Theodore shuffled backwards into the lee of the narrow wooden shelter. He inhaled the familiar scent of old oak. The floor was slightly sticky, but other than that this shelter was one of the better ones.
The overhang and the shelters in the row in front obscured his view of the podium, despite the slight raking of the auditorium. This was by design, of course. Nobody needed to see anything beyond their shelter during the ring ceremony. Around him he heard the sounds of his fellow townsfolk making themselves comfortable, or as close to comfortable as they could get, standing in such narrow confines.
Theodore’s head hurt even before the ceremony began.
“Friends!” the voice of Sage Swift called out. She was out of sight but Theodore could tell from the acoustics of her voice that she had backed into her own shelter, too, which was grander than theirs, and regularly repainted inside and out, therefore relatively untarnished.
She continued, “This is the four hundredth and fifty-seventh week of this new world. An odd number. Therefore look to your right.”
The hall filled with echoing creaks. On the right inner wall of Theodore’s shelter were scrawled the words FUCK SWIFT SHIT. He smiled. Scratching words in the shelter was more his style, too.
Sage Swift’s voice rang out again. “On the first alert, remove your right ring. On the second alert, you are free to express yourself. On the third alert, cease.”
The auditorium fell silent.
Theodore rubbed at his forehead. The ring on his thumb was warm, almost sickly warm, against his skin. His head really did hurt very much.
His body jolted as the chime blared from the personal address system.
He held up his right hand, then eased the thick ring from his thumb and held it between his thumb and forefinger, turning it. Some of the paint had lost its colour, but none of it had flaked away; it was nothing a bit of touching up couldn’t fix. Mostly he had decorated it with patterns – pinpricks that had barely required the tip of the brush to touch the metal – but there were totems too. A curled wave, a pair of cat’s eyes, wings with no body attached.
He placed the ring carefully on the small, semi-circular tray that protruded from the inner wall of the shelter. The tray was coated in something viscous, probably blood. The ring would need cleaning later.
The second chime sounded.
So it began.
Around him, Theodore’s neighbours began to express themselves. Many of them began with whimpers or muttered words. Others snarled. Some roared, and others immediately beat upon the wood of their shelters.
Theodore stood motionless, listening.
He heard the impact of bodies upon hard surfaces. He heard the sounds of slats being splintered. He heard knuckles and knees cracking and skulls striking again and again.
Theodore’s head hurt, too. He didn’t want to make it worse.
Despite the noise all around, he could hear his own breathing very clearly. The body was a wonderful thing, operating quietly without conscious thought.
He looked down at his left hand. The ring on his left thumb was decorated with stars, sine-wave sand dunes, scales of something reptilian. He was very proud of the scale pattern.
He took off his left ring and placed it alongside its twin on the sticky tray.
Nobody noticed. Nobody accosted him. He heard only the sounds of townsfolk expressing themselves.
Ordinarily, when he was expressing himself, he would find that the sounds of his neighbours became inaudible, a mush of white noise, and afterwards he would have no idea what others had been doing as he beat upon the walls of his own shelter, scratched deep fissures into the wood, threw his head from side to side like a pendulum with too little space to swing. Even now he found that he could ignore them. He traced his fingertips over the splintered wood of the walls, then the overhang of the shelter, noticing for the first time that it was finely contoured into a shape rather like the upturned hull of a boat, and realising that somebody must have worked hard to fashion it just so.
Despite the pain in his head, despite the stiffness in his hands, he smiled.
The third chime came as a disappointment and seemed too soon. But when the louder noises fell away, Theodore could hear the laboured panting of his neighbours, the quiet sobbing, and he knew it was enough for them.
Sage Swift cried out, “Replace your rings. Then you may go.”
Theodore looked at the tray. It wouldn’t be sanitary, for a start, to take those rings and to put them back onto his thumbs, unwashed. He took a cloth from his trouser pocket and used it to pick up the rings, then folded the cloth neatly, pressing it into the divots in the centre of each ring. He put the package into his pocket.
Then he stepped forward, turned and followed his neighbours along the aisle, passing the doorways of their shelters but not looking inside at the damage they had caused. The right arm of the woman walking ahead of him hung limp at one side and her woollen jumper was ripped at the shoulder. He looked around for Stacey, his eyes passing over the queues of townsfolk making their way slowly to the rear of the hall, but instead his gaze met Sage Swift’s. Her body stiffened. Theodore blinked and looked away.
“You must go back,” Stacey said, a note of pleading creeping into her voice already. “It might not be too late. They might still be there.”
Theodore nodded. “They might. Doesn’t one of your friends work at the auditorium, cleaning?”
“Yes, yes,” she replied. “If you can’t find them today, perhaps Liz could look tomorrow. Tell me your row and shelter number, and I’ll pass it on to her.”
Pain throbbed in Theodore’s temples, but he smiled all the same. “I don’t remember,” he lied.
Stacey’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not even trying.”
“I think perhaps I don’t want them. They make my hands hurt.” He didn’t add, ‘even more than they do anyway, right at this moment’.
She leapt forward and clamped her hand over his mouth. “Don’t talk like that. Anyone might be listening.” She looked across the kitchen to where Bosey sat at the table, colouring in a line drawing with crayons. Did she really suspect that their six-year-old might not be trustworthy?
She pushed Theodore away from her, not gently. “And both rings, too! You might have hidden the lack of one of them, at least for a while. You’ll be noticed. It’s dangerous. You are dangerous, now, Theo. And you know you’ll be noticed.”
She was right. Theodore hadn’t been at the supply store for more than a few minutes, collecting paints mixed by the children that morning, when Julia Scholes said, “Heavens. Where are they?”
“I took them off,” Theodore replied. There was no point in pussyfooting around it.
Julia shook her head, paused, shook it again.
“You can’t do that,” she said, gabbling a little. “It isn’t your choice. Where are they? Put them on right this minute. Where are they?”
Old Mrs Garrison stamped over from the grocery shelves. “How dare you? That isn’t your decision to make. Won’t you consider the rest of us?”
“It’s been twelve hours,” Theodore replied. “Nothing’s happened yet.”
Mrs Garrison held onto Julia’s sleeve and both of them watched speechless as Theodore gathered his supplies. He didn’t allow himself to wince at the pain in his head, which occasionally shot like lightning down his spine.
“Bye,” he said. “Have a lovely day.”
“I want you to know I do not condone this,” Sage Peter said, dropping his cup of tea carelessly onto Theodore’s desk. “If I’d have known—”
His gaze strayed beyond Theodore, to the racks behind the desk. Rows and rows, cabinets and cabinets filled with plain rings ready to be painted. Theodore knew what he was thinking. It doesn’t have to be the same ones. Any of those would do. Just put them on.
“I wanted to thank you,” Theodore said. “For being honest. It’s a relief to know that something’s wrong with me, in a funny sort of way.”
Peter’s expression softened. “Is it still as bad?”
“It’s just like you said. A cloud descending upon my mind.”
“I meant it figuratively.”
Theodore nodded and touched his forehead. “But it’s actually what it feels like, too. Painful, staticky, if that makes any sense. But also a little giddy. You didn’t tell me how long I had left.”
Peter threw up both his hands. “I don’t know, Theo. I’m not trained. No sage is capable of telling you that, and I’m barely qualified anyway. You’re only a year older than me. You might have years yet.”
Theodore shook his head. “No. You were right.”
“And based on my word, my unqualified diagnosis, you’re prepared to flout all the safeguards? You’re now a danger, Theo. To yourself, to me, to all of us. You could… erupt at any moment. Without the rings, without the ceremony, you might end up expressing yourself at any moment. Think about that. You’ve made yourself utterly unpredictable. And you’re okay with that?”
Theodore watched him levelly. “Yes, I think so.”
People were watching him as he emerged from his shop and walked slowly home.
Stacey pleaded with him quietly, under the bedclothes.
The next morning he arrived at his shop to find it razed to the ground. The shack was several streets away from the residence he shared with Stacey and Bosey, but many other dwellings were closer. His neighbours would have heard the blaze and it was clear nobody had attempted to put it out; some of the wooden struts were still alight.
He fetched a stick and poked in the embers beneath the fallen beams. He spotted a flash of colour. After a few unsuccessful attempts he hooked one of the objects onto the end of the stick.
It was a ring, and there were others down there too, partially burnt. The painting on their sides was his own work, a service for his fellow townsfolk. He assumed that before they had set the fire and thrown their old rings into the burning building, the perpetrators would have raided his cabinets, taking plain rings to replace their unwanted painted ones. He pictured them switching the rings over quickly, terrified that even a second of being unadorned might curse them too.
“Isn’t it possible that the headaches are your punishment?” Sage Peter said. “And that’ll just be the start of it.”
“They began before I removed my rings,” Theodore replied.
Peter shrugged. “Maybe it was fated.”
“In which case, you can’t blame me for removing them. If it was fate.”
“You’re being impossible.”
Theodore smiled. “Thank you for talking to me, still. Nobody else will.”
“They’re terrified of you, Theo. They expect you to explode at any moment. How’s Stacey?”
“She doesn’t understand. She’s fine. She’s taken to praying to her thumbs.”
At the end of the five-day, Theodore stood outside his residence and watched the other townsfolk troop towards the auditorium. A few men and women dared to glance up at him, but nobody asked if he would attend the ceremony. Because what would be the point, with no rings to remove? He might as well express himself right here, though probably he wouldn’t.
He slept better than usual nowadays. His dreams were filled with pleasant images, some of which he recognised from his rings, which was comforting as he expected never to see those paintings again now that the rings were buried in a dune many miles away, at a location he had taken great care to be unable to recall.
Tonight, though, he heard muttering and sharp voices. He didn’t want to dream of the ring ceremony. That was other people’s business.
The pain in his head was overwhelmed by a sense of discomfort in his hands. In his thumbs.
His eyelids flickered open. It was dark enough that he couldn’t see shapes so much as voids blacker than their surroundings.
Somebody was pulling at his thumbs. Two people. They were crouching beside his bed.
“What?” he said blearily.
“—told you you’d wake him up,” one of the voids said. A woman.
The other made a deep grunting noise and Theodore felt a corresponding jerking of his left thumb. His hands were outstretched on the mattress before him, an unnatural sleeping position.
“Stacey!” he cried.
“I’m sorry,” the first void said. Stacey was struggling with Theodore’s right thumb.
He clenched his hands into fists, then jumped out of bed. He burst from his bedroom and into the living space, which was dark but not so dark that he didn’t immediately understand that it was filled with people. The outer door was open and he saw more heads out there, the edges of their hair and hats picked out white by the moonlight.
“Put the rings on, Theodore,” someone said.
“No!” he cried. “You can’t make me. There’s no reason in it!”
“Please,” another voice called out. “Please. We’re begging you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s real, all this.”
Nobody replied to that. It was too much for them.
More figures lunged at him, aiming for his hands. He pulled them back and up, holding them high above his head. He was taller than most of the townsfolk.
Someone hit him in the face, which hurt a lot.
He ducked his head and, without warning, barrelled through the throng of people in the doorway. There were so many of them that they lost him amongst themselves. Hands grasped from all directions.
He ran and ran.
He ran beyond the residences, beyond the marketplace, beyond the auditorium and the sacred places.
He ran beyond the confines of the world they knew.
But of course many of the townsfolk were faster than he was. They flanked him on either side. The children and the younger folk got ahead of him.
He scrambled up a shallow hillock. From the top he saw people ahead of him, and then he turned and he saw people behind him. He was in the middle, up the hill, and they all began to climb.
There was nothing on the hillock other than Theodore and a few large, flat rocks.
He picked up one of the rocks. He held it above his head.
“Stay back,” he cried, but they didn’t.
He knelt and put his left hand onto the soft ground. Then he raised the rock again in his other hand.
“Stay back or I’ll crush my thumbs, both of them,” he shouted.
They all stopped climbing. They looked at each other.
Half a minute passed.
“Put the rock down or we’ll kill them,” someone shouted out.
From out of the crowd emerged four people. The two men at the back held Stacey and Bosey before them, by the necks. Theodore understood that before this moment Stacey and Bosey had been part of the crowd, outraged like all the others, and had not been at risk. But now they were at risk and it was real.
He shook his head.
His head hurt.
Bosey looked very unhappy and very confused and very afraid.
Stacey only looked afraid.
Theodore picked up a second rock and now he held one in each hand.
So now he was standing and facing downhill, with a big flat rock in each hand.
He rushed down the hillside, shouting and shouting, but no words in particular, just anger.
He struck the first man in the side of his head with one of his rocks, then elbowed the other in the nose and pushed him over. But more took their places and Stacey didn’t even attempt to wriggle free, so Theodore hit those men too.
And over the heads of the people he was hitting, he saw other people standing behind the townsfolk. They were three sages and they were all nodding in approval.
Tim Major’s weird horror novel, Hope Island, is published by Titan Books and is available now. His other books include SF thriller Snakeskins, short story collection And the House Lights Dim, and a non-fiction book about the silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Best of British Science Fiction and Best Horror of the Year. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com
Hope Island (Titan Books) https://titanbooks.com/70004-hope-island/
Snakeskins (Titan Books) https://titanbooks.com/9811-snakeskins/
And the House Lights Dim (Luna Press) https://www.lunapresspublishing.com/product-page/and-the-house-lights-dim
Les Vampires (Electric Dreamhouse Press) https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/les-vampires-hardcover-by-tim-major-4556-p.asp
Image by Karen Smits from Pixabay
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