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For those of you following Demon Haunted Boy, thanks! But I must interrupt your regular viewing for this broadcast: I’m leaving for Vietnam in the near future, and so on top of continuing my latest novel, I’m creating a backlog of DHB so you won’t be deprived of Will’s latest adventures while I’m gone. Until then, enjoy this thing I wrote for Reddit’s Nosleep thread…

This story was brought to you by Absinthe – the preferred drink of mad men and women all over the world.

 I Drink to Still the Demons

My psychiatrist tells me in his stilted voice that I must have something in my past, in my preconscious childhood. He refuses to delve deeper, and gives me no explanation, which is fine by me. I don’t want to know any more than he does.

The drink, like everything else in my life, is a ritual, as predictable as the sun rising in my bedroom window the next morning, burning me with maddening heat. It begins with a shot glass, an expensive crystal piece I bought in Russia, I don’t remember when. I set the glass down on the desk and take my favourite bottle of absinthe from the cupboard – Green Fairy – and place it beside the glass. Then I write in this journal. I never read back over previous pages. I believe that the past is dead and gone and not worth dwelling over, and so I turn over a fresh page and write on clean paper. The bottle sits untouched, the beautiful green liquid drawing my gaze, until I’ve finished at least one page. Then finally, I fill the glass and stare at it, hypnotised, for several minutes.

At last, I drink. It tastes like liquorice flavoured fire.

That one shot is all I have, and I go to sleep shortly afterward, just as the pleasant buzz is settling into my brain.

That was the drink; now here are the demons.

There are two of them, and they appear to me at random times during the day, without warning. The first demon looks just like a man, and yet at the same time is so monstrous that the sight of him makes me want to run in the opposite direction until you collapse from exhaustion. The only reason I don’t is that I know he would follow me, striding with legs as thick as tree trunks, each pace longer than several of mine. He stands and watches, a seven foot beast with rank hair the colour and smell of garbage hanging over his grinning face, leaning back as if to survey me. His arms – strong enough to choke a gorilla, dangle by his sides, and he holds a wicked blade in his right hand. It’s the blade that gets to me the most, because I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life. It has the sterile sharpness of a surgeon’s tool, but I can’t imagine what practical function it could serve: it curves away from the handle in three different directions, hooking and curling and twisting. Capable of delicate work… but what work, I dread to think.

He knows. It’s in his grin. I can never move an inch when I see him, and only when my eyes begin to sting and I blink does he vanish.

The other demon is me. Or at least, he looks like me, if I’d spent the night in the sewer. His hair – my hair – has grey streaks in it, wild and torn out in places. His face is dirt streaked, and his clothes look and smell as though he’s been panic-sweating into them for weeks. He is more terrifying than the other demon, because of what he tells me, in my own shaking voice. This world is not real, he says. Stop taking the drink, and you’ll see: This World Is Not Real. He takes me by the shoulders and shakes me, staring desperately into my face, and then vanishes abruptly.

My psychiatrist comforts me, saying that the fact I know the demons are hallucinations is very promising. He’s missing the point, and I don’t bother to correct him, because I suspect he’s no more able to help me than I am to help myself. The point is that there was never any doubt in my mind that the demons aren’t real – what I’m not so sure about is whether or not Demon number two is telling the truth. After all, why would I lie to myself?

*

The thing is…

The thing is I keep noticing things.

It’s been a week now since I saw the demons, and now and again I have a moment of relief, when I think it’s all over and I can get on with my life. And then the coffee cup won’t be where I put it down a second ago. I sit down on my couch with the paper and put the steaming cup on the glass table beside me. I read the paper for a minute or two to let it cool, but when I reach for it, it’s gone.

Why is it I can’t go around to places in my neighbourhood I’ve never been before? I go on a walk, take a turn up Wightman. I never take a turn up Wightman – never. I always do the same route around the block when I’m walking. But just yesterday I decided to take the turn up Wightman. And a minute or so along I started recognizing houses, and I realized I’m not on Wightman at all, I’m on Richmond, the route I always take.

I’m starting to feel like a rat on a treadmill. The rat runs faster and faster, but he can’t get free – the only way to do that is to stop running and step off. I have to step off.

*

This morning, the second demon wrenched me from my bed. He was right in my face, shaking me, screaming at me. Wake Up! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! Jesus, I was so scared I wet the bed. I haven’t done that since I was a child, but I couldn’t help myself, seeing those familiar features twisted with insanity, the terror in his screams. I’m shaking, even now.

Tonight, I will not drink the absinth. My psychiatrist says it’s a good idea. It’ll do wonders for my health, he says.

*

The sunlight pierces me soon after dawn and I roll over the side of the bed in agony. I feel like I’ve crossed the Sahara desert naked, pale skin exposed to the African sun for days, my tongue thick and dry. The light struck my left eye so badly I haven’t regained the sight in it yet.

I call in sick to work, and Terry, my boss, takes it in his stride. His voice is almost relieved, as if to say: oh, thank God, you’re human. I haven’t called in sick once since I started there three years ago, or done anything outside of punch the clock exactly on time and do everything asked of me to the letter and not an inch more. When I think of it, I’ve lived the same day without variation for all those years. Never a fresh face, never so much as a skipped meal. I didn’t visit family. Never once did I stay up late, or have drinks with a colleague. I try to think back to the last conversation I had. Did they tell me anything I didn’t already know?

*

The pain is worse the second day. I crawl from my bedroom, teeth gritted, and pull myself down the hall. I have to call an ambulance, but I left my phone in the lounge downstairs.

Why does my house look so different? Everything is made of concrete instead of wood and carpet. My windows have thick bars across them, and the sunlight that comes through has a distinctly artificial hue – like the fluorescent lights in a hospital. My body is different, too: my skin is raw and bruised, and with each breath I take I wince from a pain in my chest, as though half my ribs are broken. How did this happen?

I drag myself down the stairs, gasping, and collapse at the bottom, paralysed for a minute. When I regain my senses I roll over and look down at myself, and discover the reason I’ve been crawling: both of my legs are severed at the shin. Stained trousers that I don’t recognize are tied off neatly at the stumps.

I scream.

*

I must have died at some point, because when I next wake up I am in hell.

I’m lying spread eagled on a stone slab, arms stretched taut by chains that have rubbed my wrists bloody. I’m already screaming when I come to my senses, because the first demon is leaning over me, his enormous mouth leering with pleasure and breathing his reek into my face.

He is working on me with his special knife, the one with curves and hooks I was so curious about before. I’m not curious now. He draws the blades across my flesh almost gently, with the flourish of an artist with his brush as he makes the final touches. The wounds he makes are shallow, superfluous, and excruciating. He takes his time.

He unchains me before he leaves, but I’m so drained I don’t move from my position, and simply stare, drooling, at a grey wall. Once the pain dulls to a bee sting hum, I allow myself to drift away.

*

It takes me another hour to make it off the slab, and when I hit the ground, fresh waves of nausea roll over me. I grit my teeth and lie down on the cold floor until the urge passes. Then I drag myself into the far corner, beside a cracked toilet. I take the room, and with each passing second it grows more familiar to me – more so even than my comfortable home and my well-lit white wallpapered office. While I went about my day, walking around the neighbourhood, lying down in my soft bed at night – this place was there all along.

This is my real home: a cell, perhaps twice as large as the average prison cell. The floor is covered with brown and black stains and scratch marks, and everything smells strongly of raw meat and excrement. A bedsheet is rolled up in one corner, and I read bloody letters on the fabric. Funny, I always wondered, writing in my journal, why the pen ran out of ink so frequently.

When I look down at myself, I begin to weep, even though I know what will be there before I see it. My emaciated body is so covered in scar tissue, blood and sweat that I can’t recognize it. My stumps are not halfway down the shin as I’d initially thought, but at the knee, and there are no trousers to hide the stumps. I put my hands up to my face and feel features that are just as mutilated as the rest of me: I was drooling earlier because I’m missing at least half of my teeth, and my gums hurt to touch. I have a beard and matted hair, and my nose has been broken at some point, though it doesn’t hurt, now. I try to touch my left eye and my fingertips, moving beyond where my pupil should have been, touch something tender in my socket. That is when I break.

I curl up on the floor and weep tears of despair. I don’t even know where I am, or who has done this to me, or why. I try to recall a true memory and arrive at a vision of friend’s face – his name comes to mind like a welcome breeze: Miles Neiman. He’s grinning, and he says: ‘It’s gonna be a good trip, Matt. Stop stressing, it’s about time you got out of the rat race for two weeks.’

That’s all I have, but just beneath the surface is a whole life lived, thirty – no thirty three years. I don’t know how long it will take to come back for me, and the more I strain my memory the more I despair that I’ll ever find out how I’ve got to this dark place, and who I’ve left behind.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh…’ A dry sound comes from nearby, and I’m crying so loud I don’t hear it at first. I have to wipe my eyes and prop myself up against the wall, sniffling, to listen. It sounds again, and this time I recognize it as a human voice.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh… Yesssss. You’ve stopped taking your medicine, haven’t you?’ The voice is coming from somewhere beyond my cell door. I crawl over to it, wiping snot from my nose and gasping as the cuts along my chest reopen from the movement. When I arrive, I see a small plain shot glass sitting beside the cell door.

‘Can you see me?’ The voice enquires. I peer through the bars into a narrow hallway. The walls and floor are all made of dusty concrete, and although the ceiling is lined with fluorescent lights, at the moment only one is lit, and it barely reaches me. The voice is coming from a gloomy cell opposite. A man stands inside, two wide eyes gleaming in a silhouette. I’m almost jealous of him, until I look closer and see that he is standing on his right leg, and holding the bars with his left arm: his other limbs are missing. He smiles at me, and his teeth are in about the same condition as mine. He has a deeply lined face and shoulder length grey hair. ‘There you go,’ he says. ‘I’m so glad you’re awake.’

‘Where am I?’ I’m shocked at the sound of my own voice – it is the voice of a broken man: soft and scratchy; helpless.

‘Back in the real world. You are embracing the truth at last, instead of the lie you’ve been living for three years.’

‘Oh, God. Three years.’ So I had never moved house, never got the new job. They were all hallucinations of comfort and sedation my mind had conjured up to keep me happy.

‘It’s a long time to be asleep. I took the drink for a full year.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Me? My name is… Life.’

‘Life?’ I say.

‘Yes. You wanted to know who I was before, though, didn’t you? Before, I was George. A banker. Rich, comfortable, content. Too much fat around my belly, too little going on,’ he tapped the side of his head with enough force to bruise himself, ‘in here. Now I’m alive. I feel everything, I taste everything, even the gruel that he brings. I still have power. Look!’

I watch while he lowers himself into a squat on his leg, keeping perfect balance all the while, and then rises up again. ‘I grow as strong as the food allows me – and he doesn’t skimp on gruel, no he doesn’t!’ He chuckles.

I am afraid to ask, but I do. ‘Who is he?’

‘Aaaaaaaahhhh. Our Nemesis. Our Captor. Our Sworn Enemy. Let me tell you about him. I have been studying him for all my stay here, and over the course of my attempted escapes, I’ve learned much. If I die, you may have to continue my mission, so listen closely, my young apprentice.’

He leans in to the bars, pressing his dirty face right up against them so that his eyes bug out, his pupils contracting to small points against the harsh hallway light.

‘He calls himself Master, but I always call him Slave. He doesn’t like that at all. The first time I did it, he cut off my arm. The second time, he took my leg, but I kept doing it, and he wanted to keep me alive for as long as he could. That was my first victory over him. The first step to proving who is really the Master.’ He laughs again, and winks at me.

‘He is a slave to his pleasure, you see. He’s a sadist in the purest sense, unable to live a normal life. He’s driven by a desire to control, and as a result he will never experience anything else life has to offer. That is a shame, because he is an incredibly intelligent man – a genius, even – and in prime physical shape besides. He could do and be anything anyone could want, and yet he chooses instead to live in a rundown house, pouring his savings into this elaborate basement: this obsession of his.

‘And it is an obsession, oh yes. I have personally met two men and two women, in your cell and the cells just adjacent to yours, and besides them I can see two more cell doors on your side of the hallway, and I believe there must be four doors I that I can’t see on my side. I estimate that he’s ended the lives of at least thirty people over the last four years, but it’s impossible to know. I can’t communicate with any of them, because they always take the drink. You’re the first to refuse it for two years. Congratulations.’

I stare at him in horror. He grins back. Insanity.

‘But what… There must be some way we can escape? I’m not taking the drink – I can help you.’ He nods eagerly, as though he’s been waiting for me to say this. My heart lifts. There is hope.

‘Yes. I have made many attempts over the years. I have learned two things. The first is that it is impossible for us to leave this place. The second is that our freedom lies within easy reach – inside ourselves. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that brilliant? Our salvation has been within our hands all this time. We have only to accept the truth.’

I close my eyes and swallow. Please, I beg a God I do not believe in, please tell me he has real plans to get out of this place. But before he can speak another word, a door cranks open and heavy steps sound in the hallway.

*

Two days go by.

When he slides the gruel through the tiny slot beneath the door, I eat it ravenously: tasteless grey mash. When he gives me the glass full of green liquid, I empty it into the toilet before temptation overtakes me. Each time, Life claps his hands and grins at me with his ten remaining teeth.

Three times a day, the footsteps thump down the hall. Twice, food slides through the slots at the bottom of our doors, the lukewarm sludge that Life seems to relish so much. Once a day, someone gets the knife.

I say once a day, but I don’t know, because the ones who take the drink don’t scream. Life tells me there is someone in the cell beside mine, which he can see into. A young woman, he tells me. Missing her ears, nose, tongue and arms. She takes the drink every day, he says, for two years, and on the days the footsteps stop in front of that cell and I hear the door creak open, I never hear a peep. Who knows where she is, while he does what he wants to do with her.

Life guides me, in some ways. He shows me how I could dig at the crack in the corner of my concrete cell, and cover my progress by tossing the bundle of sheets in the corner. ‘Who knows?’ he says. ‘If you can make it through the wall, perhaps you can crawl to safety. Devote your life to that crack, and you might well escape.’

And I do, I dig and dig and dig, with my fingernails, then with shards of harder concrete that broke off during my excavation. The Demon is not thorough in his visits. He is here only to satisfy a need. I can’t dig on the days he chooses me – I can only shudder in the corner and weep, while Life urges me to continue.

*

Life fights every time, but it seems only to delight the ‘Master’. Nevertheless, over the past two weeks I’ve never seen someone fight so furiously against an opponent who so obviously outmatches him, even if he were given all his limbs. Master spends longer with him than with anyone.

*

I am losing my mind. Yesterday, after a month of digging the crack, until it had gotten deep  enough that I could feel soil with the tips of my fingers, and wide enough that I could fit my head inside the cavity, He found it and moved me to another cell.

Life told me that would be the first of many times it would happen. The he laughed madly, and shouted at the top of his lungs: ‘NOT FOREVER! NOT FOR ALL OF US!’

I noticed the lock of my new cell was rusty, and I scraped a piece of the wall away and started chipping away at the rust.

*

Life died yesterday.

I heard him, I heard when the blade cut deeper than skin and his screams turned from pitch to gurgle. Four years, he fought. Four years. He died screaming my name.

At this point, I’ve chipped almost half of my ancient padlock to dust. My body is a mess, but I have all of my limbs. I chip, I chip away at the lock. Footsteps come thumping down the hall, louder than usual. He is angry, and tonight is my turn.

*

It was a pleasant day, today. I don’t seem to get many of those anymore. Old age has brought me much pain. As a youngster watching an old man hobble across a street, I never guessed the agony he would feel just to move the way I always took for granted. But on the other side of the coin, small things give me a pleasure they never could previously.

A hot cup of tea, a good meal, and a long sleep is enough to keep me happy. My routines bring contentment: my morning coffee, my office job, my nightly walk under the starry sky. My life may be plain, boring, mediocre – but it’s a good life. I tell people I drink to still the demons, and they just laugh, because what demons could a man like me have?

My psychiatrist tells me in his stilted voice that I must have something in my past, in my preconscious childhood. He refuses to delve deeper, and gives me no explanation, which is fine by me. I don’t want to know any more than he does.

The drink, like everything else in my life, is a ritual, nothing more, nothing less.

 

 

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

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

PRESS START

 Out of Hell

 

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

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

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

‘I played video games.’

‘You played video games?’

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

‘I’m not aggressive.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A game?’

‘Yeah. I’ll turn the sound off.’

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

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

He clicked it.

Darkness swallowed the next twelve hours.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He dreamed of nothing.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘What, so I’m lying to you?’

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, ‘course. Anytime.’

‘Catchya later.’

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He tried to hide his surprise. ‘Cold?’

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

‘Oh.’

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

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

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

‘Sure.’

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it didn’t matter.

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

He had so much work to do, yet.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve been busy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The message appeared: CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP.

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

 

*

 

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

The world had changed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey,’ she said.

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

‘Writing?’

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What – now?’ He swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

‘Mum? Who’s that in the oven?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

‘You’re insane.’

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

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

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

‘Yes I can hear you.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What? You saw what I saw.’

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

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

‘I’m lying?’

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

‘That’s not what I heard.’

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

All he could hear was his own breathing.

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

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

He was going to have to play.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere on the next street, something howled for blood.

 

 

 

 

For some reason I got fixated on writing a parasite story. I actually wrote it three times before this one, but I couldn’t get the damn thing right. I’m not sure I got this one right either, but its the best I could do. Enjoy!

Parasite

Ben Pienaar

 

Here was Roger’s last diet: a white foetus suspended inside a bottle of golden brown liquid. It looked like a foetus, anyway, but it was too small for him to make out distinct features, even when Wei Leung shook the bottle to make it float nearer the glass. Roger saw a bulbous head too large for the shrivelled body, around which was coiled a thin tail. He took the bottle and unscrewed the top. The liquid smelled like a mixture of disinfectant and cheap whiskey.

‘God, what is it?’ he said.

Wei Leung nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, yes. Parasite. I tell you straight out. Sell like crazy on black market in Hong Kong. Not pass yet by Health Department, but it work fine. No complaints.’ He smiled, exposing all nine of his brown teeth. Roger could almost smell his garbage breath.

‘It doesn’t smell healthy.’

‘No, not healthy. Weight loss. Parasite.’

Roger shifted in his seat and then stopped when he heard an ominous creak. The whole place buckled and groaned with his every movement. He wouldn’t be surprised if the next storm reduced it to kindling. Then again, the market bustling outside had been standing for a long time, and all the buildings were made like this. The sounds of enthusiastic bartering and off tune flutes carried through a smudged window. Rather than discourage him, the atmosphere gave everything the impression of authenticity, the same way a fortune teller with a foreign accent, long coloured robes and a crystal ball was apt to do better business.

Wei read doubt on Roger’s face and spoke into the silence. ‘Very short life span. It take your foods and when it get too big for you it come out.’

‘It… comes out?’

Wei twirled the end of the long silver ponytail that hung over one shoulder. ‘It come out when you go to toilet. In nature, it lie there until another animal come, next phase of development, you know? But you can flush it down toilet.’

‘Huh. And that doesn’t hurt or anything?’

‘No, no, no! Very easy. My friend have one for three month. No problem. Usually they out of system much less than that.’

‘And how much weight could I lose?’

Wei shrugged, leaning back on his own creaky chair until only the back two legs touched the ground, hands behind his head. ‘Depend on how fat you are to start with. You? You lose twenty, thirty kilograms, easy.’

‘Thirty?’

‘You want to lose more after that, you come back for another one.’ He grinned. ‘Satisfied customer always come back. I still be here, don’t worry.’

Roger set the bottle down on the rickety table and eyed the foetus as it floated to the bottom of the bottle. It was only about the size of a fifty cent coin – barely a mouthful. He rested his hands on his enormous belly and thought of all the trouble his fat had given him over the years: the daggers in his knees, the endless sweat, the slipped discs, the high blood pressure. Lose the weight and ninety percent of your health problems will disappear, Dr. Fillion had told him over the rims of his reading glasses. I don’t care how you do it, Roger, but it has to be done.

So he nodded, and Wei Leung smiled wider than ever and came forward again, clapping his hands as all four chair legs hit the floorboards, threatening to bring the whole place down. ‘Okay, very good, very good. You drink all liquid too, okay? Protect parasite against stomach acid in early stages.’ He rubbed his belly to emphasise the point.

Roger nodded again, though he didn’t like to think of that sickly white thing floating in his stomach. He would drink it and then put it out of his mind and hope for the best. The less he thought about it, the better. ‘Okay. How much?’

‘Six hundred dollar. But you don’t like? I give you a refund.’

‘A refund?’

Wei gestured to a bookshelf behind him, on which two full shelves were occupied solely by bottles containing the parasite. ‘See those?’ he said. ‘They for return customers.’

‘Huh. Well, alright. It’s a deal, uh, Mr. Leung.’ He leaned across the table, wincing at the strain on his back, and shook Wei’s hand. When he settled back into his chair and began searching for his wallet in his jacket pocket, he asked if there was anything else he should know.

Wei gave him another of his toothy grins, sliding the bottle across to Roger’s side of the table. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Don’t chew. Ha ha ha!’

 

*

 

With every movement, into the car, out of the car, down a hot driveway to his unit, Roger grew more certain that he’d made the right decision. He imagined a version of himself (maybe only two months away – imagine that!) who didn’t have to lug thirty extra kilos everywhere he went. He’d wake up early and go jogging before work. He’d eat one more healthy meal a week, so that he wouldn’t have to rely on Wei’s parasites the rest of his life. Yes, it all started now!

He eased himself into a chair at his kitchen table and set the bottle down in front of him. He looked from the skeletal foetus (were those black dots in its head eyes?) to his kitchen counter, which was hardly visible beneath three family sized pizza boxes, a case of empty beer bottles, and a bucket of discarded KFC chicken bones. His whole place was full of this kind of trash, as was his fridge and his car, but now, on the point of change, it was as though he were seeing it all for the first time. How can someone live like this?

Less than twenty four hours ago, he’d been on his tenth beer of the night and second burger, when a motivational speaker had come on television, a slick square jawed suit with the build of a rugby player and the smile of an A list actor, Toby Grange. Last time Roger had been so inspired by one of these guys, he’d gone for a run and pulled both hamstrings. It was a joke. He was on the point of changing the channel when Grange said something, striding up and down the stage in a fever of enthusiasm.

‘Forget motivation, setting goals, all that nonsense. I know you thought I was gonna tell you to set goals. I’m not. I just want you to imagine one thing. Imagine if someone put a gun to your head.’ He made his hand into the shape of a gun and lowered his voice, serious now. ‘Imagine if someone put a gun to your head and told you that if you didn’t do… I dunno, whatever it is you wanna do – if you didn’t pull it off, he was gonna kill you. I bet all those little obstacles in your way wouldn’t mean a whole lot, would they?’

So here Roger was, gun to the head, doing what he had to do to save his life. He grinned at himself and shook his head. It would be just like it always was, of course – a week from now all this bluster would have faded, as it always did. The smile vanished when he raised his eyes to the contents of the bottle. It won’t matter if you do go back to what you were a week from now will it? By then, you’ll have that little guy inside you. Eating and growing and stealing every calorie it can get.

            He opened it and gripped the neck with one hand, trying not to breathe. It only held about as much liquid as the average beer. The rest was solid mass. He raised it to his lips, hesitated, and set it down again. He wiped his brow.

In the end, it was Grace that convinced him. She would have to clamp down on that big mouth of hers once he started dropping some serious weight. Maybe he’d even make a comment or two himself as he passed her on the way to his office. That a new dress, Grace? Looks a bit tight on you. Give her a taste of his own medicine.

How bad do you want it? Imagine if someone put a gun to your head.

            He raised the bottle once more, squeezed both eyes shut and drained it, glug by oily glug, until the flow jammed in the neck for a moment and then a limp body dropped into his mouth. It was soft on his tongue, and fleshy like an oyster or a snail. He choked it back, wishing there was more of the liquid to help wash it down, and hoped to Christ it didn’t get stuck in his throat.

It’s okay, just don’t chew.

            He swallowed.

 

*

 

Judging by the way he felt the rest of that night and the following morning, the preserving liquid had an extremely high percentage of ethanol. He crawled out of bed feeling too bloated for breakfast, head heavy and eyes puffy. The only difference he detected was an uncomfortable fullness, accompanied by the same churning feeling he got when he went full bore on Indian takeaway.

Grace gave him a fake smile when he lumbered in from the street, rolling up to the desk, smug look on an otherwise attractive face. ‘Hey, Roger. Have a big one last night, did you?’

‘Couldn’t sleep a minute, that’s all. I was definitely not meant to be a morning person,’ He chuckled.

‘Oh, yes, I’ve had a night or two like that myself. Coffee’s in the tea room.’

In the safety of his office, Roger leaned back on his chair and let out a thick burp and winced as a sharp pain bit into his liver. ‘Ahhhh, God. What have I done?’ His fantasy of clearing out the house and starting a rigorous exercise routine went out the window. After a few hours of trying to work, he gave up on that, too, and ended up staring out the window, daydreaming about Grace, and that future self of his, complete with pearly whites and strong arms – though Wei hadn’t said anything about gaining muscle. I’ll work out though. Just not today.

Or the next, or the next. It wasn’t that it wasn’t working – by the third day he’d dropped a kilogram, and by the end of the week he’d dropped three. No, it was just that he felt so awful. His stomach growled and burned with the furious heat of hunger no matter how much he ate, and though he was losing weight, the bloating and mild nausea never abated.

That wasn’t the only thing that didn’t change: pizza boxes and beer bottles piled up as they always had, and his sleep was actually worse. Instead of working out, he fell asleep on the couch and woke with a speeding heart and a cold sweat. Instead of cutting alcohol he added cigarettes, and his house was soon enveloped in a constant haze of their smoke.

But, damn, I don’t look so bad anymore, do I?

Grace noticed for the first time halfway through the third week. She glanced up as he walked in, then stopped mid keystroke and looked up again, eyebrows raised. ‘Roger?’

‘Yeah, Grace?’ He paused, trying to withhold a smile. He knew what was coming. That morning had been the first time since he was a teenager that he’d been able to see his feet over his belly.

‘Have you lost weight?’

He smiled. ‘I have actually, almost ten kilos. On a new diet.’

‘Oh? Might I ask what it is? My friend Trish…’

‘It’s nothing like that, no. Not one of these fad diets, I don’t go in for those. I’m too old school. Lots of vegetables, working out. You know. Oh, and a lot of white meat.’ He almost winked, and then realised she wouldn’t get the joke.

‘That’s it, huh?’

‘That’s it. Not easy though. I sure could go for a burger.’ They laughed together, and he realised it was the first time they’d ever talked like this. Like friends.

‘Well,’ she said, turning back to the computer, ‘I can definitely see the difference.’

Later, surfing on the wave of confidence, he almost asked her out, but restrained himself at the last moment. Not yet, my friend, you’re still twice her weight. Bide your time. Hell, if this keeps up, a couple months from now she’ll be asking you out.

So instead he went straight home and passed out five hours later with a bottle of whiskey, a furnace raging inside him. He vomited in his sleep and woke up in a pool of what looked an awful lot like blood.

Whatever it was, it was doing its job.

 

*

 

Dr. Fillion leaned back in his chair, legs crossed, and tapped a pencil against his knee with one hand, his head resting on the other. He flipped a page of his notes over and shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Roger. I think we should do a colonoscopy.’

Roger laughed, a joyful sound so unlike the bitter chuckle that normally escaped him. Maybe he really was becoming a new man. His habits hadn’t changed, but his attitude sure had. ‘I’m starting to think you’re a hypochondriac, doctor.’

‘Is that so?’

‘Well, a couple of months ago you told me my health was in trouble and I needed to drop some weight. Now I’m dropping weight and you think there’s something wrong with me.’

Fillion bowed his head. ‘Okay, I see your point. But Roger, something doesn’t quite add up here. You haven’t been starving yourself, have you? Because a man of your weight suddenly going into starvation mode isn’t exactly – ’

‘I’m not starving myself. Small portions, not much meat, exercise. You told me a hundred times what to do. It’s just that now I’m finally doing it.’

‘I want to believe you, Roger, but I know you.’ He half smiled, wagging a finger. ‘You like your shortcuts. Now you can say what you like, but I can smell that cigarette smoke on you a mile away. The fact is, no one loses this amount of weight in this amount of time in a healthy way. So what is it – diuretics? What are you doing to yourself?’

Roger held his arms out on either side, exposing a significantly reduced belly. Luckily, he hadn’t been so enormous that his skin had stretched permanently. ‘Doctor. Does this look like the body of an unhealthy man?’

‘No, I suppose it doesn’t. But that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. At least let me do a blood test? I promise I won’t lecture you, Roger, but you’ve got to be monitored. Someone your size – or at least the size you used to be… There are risks. Even if you do it the right way.’

Roger shrugged, then nodded. He doubted a blood test would reveal anything about the parasite. ‘Okay, sure, I’ll do a blood test. Maybe I’ll chow down on a burger after this too, slow down the process?’

‘Not so fast. Just do me one favour, okay? Cut the cigarettes. You could look like the cover of Men’s Fitness, but it’s a raw deal if you end up with lung cancer.’

‘Sure. No problem.’ He stuck his arm out. ‘Now suck me dry like Dracula.’

 

*

 

That night, while he dreamt of acres of pizza and mountains of ice cream, the parasite shifted in the folds of its womb. Its fingers were short and jointless like tentacles, but the tips were sharp, and it used these to feel its way along Rogers’s oesophagus.

Roger twisted and coughed, his mind passing first into blackness and then nightmare. He struggled to swim to a distant shore but heavy clothes wore him down and wave after wave came crashing down on top of him. Then, as abruptly as he’d appeared in that horrible place he vanished and found himself floating through air, sucking deep breaths, though they stank of bad milk.

The parasite sat in the back of his mouth, fingers pressing aside the corners of his lips. It peered out, tiny black eyes blinking in the moonlight. It hesitated, listening to the steady breaths of its host, and looked down the length of the rising and falling belly. It would be enough.

Satisfied and oriented, it tucked its arms into its body and slithered back down the tight passage until it was warm and safe once again.

Roger sat up, coughing and gasping until the horrible feeling of constriction was gone. In his dream he’d been trying to pull free of a hangman’s rope. When he tasted his mouth he stared at the bed, sure he’d vomited, but there was nothing there.

Luckily, his stomach was settled for the first time in a while, and it didn’t take long to go back to sleep.

 

*

 

The parasite didn’t grow, but it burned. It squirmed and moved and clawed at his insides, twisting its body in random seizures full of energy that had him doubled over in agony. That was where the calories were going. It was nearly winter now, but Roger found himself wearing a T shirt and shorts even on the coldest days, a move that certainly raised eyebrows at the office. Screw it, I’m the boss, I can do what I like. It’s not like I’m seeing clients, anyway.

There was more to it than that, though. Some of the parasite’s energy bled into him. From the moment he woke up he was twitching with it, charged with a thousand volts of electricity. By the end of the first month he was working out for an hour a day with furious intensity, just to provide himself with an outlet. It showed, too, and he became more and more certain that Grace’s raised eyebrows weren’t just for his lack of clothing but for what it revealed.

He made his move at the end of a long Thursday, when the office was empty except for the two of them. He came out of his office as she was heading out the door and she paused with her hand on the knob, not sure if he wanted anything else from her.

‘Grace? Sorry, I know it’s late, but could you do one more thing for me?’ He gave her an apologetic smile, enjoying himself. The night was chill, but he was in a red shirt and shorts. His legs, having grown used to carrying such heavy weight day after day, had more muscle than he’d ever have guessed.

She gave him a tight smile and brushed back her wavy hair. ‘Um. Sure, Roger. Anything for you.’

‘Oh, anything, huh? That’s a relief.’ He grinned, and she returned the look with a curious smile. He remembered the way he used to be with her – with all of them – eternally irritated, ever scowling. One month, and he hardly recognized himself. It was no wonder they gave him strange looks when he greeted them in the morning. ‘Would you go out to dinner with me tomorrow night?’

‘I… Oh.’ She stared at him. She glanced down, either at her feet or his legs, he wasn’t sure. ‘Are you sure it… I mean, we work together, you know?’

‘That’s true. I thought of that.’ He held up a hand and searched his briefcase for a minute, coming up with a handwritten piece of paper bearing his signature at the bottom. He handed it to her.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s a letter of recommendation. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re under any obligation. If you want, you can end the dinner with a slap in the face and never talk to me again, and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it – not that I would, but I thought you’d appreciate the reassurance.’

‘Are you… I mean, that’s… considerate.’ She held his eyes for a long time, not sure what to make of him. Roger didn’t know what to make of himself, either. Who was this cheerful, confident man? Was it really just the difference a few kilos made, or did the parasite have something else in mind?

‘Is that a yes?’

Maybe that’s how it procreates. It changes you, makes you into an attractive mate. Maybe Wei Leung was wrong, and it leaves you a different way – moves on to the next host.

            ‘Yes,’ she said, and then, more certainly: ‘Yes, I think I will. Is seven thirty okay?’

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll pick you up. And it’s on me, by the way. See you then.’

And, to his amazement, she didn’t even lean back when he moved to kiss her on the cheek.

I don’t care what it is, he decided. I don’t give a good god damn.

 

*

 

He didn’t sleep that night. He powered through a family sized bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and followed it up with half a tub of ice cream and then an entire bottle of tequila. The parasite soaked it all up like a battery taking in wall current, and an hour or two after midnight Roger found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, shivering and licking his lips, eyes darting back and forth, mind firing from one thing to another as though he’d had about ten coffees in a row. Shit, he wasn’t even drunk.

He paced his room, planning every moment of the date, and then the rest of the week, and then the rest of his life. He needed to procure more of these things. Wei Leung had no idea what he was on to, here. These things weren’t parasites, they were symbiotic life forms. They didn’t drain you, they improved you.

Roger went into his bathroom, stripping naked as he went. Maybe a shower would calm him, though he doubted it. He could sense that the parasite must be near the end of its cycle. Despite his external vitality, his insides were being torn to shreds by its constant movement and heat. He hadn’t gone to the toilet once in the past four weeks. The parasite, he figured, consumed the poisons and fat that he ate, and then his own body absorbed the healthy sustenance that it excreted, and everything was transferred into raw energy. Nothing wasted.

It occurred to him that Fillion would be at a loss if he saw him now. Instead of bulges and folds there was firm skin and muscle, a tightly bound physique, the kind a man would have if he ate not a scrap more or less than his body needed. There were signs of something not quite right, though: his skin had the deep red complexion of a bad sunburn, his chest and neck pulsed visibly with each rushing heartbeat, and when he leaned in he saw the pain in his bloodshot eyes.

I can live with that. He gave himself a reassuring nod, and then smiled, a gleeful expression that belonged entirely to the new version of him. Old Roger used to smile with a closed mouth to hide his sugar born cavities, with his shoulders tight and hands in his pockets; new Roger looked insanely happy.

It’s all worth it. Isn’t that what they say? No pain, no gain.

He laughed, and his laughter was like his smile, echoing in the small bathroom until he ran out of breath and doubled over, and even then it didn’t stop, but it came from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside him, and seemed to have a different voice.

 

*

 

Finally, he slept. The parasite did not.

This time, it came out limb by limb, since its body was too large to fit entirely in his throat. First one arm snaked out of his snoring mouth and then the other, pale and white, hands settling on the blankets on either side of his head. The rest of it came out in a slippery rush, head, narrow body and then legs, and it rolled away and landed softly on the bedroom carpet, covered in a cooling film of saliva and stomach acid.

Its first steps were shaky, like those of a newborn animal, but by the time it had crawled from his room to the kitchen it was moving with a slow grace. It squatted for long minutes by the counter, staring around every inch of the room with wide eyes that missed nothing.

When it saw the contents of the fridge, a round mouth opened and closed in the middle of its belly, lipless, tongueless and hungry. Packages of raw meat, a block of cheese, and half a stale pizza vanished inside opening, and the mouth squeezed tight again, like a belly button, stomach acids bubbling away.

It explored with its spindly arms, opening a drawer here, a cupboard there. It wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but while it fumbled through the cutlery drawer it hissed and withdrew, staring at a point of black blood rising on its finger. It hesitated, then reached back in and picked out the culprit: a small but razor sharp pair of scissors, meant for cutting packaging or the stubborn tendons in raw meat.

It turned the implement over, curled its fingers through the loops and opened and closed the twin blades, curious. An idea formed in its mind, and after a few minutes it opened its mouth and tucked the scissors into the folds within, the way a person might hold a nut in their cheek without swallowing it.

By now, the moisture on its skin had dried to an alarming level, and it crawled eagerly back along the hallway, seeking the refuge of its hot, wet home.

 

*

 

Roger woke up the following morning feeling full and ravenously hungry at the same time. There was nothing in the fridge and so he drove to the nearest McDonalds for breakfast and ordered six big mac meals, expecting to eat three and save the rest for later.

He ate all of it, every mouthful a small agony as his stomach stretched to its limits inside him, yet he was unable to stop. It was like having a mosquito bite that wouldn’t quit itching even when you tore it to shreds with your fingernails and started scratching the blood underneath. Unquenchable, unrelenting hunger.

He had a voicemail.

‘Hey, Roger, Dr. Fillion here. Just calling to let you know your bloods are in and, uh, they’re looking very strange, to be honest. I’ve sent them back for retesting but they don’t get it wrong very often so I’d like you to come in before that and let me run some tests if you don’t mind. I don’t think it’s anything serious so don’t panic, but, uh, I’d like to see you in as soon as possible just to be safe. Let me know.’ Click.

A maddening thirst seized him as a result of all the salty chips. Instead of finding a glass, Roger stuck his head into the bathroom sink and let the tap run directly into his mouth. He held on as long as he could, but after a minute or so – enough time for at least two litres to pass through the faucet, something tore inside him and he dropped to the floor, both hands on his stomach and eyes squeezed shut. Oh, something’s wrong, alright, something’s really wrong.

He told himself it was just a sensation – surely he wasn’t actually tearing –

The next rip turned his vision white and he threw his head back, smacking the kitchen tiles. He tried to scream, but something was blocking his throat and only a high whistle escaped him. This had to be what it felt like to give birth. Nothing else could be this painful. I will kill Wei Leung for this. He promised it wouldn’t be painful, god damn it.

            But the parasite wasn’t leaving his body at all. It was expanding. Slender limbs stretching out inside him, brushing by organs, curling, flexing, creating space for themselves between his muscles and along his ligaments. He was dimly aware of the sunlight spilling in from the kitchen window, and though time oozed by in painful fractions of a second, he was aware of the light dimming and then disappearing altogether. The parasite spread through him like tree roots through soil. One cold tendril snaked up his nasal passage, behind one eye – blinding it – and into his brain.

He lay, shivering and sweating on the tiles for another half hour, body clenching and unclenching around the foreign growths. As the minutes ticked by, he felt them less and less, as if they were made of slowly melting ice. When he didn’t feel them at all, he rolled over and climbed to his feet. One hand on the counter for balance, he swayed, trying to understand what was going on.

The clock on the kitchen wall read five thirty. He had to pick up Grace in two hours. Screw that. I gotta see Wei Leung.

Wei had given him a phone number, but Roger had little hope it was genuine. He barely let it ring five times before he shook his head and moved to click ‘end call.’

‘Hello?’ Wei’s voice crackled out of the headset. Roger stared at it for a second and then put it up to his ear.

‘Is this Wei Leung?’ He said.

‘Yes who is this?’

‘Roger. I’m – I’m the guy you sold that parasite to. The weight loss parasite.’

Crackly laughter. ‘Roger! I remember. You want another one, huh? Good results?’

Roger wanted to tell him the truth. He wanted to tell him that something had gone wrong and the parasite was growing too large and not coming out, and that the horrible pain in his belly was gone now, but that was a bad thing, a terrifying thing, and that he was scared and needed to know what to do.

Instead, another voice spoke from the back of his throat, his own lips not moving at all. ‘Can I come over now?’ It didn’t sound to Roger like his own voice – too deep and croaky – but it convinced Wei Leung.

‘It’s late now. What’s the rush, huh?’

‘I’m going away. I need stock. I’ll pay you double.’

‘Double? Ha ha! Good results, I told you. Okay okay. I meet you at the shop – all the stock is there. Bring cash!’

Roger dropped the phone into his pocket. He opened and closed his left fist, checking that he had control over his own body. He still couldn’t see out of his left eye.

This is insane. It had me. I swear it had me for a minute.

He told himself it would be okay. Wei Leung would know what to do, or at least he’d know someone who did. They would work something out.

Worst case, there was always surgery. Right?

 

*

 

The market place was deserted, awnings down, warm light shining through dusty window panes on the second floor. Roger was transported back to his first visit, an eternal two months ago now. He’d waddled uncomfortably past sizzling food stands, sweating in the sun, praying that Wei Leung’s miracle weight loss secret was what he promised.

Looking down at himself now, a wiry body beneath him, his feet light and his strides quick, he wasn’t convinced he’d been ripped off, exactly. It was just that something went wrong, that’s all. Like a cosmetic surgery that ended in infection. Probably it’s just one of those things that happens now and again. Probably he’s got a pill or something that kills the parasite if it won’t move on to the next stage of its development. He stopped himself there, not wanting to imagine what it would be like to have a dead body inside of him. Is it worse than a living one?

Up creaky stairs, through a rusty door, he found Wei Leung waiting for him in the room they’d first had the meeting. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but the light it gave off was so dim the corners of the room were left in shadow. Wei leant back on his rickety chair with a big smile on his face, picking at his nails. ‘Sooooooo, Mr. Roger. You looking very fit.’

Roger closed the door behind him and scanned the room without speaking, his eyes settling on the shelf which held the bottles. Some were empty, but there were at least ten or twelve that held the coiled foetuses. A strange sense of urgency seized him, a powerful need to possess every last one of them and take them to a safe place. Don’t listen. It’s the parasite. It’s manipulating your emotions. Tell him, tell him now!

            He tried to keep his lips pressed shut, but the words spilled out as soon as he took a breath. ‘I’ve got the cash. I brought double.’ He walked stiffly over to the shelf, as though he were going to pick the one he wanted. Wei Leung watched him, head cocked to one side.

‘Oh yeah? How many you want?’

Roger grabbed an empty one by the neck, and Wei Leung got out of the chair, smile gone from his face. He probably thought he was about to be robbed.

Tell him. Just open your mouth and tell him.

Roger faced him, bottle dangling from his hand, but for what felt a very long time, he couldn’t move at all. Every muscle in his body was tense, the parasite pushing him hard. He shook, his face red, gritting his teeth so hard they could have cracked.

Wei’s expression changed from suspicion to genuine concern. ‘Hey, Mr. Roger? You okay? You don’t look so good.’

The dam wall broke.

‘RUN!’

But in the same moment the parasite relinquished control of his voice it seized his body, and barely a split second after he screamed the word into Wei’s face he smashed the bottle across it. It shattered into a thousand pieces, along with a thousand chunks of Wei’s flesh. The small man flopped to the floorboards. When Roger crouched beside him, he saw that a shard of glass had cut neatly through his jugular, and blood pumped from the wound with each weakening beat of the merchant’s heart. He took a few minutes to die.

Roger’s body no longer needed his mind to act, and in the quiet minutes following the violence he collected the bottles containing the parasites and took them by armfuls down to his car. When that was done, he expected the parasite to make a getaway, but instead it marched his body up the stairs once more.

The body was getting cold now, death settling in and making itself a new home. Roger knelt beside it and concentrated on his breathing. You are in control, he told himself. You are in control. You can fix this. You can drink bleach. No wait, don’t think that – what if it can read your thoughts? Just stop… Step one is… Step one is…

            He retched. It wasn’t his stomach – he wasn’t entirely sure he had a stomach any more. It was as though the parasite had consumed that part of him and replaced it with its own body, metabolising the food he ate and sharing the nutrients with him. But something was moving up inside him. He jerked forward with each gag until he was on all fours over Wei Leung’s body, struggling to keep down whatever was trying to come up.

It came up anyway, but it wasn’t vomit. A soft hand forced his lips apart, pressing against the side of his mouth, and an arm pushed through the opening, reaching out with grasping pointed fingers. He tried to pull away but the parasite tightened its hold on him. He might as well have tried to pull away from his own skeleton.

The hand caressed Wei’s torn face, the fingers pressing harder against the flesh and then sinking in, peeling back a hunk of his cheek and separating it with ease. It brought the bloody handful to Roger’s screaming mouth. He didn’t taste it because his mouth full of the sourness he’d woken with every morning for the past two months. Sounds of wet mastication escaped his throat. The hand slid out of him again, empty now.

The hand grew quicker and more eager, and soon Roger’s face was covered in a mess of blood, his jaw pried painfully wide. Wei Leung disappeared organ by organ, bone by bone. When only liquid was left, he leant over and a long black tongue slid out of his mouth to lap it up to lap it up.

I am in control. I am in control. Roger wept.

 

*

 

Grace could not believe her eyes. The man in the driver’s seat was completely unlike the person she’d known for all of the four years she’d worked with him. He looked ten years younger, about fifty kilos lighter, and he was in a suit for God’s sake. He didn’t even wear a suit to work.

His skin was paler, there was that, and his smile didn’t look like the one she was used to seeing on him – it showed too much gum. She smiled back, though, and not for the last time, either. The whole date went like a dream, and though she kept noticing things – the odd way he ate for example, seeming to swallow mouthfuls whole without swallowing, drinking vast amounts of wine without getting drunk – she put it down to whatever new lifestyle he was living.

She gave in to curiosity at the crucial moment, just as they were idling on his front door step. ‘So, Roger, you have to tell me. How did you do it?’

‘Do what?’ He said, eyebrows raised.

She slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Oh come on, you know. How’d you lose all that weight? I mean, you were always a nice guy, but…’

‘But you’d never have gone out with me before, huh?’

‘That’s not what I – ’

‘It’s okay,’ he laughed. ‘If you really want to know, come inside and I’ll show you.’

The house was spotlessly clean, almost unnaturally so. Roger turned on the lights as he led the way through to the kitchen, where he opened a neatly stacked fridge (she didn’t see what was inside) and took out a bottle of tequila and margarita mix. ‘Pour you a drink?’ He asked with a gleaming smile. She nodded absent-mindedly, peering into some of the unlit rooms branching from the main hallway. He lived in a place this big, alone? She supposed he was the boss.

‘Margaritas, huh?’ she said.

He laughed, a high off kilter sound she still hadn’t grown used to. I wonder if he’s on some kind of new drug. Hell, if this is what it does to you, I might just buy a whole box of ‘em.

He handed her a glass and half drained his own. ‘The margaritas don’t help, but then again, they sure don’t hurt,’ he winked. ‘Actually I keep the real secret in my bedroom.’

She let out a surprised laugh and then restrained herself. That had to be the cheesiest line –

‘It’s a special liquid from the market – you know the one near Collins Street?’

‘Oh, you’re serious?’

‘Of course.’ He doesn’t even realise what he must have sounded like. Roger was always awkward, but jeez. She inspected her Margarita, decided it didn’t have anything suspicious in it, and took a sip. It tasted like the rest of the house smelled, a mixture of strong alcohol and detergent. She put the glass down.

‘Here, I’ll show you if you want. You can even have one yourself, although you don’t really need to lose weight. Just follow me.’ Without a hint of suggestion he turned and headed to a door at the end of the hallway. She hesitated, but not for long. It was hard not to notice the way he moved, strong and confident, agile even, and compare it to the spare tire around her waist. Screw it. I don’t mind going the whole nine yards with that body if it means I get whatever he’s got. Even if he is acting weird.

The smell of his bedroom hit her before anything else – a strong sourness that reminded her of bad milk. The next thing she noticed, although he’d neglected to turn on the light – was the state of it: masses of blankets in curled in heaps around the bed, a writing desk in one corner hidden beneath a mountain of papers, and a bookshelf which held no books. Those were scattered on the floor, and in their place stood an assortment of bottles, some liquor, others random household chemicals, Bleach and methylated spirits among them. What the hell? Who makes their house spotless for a date and then forgets the bedroom?

            ‘Hold on a second,’ he said. ‘I have one of them just in here. You can even drink it right now if you want. I guarantee you’ll notice a change within the next couple of days.’ He dropped to all fours and started rummaging around under his bed.

She ignored him for the moment, running a finger idly over some of the strange chemicals. A large closet door was inset beside the bookcase, and she put a hand on the knob, curious to see what other strange things he might be keeping in this nest of his.

‘Aha, here’s one,’ he said from behind her, retreating from beneath the bed. ‘This’ll do the trick, alright.’

She opened the door.

The closet was mostly empty, but for a single heap of clothing on the floor. It was quite dark, and something about the shape of it, the features, seemed familiar, so she leaned forward and squinted for a better look.

The heap shuffled, a twisted face rising up to look at her with drooping, mournful eyes. Its mouth was pulled wide apart, and when it spoke the words came in a barely audible moan: ‘Graacee. Heeeelp meeeeee.’ A long arm, boneless, skin hanging in folds, rose up to grasp her, and she staggered away from it, mouth open in advance of a scream that wouldn’t come.

A steady hand fell on her shoulder, and she heard the distinctive sound of a cork popping, accompanied by the sting of ethanol in her nostrils.

‘Don’t worry, Grace,’ Roger said. ‘I think this one will suit you just fine.’

 

 

 

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

Enjoy…

Soul Box

Ben Pienaar

 

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

‘Hey Jim.’

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

‘Wife’s dead.’

‘Sorry, didn’t quite get that.’

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

‘Heya, Bridie.’

‘Hey.’

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

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

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

‘What is it?’

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

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

‘That’s okay.’

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

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

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

‘Jeez, Bridie.’

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

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

‘Witch lady? Where’d you get this?’

‘The Market. You know…’

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

Until the funeral.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you okay?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she didn’t.

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

Marie Faye was gone for good.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks, Dad. Um, me too, right?’

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

‘Me too, Dad.’

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

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

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

‘Exactly.’ She smiled.

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

‘Magic,’ he said.

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

For a while.

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

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

Are you sure you want to know? She whispered.

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

It’s lonely.

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

The Dread.

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

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

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

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

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

He was still alive.

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

‘Oh, God, Dad.’

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

‘Why, Dad? How could you do this?

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

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

The other read: M. Faye.

 

*

 

Bridie, sweet Bridie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Maybe, one day, you could keep us company?

            We miss you so much, Bridie.

            We love you.

 

*

 

Bridgette was fine.

For a while.

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

But somehow, everything was pointless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misssss you tooooooo, honey.

            ‘Why did you leave me?’

Haven’t lefffffft. Here foreverrrrrr.

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

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

Come to ussssss, Bridgette. We misssssss youuuuuu.

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

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

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

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

In time, a smile found her sleeping lips.

 

 

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.

Have you ever seen one of those big, deep rock pools at the beach, the kind that doesn’t look like it ever ends, and wondered where it leads? I have, and I do know where it goes. Here, let me show you…

Other

Ben Pienaar

 

Dean was the tough guy of Werner beach. The bro, the alpha dog. The guy who was out there in the middle of winter, in a storm, when the waves were big enough to block out the sky. He practically lived out there when school was out, and when class was in he’d often skip it if the surf was good.

So when he saw the rock pool for the first time, he didn’t see a rock pool at all. He saw the next adrenaline fix, the next competition. The other two tough guys of Werner beach – his friends Ron and Andy – were with him, and he knew they didn’t have the guts to go as far as he did.

‘Check it out,’ he said, pointing. They’d been walking across the rocky point to the next stretch of sand to see if the waves were better around the cove. It was a tricky business, navigating razor sharp rocks, slippery seaweed and deceptively deep pools, while strong waves pushed and pulled at your ankles.

‘So what? It’s a rock pool,’ Ron said. He’d been swimming all day but was so anxious to get back into the water he was shifting on his feet.

‘Nah, mate, not just a rock pool. It’s who can go the deepest.’

They peered over the side. The day was overcast, and it was impossible to see below a meter. Dean had grown up here, though, and he knew the nature of such pools: they twisted and turned and joined networks, but they didn’t end.

‘It’s probably not even that deep,’ Andy said, salt matted hair blowing in his face as he squinted into the water. The pool was about the size of a billiard table, and unnaturally circular. The sides were brittle rock and coral, the kind that would cut you if you so much as brushed it.

‘Go touch the bottom then,’ Dean challenged. ‘Bring up a handful of sand and I’ll give you five bucks.’ He didn’t know for sure it was deep, but he sensed it, the same way he could glance at the surf from the beach and sense where the rips were. When you went out to sea, beyond the waves, you could feel the depth under you. There wasn’t anything to say the sandy bottom was more than five or ten meters down – but you knew it wasn’t: it was hundreds of kilometres below your kicking feet.

‘If it’ll shut you up,’ Andy said, and with hardly a breath he dove into the middle of the rock pool and kicked, his pale feet vanishing into the dark, straight down. He and Ron waited for ten, twenty seconds.

Ron raised his eyebrows. ‘Shit. What if he doesn’t come up?’

‘Where’s he gonna go? Even Andy isn’t dumb enough to take a tunnel or something. He’ll either hit the bottom or chicken out. Bet I know which one, too.’

Dean counted another twenty seconds, and was about to say something when Andy rose to the surface and pulled himself over the side, gasping for breath.

‘Bloody hell. It was deep, alright. I went down far as I could go. Shit, my ears are killing me.’

‘You’re supposed to equalise, idiot,’ Ron said, folding his arms.

‘Yeah, well. It was way deeper than I thought. How long was I gone?’

‘Almost a minute,’ Dean said. ‘Did you see anything?’

‘Total blackness, man. Scary as. When I started back up I couldn’t even see the surface properly. It was just a blur of light way up there.’ He grinned, wiping sandy hair out of his face. ‘It was a rush, though.’

‘Alright,’ Dean said, nodding. ‘It’s on. Time to see who the real man is.’

 

*

 

Ron was next, and Dean timed it on his dive watch. One full minute. When he came back up, half senseless with oxygen deprivation, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Did I beat Andy?’ And then, ‘It goes forever.’

Ever the cocky bastard, he was scoffing at Dean before he was even in the water. ‘You won’t beat a minute, mate, don’t worry. The pressure gets you, for one thing, squeezes your skull. Plus you get disoriented in the dark, don’t even know which way is up. Check this,’ he turned to show Dean the side of his arm, which was badly grazed. ‘Couldn’t even stay in the middle.’

Dean patiently unbound his watch and handed it to Ron. ‘Yeah, but then again, you guys are sissies, aren’t ya?’

Andy laughed. ‘Yeah, alright, buddy. Show us, then. Come on.’

Instead of replying, Dean winked and then turned away from the rock pool. He pried around until he found what he was looking for: a hefty rock lying at the base of the cliffs. It was the size of a basketball and weighed maybe twenty kilos. Perfect. He started back to the pool, cradling it to his chest. Ron shook his head as he approached. ‘Don’t do it, Dean. You’ll run out of breath.’

‘This is how real men do it,’ Dean said. He took a long, deep breath and then entered the pool in a long, smooth stride, not wanting to hesitate. He heard Andy mutter two words a second before he went under, equal parts scorn and respect: ‘Fucking crazy, dude.’

Dean sunk through ice cold pitch blackness for twenty seconds, clutching the rock, and as the light from above rose further and further out of sight, it occurred to him that maybe Andy had a point.

 

*

 

He gripped it for longer than he should have. It was impossible that this pool was so deep. Thirty seconds of such a quick descent should have put him at least thirty meters under, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the bottom. He floated in darkness, and now that the rock was gone and he was no longer moving, he had no way to tell which way was up.

Panic arrived with the first stirrings of discomfort in his lungs – but then he fixed on something, a tiny speck of light as remote as a star. Surely the surface wasn’t that way – he was looking between his kicking feet. Had he turned himself upside down in those few seconds?

No time to think. Ten more seconds at this depth and he wouldn’t have the air to make it back. As it was, his lungs seized and black flecks jumped across his vision as he propelled himself upward, his strokes more urgent and less controlled as he drew nearer. He was going to make it, and best of all he was certain they’d never break his record. No human being was ever going to reach the bottom of that shaft, anyway.

He pulled himself over the side with arms so weak he had to roll onto his back to catch his breath before standing. He stared up at the grey clouded sky and sucked in salty air for a minute or so, a wide smile on his lips. No one said a word.

‘Man, that was deep,’ he said. ‘I bet I smashed you, Ron. How long was it?’ He held out his hand for one of them to help him up, but no one took it.

He sat up. The rock shelf was empty save a lone oncoming wave. He managed to stand before it hit, and scanned the beach for the other two. Nothing and no one. The whole beach was deserted, in fact, which was strange in itself – there’d been at least ten surfers out on the breakers when they’d arrived.

‘OY! STOP BEING ASSHOLES!’ Dean shouted. They had to be hiding. It was either that or they’d headed home as soon as he went under, which made no sense at all unless they were playing a stupid trick. God damn them – Ron still had his watch!

He walked around the cove, but they weren’t on the next beach, and nor was anyone else, so he gave up and went back to Werner, where he found his towel and possessions missing as well. So it was a prank, then: make him walk home in the cold and wet. Record, what record? he could imagine Andy saying with a furrowed brow. I don’t remember any rock pool, do you, Ron? They were jealous he beat them. Fine, whatever, he’d go straight home and they could laugh about it later. Screw them.

How they’d made ten surfers disappear, he didn’t know.

 

*

 

Something was wrong.

From the stars in the midday sky to the empty streets to the black clouds which had been grey an hour ago, everything was off kilter, false. This feeling struck him about ten minutes from his house, and it was strong enough that he stopped in the street and looked around, disoriented. An old man and his granddaughter walked hand in hand along the quiet road, and Dean watched them, trying to work out why they made him uneasy. They were just people, weren’t they?

Forget it. Go home and eat and play some Call of Duty and sleep, and Andy and Ron can go to hell.

            But he couldn’t enter his house – not through the front door. He went around the back and tiptoed in through the laundry, craning his neck around corners as though he expected someone to be waiting with a hammer and a grin. The only sound was that of a ticking clock, so it came as a surprise when he entered the kitchen and found his family. His father smiled as he entered. He was stirring an enormous pot on the stove while his mother set the table, at the head of which Gina slouched and flicked through a magazine.

Dean smiled back, but a crawling sensation worked its way along his back. His Dad never smiled. Mr. Holmes, as Dean’s friends called him, was an imposing and ever professional man, the type who wore a suit to every social event and always kept rigid posture and perfect manners, even with his children. Now, Dean observed his casual stance and the loopy expression. Was he high or what?

‘Hi, Dean, just in time for dinner,’ His mother said. ‘Where’ve you been all day?’ She was just as off putting as his father. She never cared where he’d been, and her voice tended to be flat and full of dry humour, not this sprightly chime. And Gina, who usually flooded him with a million words from the moment he entered a room, barely raised an eyebrow at him before looking back at her magazine. ‘Hey.’

‘Just at the beach,’ Dean said, taking a seat beside his sister. The smell of the cooking wafted over to him from the stove and made him want to gag. Once Ron’s mother had made him a stew of slow cooked lamb, but the meat was bad quality and past fresh, and the bones gave off the smell of rot. This wasn’t dissimilar.

‘The beach?’ his mother said, continuing to set the table. Her smile wobbled. ‘Why would you go to the beach? There isn’t anyone there. I notice you didn’t bring anyone back for dinner, either, unlike your sister.’

The comment was so bizarre that Dean couldn’t bring himself to reply. Why had he been at the beach? It was his second home. And what did she mean Gina brought someone for dinner? There wasn’t anyone here but the four of them. He just shrugged and said nothing. Gina looked up from her magazine long enough to stick her tongue out at him, but he hardly noticed, because he’d just seen the cutlery his mother had set in front of him.

Technically, it was a knife and fork, but not like any he’d used before. The knife had a blade eight inches long with a serrated edge, and the fork had only two long tines. He wasn’t certain, but they looked an awful lot like real silver, too. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. Don’t do it or they’ll know.

Gina sniffed, and her eyes were on him again, but he didn’t meet them. Instead, he watched his mother go into the kitchen to check on whatever his father had in the crockpot. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled widely, chuckled and shook his head. Dean’s father never chuckled. He laughed, but only when a man he respected told a joke, and then in a false, hearty voice – never with genuine mirth. His mother leaned on his shoulder and looked into the pot, her left hand sliding down her husband’s lower back and settling on his ass.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gina said. There was no trace of the giggling teenager he knew in her expression or voice: instead he saw a cold, cynical girl with steady confidence beyond her years. A stranger.

‘Just had a… weird day, that’s all.’

‘Didn’t get anyone? That’s unusual for you. Were you really at the beach?’

Get anyone? What is she talking about? ‘Yeah. Why, where were you? Who did you bring?’ If he kept the questions on her, maybe she’d stop probing. She seemed suspicious.

She sighed and rested her head in her hand, flipped a page. ‘Don’t even talk to me. Got run out of like three places, almost bloody lost my head. Ended up snatching a baby from up the road, just got lucky. Won’t be enough though, so you better get it together tomorrow. Less people every day.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

She flipped another page and something caught his eye on the glossy paper. It didn’t seem right, so he shifted in his chair to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a clue there as to what the hell was going…

Meat. Saws and screaming people, blood. An image of a crying naked child having its throat slit by a laughing mother. A long article along one page with the title PREY A DAY: HOW TO ENSURE YOU LAND FRESH ADULTS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Beside it was an image of a smiling family holding the disembowelled corpse of a bulky man.

Dean looked back to his bowl and then over at his parents. His father was spooning hot stew into bowls which his mother lifted and brought over to him and Gina, who was once again staring at him with that intense look.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said again.

‘Gina, stop pestering Dean – he’s clearly had a bad day.’ She set the bowls in front of them and went back to the kitchen.

‘Why do you keep asking me that?’ he said, trying to sound annoyed, trying not to think of the things he’d seen, and the internal voice that screamed at him to get the hell out of there before something happened.

‘Why do you smell so scared, then?’ she said. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, leaning in towards him, and then she settled back in her chair with a smug grin. ‘You’re pissing yourself!’ She said. ‘Mum, Dean’s losing it! He’s as scared as a legless bunny!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gina. What would Dean have to be scared about?’ But as she and his father sat down at the table she sniffed the air and cocked her head, considering it.

Time to go, man, time to go…

Dean scraped his chair back, pointing his long knife at his sister. ‘You’re mental. I’m not scared, okay. Something happened out there and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was the first thing that came to him, but he saw doubt in her eyes and found hope. Maybe he could pretend to be mad and storm out with the knife. He could be back at the beach before the realised something was wrong.

His father had brought the pot to the middle of the table when he came over so that anyone could help themselves to seconds whenever they wanted. Now that he was standing, Dean couldn’t help but see what was inside, and when he did, the panic that had been simmering inside rose up and consumed him.

Ended up snatching a baby from up the road… Pale hairless flesh bobbed to the surface of a still simmering broth of potatoes onions and tomato, a thick brown sauce. A pudgy hand. At that moment, all three of them stared at him, his father’s mouth falling open in surprise and his mother gasping, a hand flying to her mouth. It was as though they could all see his terror as clearly as if it were a physical thing.

At that moment, the front door opened and Dean himself stepped in, someone’s severed torso and upper body hefted over one shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he called out, turning to shut the front door behind him. His shirt was covered in blood. ‘Helped Andy and Ron out with this one, so we had to split him three ways. Tried to fight, but we took him down with rocks in the…’

He saw Dean and froze at the threshold. The body dropped to the floor with a sick thlomp! Leaking dark blood onto the floorboards.

 

*

 

Had Dean waited a moment longer, the spell would have broken and they’d have had him. As it was, his father managed to curl an arm around him as he pushed past, only letting go when Dean sunk the knife into his neck and pushed him away. The kitchen erupted in screams and clattering pots but Dean was out of there, through the back door and out into the street well ahead of them.

Cold evening air whipped his face as he ran, tears of panic streaming across his face and bare feet slapping asphalt. He didn’t see anyone at first, but when Gina started down the road after him and let out her piercing shriek, people began appearing from the shadows. They stared at him from alleyways and over fences, confused, curious. One man almost got him, an enormous slab who came around the side of a wall and lunged for him, baggy shirt brushing Dean as he leapt aside.

When his feet landed on the blessed soft sand, he chanced a look back. The Other Dean was in front of all the rest, sprinting over the road toward him, his eyes wide and bright: he was as shocked to see another version of himself as Dean was. Behind him, several others emerged from the short houses that lined the beach, necks craning, fingers pointing. He was the Other in this place, there was no doubt about that. And he didn’t want to find out what happened to outsiders here.

The rocks, sharp enough to draw blood even when you stepped lightly, tore his feet apart as he ran across them. He cried out but didn’t dare slow down. His other was gaining quickly now, letting out a whoop of exhilaration that Dean recognized as his own, the triumphant shout he would let loose as a wave took him the first burst of speed propelled him through the spray. From this other mouth it had a different meaning.

He was at the pool. He might have missed it in his panic if the last rays of the setting sun hadn’t glanced off its surface and made it shine for an instant, one dark patch out of many. He turned, gasping as a row of barnacles turned his soles to mincemeat. A large rock lay nearby – the shape and size of the one he’d dropped, in fact – and he stooped to pick it up, aware of his Other’s footsteps drawing up behind him.

He turned at the side of the pool, and the Other came to a stop a few meters away, eyeing the rock. The others were only just climbing the shelf far behind him. For the next couple of minutes, they were alone. Dean wanted to throw himself into the pool now, but he couldn’t. For one thing he was out of breath, his own chest burning with each inhalation (the Other hadn’t so much as broken a sweat), and for another, he dreaded that the pool was a one way trip. No going back.

‘What are you?’ he said.

The Other didn’t approach, knowing he’d have plenty of help soon. Instead, he stood back with his arms folded, glaring at Dean. ‘What are you?’

‘I’m human. I live on earth. What’s this place?’

‘Hewmin? Urth?’ The other spat at his feet, which were covered in a thick layer of callous, not bleeding at all. When they met eyes, it was very clear to both who was predator and who was prey. The Other smiled, showing white teeth that tapered to points. ‘Where can we get more of you, then?’

Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through his system and the knowledge that he was most likely about to die a horrible death, or perhaps it was this image of himself, an arrogant, musclebound, bastard looking down on him, but either way Dean felt a surge of anger and gave the Other a mean grin of his own.

‘Trust me, you don’t want more of me,’ he said. ‘But if you do, you’ll have to go all the way down to hell.’

The others were too close now – he could hear their feet, see their slobbering mouths as they pelted over slippery rock toward him. Before the Other could reply he let himself fall sideways, the rock pulling him as he curled around it and hugged it like a baby, eyes clenched tight and the only sound that of his heart slamming in his chest, burning the oxygen in his body like so much firewood.

When everything was pitch dark and he felt that he was no longer falling but floating, he looked down between his legs and saw a faint light, the pale grey of an overcast sky. Please, please let it be home.

Dean let go of the rock and swam toward the surface.

 

*

 

When he reached for the side of the pool two strong sets of arms grabbed him and hauled him up onto the rocks, coughing and spluttering.

‘Jesus, man, we thought you were dead. How long was that?’

‘Four minutes easy.’ Ron’s voice.

‘Four minutes, man. Are you alright?’

Dean turned over and vomited some seawater, got up onto shaky hands and knees and crawled away from the hole. He kept going until he got to the dry flat rocks and he settled there with his back to the cliff, watching the hole. The other two stood in front of him, exchanging worried glances, and the sun shone into his eyes between two clouds.

‘So… did you make it to the bottom?’ Andy said.

‘Nah. I just went down and down, but it was black all the way. Nothing, no bottom or anything.’

‘Wow, what happened to your feet man?’

‘Shit.’ Dean pulled his feet in and winced at the sight of them. It looked like he’d stuck them in a blender. Now that relief replaced terror, they were starting to sting a hell of a lot. ‘I don’t know. I was kicking really hard on the way up, must have hit the rocks. Can you guys help me back?’

‘Yeah, sure, man,’ Ron said.

‘Hey, you totally win, dude. Ice creams on me, yeah?’ Andy slapped him on the back but Dean couldn’t manage more than a faint smile. ‘Just in a bit, though,’ he said. ‘I want to chill out for a while.’

For a long time the three of them sat and trash talked, Dean barely saying a word, and watched the sunset. Beautiful as it was, Dean didn’t so much as look up at it while they were there. Instead he kept his eyes on the rock pool, watching wave after wave wash into it until the tide came in and obscured it completely. Occasionally the light tricked him and he thought he saw a shadow moving just below the surface, but nothing emerged and he shook himself out of it.

When the sun was gone and the air took on a fresh chill, Andy and Ron locked their arms into his and pulled him to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain of sea salt in his wounds, but didn’t say anything.

They shivered and licked ice cream and laughed and joked, but the other two went easy on him, sensing he’d been in much more trouble than he admitted. Their own relief was palpable and he realised they must have been on the point of running for help. Just before they parted ways, Andy put his hands on Dean’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Hey, man, are you sure you’re alright?’

Dean nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just shaken up a bit. Let’s hit the surf tomorrow again, yeah?’

Andy gave him his goofy grin and nodded. ‘You know it, baby. Alright, catchya later dude. Chill out, okay?’

On the walk back home, Dean found himself eyeing everything with suspicion, watching the cars and people closely. But he saw nothing, and when he returned home he was met with stern parents and an overly talkative Gina and an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.

He’d made it out alive. For now, that was all he wanted to think about.

 

*

 

They were the Alpha Dogs of Werner beach. They were heroes in their world, and Dean, the first to cross the bridge between the worlds, was the greatest hero of them all. Future generations would erect a statue in his glory. At first, the three boys were the only ones who had the lung capacity to make the journey, but as time went on and food grew more scarce, other hunters came to match them.

Word spread, and before long Werner grew into a prosperous border town, a place to stay before you ventured into the new world. Old and young alike who’d never seen it for themselves spoke in hushed whispers of great cities filled with prey. They could be dangerous in numbers, sure, but a skilled hunter could feed himself and his family for as far into the future as they could see.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Call to the Dark

Ben Pienaar

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The scream was even better.

 

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

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

Let us in, they whispered.

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

It will feel so good, said another.

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

But she was so scared, and they were not.

They knew what to do.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Of course, of course.

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

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

You’re panicking. Stop it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Taste the blood and feel the heart.

            Lick it clean, make it cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s kind of a strange one, this, came to me out of the blue. I was watching the Truman show, and found myself profoundly creeped out during the beginning, just in the fake cheerful way everyone acted around him, and the way his life is constructed to be so perfect. It’s a nightmare to us, but from an emotionless, objective point of view it’s an almost idyllic existence: guaranteed friends/wife/kids, a pleasant home town where no crimes are committed and everyone is happy. Big brother watching all the time, so nothing bad can happen to you. Sounds like heaven. Right.

Peace

Ben Pienaar

 

There was no longer a sun in the sky, but the day was bright all the same, and Jerry Friedman was smiling as he stepped out into the light. He waved a cheerful good morning to his neighbour Tom, who was also heading to his car for the morning commute, and got a pleasant response.

‘Hey there, buddy. Gonna be a good one, huh?’ He hated Tom. That guy was like this even before good took over. As smug as he was boring. An asshole, perfect in every way. Jerry wanted to drag him into a dark alleyway and tear him to pieces.

‘Oh yes, sir. Looking forward to it.’

The commute was easier, he supposed. You didn’t really drive. You just sat there and watched your car shoot along the roads at an insane speed, somehow navigating crowded intersections with barely a pause, inches to spare yet never so much as a scratch on the paintwork by the end. An hour long journey became ten minutes with such ideal coordination. He was always early. Everyone was.

He was lying out in the back garden when the eye opened in the sky. He had a gun in one hand and a half empty bottle of vodka in the other, celebrating his divorce to Grace. Ten years of hell with that bitch. He cut her loose and it still somehow felt like the worst day of his life. He remembered her sneer the last time he saw her, the familiar way her lip curled up on just one side. ‘At least I don’t have to sneak around with Dean anymore.’ He didn’t know who Dean was and he didn’t ask. ‘He’s my boyfriend. I love him.’

‘I didn’t fucking ask.’ That memory was clear in his mind at the moment the eye blinked open. He sensed it at first, a softening of the light and a cooling, changing from noon to a sunset in a moment. He stared up at the sun – or at least where the sun had been, and there it was, looking right back at him. No iris, just a round white ball with a dilated pupil in the middle.

Watching.

Work was accounting. It didn’t used to be, because he hated maths, but once he started work there – no interview required – he found it so easy that he could let his mind wander while his hands moved the paper. He was doing that a lot lately. His mind usually wandered to happy places, like the place where he had Tom, or maybe Dean, tied up in his basement and he got to work on them with a baseball bat.

He greeted his co-workers, chatted about his new life and how great it was. No need to worry about that paycheck, isn’t that fine? Gene from customer service asked him how his ex wife was doing. He’d been dating her while the divorce was going through. Today, he kept his tone light and his eyes on her face. ‘Not an ex for much longer! We’re getting back together!’ Everything anyone said these days ended in a cheerful exclamation mark, their expression one of perpetual joy.

‘That’s great!’ she said. He felt something break inside him. It wasn’t a new feeling. Every day he woke up and saw that eye he moved one step closer to insanity. It would reach him any day now. He felt like he was in a car with the brakes cut, rolling down a steep incline toward a bottomless canyon. No way to stop. All you could do was hold on tight and watch it come. You didn’t even get to scream.

On that first day, Jerry found himself doing things. He didn’t decide to do them, or ponder them, or motivate himself to do them – he just found himself already doing them. He’d stared at the eye for a minute or so, wondering if he was hallucinating, and then he’d got up from his deck chair, dropped his gun in the dustbin and emptied his vodka into the kitchen sink. Him, who’d rather pour liquid gold down a sink than vodka. Since then, he ate mostly vegetables and lean meat, drank only water, and never overate.

Television was on for exactly half an hour each day, blinking on automatically when he got home for work, and it showed world news. There was no world news. No accidents, no disasters, no new inventions. Statistics, happy news stories. A dog that could talk, a new nature reserve, the tallest building ever built, a world government formulated, another prison closed.

He came home to a pristine house, and Grace had cooked him dinner. They sat down to eat it, talking about their incredibly boring days, and he watched her eyes for signs of life. He thought he saw some hatred in there, and that gave him a little hope. He envisioned sticking his fork in those eyes and popping them into his mouth like meatballs.

‘You know, it’s best for everyone. I mean, I don’t know if it’s God or what. I suppose He must be, to be so powerful.’

‘Could be the devil.’ The words made it all the way out of his mouth and there was a short silence while they pondered what that could mean. She made a funny choking sound and he realised she was trying to swear. Didn’t work. Shit.

‘Anyway,’ she went on as though nothing had happened. ‘It’s a force of good. Everyone guaranteed a hundred years. No pain at all. Nothing bad.’

‘Nothing bad.’ He said. ‘Nothing…’ It was possible, sometimes, to communicate like that. Get across a point without saying it. There were times he was grateful he still had his thoughts, but most of the time he wished he didn’t. That abyss came closer by the day, opening out before him so he could see the emptiness for which he was destined.

‘You have to be thankful that in the end, good won.’ She said, shining him a brilliant white toothed smile. Her smile had never been white, nor cheerful. It had been yellow and mean, like a stray dog with bared teeth.

‘Yes. Good won.’

And the days passed this way, uniform and perfect. They had two kids, and on a daily basis, even as he took care of them and played with them, Jerry envisioned smothering them in their sleep or drowning them in the bath. They weren’t his children, really – they belonged like everything else to the eye in the sky. The only difference was they’d never had it any other way. They had no idea their bodies should be theirs to control, not the insane being that scrutinized their every move.

But there were no suicides, no murders, and the world hummed along without mishap for decades.

Good won, he told himself many times as he saw the face in the mirror, always smiling, grow older, but not weaker, nor senile. He only looked older, but felt like a younger man than the year before. Good won.

The abyss grew larger and darker. Sometimes, when he looked deeply into the eyes of his friends and colleagues he could see that they’d already lost their sanity, and that nothing was left behind the shell that walked the earth. Who knew what thoughts scuttled through the broken things that had once been human minds? What were they now? Toys?

No prisons, no hospitals, no police. Early to bed, early to rise. Board games with the kids. Good won.

He could see inside the abyss, now, and there lay a question there that he didn’t like at all.

Thoughts of destruction. Torture and death and executions. He imagined skinning his family alive and setting fire to his work. He imagined sinking an axe into Dean’s head and shooting Tom in the face. His mind was on fire with thoughts while his body bought groceries and laughed at knock knock jokes.

The question was, if there was a God, wasn’t there also a heaven?

The air was never too cold or too hot. Pain of any kind no longer existed for him or anyone else, nor even discomfort. He ate but was never hungry. He slept but was never tired. Night time never came, only that pleasant orange sunset light.

Good won? Perhaps there hadn’t been a battle, at all. Maybe good had had it from the start.

The abyss was looming now and the screams within him, the thoughts of bloodshed and murder threatening to consume him utterly.

The question was: what had he really done with the gun the day the eye opened in the sky?

Walking towards his car, Tom looked up at him and waved. ‘Hey there, buddy!’

‘Hi, friend! Gonna be a good one, today, huh?’

‘Oh yes sir.’

He smiled at Tom, but though his lips moved, there was nothing behind his eyes. Only the dark, stretching onwards into eternity.

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