh?’

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

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

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

He chuckled. ‘You got a point.’

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

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

‘Sure. Probably just a couple hoboes.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I can’t… I don’t understand.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where’s the basement?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Russel?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks. So you saw ‘em too, huh?’

‘Yeah. What happened to you?’

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

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

‘You don’t want to drink that, man.’

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

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘So what happened to you?’

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

‘Where is he now?’ Russ said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why not?’

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

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

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

‘I’m not a cop,’ he said.

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shit.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Got a better idea?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘GABE! Help me!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What happened?’ he said.

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

Gabe swore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***      ***      ***

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

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

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

***      ***      ***

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

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

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

‘You been walking all night?’

He nodded.

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

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

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

‘I’m Gabe, Gabe Yeats,’ the guy said.

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

‘Nearest civilisation.’

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

‘I’ll be alright.’

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

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

Two things merged to create this tale. The first is a picture I saw recently of regular beach sand, magnified hundreds or thousands of times: http://www.cracked.com/article_19953_9-normal-things-that-look-trippy-under-microscope.html. The second thing is a memory I have. I was rock climbing on the beach one day, and met a couple of kids who said they’d found an underwater tunnel that led under a big rock. The entrance they showed me was inside a small rock pool. So of course I ducked under and swam the tunnel. No words can describe the terror I felt in that tunnel. When my air started to run out, I still couldn’t see a single thing or a dot of light ahead. It was pitch black, and I was underwater in a narrow tunnel. Needless to say, when I emerged from another rock pool on the other side and roared at the top of my lungs with joy that I was still alive, the two small children playing there screamed and ran away. Like me, I  don’t think they’ll ever recover completely. I almost died, but at least now I have a story to show for it. Enjoy!

Colourful Sand

By Ben Pienaar

 

The rock pool was hidden from view, if you were looking from the beach. It wasn’t too far from the houses, though, so it was easy to find if you weren’t afraid to go out on the rocks. You had to go at peak low tide, unless you just wanted to look. That was all Will’s older brother had wanted to do, and despite its irresistible mystery (so it seemed to Will), Josh was bored quickly. ‘It’s just a rock pool,’ he said. ‘And you’d probably drown getting to it, anyway.’

That day, Will let himself be dragged away to collect shells and jump rocks, but the sight of the pool didn’t leave his mind. It was different from other rock pools, because it was all alone on a little rock island all of its own, and because it was much bigger than they usually were. That, and the thrilling idea of being caught out there at high tide, made it too good for a boy like Will to ignore.

He went out the following day, and made sure to head out a good hour before lowest tide, so that he could get out to it as soon as possible. Winter was barely over, and the sky was partially overcast with clouds and blue in equal parts, but Will went only in his shorts. He took his snorkel and goggles, of course, and a jar in case he saw anything interesting in the pool.

The stretch of water between the rocks and the little rock island was treacherous whether the tide was high or low. The rocks his feet all over that beach, but at least you could see where you were going: in the stretch the water was constantly flowing waist deep and it was a coin toss whether you’d step on seaweed (blessed relief) or barnacles.

The island was a solid slab of rock about the size of a tennis court, and most of the middle was taken up with the great pool. Will pulled himself up and rolled from the sharp edge and into the sandy shallows with a grunt of relief, which turned into a gasp of surprise. The water in here was almost warm. Warm by ocean in winter standards, of course, not bathtub standards.

He lay for a minute, marvelling at the sensation of being in calm, warm water while freezing waves crashed against the rocks all around him. Every now and again one hit hard enough for some of the spray to land on him like droplets of salty ice.

Will Darnow, however, was not one to stay in one place for long, and he was up a minute later, walking the lip of the island and peering into the rock pool. It began shallow on the shore side, and then deepened smoothly until it turned murky green at the ocean end. On that side, the became a huge boulder covered in dark green moss that was so thick it was like fur. Will took it as a challenge and managed to pull himself to the top of it, with some difficulty, though it wasn’t very interesting from there and so he went back down again.

It was then that he saw the colours for the first time. The sun was at his back, and as he looked into the pool he saw the light reflecting on thousands of colourful specs beneath the water. He moved around to the shallow end again and now, when he crouched and stared at the sand, he realised it was indeed coloured.

Not only that, but the grains seemed much bigger than regular sand grains ought to be; maybe a little bigger than hundreds and thousands. And each grain had such intricate patterns, spirals and stripes and rainbows – they were like snowflakes in a way. To see so many at once was overwhelming, almost hypnotising. Will was amazed he missed them in the first place, but then the sun went behind a cloud and the grains dulled in the absence of light. Now you had to be close to see the colours.

Not all of the sand in the shallows was coloured- it was mixed in with the regular stuff, so Will took his jar and waded further into the pool. It grew deep so quickly that he was up to his shoulders by the time he’d gone ten meters. That was why the other end was so murky, it must be ten meters deep by then. He decided to bring a flashlight next time he came, to explore the darker parts.

That day he didn’t go into the dark waters, but collected the sand instead. He used the jar as a scoop and when he found too much regular sand he’d empty it out and scoop again, until it was all coloured. When he saw the high tide coming in, he skirted the edges of the pool and knocked off a few of the more interesting looking bits of coral. It was only then that he noticed the oddest thing of all: there was no life in the pool. In every other rock pool he’d explored, there’d always been something – needle thin minnows, or crabs or even octopi. This was the first one he’d ever encountered that was home to nothing but sand and coral.

He made it back across the stretch and all the way home with the jar, but not his feet, intact. Once home, he set the jar on his bedside table, and spent a few minutes staring at it, the sheer volume of colours and shapes and patterns they showed him. To him, it was a work of art. Then, his father called for dinner and he forgot all about it.

Until, that was, the following day, when he asked Josh to go out with him and his older brother refused. ‘It’s risky,’ he said.

‘But Josh, I’ve already been there. Check it out.’ He lifted a bare foot and showed a wrinkled sole criss-crossed with nasty scars from the rocks.

‘Yeah, that’ll make me want to go.’

‘Oh yeah? What about if I show you what I found up there, then? I bet it’s nothing you’ve ever seen before.’

That got him interested, and a minute later they were in Will’s room, and Josh was standing by the window and holding it up to the light, analysing it with scientist’s eyes. ‘It’s strange,’ he admitted. ‘Beautiful.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, there was tons of cool stuff around there, but I couldn’t fit it in the jar. And, there was this whole dark place where I couldn’t see, so there’s probably even more there. Don’t you want to come?’

As if hadn’t heard, Josh opened the jar and took out the bits of coral from the top. He looked in and then sniffed. ‘It smells good.’

‘What?’

‘Smell it. It’s like sugar and honey.’

Will took the jar and inhaled deeply. He reached in and took out a handful of it and pressed it up to his nose. It was better than sugar and honey, he thought. It was like heaven and chocolate. Without thinking, he tipped the sand into his mouth and swallowed it. Josh stared at him, wide eyed, but said nothing.

Will scrunched up his face and shuddered. He gulped down the mud with great effort and then stuck his tongue out and raked his fingers down it as if to get rid of the taste. ‘Gross,’ he said. Josh erupted into peals of laughter and clapped his hands. Will scowled at him and put the jar back up on his shelf. ‘Well at least I had the guts to try,’ he said.

‘Wanna go feed the anemones or something?’ Josh said, when he’d recovered.

‘No, maybe later. Tell me if you find anything cool.’

Josh shrugged and left the room, still chuckling.

When he was gone, Will closed the door behind him and then went back to the jar. He lifted it from the shelf and sat down with it on the edge of his bed. He stared at the colourful sands and took another long sniff. Delicious. With a furtive glance at the open window, he reached into the jar and began to shovel handfuls of sand into his mouth.

It was incredible. He had no idea how he’d managed to look disgusted earlier but he thought he deserved some kind of award. Maybe he’d be an actor, one day. The fact was, the strange sand tasted better than anything he’d ever had. It was better than chocolate cake, better than the sweetest candy, and oddly spicy in a way that made his whole mouth tingle and his stomach squirm with pleasure. It was filling at first, but he found it was like rice – it wasn’t long before he was ravenous for it again. He finished the whole jar in half an hour.

He wanted more. With a surge of joy, he realised that whole island must be full of the stuff. There’d been jars and jars more just in the shallows alone! And, even better, the second low tide of the day would come just after dinner. It would be easy to sneak out with a waterproof torch and a few jars and fill up.

He told no one where he was going, because his parents didn’t like him to go on the rocks at night and his brother would surely want to follow. Instead, he waited until they were watching television and Josh was reading in the lounge, and snatched as many jars as he could carry. He got changed quickly, snuck out of his bedroom window, and headed out to sea.

He didn’t dare stay on the island for too long, because if the tide caught him at night he’d be as good as dead. But he needn’t have worried. Even in the dark, he worked like a maniac, and soon all the jars were full of the delicious, coloured sand. He made it back home and began to gorge himself before the tide even began to come in.

He filled five jars that night, but still it wasn’t enough. With a sinking heart, he realised that there was surely a limit to the stores of it and that at the rate he was going he was sure to reach it in a matter of days. All he could do, he supposed, was enjoy it while it lasted. Unless of course he found where it was coming from. Maybe then he could make more of his own? Farm it, in a way.

The thought filled him with hope, and when he’d depleted his stock to the last jar, he took the empties back to the island after breakfast. Today, he vowed, he would venture into the deep end, into the murky green waters where the sand was thick, and see if he could find the source.

That day, Josh had locked himself in his room because, being from big school, he had holiday homework. Will’s parents were both lying around on the front porch, reading or sleeping – he didn’t know – and he waved goodbye as he left. They were used to his strangeness enough to ask why he was heading down to the beach with four jars tied around his waist, a snorkel and a waterproof torch. It was nothing unusual, really. Still, when he finally dropped out of sight into the land of rocks, he breathed a sigh of relief. Alone at last.

It was peak low tide, and he could even see the rocks beneath the water as he made his way across. The thrill of discovery began to rise steadily in him as he pulled himself onto the island and unstrapped the jars. He couldn’t wait to get in that warm water: A chill off shore wind was blowing, sending ripples over the flat water and giving him goosebumps.

He kneeled in the shallows, strapped on his snorkel, and picked up the torch. It was time to go.

His heart beating wildly with anticipation, he went forward into the warm water and kicked slowly, staring straight down and panning the flashlight to and fro across the descending floor. The sights were dazzling. The deeper he went, the more of the colourful sand there was, and by the time he reached the other end of the rock pool the entire bottom was covered in it. There was enough in here along to last him a fortnight!

But where was it coming from? He swam in circles for several minutes before he found it. The sand seemed to pile up at the far end of the rock pool, and when he ducked under to get a closer look he found out why. There was a tunnel in the side, near the bottom. The opening was about as big as the average water slide, and the colourful sand spilled from the entrance. When he flashed his torch inside, he saw a trail of it leading inside, but he couldn’t see where it ended because the tunnel curved slightly upwards.

He kicked back up to the surface and held onto the edge while he caught his breath. The excitement was bordering on fear, now, because he knew he was going to have to swim down that narrow space. If not today, he’d do it when he ran out of sand.

He had an idea that big round moss covered boulder at the end of the rock pool was hollow, and that the tunnel led up into it. Maybe there was some kind of coral or something in there that made the sand.

An icy wind blew into his face, accompanied by a few drops of rain, and he realised he’d better hurry if he wanted to get in and out before the tide came in. He considered taking a jar through the tunnel with him and decided against it. Today it was just reconnaissance – if he wanted more sand afterwards there was plenty still left in the deep end.

Will unstrapped the snorkel, not wanting it to get caught on anything, but kept the goggles. He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe slower and deeper. He knew how panic sapped the air from your lungs, and he wasn’t keen on being caught halfway along that narrow tunnel without any air and a quick beating heart.

At last, he took a long, deep breath and ducked under. He went down until he was almost two meters under water, peering into the rocky tunnel. He hesitated, just for a moment, and swore to himself that if he doubted, even for a second, that he’d have the air for it, he’d push back straight away. That would be hard, too, because he’d have to come out backwards. He gulped. Holding the flashlight in front of him, he kicked into the tunnel.

As soon as he entered, he felt the difference. It was much warmer in here, and the goose bumps vanished from his skin. That did not strike him as odd, but what did was the feel of the walls under his trailing left hand. They had the same mossy, spongy feel as the boulder outside, and there was no hint of sharp, rough rock underneath. Even stranger, the walls themselves seemed felt warmer than the water, as though they were giving off their own heat.

He followed the gentle curve up and felt a stab of panic that it would be impossible to navigate the curve backwards. He shook it off and kept going. He moved his left hand to the trail of sand that continued along the bottom of the tunnel. The journey felt like hours, though it was less than a minute, and without warning the tunnel ended and he found himself, at last, inside the great boulder.

The first thing he felt was the heat. It was boiling in here, like a bath that had been run hot enough to make your skin red raw – it was suffocating. He decided then and there that he wouldn’t spend ten more seconds in this place, and then he saw the sand. It was everywhere, and it seemed to be pouring into the hollow through tiny pores in the mossy rock, constantly trickling like sand through an hourglass.

So there was a source! And all he had to do was come up here whenever he wanted it and collect that delicious, mouth numbingly good substance. For a minute, he was ecstatic, and though his lungs were already crying out for air he let out a silent bellow of triumph and pumped his fist in the water.

As if sensing the movement, the walls around him seemed to shudder and shift. He heard an odd grumbling sound reverberate through the water, and the sensation that followed it scared him very much. The slight current that had been pushing at him from the tunnel below stopped. He looked down.

The tunnel had squeezed shut. Not completely, but the hole it left below his feet was the size of a fist.

Immediately, Will flew into a total panic. He turned around and shoved his fingers into the hole, trying to pry the soft walls apart, but they stayed stubbornly clenched, like the heaving muscles of some colossal oesophagus. And it was that thought, that comparison, which made him realise the truth. He stopped pulling and his whole body went numb with shock.

This thing he was in, this boulder was alive. Was that rushing sound he could hear not breathing? Were these walls not just like the flesh of some giant creature? And this water, this searing hot water… He looked down at his arm and saw that layers of skin were floating free, though besides the intense heat all around he felt no pain. He was being digested.

It was then that Will lost his mind to the panic. He went insane with it, and as he opened his mouth to scream his lungs empty with his madness, his last thoughts were only of empty, incoherent death.

In time, his body was separated layer by layer and then absorbed into the walls of the stomach. His bones lay inside for much longer, and but eventually they too dissolved into tiny fragments. These were pale at first, then yellowed, and when they were ripe they were sucked into the heaving organs and stained with pretty colours and infused with exotic tastes. One day, when the beast was hungry again, it would emerge as mouth watering, delicious, colourful sand.

For now, the beast slept.

 

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

Lunatic

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

1

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

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

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

 ‘Alright then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 They hesitated.

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

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

 The Loon looked doubtful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Nick raised his eyebrows. ‘You for real?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

 ‘Hey man. You been having those dreams?’

 Chris raised his eyebrows. ‘What?’

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

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

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

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

 ‘Know what I think?’

 ‘What?’

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

 Chris laughed, and then saw Nick staring at him.

 ‘You alright, mate?’ Chris said.

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

 ‘No man.’

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

4

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

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

 ‘What about investigation?’ Chris said.

 ‘Excuse me?’

 ‘How did he die?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

 Suffocation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Blend

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

3. Capture 11

4. Feasting days 18th – 19th

5. Descend/Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 So step one was done.

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

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

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

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

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

8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12

 He blinked and woke up on the moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Not once.

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