There is no way out – in her heart, she knows this
Her mind is flying, her thoughts glittering and running; her tight skin erupts with sweat. Her feet go on kicking the black earth packed in around her; her hands are bloody from her panicked scrabbling. But the sobs that racked her are already transforming, becoming a child’s bewildered whimpers and, in her heart, she understands.
There won’t be any light, no hope of escape, and no amount of thrashing or crying will change that.
Yet her heart keeps beating, wild and helpless. A lump of twitching meat, trapped inside the narrow dark of her chest; her whole body shut in, buried –
It’s a dream she’s had before. She gasps awake, but the room contains its own pressing darkness. The air is thick with the smell of her body, the shadows as dense as clods of dirt. But it’s the wailing that fills her.
It breaks, over and over, in high-pitched, wordless waves. Her hands fight free from the covers; she rubs her face. But her skin is dry; she isn’t weeping. Still, the sounds go on.
It’s ok, she tells herself, I’m grown-up – rational. There’s a rational explanation, surely?
She makes herself lie as still as she can, waiting for her vision to adjust and for the trembling to subside. Although the whining sobs are not her own, nor are they, she realises, in the dark room with her. They’re coming from outside.
A baby? Is there a baby out there?
It’s hard to imagine, out in the garden, let alone in the woods… Gradually, she’s able to unpick the window from the clotted shadows, a wavering line of silvery difference where the curtains don’t quite meet.
And she can cope with this – I can do this; she is twenty-three years old, an adult, newly graduated. She’s not the little girl she was.
But though she sweeps aside the blankets with determination, as soon as her clammy soles touch the uneven boards, she might as well be a frightened child. She feels flimsy, insubstantial, all shallow breath and fragile bones.
When she was small and would wake from this recurring nightmare to seek out the warmth of her grandma’s bed, she was never sure where she ended and other things began. It wasn’t just her bedroom; the entire house would feel unreal, especially on those occasions when her mother was staying too.
But there’s nobody here anymore; she’s alone in the house, and by the time she’s crossed to the window, the shadows are thinning. When she pushes the curtains wider, she can see her breath patterning the panes. At last, her breathing is easing, just as the shrill cries from outside are faltering, beginning to slow down.
Sunrise remains hours away, but the moon is bright. It offers an outline to the black, massed trees and glimmers across the lawn in silver patches.
She presses her forehead to the icy glass and squints, trying to uncover the wire fence, and the garden gate, long rusted shut against the woods.
As far as she can see, there isn’t any baby out there, though briefly she imagines it, left between the murky trunks. An abandoned newborn, wrapped up, boxed…
What she actually sees is a wan reddish flutter, a ripple of movement in the longer grass beside the fence. Her eyes widen. She shivers –
There’s definitely a creature out there – no, creatures – not human, despite the eerie humanity of their cries, and the memories return at the same instant that she glimpses the flicker of a ragged tail.
A vixen and her mewling kits –
There have always been foxes in the woods.
In the morning – late morning, a pale, high sun breaking through a rush of clouds – she steps out into her grandma’s garden. She takes her cup of steaming coffee, both hands wrapped tight around its warmth.
At first, she thinks there’s no sign of her night-time visitors. There aren’t any paw-prints in the glinting grass, which is wet with melting frost, and the trees at the garden’s border look impenetrable. Row after row of solid trunks, wound with nettles and brown ivy, their leafless branches barely sway despite the restless, tugging wind.
As she walks towards the trees, she inhales deeply, but there’s nothing feral to the chilly air, only the scent of dead leaves and something sharper, perhaps the knife-like promise of snow.
She’s within touching distance of the wire fence before she notices the damage. At its base, the criss-crossed mesh has been torn open and she imagines the foxes slithering on their bellies like prisoners, tunnelling their way through.
Taking a long gulp of her coffee, she crouches to inspect the gap. She sees the muddy, flattened grass there and how the undergrowth has been crushed. Something lumped and grey has been left among the nettles. She leans closer and drops the cup.
It’s a pigeon, or what remains of it. It hasn’t got a head.
The landline’s ringing. She snatches up the receiver, her thoughts muddled with her rush to get back to the house. She skidded twice in the garden and glancing down, she’d felt giddy with nausea. Along with the damp grass, the ground was slick with feathers, no longer grey, but sticky red. She doesn’t understand how she missed them when she first approached the fence. They seemed to form a pattern; they were everywhere –
“Hello? Hello” – it’s her sister, squawking impatiently – “Is anybody there?”
“I – I’m here,” she manages to stammer, as if trying to convince herself. “I was outside. I…”
But she stops as she’s about to describe the feathers. There obviously isn’t any order to their scattering, no primitive message or secret code. And the idea is far too much like her mother’s thinking; if she tried to explain, her sister would freak.
And her sister’s already sounding like she’s on the brink of one of her melt-downs – “Have you changed your mind?” she says. “Have you come to your senses yet? Now that you’ve actually gone back…”
She sighs as her sister rants on and on, wishing she’d never answered the phone. Her sister has repeatedly made it clear that she thinks she’s crazy, that her plans are worse than naive – they’re properly insane. And they so rarely use language like that, not in their family, with their mother being how she is.
“It isn’t just me,” her sister’s saying. “Everyone I’ve talked to says the same. At best, it’ll be a terrible mistake. At worst, you could do damage, lasting harm…”
Still sighing – she can’t seem to stop it – she holds the phone slightly away from her face. Every now and then, she’s able to squeeze in a short reply, a noncommittal “Hmm,” or “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
In her panic, she left the back door open. She can see it from where she’s standing in the hallway: a patch of garden and the blur of the waiting woods. She wonders if her sister would even notice if she locked the door and then returned.
“But I’ve always felt safe here,” she hears herself murmuring – and her sister pounces.
“Well, I’m sure that you did, holed-up down there with Grandma. The pair of you all cosy, leaving me on my own to cope with Mum. You haven’t a clue what it was like back then. You’ve no idea what you’re doing now.”
“I just want the chance –” she attempts, but her sister interrupts, barrelling over her with that same old story, her years of hurt and rage. Ever since their Grandma’s funeral, her sister’s been ready to erupt.
But it’s not her fault that she’s the youngest and they wanted to protect her, that by the time she was five, their mother was already significantly worse. And it was as much of a shock to her as to anyone that Grandma left the house only to her.
“But don’t you see?” she says, trying to find the words for maybe the hundredth time, “It’s an opportunity for me to try and make up for some of that. At last, I might actually help –”
“Ha!” her sister snaps, darkly jubilant. “If you think taking Mum out to live with you is going to be helpful, then you ought to be locked up in the hospital too.”
After she’s finally put the receiver down, she shuts the back door without glancing out. Turning the key, she tells herself that her sister’s too trapped by the past to ever understand; she lacks the imagination and the courage. But staring back down the hallway, she remembers her nocturnal fear. The house looks narrower than it ought to, as if the walls are closing in.
In the village, Mr Barker is pleased to see her. Before the shop bell has finished chiming, he’s tipping Sherbet Lemons from the dusty jar, just as he did throughout her childhood and whenever she returned from university. While she fills her basket with bread and tea, local ham and eggs, he chats about the weather.
“Snow’s coming,” he tells her. “Ten inches, they reckon, at least.”
She’s grateful that he doesn’t ask about the house or her plans for it, though she suspects there must be rumours; the village has been discussing her mother for years. At the counter, she thinks about mentioning the foxes, but instead she swops her instant coffee for a bottle of cheap red wine. She wants to sleep tonight.
He chuckles as he packs it. “All grown up,” he says.
But as she’s about to leave, he grasps her hand in both his dry, lined palms, and she thinks how inconsolable he was at the funeral. Unlike her mother, her grandma was much loved.
But, “You,” he says, looking shyly across at her. “You promise to take care.”
On the way back, she hears horses and steps onto the verge to let the riders pass. They aren’t anyone she recognises, two blond teenage girls in tailored jackets, their black boots and hard hats gleaming.
As they clop away, she stands in the wood’s shadows and watches their gold plaits bobbing out of time with their horses’ swishing tails. They might be visitors from the Big House. When she was a child, there would be seasons of parties, and though she can’t remember the hunting, she recalls the saboteurs.
She remembers their shouting mostly, and their banners – blown-up photos of fluffy, wide-eyed kits brandished beside distressing images of flying fur, soft bodies torn open, and hounds, with muzzles dripping red.
Although Grandma never had much to do with the Big House, when her mother was a child, she’d been befriended by their daughters and they took her along to a Boxing Day Meet. She never went back; she claimed they’d insisted on blooding her.
“They put their mark on me,” she whispered. “I washed my face over and over, but it wasn’t just my skin. Those marks, they were more than you’d imagine. They sank down to the bone.”
She opens the wine before she’s finished unpacking the shopping, sipping quickly, trying to hold on to its fleeting warmth. The house is very cold and very empty, but she can’t give in to the grey, weighty grief, the loss of Grandma. She has her mother to think about now.
With her glass topped up, she takes the house on floor by floor. As she ascends the staircase, the ancient boiler moans, the pipes shuddering inside the walls. Later, she tells herself, she’ll sweep out the living room’s cobwebbed hearth; she’ll light a roaring fire.
She walks right to the top, to the enormous attic room, which had been her mother’s as a child. She pauses at the door, gazing at the handle with exhausted dread. The feeling isn’t about her mother, though – no, it isn’t – it’s because of the time she got herself locked inside, during a game of Hide and Seek.
It happened during her seventh birthday party, when the house was filled with kids. With all the running around and screaming, it took a while for anyone to notice she was missing. The door had never stuck before.
In the end, someone in the garden spotted her at the attic’s enormous windows. She’d given up on the door by then and was slamming at the glass.
It was hardly the most traumatic incident in her life, though later Grandma had brought it up to explain her nightmares. But she was sure they had started before.
Yanking helplessly at the door handle – aware of the ceiling pressing lower, the darkening walls sneaking across the floor – hadn’t she been convinced that her bad dreams were coming true?
Clearly, the idea was ludicrous. During the many occasions she’s been back up here, the door has never jammed again.
The room’s just another part of this house she’s always felt so loved in and, for most of the time, perfectly safe.
My house now – the thought is stunning, as unreal as when she first heard the news. Her own home, where she might be happy, living with her mother at long last.
Still, she knocks back a large mouthful of wine before she’s able to turn the handle and cross the threshold into her mother’s room.
She flicks on the light. The sky’s already growing dark beyond the attic’s wall-length windows. Great purple clouds hover on the other side of the glass as if they’d like to smash straight through.
But the room’s the same as it has always been. There’s the walnut wardrobe, still packed with her mother’s little-girl dresses, and the single bed with its crocheted blanket and ancient, greenish brass frame.
She crosses to the bed, she can’t resist it. It was where she’d holed up during Hide and Seek before the panic set in. She crouches and lifts the blanket, remembering waiting among the shadows, listening to the voices from downstairs. There were high-pitched squeals and shouts and someone laughing, or possibly crying. Muffled, the sounds were wordless; they rose and fell in waves.
Today, the house’s quiet is so solid she feels the intrusion of her breath, but as she straightens she can’t help turning, double-checking her mother’s door.
It remains open, the softer light from the staircase glowing just beyond. Still, she thinks it might not be a good idea for her mother to sleep in here. She doesn’t want her feeling trapped, like in the place she’s been living for years. She’ll offer her own room, or maybe Grandma’s –
Inadvertently she glances back to the sky-heavy windows. Dizziness hits her and she gasps.
There are feathers there, a pattern of feathers – she’s on the brink of connecting their pale dots.
But then the marks unravel and she understands they’re nothing but snow – fat, starry snowflakes – a random constellation clinging to the panes.
Nevertheless she can’t drag her gaze away as she backs slowly from the room.
This night, the hole is tighter than ever – there’s hardly room to kick or claw. The dark is sharp, the black dirt packed with broken stones and jagged roots.
And already her heartbeat feels compacted. The whole forest’s bearing down on her –
Layers of earth and mulch and endless trees, and far, far above, beyond their canopy, the infinite weight of a winter sky –
She can’t have slept more than an hour or two, though when she wakes, the living room’s strangely light. She ought to feel pleased after her nightmare’s darkness, but it makes no sense; the fire’s died out.
She’s shivering under a blanket on the sofa. Her head feels slow and heavy, her mouth tacky with red wine. There are only a couple of inches left in the bottle beside her; it’s no wonder it takes her a while to remember the snow.
Through the windows, the world is whirling; it’s more white than night out there. It’s beautiful, but she turns back to the dim room. She doesn’t want to become caught up in the blizzard’s hypnosis, trying to find sense in its frenzied dance.
And the room is freezing. She really ought to relight the fire. Instead she pulls the blanket closer and reaches for the bottle – drink, don’t think, as her uni-friends would say.
But as she swallows, she pictures foxes, wondering how they survive when it’s this cold…
And then she’s listening, but there’s just the windowpanes’ rattling. It’s only as sleep washes back over her that she thinks she hears a single high-pitched whine, but it’s probably the wind.
She’s woken by a banging, a hammering – her first thought is let her out.
Then the cold, bright morning unfolds around her and she realises someone’s knocking on the front door. Wrapped in the blanket, she staggers down the hallway, calling out “I’m coming!” She fumbles with the bolts.
The air hits her in an icy rush and briefly, she feels blinded. The day is glaring, everything deeply steeped and glittering, the whole world buried white.
The snow must have only recently stopped falling; there are flakes melting across the postman’s shoulders, glinting in his eyelashes and beard.
Despite the beard, this man is young, perhaps only a year older than her. He’s very different to their usual bent-backed postman, but there’s something familiar about his face.
Maybe she knows him from way back, from the months she spent at the local primary school? He might even be one of the boys who used to tease her during playtimes – “Are you a nut-job like your mum is? Are they going to put you in the loony bin too?”
But while he doesn’t say anything like that, “You’ve had some trouble,” he declares.
And as he steps aside, raising one arm, her head remains crowded with those boys. Briefly their wide, chanting mouths merge with the heaped carcases that this man is pointing out –
There are five or six small creatures, melting pink into the snow.
Her voice emerges in a half-gasp, squeezed up through her thickening throat. She stares, fighting the rising vomit. She wants to slam the door; she doesn’t want to see. She can’t look at anything else.
“Rabbits,” he says.
She nods, though to her they appear so skinned, so savagely torn and spread, the animals are beyond identification. Piles of meat made somehow more sickening because of the purity of the front garden’s snow.
“Vermin,” the postman says and at first she thinks he’s still talking about rabbits, but then, “they ought to let them bring the hounds back in,” he’s saying. “Every winter, they get worse.”
For a moment, they stare together. And it no longer matters who he is; she struggles with an urge to lean against his warmth.
“I thought I’d better warn you,” he murmurs – but then he’s turning, and, “Anyway,” he continues, sounding almost cheery. “Here’s your post.”
But she’s too distracted to do more than glance at the envelope he’s pushing into her shaking hands. A vision strikes her from a long, long time ago of the bathroom in her mother’s old house – one of her mother’s more convincing and visceral attempts.
She sees the streaks and splashes, stark against the tiles’ clean white. And the other marks, which had been deliberately placed, red messages meant for her…
The postman is leaving she realises, and mutters “Thanks” as she shuts the door. But in the hallway, she catches her face in the ancient mirror. Although her cheeks are pale, her lips are blackly lined with last night’s wine and there’s a stain like blood across her teeth.
She’s washed her face and scrubbed her mouth out, but still, she’s hardly thinking of the letter as she opens it, which is addressed not as she expected to her grandma, but to her. It takes her several attempts to read it the entire way through and even then it doesn’t feel real.
Words disengage themselves from the paragraphs – ‘consultations’ and ‘psychiatrist’, ‘recent incidences on the ward’. She stares as if trying to work out a different meaning.
At the present time, we no longer feel it safe to grant your mother’s request for a respite visit… She reads the line over and over, but no alternatives emerge.
She phones the hospital and on the second try actually manages to get through. She’s passed from a receptionist to a harassed-sounding junior doctor, who tells her in no uncertain terms that the letter’s contents are correct. The decision is final, and not only has the release request been denied indefinitely, a visit to the ward right now “would be ill-advised.”
The doctor refuses to offer any details of the supposed ‘incidences’ over the phone, but “It’s not only your mother’s safety we’re concerned with,” he informs her. “She isn’t just a danger to herself.”
And though she finds her protests floundering, it strikes her after she’s hung up that the hospital might be lying. Maybe her mother isn’t even there anymore – fed up with waiting for her youngest daughter to arrive, perhaps she’s made her own escape?
She finally gives in to exhausted tears bowed over the wheel of her grandma’s car. The tears battle out of her, hoarse and hurting, as hopeless as the engine that refuses to start.
She had wanted to drive to the hospital, to find out the truth for herself. But nothing she does will ever be right.
“It’s the same for you as it is for me,” her mother once told her. “You can play their game, but the world won’t understand. You know too much about what’s hiding underneath.”
She thinks about burying the dead rabbits before she returns inside.
She has the spade with her from attempting to dig out the car’s front wheels, though when she’d made her way out to the car through the creaking snow, she’d been careful not to even glance at the scattered corpses.
They appear to have darkened now, and as she tramps towards them, the threads and trails between them become clearer, distinct against the white. Several of the bodies are connected, dragging loops and lines that might almost be handwriting –
She turns and runs back to the house.
But the front door stops her. There are scratches running through the paint. The gouges are most pronounced at the base of the door, though some of them reach much higher.
Unmistakeably, they are claw-marks. Something has been trying to get in.
She doesn’t go to the back door straightaway; she sees to the fire first. She begins carefully, stacking kindling in a neat pyramid, but her hands grow impatient and she ends up throwing in firelighters, desperate for warmth. Only once the hearth is snapping and blazing does she go to the back door. She understands that she’s avoided looking because she knew exactly what she’d find.
Sure enough, the wooden panels are as marked as at the front. The scratches are long and deep, bristling splinters here and there.
She gazes across the back garden, but there’s no sign of any foxes, or of the massacre, out here. The expanse of snow appears untouched and it could almost be a photo from a Christmas card except where the whiteness fades into the woods. Past the sparkling crosshatch of the fence, the trees look blacker than ever, their darkness weighted. She shakes her head, trying to clear it, denying a sense of being watched.
Sitting at the roaring fireside with a glass of her grandma’s brandy, she begins to feel more like herself. As she drinks, she thinks how her friends would tease her. At university, she’d been known as their resident ‘light-weight’. She never confessed that she was scared of finding out what would happen if she gave in and lost control.
She hadn’t intended to go to the kitchen to find more alcohol; she’d gone in search of food. It’s not surprising she’s light-headed and nervy; she hasn’t eaten properly in days.
But she could barely look at the pink ham sweating in its packet and the bread-knife had trembled in her fist.
The knife was long and sharp and serrated, flashing in the icy light, and she remembered what the hospital had told her, only a couple of weeks ago, about temptations and precautions… And while she supposed it no longer mattered now, she buried the knife under the older, tarnished cutlery and thought about locking the drawer.
But, despite ending up with a dinner of Sherbet Lemons and ancient brandy, as she inhales the rich scent of burning, she tells herself all’s not lost. The hearth’s dancing flames strike her as more than reassuring; they’re the house’s living heart.
She won’t ever let this house – her house – grow cold again. She’ll keep it warm and welcoming for when her mother can finally come home.
Although she’s beginning to accept the hospital’s explanation, she hasn’t given up hope. Surely her mother’s current state will turn out to be temporary; haven’t there always been relapses – and recoveries? During her last visit, her mother had appeared quite lucid, calmly taking her daughter’s hand.
“My best girl,” she’d said, “my special one. We’re going to fight our own path through this. Together, we’ll find a way out.”
There’s the sound of hunting horns in her sleep and a hammering, though it’s not her fists or kicking feet, but the pounding of approaching hooves. It isn’t the narrowing hole, her usual nightmare, but still, her heart is banging in every part of her when she flinches, as if shaken, awake.
Her bedroom is freezing, though the crowding shadows are as dense as matted fur. And then she hears it, the same sound that must have woken her, a raw and high-pitched wail. She lies paralysed, waiting, but instead of the cry repeating, she hears half-panting, half-snuffling noises – a breathing that isn’t hers.
A small animal sound gathers in her own throat, but she squeezes her eyes shut and concentrates, swallowing back the fear.
She remembers that she deliberately left her bedroom door ajar. She opens her eyes and finds its frail edges through the dark.
She does her best to ignore the huffing-murmuring noises as she rises. But by the time she’s reached the doorway, she’s lifted both hands to cover her ears and she wishes she had more fingers. She’d also like to block her nose and whimpering mouth.
The smell is inescapable, a rich, glandular stink, more pungent than urine, layered with thick, black earth and rotting meat.
And the cold is harsher than ever. As she moves towards the stairs a frigid draught drags at her along with the darkness, and it strikes her – the night is living inside my house.
She pictures the doors downstairs clawed open, but, mesmerised, she keeps going, only stopping on the landing where the staircase turns. With one hand scrabbling for the banister, she peers down.
The shadows swim, icy and reeking, but finally settle around a deeper darkness poised halfway up the stairs.
For a second she seems to see the shape in detail, the strength contained in its hunched shoulders, everything about it tensed –
Crouched on all fours, it stares straight up at her. She knows its amber eyes –
Then she’s turning and running up the next staircase towards her mother’s attic room.
She starts crying as she bursts through the doorway – “Mother, please. Mother, I’m sorry –”
But it makes no difference. There’s no one to help her, and the scuffling is coming up fast behind her. There isn’t time to shut the door.
Its breathing surrounds her. There’s no choice, she must go on. A little girl again, she’s trapped and weeping, slamming in panic at the glass.
Again and again, she smacks the windows. Through the panes, the star-specked sky looks still and solid while inside, the air goes on changing – gathering, closing in.
But in the next moment the glass splinters, the panes shatter. She’s punched straight through. She teeters as the night smashes in around her, dark and dazzling – and then it sucks her out.
She falls, but in her falling, there is a sudden rushing joy –
The stars are everywhere, and the pattern has never been this clear. Her own name is shining in her mother’s handwriting – and then the dark shuts in.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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