FICTION: The Harbinger by J.L. Corbett

It won’t stop.

There’s an itch deep in the fissures of my brain that will not go away. I can feel it nestled there, pulsating like a tumour. Thinking hurts.

The whispers are slow and quiet. One voice begins, then a second interrupts and suddenly there’s a whole crowd of people crammed in there. I can’t make out their words, but I know what they’re saying.

The noise is becoming unbearable. As I drag myself off the couch the itch cuts deeper into my brain and the whispers turn to murmurs. The pink woollen hat isn’t where I left it. It’s strewn on the floor, trampled into a pile of biscuit crumbs. I pull its soft wool over my ears and the whispers quieten.

There’s movement outside the window. Finally!

I stumble across the lounge, forgetting the clutter in my path. The corner of the coffee table rips open my shin, my foot slips on a magazine and I lurch forward, but I make it to the window. The street outside is dark and still, but I know they’re out there. They’ve gotten better at staying hidden, recently.

Thankfully the electricity stopped working a few days ago, so they can’t see me watching from my window. I see them out there every night, dragging themselves across the pavement, their ugly bodies lit by the orange glow of the street lamps. Somebody should do something.

Suddenly, I catch sight of what they’re trying to keep hidden –- the lights of their airship are unmistakeable as they shine through the thin, purple clouds and disappear behind the tower block on the opposite side of the estate.

Perhaps they’re leaving for good.

Or maybe they’ll come back with an army.

Suddenly my flat feels very flimsy. I’ve seen them creep along the street outside, clinging to the concrete like those silly putty toys we used to play with as children. Sometimes they pull great lumps of pavement out of the ground as they drag themselves along. I glance at the brick walls of my flat.

Without warning my mind explodes into a cacophony. The voices are arguing too loudly, and the itch has burrowed so deep that all I can hear is a static squeal cutting across my thoughts. I wail, pull my hat down harder over my ears and choke on the musty smell.

“Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”

I crouch below the window and peek over the window sill. They’re outside.

Perhaps the airship really had been leaving, but evidently not before depositing two of its passengers onto the street. They’re hideous. Their clawed, grey hands dig into the ground as they pull their limp lower halves over the snow-covered pavement, inching closer to the tower block. One of them digs a claw into the brick wall, and the other copies. Slowly, the terrible creatures begin their ascent to my flat, to the place where I’m supposed to be safe.

This is my home.

As I sprint across the lounge, I slip and collide with several objects. I curse my mess as I reach the front door, and pull on the first shoes my hands touch. It’s the slippers my mum presented me with last Christmas; huge pillowy things made to resemble Homer Simpson’s face.

I thunder down the metal stairwell and almost collide with Mrs Keyes.

“They’re here, Mrs Keyes!” I exclaim. “They’re right outside!” Her face is vacant. It doesn’t matter. In a few minutes  everything will be safe again, and it won’t matter that she didn’t understand.

Outside, the snow is ankle-deep. The view outside of my window had been a moonlit winter scene, the sort of thing you’d find on a Christmas card, but it isn’t quite as pleasant on the cold side of the window. Mud is crunched into the snow, the wind is scathing, and I can feel icy water soaking through the soles of my slippers.

The creatures are nowhere to be seen. Have they gotten inside the tower block already? None of the windows are broken. I spot a nearby hedge and crawl inside, wincing as the twigs snap back against my face. They can’t have gone too far. When they reappear, they won’t have the upper hand.

I watch for a very long while.

How many hours have passed?

How many now?

The air is a little colder by the time the two creatures re-emerge. They drag their impotent limbs right past me, leaving two deep trenches in their wake. As they move by me, a sour taste fills my mouth and a pit forms in my stomach. I cover my mouth and try not to retch. I can’t believe they don’t see me knelt in the bush, just a metre away from them.

A small group of boys have gathered at the far side of the building, by the bike racks.  They’re too busy with their animated conversation to notice they are being stalked like prey. Even in this dire situation, a haughty voice in the back of my mind wonders what sort of parents let their children loiter around the estate at this time of night.

The creatures draw closer.

Am I going to do anything? I need to act, but my body remains stiff, frozen in the snow.

They’ve almost reached the boys now.

I still haven’t moved.

A grey, bony finger reaches towards one of the boys. He throws his head back, laughing at his friend’s joke, and the hood of his jacket brushes lightly against the alien’s claw.

** ** **

“Oi Nathan, look! That’s your bird over there!” Darren pointed to the figure crouching in the bush several metres away. The group sniggered, and Nathan flushed red.

“She’s still fitter than your mum, mate!” he shot back. The teenagers laughed. The unkempt woman sitting in the thorn bush remained ignorant of her position as the butt of the joke.

She was an uncommon sort of person, one of the forgotten ones that had resigned from reality without anybody noticing. Her eyes were bloodshot, her clothes were ill-fitting, and there were food remnants in the corners of her mouth and down her chest. The December frost did little to disguise her odour.

Suddenly, she seemed to notice something. The teenagers laughed as she crawled out of the bush and stumbled towards them. She muttered and twitched, as if shaking off an invisible irritant. For some reason she was wearing enormous Homer Simpson slippers, which were neither flattering nor functional; she kept slipping on the ice and so kept her arms outstretched in a peculiar balancing act. She appeared to see something behind Nathan, and lurched towards him, eyes wide and mouth agape.

“Woah!” Nathan caught her easily. His friends cackled as the teenager and the tramp struggled in a strange, rhythmic fight. Her grip was surprisingly strong and Nathan had begun to panic when one of his bigger friends finally took pity upon him, grasped the tramp by the shoulders and separated the fight with one strong yank. The dirty woman fell into the snow and wailed.

While his friends roared with laughter, Nathan stood in shock. He couldn’t quite catch his breath. He nervously eyed the woman, who was struggling in the snow like an upturned tortoise.

“Is… is she okay, though?” he whispered.

“She’s fine, mate!” Darren said, distracted by his phone. “Chloe’s just text me, they’re nearly in town. Let’s go.”

Nathan lingered as his friends sloped away towards the bus stop. He looked from them to the writhing woman in the snow and back again, before quickly kneeling down beside her.

“You alright?”

She stopped thrashing. Her eyes focused on something behind him, and tears fell down her mottled cheeks. With urgency, she muttered a string of nonsense words, all the while not breaking eye contact with whatever she could see behind Nathan.

Would it be unethical to leave her there, alone in the snow? Nathan wasn’t sure how much responsibility he held in this situation.

The police will know what to do, he decided. He reached into his pocket and fished out his phone.

“Oi Nath! The bus is coming!” one of his friends shouted from the roadside.

“Yeah, give me a minute!” he yelled.

He had dialled the first two digits when the scruffy woman launched herself through him, to the unseen thing behind him. She was surprisingly quick, for a heavy-set woman. Stung, Nathan summoned all his strength to shove her off himself, and she crashed to the ground for a second time. She landed awkwardly and was silent.

Oh god.

He glanced around the empty street. Nobody had seen.

“I – I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I’m s-sorry.” He fled to the bus stop.

The two creatures grunted to one another, and as if in conversation. Slowly, they gave chase, dragging themselves through the snow in excruciating pursuit of the terrified teenager.

It won’t stop.

 

J.L. Corbett

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J.L. Corbett is a science-fiction writer from Hull, UK. She is the editor and founder of Idle Ink, an independent zine which features short fiction, artwork and articles from emerging artists and writers.

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