Lauren Bell lives in Birmingham and is a recent graduate of Birmingham City University where she gained a First Class degree in English and Creative Writing. She has written far too many poems and short stories, and is currently in the midst of sending them out in to the big wide world. She is often drunk on inspiration and spends most of her time scribbling her ideas down on post-it notes before they fly away. She keeps saying this but she will attempt to start work on a novel soon. Her work has been published by Word Bohemia, Synaesthesia Magazine, Bare Fiction and The Casket of Fictional Delights.
ONLY THE DAMNED KNOCK
‘We shouldn’t be doing this, you know.’
It was more of a statement than a question. Despite the calm and gentle breeze tugging at our clothes, I was secretly shitting myself. Erin and Gabe were in front holding hands as though they were one entity. They’re clearly not; they just like to think they’re something special.
Our way through the forest was a tedious affair, and several times already we have had to stop because Erin had a stone in her shoe, or she had a stitch, or her legs hurt and she needed to sit down and take a break. To be honest, I was getting pretty sick of Erin and her pathetic excuses.
‘Why can’t we just keep going?’ I said, watching Erin take her sweet time undoing one sailor blue boot.
‘Because Erin’s got a stone in her shoe. We can’t well leave her behind,’ said Gabe.
‘It’s a boot, not a shoe,’ she replied, glaring at me as though she wanted to kill me on the spot.
I wish we had left her behind. We would have been there by now. We’ve been roaming around in the woods for hours and I honestly don’t think we’ll see it.’
‘Hey guys,’ I said. ‘I think we should call it a day. I mean we’ve been walking for miles now and we haven’t come across it. Perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere and we’ve been walking away from it. Let’s go another day. We’ll set out nice and early. We should be there by mid-afternoon.’
Erin and Gabe stopped; their hands still fused together. Something about their stance caused me to shiver inside. Neither one turned around.
‘I say we continue,’ Erin said, her voice low and stony like the gravel path we currently stood on. ‘We’ve walked this far, there’s no point in turning around and going back now.’
‘I understand that but –’
‘Good,’ Erin snapped. ‘Then we’ll continue.’
‘Gabe,’ I said, hoping that my appeal to him would not be in vain. ‘You understand where I’m coming from, right? I mean it could be another fifty miles in the distance.’
Once again, Erin was quick off the mark.
‘Don’t be an idiot, Tom. You know as well as I do that the door isn’t fifty miles away. Why on earth would we be walking if it was?’
Damn it, she did have a point but so did I.
‘Okay, okay, slight exaggeration. But we could be walking for another three or four hours.’
And then Gabe finally turned around, his eyes like two fine pinpricks in dough. He didn’t look too good.
‘Do you want to go home, Tom?’
I resented the way he asked it like I was some small annoying child just tagging along, intruding on their grand day out. Except it was my idea in the first place yet both seemed to have forgotten this. I puffed out my chest in a pathetic attempt at defiance.
‘I’m the only one being sensible around here. Erin keeps moaning about stones in her boots. Why anyone would wear six inch heels on an expedition is beyond me –’
‘That’s my sister you’re talking about.’
The silence unravelled between us like an invisible ribbon and I listened to the pounding of my heartbeat hammering away inside my ears. My head grew dizzy, my vision blurred and I honestly felt that in another minute or so, I would be lying prone on the gravel path. I had to pull myself together. I turned and meant to leave.
‘So that’s it then? You’re just going to give up like that?’
I turned back around and met Gabe’s olive green eyes. His face had hardened somewhat and now resembled a mask. Erin tugged at his arm with her free hand; they were still very much connected; the sight of it repulsed me.
‘Let him go, Gabe. He’s only slowing us down.’
I laughed at that which surprised us all.
‘I’m no coward. I’ll come with you. Hell, it was my idea to begin with, in case you’ve forgotten.’
A ripple seemed to pass between the two siblings, their expressions eerily similar – stony-eyed and scowling. I felt the onset of a panic attack blossoming beneath my feigned bravado, threatening to expose me as the nervous wimp I was. But no, I had to see this through, right to the very end. I kept my eyes fixed on the darkening distance and pushed past them, colliding with Erin’s shoulder who glowered under her pale frost-like eyelashes. I didn’t look back as I spoke.
‘If it makes you feel better, I’ll even knock.’
It couldn’t be happening. Not again. It had happened every night this week. I woke, drenched with sweat; my pillow and duvet clinging to me like a second skin. Slowly I peeled them off, watching with disgust as they flopped back on to the bed in a damp tangle. My pulse beat furiously in my temples, ears, fingers; my whole body reduced to one quivering mess.
The dream followed the same pattern: I was alone in the woods, although alone wasn’t the right word; rather I had the sense of someone or something watching me amongst the curtain of shadows. Before me stood The Door – a solid onyx barricade said to be forged by forbidden magic, a door which had never ever been opened regardless of the thousands who had tried and failed before me. Great warriors had tried executing their brute force against the solid defence but it hadn’t budged. Others had set it alight but the flames died as soon as they touched it. The Door had been kicked, shot at, stabbed innumerable times; nothing though had succeeded in opening it.
‘Black magic,’ people said. ‘It’s the work of the devil himself. It’s probably a good thing it doesn’t open. Who knows what evil lurks behind?’
I shuddered at the memory and looked at my bedside clock. 3:03 am. Still far too early to get up and make a cup of strong black coffee. I considered lying back down again but my back was still damp and I disliked the idea of sleeping in my own sweat.
Instead I got up, fished inside my jeans pocket and pulled out my phone. Two text messages. One from Gabe. The other from Erin. The one from Gabe read Shit Tom, it happened again! This time it felt REAL.
Staring at the bold block capitals, I knew there was some truth in Gabe’s words and recalled my own dream: the wind, knife sharp slicing my skin, whip-like wounds blooming on my cheeks and forearms, tree branches like hangman nooses and the gravel path resembling some centenarian’s teeth, snapping away at my progress. It felt like some fairy-tale gone horribly wrong. My perception of the forest warped, the trees, in some instances almost horizontal like leaf-tipped fences. My whole grip on reality prized away by invisible fingers.
The Door was something else. It stood, nearly ten feet tall, a rich and glossy onyx barrier made from an ancient wood which reflected the slashes of light raining through the forest canopy; the light hitting it in what could only be best described as knife points.
I stood before the great structure, a pint-sized man and whistled lightly. Of course, what people didn’t know only excited their curiosity further. Without thinking, I reached out, my freckles pure tangerine beneath the splash of sunlight and paused before the perfect circular door knocker. An iridescent gleam shone back – reds and yellows, purples and greens painting colour onto my vision, reminding me of a flirty oil spill.
I had been here before countless times, hovering on the boundary. Do I knock? Don’t I? Would anyone answer? My thoughts formed a dream cyclone and before I knew what I was doing, I gripped the knocker and felt a surge of searing heat tearing its way up and along my forearm, spreading quickly throughout the rest of my body.
And then I violently woke up.
I still haven’t replied to Gabe’s message, the phone screen now dark from inactivity. Punching the buttons on my keypad, I opened up Erin’s message –
It’s a real door, Tom. I know where it is.
I read her words several times over, drinking them in so that I could feel them coursing through my veins. Such certainty. Such defiance. A flash of envy stabbed me in the chest.
She might know where it is but I know what to do.
And so we had ended up here; the clearing in the forest opening out before us like an all-embracing hug. Gabe and Erin ran toward it, their hands clasped, their steps in unison.
But I stayed back, watching as they threw themselves into the shadowy twilight which had rapidly descended on us. I didn’t feel right, hadn’t felt right all day. Now I felt fifty times worse, if that was possible. The dull ache in my chest which accompanied my passage through the forest was now a red hot spear of pain slicing me from the inside out. I clenched my hands, grit my teeth and nearly doubled over. I hadn’t told either of them about my latest dream involving the searing heat which had entered my body, but since then something had changed within, something strange and unpredictable which threatened to unleash itself at any given moment.
‘What are you moping about for?’ Erin called from the clearing. ‘Are you too chicken to come any further?’
Her words were tiny pinpricks on my skin, minute needles piercing my flesh and driving the shame home. Beneath my skin, something else, something otherworldly was at play. The fine downy hairs on the back of my neck and those covering my forearms prickled as though excited by static.
‘Say something, Dumbo!’ Erin again.
With every step I took, the unusual sensation manifested itself. My hearing became more acute, sensitive to the quiet rustles around me; my eyesight pin-sharp, noticing the subtle shifts in hue – the trees appeared more vivid, the forest floor brighter, almost gleaming with colour. Iridescence everywhere.
I exhaled deeply. This was it, the start of future things. Erin punched me on the arm and not in a playful way.
‘What was all that back there?’ Her eyes possessed a malicious glint, her mouth turned up in an ugly sneer. How could Gabe stand her? I was certain that if it wasn’t for their unfortunate blood ties, Gabe would steer well clear of this hateful cow.
‘I was thinking, that’s all.’
‘Thinking?’ she scoffed. ‘About what? How chicken shit scared you are?’ She turned to Gabe, and spoke about me as if I wasn’t there. ‘Is he always such a douche?’
Gabe coloured slightly at this. At least he had the decency to feel some discomfort at Erin’s brusqueness. He glanced sideways at me, his eyes pleading, Don’t hate me.
‘He’s not usually like this, are you Tom?’
Nice one, Gabe. Thanks for sticking up for me.
‘I don’t know what either of you are talking about,’ I said and blinked squarely, first at Gabe and then Erin. After a short while Gabe lowered his eyes but the ever-defiant Erin matched me.
‘What the fuck is your problem, Tom? Is it because I know where this door is and you don’t?’ I could hear the smirk behind her words and yet her face remained a nightmarish scowl. ‘Because if it is, you need to get the fuck over yourself. You always did think you were something special and infinitely more knowledgeable than the rest of us. But the truth is you don’t know jack.’
I merely blinked and kept what I hoped was my stony gaze fixed on her. I thought I saw something else mixed in with her defiance. Confusion? Uncertainty? Fear perhaps? I bloody well hoped so.
‘Can we get on with what we’re here for?’
I noted the feigned boredom in my voice and prayed they bought it. If they were to find out that my heart actually felt like a hummingbird’s wings beating furiously away inside my paper-thin chest, my whole world might just come tumbling down.
‘Fine by me,’ snapped Erin.
Gabe merely nodded and I noticed how he swallowed hard.
I smiled and nodded to Erin.
‘Will you lead the way?’
The Door was even more formidable in real life than it was in my dreams – the entrance to a giant’s lair. I gave a small shudder which luckily, no-one else noticed. Writhing around inside me, the strange sensation continued, stretching its way through my gut, bowels, and down my legs, becoming me.
‘What are you waiting for?’ I called to Erin who stood less than two feet from The Door, her head tilted to one side. She snapped her head in my direction. Was this the same guy who only a few minutes ago was chicken shit scared? Impossible. She narrowed her eyes at me, her mouth turning into a thin razor-wire smile as though a knife had slashed itself across her face.
Such an ugly girl.
She grasped the knocker, the circle reflecting all the colours of the rainbow like a vibrant flare before dulling again.
‘What the hell just happened?’
Gabe’s eyes were wide with wonder.
‘Do you feel any different?’ I asked, remembering the pain which had flooded my body in the dream and which continued to do so now.
Erin grinned. ‘Course. I feel wild!’
She brought the knocker down: one, two, three times; each knock like a metallic fist on my chest.
Erin took a couple of steps back and waited. Nothing. She frowned and cupped her hands around her mouth.
‘Hey, you in there. Just open this goddamn door right now!’
It was a command and an irate one at that, and irate commands were meant to be obeyed, except this one wasn’t.
Erin kicked the door hard with her six inch heel boots.
‘Piece of shit!’
The something inside me shifted, threatening to surface. It clawed away at my insides like a starving thing devoid of oxygen. I did everything in my power to contain it. Now wasn’t the time. It was too early, wasn’t it?
Erin continued to kick away before she began pummelling her fists on the splintered wood. Each blow caused me to gasp.
‘Hey Erin, I think you should stop that. Tom doesn’t look so good.’
But Erin was too engrossed in her test of strength to hear her brother’s words.
Suddenly I spoke. ‘The Door shows you what awaits you, what you deserve. Not what you want to see. All those warriors before succeeded in opening The Door.’
‘The Door has never opened. I am going to be the first person to open it.’
I grinned. Gabe gasped and took a few steps back.
‘Erin! Erin, for fuck’s sake, stop what you’re doing and look at Tom.’
His language stopped Erin in her tracks. Gabe very rarely swore. I felt my smile stretching like treacle – a grin from ear to ear, the embodiment of evil. But Erin only saw a blank-eyed version of me, my expression vacant, my eyes looking through her. Erin glared at her brother.
‘What the hell are you talking about? Tom’s just being his normal self – a douche.’
Somewhere inside, the real me fought this “other” version which Gabe clearly saw. It leaked out of my pores, coating me all over as though I was a mould of myself. The siblings were clearly seeing two very different versions of me: the evil and menacing versus the plain and boring.
Gabe looked into the amber eyes of the demonised version of me and began to stutter.
‘L-l-look T-T-Tom. I-I mean you n-n-no harm.’
Shhhh. I brought a single finger to my lips and with my other hand, pointed to where Erin stood, still kicking and cursing.
The Door swung open.
The entrance was faintly lit with candlelight which persistently guttered, giving the wall a particularly eerie and transient effect. The “other” me left my body, surfing through the air, before coming back down behind The Door.
Erin scratched the back of her head and shot me a poisonous dagger look. ‘What the fuck are you doing behind there?’
The something that looked like me, but was in fact not me, leered at her.
‘I’m showing you what awaits you.’
And with that, the guy who was impersonating me sprang towards her, an obsidian nightmare made human, clawing at the evil one, wrapping its tendril-like limbs around the fallen, and dragging her down into the deepest darkest depths of despair.
Photo by Aleksei Drakos
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The news was full of it. Unidentified blue object falls from the sky. I turned the TV up, not sure whether I had heard correctly. The newsreader hadn’t got a clue what was going on, his large vacuous eyes like plates wiped clean, but he went along with the script anyway.
‘Reports on Dover beach confirm this blue object dropped from the sky.’
Here, the screen revealed a simple picture of what appeared to be a turquoise stone sitting on sand. It didn’t really look that unusual so why all the fuss? Cut to wind-swept reporter on beach, his trench coat billowing around him like some giant cloak of darkness.
‘At approximately ten past two this afternoon, this blue object fell from the sky on to Dover beach. Eyewitnesses claim it literally fell out of nowhere, and one woman has even hailed it as the beginning of the end.’
This is ridiculous, I thought. The stone or rock or whatever it is could have come off something, a bit of shrapnel soaring through the air which appeared to have fallen from the sky. Simple.
‘Besides’, I muttered aloud, ‘we’ve got more pressing things to worry about. Namely, the widespread drought we’re currently in the midst of leading paranoid citizens to stock up on obscene amounts of bottled water!’
I inhaled deeply and surveyed the fifty or so bottles currently holed up with me. Fifty bottles wasn’t that much when you considered how long a drought lasts. And where the hell had Mikey got to? He went to the supermarket hours ago. I exhaled quickly, expelling the air from my lungs and the thoughts tearing around in my brain.
It felt good to get everything out in the open; it made things truer somehow, more real.
Just then, Mikey ploughed through the front door, tumbling into the living-room like a man half-cut. His cheeks flushed pink with the effort.
‘Ross, man, you gotta come down to the supermarket quick. The whole town’s gone bloody mad!’
‘They went mad ages ago. What are they fighting over now? Who’s going to cadge the last baguette?’
‘No seriously. There’s hardly any bottled water left! They’re like bloody maniacs though I managed to swag these.’
Mikey disappeared with his flyaway hair into the hall and around the corner. Cue – the rustling of several plastic bags. He returned a minute later with half a dozen bags fit to bursting.
‘Is that all water?’ I asked.
‘Yep. I had to be fast though. There was this old granny and usually you think they’re harmless old dears. Not this one, though. No siree. She was mental, Ross, bloody wild, clawing her way through the crowd with her old crone hands. I’m sure one of her nails touched me.’ At this, he shuddered violently. ‘And you should have seen her – picking up four or five packs at a time.’
‘So, the old woman was strong and wanted bottled water? Big deal.’
‘Ross, you would not be talkin’ like that if you’d have been there. She cackled like a witch too!’
I rolled my eyes.
‘And did she have two children locked away in her cottage located deep in the woods called Hansel and Gretel?’
‘Piss off, man!’ He paused for a moment, his face lined with deep concentration. ‘Though, she did start spouting some shit about this being the beginning of the end. Of course no-one responded but we heard her all right.’ He suddenly went quiet, his mouth closing like a Venus fly trap savouring its meal. In a much quieter voice, he said, ‘And you know something? I’m starting to think she’s right.’
‘Mikey please,’ I said, and picked up a six-pack of Evian. ‘Just because bottled water is dwindling doesn’t mean Armageddon is coming.’
‘It does when our water supply is contaminated with some flesh-eating bacteria, which in case you’ve forgot, Mr I-have-my-head-in-the-clouds, it is.’
Said like that…we really were in the shit.
Over the next few days, the world officially went mad. Mikey and I included. We sat inside our bottled water fortress counting each and every bottle stacked around us.
‘What do you make it, Mikey?’
‘One-fifty? More like two-twenty.’
‘Where did those extra seventy bottles come from?’
‘Fuck you, Ross!’
‘Aw, come on, Mikey. Just messing. Nowt wrong with that.’
Mikey’s face took on a much deeper hue – not quite crimson yet not far off it.
‘We’re down to just one hundred and fifty bottles of water. What happens when we run out?’
He shot me a look which said How so, Einstein?
‘We can always drink our piss.’
Mikey’s face fell.
‘No way, man. I’ll do anything but I won’t do that.’
‘Didn’t know you were a fan of Meatloaf.’
‘Be serious, Ross. We’re facing death here.’
‘We have one hundred and fifty bottles of water! I’d hardly call that facing death.’
‘I’d prefer it if we had two-twenty’, Mikey grumbled.
I moved out of my water bottle throne and switched the TV on. The news popped up.
Breaking news flashed across the screen – a carmine banner with milk-white words flooding the audience’s vision. Cue a montage of various British seaside resorts pitted with these as yet unnamed blue objects.
‘They actually look kinda nice,’ I said. ‘Like dragon’s eyes. Plus, they’ve done wonders for Western-Super-Mare. It looks less of a shithole –’
‘Dragon’s eyes? What the hell would you know about dragon’s eyes?’
I shrugged. ‘More than you, I bet.’
On the TV, the newsreader began speaking.
‘The South and West coasts have been hit the hardest with hundreds; yes hundreds of blue objects descending from the heavens. So far ten people have been admitted to hospital with what doctors call serious head injuries, although no-one has succumbed to these…yet.’
‘Did you hear that?’ Mikey screeched. ‘They’re talking about fatalities now! Death by unknown flying blue object. It’s madness.’
We sat in silence for a while, both of us chewing over the latest developments. I recalled the initial picture of the blue stone on the sand, and remembered how peaceful and charming it looked.
There was nothing to fear from them, was there?
‘So we’re safe here, inside our bottled water fortress?’ Mikey asked, his eyes like tiny glittering diamonds radiating hope.
‘Looks that way,’ I said. ‘Personally though, I don’t think these blue objects have a vendetta against the human race.’
‘Well what do you think they’re for?’
‘I’m not sure but the news’ll keep us informed.’
And it did.
After another week had elapsed, Mikey and I were down to one hundred and twenty bottles of water. In another few weeks, we would be well and truly stuffed.
Mikey inclined his head towards the blank TV screen.
‘Do you think it’s time?’ he said.
I glanced at my watch. It was three thirty on a Saturday afternoon.
‘I don’t think it matters to be honest,’ I replied. ‘Would you like to do the honours?’
He flicked the switch and our ever familiar friend, the news, popped up. This time the breaking news story shed some much needed light onto the situation.
‘Scientists have now revealed the mystery behind these blue stones, and folks, I think you’ll be surprised.’ The newsreader paused while everyone at home sat on the edge of their water thrones (or equivalent). ‘Our experts have confirmed these stones harbour the gift to bestow water on their owners. Those who take one into their home will never be without water again.’
‘Come again?’ Mikey said. ‘Did I hear that right?’
‘I heard that whoever takes a stone into his or her house is never without water again.’
A pause ensued as Mikey allowed the words to fully sink in. Then, ‘That’s what I heard. It’s gotta be a joke, right?’
The TV screen depicted an overcrowded Dover beach with hundreds of people scrambling about. The camera panned in on one freckled boy’s face; his eyes the colour of the waves, his tongue stuck out in an act of complete meditation. This was quickly followed by a close up of an old woman whose skin had lost its elasticity years ago. Her teeth looked like rotten pieces of cheese and I imagined her breath to be a whole lot worse.
‘Holy shit!’ Mikey screeched, reeling back in his plastic bottle throne. ‘That’s her, Ross.’ He jabbed a finger at the screen.
‘The old crone in the supermarket. The one who clawed her way through the crowd with those nasty nails.’
He shuddered again.
‘Oh…her,’ I said and watched as she shoved one of the blue stones in the cameraman’s face, cackling evilly. ‘God Mikey, you were right. She is a witch.’
‘And she’s got one! Look at her. She looks like all her birthdays have come at once.’ Suddenly, Mikey jumped to his feet. ‘Come on, man. What are you just sittin’ around for? They’re gonna bleed the beach dry if we’re not careful. We have to go NOW.’ He gestured to the reduced stacks of bottled water around us. ‘These babies aren’t gonna last forever. We go down now while it’s still light. You grab one. I grab one. We get outta there pronto before some loon tries to get fresh with us.’
I got to my feet. Despite all the hysteria on Dover beach, Mikey was talking sense.
‘You make it sound as though we’re about to pull a bank job!’
‘Hey, this stone is precious. It means survival.’ And with that he grabbed his jacket, pulled on his shoes and practically yanked the door off its hinges. ‘Come on man, let’s get going.’
‘Alright, alright, I’m coming. Jeez!’
Inside Ross and Mikey’s house, the news report continued.
‘…important announcement people. Scientists confirm that only one blue stone should be brought into any one home. I repeat one blue stone per household. Failure to do so will result in what can only be best described as the beginning of the end…’
Photo by Tomek Dzido
LOOKING FOR GREY
His name is Luther Grey. And he is out there. Somewhere. Of course, Luther Grey is just a pseudonym…he wouldn’t give me his real name now, would he?
There are tears on the periphery of my vision, blurring my sight, making the world unstable, non-permanent, transient. I keep blinking them back but they reappear again like those fuzzy spots you see before the onset of a migraine. I wish they would piss off. How on earth am I meant to find what I’m looking for through tear-filled eyes?
He said he would be here, waiting for me, ready to embrace me like in the good old days when we used to meet up clandestinely, stealing kisses in corridors, beneath luminescent strip lighting, snatching quick fumbles which expertly hit their intended targets. He made me gasp, my eyes wide in surprise while his cornflower blue ones were devilish, smiling like only a demon could. To look at him you’d think butter wouldn’t melt. The golden boy of security.
But I know different.
I know the real Luther Grey.
We corresponded over email, fuelling one another’s imagination with crazy scenarios often imbued with rainbows – our psychedelic vision taking us far away from our stuffy working environment. The messages bounced back and forth like a virtual game of ping pong, each one trying to outdo the other, documenting what other naughty tricks we had up our proverbial sleeves. I tumbled headlong into this vibrant world, his words and vision like a drug; I needed to know more. I needed to know him…
Suddenly, the wind takes me by surprise, tugging at my hair, raking it into an entirely different style, snatching at my clothes like a hundred greedy hands. His hands were no less greedy, wanting to pinch, slap and squeeze every inch of me and like an awestruck fool, I surrendered. I let him explore every contour of my body, knowing he memorised my impression to keep him company when he was in the arms of another.
And there was another.
He told me so. He was very direct about it…in the beginning, but gradually the other’s presence faded to the lightest of stains on an already tainted bed. We had pet names for each other, planting risqué scenarios in the other one’s head, testing our imaginative mettle. We were two halves of the same coin, the same chaos which raged through explicit emails and steamy corridor encounters.
He was a madman. So was I…
The wind continues to whip its wrath in my face. The tips of my ears and nose are frostbitten. My fingers throb as though they have been pierced by splinters of ice. I stuff them into my coat pockets, the worn seams their only comfort. I watch the tumultuous rise and fall of the waves like shape shifting walls enclosing me within this waste land. Because that’s what it is. A land which houses wasted opportunities, wasted words, wasted lives. I don’t want to be just another statistic and yet I have to face the truth – I can’t see my puddin’ anywhere and I suspect he won’t show.
You see, he’s a master of disguise, deception his middle name. Once he compared himself to Dorian Gray. I didn’t know what to say. I could only laugh it off and hope that it was another whimsical remark to reinforce his alter-ego as The Joker.
My head and heart knew different.
I couldn’t shake off the doubts which come with being someone’s mistress: how many others does he have on the go and what number am I? Because there has to be more; how quickly he has “fallen” for me, the sordid things he says, that roguish look he keeps for me he must surely keep for other similar-looking girls. And this I do know. I’ve seen proof…
Alone now on this beach with only the distant screech of seagulls to rouse me from my reverie, I am suddenly aware of the carpet of pebbles underneath. I don’t know why but I have this sporadic urge to drop onto my knees and pick them up, welcoming their smoothness against my weather-beaten skin. My hands run over their perfect forms, a slight chalk dust rubbing off on my fingertips. I rub them against my cheeks before running them across my lips…
which reminds me of Luther Grey’s; his tongue a wet dart piercing my open mouth, his pocket dynamo body grinding itself against me, his hand clamped around my throat, Mistah J style. He whispered things he wanted to do to me and I laughed it off knowing full well that he wouldn’t get what he wanted.
I think he forgot that there was much more to me than meets the eye. We both had our secrets and for me it was having been hurt before, by someone else I thought cared deeply about me. After taking what he wanted, he said he was confused, he couldn’t be sure about me, about us anymore…
And Luther Grey will most likely repeat history. He has that look in his eyes, a dangerous glimmer which only reinforces his position as a serial player, heart-breaker, emotion-wrecker, leaving a trail of bruised hearts behind as he stalks his prey in the shadow realm.
He realised that I am somewhat different from his “other”, possibly because I live and breathe words, and abandon all of my senses to my imagination. In this respect we are equal. Complete. Whole. We each construct our own narratives and impregnate them with our unique characters, for we are not content with life as we know it. We want to soar, to leap and frolic in the kingdom of clouds, flirting with zephyrs on rainbow surfboards, tasting sunshine and leaving mundane realities behind. Perhaps we are selfish and greedy, always wanting more but wanting more opens up new horizons, new adventures that would otherwise be denied. The changing wind is upon us, re-arranging our thoughts, our urges, our desires, questioning our emotions, our designs, our lives.
Is he a gambler? A risk taker? Does he enjoy a challenge? Someone who will match and quite possibly beat him at his own game?
Because this is what it is, isn’t it, just…one…big…GAME?
Beneath his bravado and supposed tough-guy exterior, Luther Grey is nothing more than a schoolboy with greased back hair, Lucifer-like face fuzz who goes to work on a toddler’s tricycle. He is not a tough guy, he is not a protector, he is definitely not a gambler. So he will stay with what he knows because dependents always need other dependents, leaving the risk behind to cause mayhem somewhere else.
I will have the last laugh though; he thought he punctured my heart leaving a J-shaped mark on my soul, except his arrival didn’t signal anything really except silliness, and our encounters are like these pebbles on the beach. Grey. Colourless. And soon to be reclaimed by the sea.
I stand before the sea’s beer-head surf and feel his sullied gropes, his lustful kisses and smutty words leave me, shedding themselves as a snake sheds its skin. I feel exfoliated and replenished, more like my former self again, when a voice, abruptly cut off by the gathering wind sounds in the near distance.
‘What you lookin’ for, Missy?’
And I’ll have to think for a while because I’m not completely sure what it is I’m looking for. But I know it’s not Mister Grey.
You fucker. You think you can mess with me, huh? Do you? Do you really? You got a lotta nerve showin’ your face around here, stickin’ your nose in another man’s business. Your mama never taught you any manners? Well I’ll give you a lesson, you won’t ever forget.
The gun comes out, seconds later the barrel smokes; a ghostly feather painting itself in the air. The other guy is on his knees holding his left hand, a perfect hole in his palm. JJ smiles to himself.
Yeah, that fucker shouldn’t have messed with me. No-one messes with JJ.
There is no blood on the other guy’s hand, no blood seeping on to the concrete below. There is no scream either; just a horrified expression similar to the one immortalised by Edvard Munch. It’s a classic look, an even classier shot, but nevertheless, a fantasy. A gun is not his style; it’s much too cumbersome and makes far too much noise. With guns, it’s all about guys trying to be heroes, and failing terribly.
JJ isn’t like that, he doesn’t want to be the centre of attention, he wants to slip through society and remain anonymous. Anonymity is key in this game.
So far, the exhibition has been pretty disappointing. The relics aren’t the real deal, just phoney replicas that any dipshit could have knocked up. The coins are even worse and appear to have been hammered to death with a mallet. The sight of them offends him. JJ curses under his breath.
I paid money to see this shit!
He passes from room to room and continues upstairs to where the “apparent” main attraction is. A large sign to the right reads: Those of a sensitive disposition are advised not to continue further.
Well, I’ll be damned. This shitty exhibition may just have something I like.
He enters the room where a strong waft of mildew hits him. It smells as though something is rotting right here under his nose. He surveys the room, trying to locate the cause but there are no stuffed animals, no gangrenous human body parts, nothing to explain the stench. He notes the grubby appearance of the walls, lines of dirt and god knows what else ground into the brickwork. Another difference is the dimness here, as though light is not permitted.
So what do we have here?
His mind races with a medley of strange and sordid ideas.
A burlesque dancer sawn in half? A pig’s head with an arrow through its snout? A starved man eating his own vomit?
Most pieces here are the same old murals spotted with colour, flooded with incongruous shapes which entwine to create a serious psychological mindfuck. One of them reminds JJ of staring at an empty soul, a broken heart darker and more infinite than midnight. It sucks him in, daring him to look at absence, nothingness, a universal void; to embrace the idea of never existing.
This is what life is all about, he thinks. No tricks, no false magic but facing your own demise. This is life’s only truth.
It feels good to acknowledge this and already JJ welcomes the increasing trrrump, trrrump, trrrump of his heart. He is connected to this piece, the only work of art so far which has spared him bullshit.
A sudden gasp sounds over in the far corner of the room. JJ turns. A trim woman in her mid-fifties peers at the perspex box illuminated by a single bright bulb. Now that JJ studies the light, he can see how perfectly unspoilt it is – a pure egg white. More and more people come to crowd round, wondering what on earth caused the old crone to gasp.
JJ moves over to the box and feels a frisson descend his spine. He peers inside and for a split second, his heart stops. A basement set-up stares back. There is an off-white fridge, old storage units and a tattered pair of welder’s gloves draped over the back of a chair. It’s like coming home again; the touch of familiarity never too far away. He stares at the gloves, noting the grime on the fingers, the palms as wrinkled as a centenarian’s face. Whose neck was the last to be gripped in those gloves? JJ cannot remember.
A man whistles behind – a shrill reed-like sound which strikes JJ’s heart like a splinter of ice.
‘Holy shit, man. Are those the real deal?’
‘Apparently so. Found them discarded on a refuse site.’
‘You would have thought a guy like that wouldn’t have left them out in the open.’
‘I heard when he dies; he wants to be buried with ‘em.’
‘Get away with ya! Where did you hear that?’
The comments drift past JJ like confetti in the wind. They settle for a split second before dissolving back into nothingness as if they had never been uttered. To tell the truth, all their comments have some honesty to them, except the gloves were never discarded on a refuse site. How they’ve ended up here, he hasn’t a clue.
Through a gap in the crowd, JJ sees the plaque – a bold and garish tribute to The Silent Strangler who is more affectionately known as ‘Silky’, on account of his smooth technique.
‘Those are the gloves he must ‘ave worn when ‘e murdered all those poor women.’
‘There’s nowt special about ‘em. They’re just welder’s gloves.’
‘Yeah, but he wasn’t using ‘em for that, was he?’
No, he was wearing them to feel the dying breaths of women through their struggling necks. To be the one to administer death to them and revel in the delight of watching the darkness swallow them. And, of course, to leave no finger marks behind.
‘Hey man, do ya mind movin’ along? Some of us wanna see what’s goin’ on.’
A portly middle-aged man knocks JJ’s shoulder with his elbow as he forces his way through. JJ doesn’t have to see him to know he’s fat, he can hear his painfully dense wheeze. JJ turns to his right; all he can see are thick hanging jowls, loose flaps of flesh which belong on a barbecue. He pictures them sizzling on a blistering summer’s day, the stench of pork thickening the air.
Oink, oink, little piggy. You better watch your step. If JJ has his way, that snout will be on the sizzle in the blink of an eye.
JJ weighs up the pros and cons of moving for this piggy. It takes him all of three seconds to conclude that there is no plus for letting this animal through, not a sausage. He sniggers at this.
‘Hey, you! Are you laughin’ at me?’
JJ looks up, his liquorice black eyes darting from side to side. A bald-headed man with beads of sweat dotted across his forehead, glares at him.
‘Who? Me?’ squeals the piggy beside JJ.
JJ look at no-one and stares only at the gloves. Gradually, the annoying fuckers around him dwindle and fade like guttering candle flames. JJ, sensing absolution, closes his eyes.
Her name is Isla, a pretty prick-teaser who refuses to put out. And JJ is in no mood for horseplay tonight. He’s gone out, played a bit of poker and lost a shitload of money. Money he doesn’t have. He asks Isla if she’d go on the game and she promptly tells him where to stick it. Wounded and humiliated, JJ pins her against the wall, the welding gloves already on his hands. How had they got there? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that Isla isn’t willing to help out a good friend. That’s Isla – all heart, or should it be, all tart?
Now his hands are around her throat, closing around her milk-white neck, squeezing all the while. Her gasps and splutters are ugly sounds, broken, gurgling like water backing up in a drain. Her eyes begin to bulge, protruding from her small doll-like skull, and that’s when JJ snaps. He pushes down firmly, the strain easily discernible on his face, as something pops beneath his force.
A hard shove from behind snaps JJ out of his reverie.
‘Oi, I’m talkin’ to you, you wanker. You deaf or summat?’
The sweating bald guy is right in JJ’s face spraying his shit breath everywhere. JJ tries very hard not to breathe. The piggy has been overshadowed and now stands behind the bald man’s shoulder, almost cowering. JJ fancies he can smell bacon in the air.
He hasn’t got a clue what this bald fuck is going on about but a red mist is quickly descending over his sight, clouding his vision, skewering his judgement. If he doesn’t stand down soon, JJ will have to bring the bad boys out. He has a glove in each pocket and he’s not afraid to use them.
Isla went down without a fight but this meathead will be much tougher, that’s for sure.
In the end though, he’ll succumb to JJ’s charm.
They all do.
They don’t call him Silky for nothing.
THE UNTIMELY DEMISE OF DANFORTH ELLORY
Not so long ago, a comic shop owner named Danforth Ellory awoke to find a man dead in his shop doorway. The corpse was prone, its arms bent at an unnatural angle. Danforth knew that no living person would be able to withstand the pain such an uncomfortable position afforded.
The body was dressed in a shabby brown overcoat, fraying at the edges with holes starting to creep in at the elbows and across the shoulders. He guessed the garment was near enough his own age and felt repulsed at the thought. He edged his foot close to the man’s face and considered nudging his cheek just to make doubly sure that he was dead and not punch drunk. But no, the man had to be, his posture told him so.
Danforth was about to go back inside and inform the police of his unsavoury discovery, outlining how it was incredibly bad for business if one was to find a corpse on one’s doorstep as way of greeting, when he noticed the dead man’s shoes.
Except they weren’t shoes, they were slippers.
Why was he wearing slippers? And not just any old slippers but resplendent ones complete with an ornate pattern of star-white feathers. On closer inspection, Danforth was surprised to find that the slippers were made from luxurious midnight-blue velvet. He felt a frisson descend his spine. The slippers appeared to be brand new and much too expensive to be wasted on this vagabond.
He quickly surveyed the street making sure there was nobody about. Luckily, it was deserted. Without the scrutinizing eyes on him, Danforth Ellory set to work removing the slippers from the dead man’s feet. One minute they were on the corpse, the next they were safely in his hands.
All that remained now was for Danforth Ellory to call the police, answer a few questions, and oversee that his business wasn’t affected by the recent events.
The whole affair didn’t take too long which meant Danforth Ellory had plenty of time to spend on cleaning the slippers. He wiped them over several times, amazed at how the cloth remained unsullied after being found on the vagrant’s feet.
Afterwards, he inspected them in the light, loving the way the sheen appeared to spill before his eyes like the bluest curtain. He slipped his feet into them and at once felt his body grow light. His steps were fluid and graceful, the footsteps of angels.
‘What an exquisite delight!’ he cried to the empty space. ‘They’re a dream come true. They’re magic.’
Just before opening time, Danforth made a decision to remove the slippers. If any of his customers saw them they would undoubtedly ask him where he got them and why he was wearing them in his shop. This, he decided, was definitely not good for business.
In the back office, he sat down and struggled to remove them. He tugged and tugged but the slippers would not come off. Danforth cursed under his breath. He stared at his feet, checking them for visible changes. No, everything looked the same. There must be some other, more logical explanation
Danforth struggled for another five minutes before giving up. It was futile; the damn slippers would not come off regardless of how hard he tugged.
There were no marks on his feet, no stinging sensations, nothing unpleasant to suggest these slippers were out of the ordinary. But they were. Apart from their ornate appearance, there was something peculiar and downright wrong about them.
The day passed quickly and many transactions took place. Danforth smiled to himself; today had been a good day despite the unexpected arrival of a corpse this morning. He had quite forgotten about the slippers, although he had noticed the lightness of his footsteps despite being on them for nearly eight hours.
A few of the more discerning customers noticed the finely-embellished slippers but no-one had questioned him on them, and for that he was extremely grateful.
Having closed for the day, Danforth mounted the stairs to his bedroom. Here, he once again failed to remove the slippers.
‘Goddamn it,’ he spat. ‘What the hell is wrong with these blasted things?’
He continued to tug away at the slippers until tiredness crept in and dragged him off to sleep.
After five days of consecutive wear, Danforth Ellory was a considerably changed man. Where before he stood tall and erect he now stooped over with his shoulders hunched. His face was visibly drawn and ravaged. His feet throbbed and ached as though he had been walking miles, and occasionally an angry burst of pain shot through them as if nails had been driven into his soles.
Each day was an extension of his misery and secretly he prayed that either the slippers would come off or he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Such thoughts continued to plague his mind over the upcoming days and as one week bled into another, even his customers kept their distance.
Another three days passed and with it Danforth Ellory’s sanity. It dawned on him that the slippers were indeed cursed. They had to be. The slippers were now more firm than ever. It was as if someone had super glued them on. The more he tugged at them, the more resolute they became.
His nightmares focused on the slippers and how they were actively eating his feet, his skin sticking to them and peeling away from the bone. In his nightmares, Danforth cried and screamed like a little girl, his face soaked with tears and covered in ugly claret blotches.
He awoke sweating, his heart jack-hammering away beneath a brittle ribcage, which, until a fortnight ago, had been as strong and solid as steel.
The next morning a discovery was made.
Danforth Ellory was visited by a distinguished-looking gentleman with a well-groomed moustache and horn-rimmed spectacles. Mr Roger Norbert immediately noticed the comic shop owner’s wan and sickly appearance.
‘You, Sir, are ill. Gravely ill. It’s written all over you. What was it? Something you drank? Ate?’
‘No…no…no,’ was all Danforth Ellory could muster. He found it was too much of an effort to say any more.
Mr Norbert studied the shrunken man currently in the chair for some time before looking him up and down. And there, lo and behold, was the reason for this unfortunate man’s diminishing health. The slippers, of course!
Roger Norbert started. There was no mistaking the infamous pattern – star-white feathers embellished on midnight-blue velvet.
‘My God, that’s them. Where the devil did you get those slippers?’
His voice shook as he spoke. Danforth looked at Norbert with some curiosity. After a brief hesitation he said, ‘I…found them.’
‘Found them… where?’
Danforth Ellory felt his heartbeat slow, his pulse coming to a gradual standstill. The look of pure horror on Mr Norbert’s face confirmed that the man knew the truth about the cursed slippers.
‘Damn it, man. Spit it out!’
It was no use camouflaging the truth any longer, whatever Mr Norbert knew about the slippers, Danforth Ellory had to know too.
‘I…took…them…from a dead man…who was…lying in the…doorway.’
With a wiry arm, he gestured to the place where the corpse had been found less than a fortnight ago.
‘So you stole the slippers, then?’
Reluctantly, Danforth Ellory acquiesced.
‘Oh dear. Dear God. You should not have done that, Sir.’
Roger Norbert sighed.
‘The slippers you wear, the ones you stole from the dead man, are cursed. They bear a terrible history and anyone who wears them…’
He broke off, not knowing how to continue. Danforth’s face was as white as milk, his eyes dark currants which bore no light. With a heavy heart, Mr Norbert continued.
‘Those slippers have an awful legacy attached to them. They were made by a poor tradesman in the Far East called Mustafa Kadi who lived with his wife, Laila, and their three children in a small ramshackle on the edge of town. They lived on meagre handouts and scraped a living, selling footwear to locals and travellers.
His wife, however, had different ideas, and although she had had three children of her own, still retained her good looks, and was always on the lookout for a better life. This went on for quite some time with local villagers gossiping until Mustafa himself heard these rumours and decided something needed to be done.
He followed her one day and caught her in the arms of another. The rage that flew through him was immeasurable, and he drew from his pocket the only tool he ever carried – his precious slipper scissors.
While his wife and her lover’s death screams could be heard in the little village, so too could her husband’s rants, cursing life’s chancers, risk takers, criminals.
He was found a day later with his throat cut in a shallow grave, wearing the very same slippers you have upon your feet. Only, they didn’t look quite like that back then. They weren’t as elaborate as they are now. They were rather…well, plain; simple dark blue with a bit of silver on them. You see, those very same scissors were used to cut out the fabric of the slippers, and were cursed from the very beginning. Legend has it that whoever wears the slippers has his or her soul taken, and with each soul collected, the brighter and more ornate they become.’
He paused and looked around the empty store. He leaned in closer so that his face was inches away from Danforth Ellory’s.
‘The slippers are usually found by miscreants; people who are on the lookout for something for nothing. They don’t often realise though that if something is too good to be true, it often is. I dare say the man who was found in your shop doorway was one of those types, whose unsavoury designs led him into obtaining the slippers.’
Now that everything was out in the open and the true history of the slippers revealed, Danforth Ellory found he was crying. Roger Norbert offered him a handkerchief. It was the very least he could do.
That night, Danforth Ellory made a slow and painful ascent to his bedroom knowing that this would be the last time he walked his carpeted stairway.
Come morning, he was dead.
Her world is black and white as though she sees through monochrome eyes. Colour is a thing of the recent past and already feels alien to her. She can discern light from dark, but no colour; they are only varying shades of grey. The world seems emptier than before despite the growing ball within.
She clutches it now, repulsed at its solidity and hugeness. Is this what all women must go through? She thinks. This ugly transformation where you don’t even recognise yourself anymore?
The ball continues to grow at an alarming rate; even the flowers, hedgerows and trees cannot compete, their shoots and leaves still in a state of hibernation while the ball swells, swells, swells.
It’s a wonder my stomach doesn’t burst. Actually that might work. At least I’d be rid of this parasite but –
She cannot do anything now – it is far too late for her and the baby. If only she had done something sooner. The baby wouldn’t have known anything; it was just a foetus.
She maintains her stance, her hands carefully clutching her swollen belly, her head turned to the side. She mustn’t cry, not here, not now, not amongst the people who walk freely here, weaving their way through the gardens bursting with knee-high flowers, following the crazy paving pathways which coil this way and that like tempestuous snakes.
There is always a flourish of activity here, the meeting of mankind and nature; the fusion of flesh and petals. They are greeted by orchids, lilies, japonicas and dahlias – their feathered heads like silk ruffles sweeping their sight with bursts of colour. But they soon grow restless, seeing beyond this multicoloured glamour and crave something different.
She is always a sight to behold, attracting the wandering eyes of men, women and children almost as soon as they step into the garden. Visitors flock around her like hungry kittens to a saucer of milk. She is a rare and precious thing. A succession of photos follow and Nymphette yearns to move, to change her position, to relieve the mounting pressure in her swollen belly. Her back aches terribly as though a sledgehammer has been repeatedly brought down on her coccyx and her legs are numb with pins and needles. It isn’t easy maintaining this pose, especially now more than ever, and she is thankful that she doesn’t recognise a face in the crowd.
She wasn’t pregnant last time I saw her, et cetera, et cetera.
There is one saving grace though: Nymphette can say goodbye to all the visitors once the garden is locked up for the night.
Now, beneath the moon’s ghostly light, she is free to wander around the garden as she pleases, taking a dip in the pond, walking beneath the fountain and smelling the sweet honeysuckle scent of the roses. She takes her time measuring the garden and then comparing it to her small frame, except she doesn’t feel small at the moment, she feels huge. She waddles back over to her plinth and waits for the garden to re-open again.
Sometimes though, there is one visitor whose visits are sporadic, coming just after dawn or at sunset when the light is extinguished by the never-ending horizon – Nymphette’s owner.
And here she is – a desperate woman whose skinny frame and ragged hair denotes the hardships she has endured. Nymphette watches her approach through fixed eyes – a despondent and pitiable figure with a constant flat stomach. As she approaches, she digs her belly hard, gouging the nails deep into her flesh as though this will somehow provide her with the miraculous gift she craves. Nymphette’s heart sinks. She does not want to see Naomi today for she has been growing at an alarming rate and knows Naomi’s secret suspicions have been confirmed.
It has been some years now since Naomi and Greg have given up on their dream of having a family together, and it has been but six months since Greg upped and left without a single look back as he left. Nymphette fancied she heard the slamming of the front door but in reality Greg had closed it quietly, avoiding another scene.
The first thing Naomi had done was speak to Nymphette telling her about their incompatibility and his suspected infidelity. There were tears in Naomi’s hazel eyes making them liquid chocolate. She couldn’t go on, she said. She couldn’t continue. Not without Greg in her life. Her words came pouring out – a flood of pathetic cries dousing her eardrums. It was her fault he had gone, she should have acted sooner, she should have made him felt loved.
Now, Naomi wipes her eyes carefully and brings her face close to Nymphette’s so that they are practically touching. Nymphette can smell the sharp salt in her tears, the sour tang to her breath.
The two women face each other; they are together and apart, separate entities joined by one man. If Nymphette could go back she would, she would reverse time and undo that moment which made such a mess of everything.
Naomi leans in close. ‘But you know different, don’t you?’ she asks the unblinking statue.
The words reach Nymphette’s ears like pickaxes digging away for clues, desperately attempting to access her secrets. Naomi wills her to speak – she knows she can because she has done far worse things.
‘Speak, damn you, speak!’
Here is a plain and simple woman who believed her partner loved her, possibly even cherished her, and yet she faces the brazen harlot who broke her heart and snatched Greg away from her. Naomi believed her to be just another garden ornament, something to boost the otherwise floral panoply she glimpses from her kitchen window. She didn’t know that beneath her concrete exterior, there raged a fiery and ravenous heart.
Naomi’s hands are still driven into her flat stomach like a rake in soil. She wills it to fatten and swell, ripening with life, a mini-me she can call her own; although she knows this is impossible for the child she should have had is inside another. A thought takes her then – what if she could get the child from Nymphette? She considers more than a dozen ideas, each one more sadistic than the last. If she harms the mother, will she harm the child?
Nymphette maintains her graceful pose despite feeling more grotesque than ever. She accepts Naomi’s hateful looks and sharp words – it is no more than she deserves. Many times she has considered slitting herself open and pulling the blasted thing out, if only to relieve the aches and pains gnawing away at her body. The pain is unbearable and Nymphette does not know how she will cope in these last few weeks.
Naomi does though and smiles at the flicker of fear she notices in Nymphette’s eyes.
She’s only a slight thing and judging by the size of her that baby is going to be a monster. It might, quite possibly, kill her. If it doesn’t, it’ll be sure to leave an ever-lasting impression on this deceptive whore.
Naomi sits back on the dry grass, triumphant. She knows Nymphette hasn’t got long to go now and someone in her state cannot go far. She has no-one and knows nothing. Except Naomi. Both women know who will deliver it and who will name and take it, raising it as their own, and who will argue for fairness and justice?
No-one at all, for Nymphette is just a garden ornament, a decorative piece in an otherwise viridian jungle. She has no heart, no mind, and no voice. She just is.
Photography by Ryan Licata
The phone starts to ring, its shrill voice slicing the empty hallway like a cheese wire. The sound goes on and on and on, travelling through the vast house at an alarming speed, rattling decanters in display cabinets, nibbling away at skirting boards. The sound travels through various rooms visiting the dining-room, kitchen, parlour in quick succession, bouncing off each surface and dispersing its chords in to the still air.
On the other end of the line, an anxious woman waits, twisting the cord around her fingers, creating a convoluted maze of loops like a mobile cat’s cradle. She barely makes a sound, preferring to breathe slowly through her nose.
The phone continues to ring; the noise has since become a war cry, wailing in protest, in defiance, demanding to be heard.
Upstairs, an unfamiliar tread pads its way across the landing, entering bedrooms and private studies as eyes fatten on discovered treasures. The stranger says nothing. Not even his faint breathing penetrates the silence. The phone is impossible to ignore, and yet the stranger doesn’t blink. He isn’t interested in ringing phones. They mean nothing to him.
Come on, come on. Someone pick up the phone.
The woman cannot think of anything else; her mind is consumed by a handful of words reducing her to an infant.
Where is everyone?
She wonders about the housekeeper, the butler, the maid. Surely one of them would have answered it by now? Surely they can’t all be out of earshot?
In a tiny closet, three bodies lie, bound by rope. Two huddled, one slumped. Their breathing is shallow and muffled like breath through a handkerchief. The butler died instantly. A knife twisted between his shoulder blades. The housekeeper and maid didn’t put up too much of a fight. After all, he wasn’t here to kill, and if they didn’t try to interfere, they wouldn’t be harmed. They had to trust him.
Now, they glance about in the darkness, their eyes molten through straining, their mouths tightly bound with duct tape. They try to scream but it comes out as mere whimpers, the butler’s body wedged between them.
On the other end of the phone, the woman pulls at the cord, hardly noticing how long a telephone wire is once it’s lost its shape. She knows something has happened. Telephones just don’t go on ringing and ringing like this. They ring off. Eventually.
The stranger stops and listens to the continual ring puncturing the otherwise silent house. This gives him some satisfaction. At least the old boy wasn’t joking when he said his time was up. The fight was over all too quickly. He came in, said a few words while the old boy struggled to get up, waited until he got to his feet, then plunged the knife deep into his side. The spray of warm blood stained his hands. He can always clean them before he leaves.
The woman’s breathing has quickened; her chest hitching slightly as she fights back a wave of sobs.
In the quaint parlour room, an elderly man gurgles and splutters, spraying crimson blood onto the walls, his clothes, and seeping into the floorboards. He struggles to move his punctured body, the wound more like a bloody mouth struggling to be heard and choking instead on the backlog of warm blood. He is certain the person on the other end is his saviour. He needs to speak to them. He has to reach the phone.
Upstairs, the murderer grins to himself. This is what it feels like to commit the perfect crime. Why doesn’t everyone do this? It’s fantastic! And then he sees what he’s looking for, displayed on a stand for his rich picking and knows that it has all been worth it.
Downstairs, the wounded man hasn’t moved an inch. He physically can’t, and feeling the hands of death worming its way into that great bloody mouth on his side, he relents and utters one last frail gasp.
She listens to the infuriating ring and is about to slam it down when the line goes dead.
Now she must do something.
THE PLACE WHICH CALLED ITSELF A HOTEL
If you look at it now, you would think I was mad. The place has lost all of its former glory, the spirit of it brutally ripped out only twelve months ago. There are one or two pieces I love which still remain; my favourite one by far being the hotel sign, passing itself off as just another guesthouse to the unsuspecting public. But there was so much more to this place than a misleading sign. I still don’t know how the unit discovered us but I have a horrible feeling Richey’s death had something to do with it.
I think of Richey now and there is a terrible chasm in my chest which will probably take the rest of my life to heal. He wasn’t an ordinary guy; he was different, fantastic and magical – he showed me the end of the world once. I know no-one else will show me such riches again.
The place is only a shell now, a hollow exterior. The sign no longer flashes on off on off on off like a belisha beacon and instead remains chalk grey, one long crack fracturing the plastic casing. I used to think the lighting was mechanical, manufactured, believing that someone somewhere commanded the switch, much in the same way people teach dogs to learn new tricks.
Except now I know different.
The lighting was part of the place itself, bound up intricately with its function like a person’s heart or brain. And once the insides, the space where miraculous things happened were removed, the light died too, extinguishing its spirit. In fact, I really have to look at it and squint to think that this was the place where my life changed forever.
A cough sounds behind me. I turn to see Mark, his eyes like platinum lightning and I can hear his anger without him even opening his mouth. Of course he has every right to be angry but anger doesn’t solve anything. It can’t make your troubles go away. It can’t undo the past. It can’t make people come back from the dead.
Mark can’t accept it though. It has been exactly one year to the day since Richey died and Mark wants answers. To be honest I think he wants a miracle. He looks at me now, the lines scratched into his face tell of hardship, anguish and despair. He is a broken man, half of what he should be, half existing without his brother and best friend.
I do the only thing I can do and hold out my hand willing him to take it, to feel companionship again. The world is still as Mark considers my offered hand. He doesn’t move but simply stares as though I have offered him poison.
‘Mark’, I say. ‘It’s alright. You don’t have to be afraid.’
I see his bottom lip quiver for just a second and then it’s rigid again making him appear hard-hearted and old.
He removes a hand from his coat pocket then stops. Everything is written on his face: his secret fears, his frustration, his torment. And then suddenly he turns on his heels and walks away, his back stiff and defiant, his shoulders like concrete beneath his leather coat. I want to call him back but I haven’t a clue what I would say or whether I would be able to say anything at all.
The wind whips up speed, flirting with the paper-thin golden-brown leaves and tugging at Mark’s coattail. He pulls his coat to him, practically hugging himself as he disappears around the corner.
Now there is only me and the fake hotel.
I remember the invitation I received last October from Believers and Pushing Boundaries United (BPBU). At first, I couldn’t understand their words and read the letter half a dozen times. Why were they inviting me? How did they know about my background? Who else had received an invite?
We met, all twenty of us, outside the place which called itself a hotel on a cool October evening, just after the sun had set. It was a bit too light to see the stars and all signs of cloud coverage had disappeared.
I found Richey standing on the far side of the entrance steps. He stood slightly apart from the rest, eyes downcast. I reached out and touched his arm. He looked up.
I was about to speak when the doors flew open admitting all twenty of us in a matter of seconds.
Inside, the hotel was like any other. It had a grand staircase with an intricately-patterned banister, plush red carpets and drapes which reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood. A few of us gasped. The three star sign outside was completely misleading.
As we continued to survey the guest entrance, a voice from overhead commanded us to gather at the far right door and wait for the doors to open. I looked around for a face to connect with the voice but found nothing. Instead, I noticed a disc shaped speakerphone. The sight of it made me shiver.
Then the door swung open. A succession of exclamations filled the space.
One woman said, ‘Ooh Harry, come look at this,’ while an elderly man wiped away tears. Whatever was in that room had a profound impact on anyone who gazed upon it.
I grabbed Richey suddenly and raced over to the open room. Once inside, my heart stopped.
The room had no walls and no ceiling. But it had a floor – an oval platform we all managed to huddle on to. The stars stretched out endlessly above us – a phosphorescent canopy showering us in starlight.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
Richey simply stood with his mouth open, his eyes large and round, speckled with miniature stars. I wanted to kiss him right there and then. He looked perfect, pure, unspoilt. He looked like a son of the night, protected by and bathed in a milky sheen.
‘What is this place?’ a voice behind me asked.
But of course everyone knew it was a stupid question. We all knew it was the end of the world.
Richey said, ‘Remember the last time we were here? How the stars played out like spotlights on Broadway? We were the last two people in the whole world.’
I smiled, nodded. The words lodged in my throat. All I had to do was blot out the others and we would be the last two survivors, Richey and I forever.
And then the invisible speakerphone took charge again.
‘Please make your way throughout the hotel. All doors are now open to you.’
A short man wearing thick-rimmed spectacles shouted at the speakerphone.
‘Why have you brought us here?’
The whole room fell silent. No-one looked at each other; the air seemingly acquired a density unknown to the atmosphere as though we were inhaling lead. We waited. The short man blinked rapidly behind his glasses. I fancied I heard Richey’s whistle-thin breathing before the speakerphone broke in again.
‘The BPBU have brought you here because we know what you are.’
A long and uncomfortable pause ensued. I closed my eyes and awaited his next words.
‘Being a non-human species doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings or concerns for our motherland. Being away from our real home for so long will undoubtedly affect our wellbeing. So the BPBU have very kindly set up this hotel to re-connect us with our motherland.’
A dozen side doors appeared seemingly from nowhere.
The speakerphone continued.
‘Now commence your journey through this door-filled haven and remember not to touch anything.’
We visited each door in succession seeing distant galaxies, the edges of the universe, total oblivion in all its formidable absence. My mouth gaped open as I took in infinity knowing it stretched on endlessly, and felt insignificant in comparison, despite my ethereal connections.
Each room we visited wasn’t a room in the conventional sense – they had no walls or ceilings but they were spaces and opened out on to the most wonderful sights. I felt sorry for the billions of people on earth who would never get to see the universe in its proper sense, and had to content themselves with a puny planet that was mostly water anyway.
The final room we entered was a swirling writhing mass of purple gas, pushing and contracting rhythmically to its own tune. Faces would appear for a second or so before they were devoured by the gas.
We were informed that the room we were currently in was The Dream Room where our long forgotten dreams resurfaced. Richey and I stood at opposite ends of the platform desperately searching for a clue or snippet from a dream we had had. We searched for a considerable time and was about to give up when I saw the motherland – all that was sacred and holy.
I watched as the great towers pierced the gloom, the fountains bursting with life. This is where I should have been, where I belonged, where I felt most comfortable. I looked at Richey who was absorbed in his own dream, watching the way his head bobbed up and down; his sight drawn to a single point.
And that’s when he reached out towards the swirling purple gas and stuck his hand right into the heart of his dream.
I screamed and watched in horror as his face was drained of all colour, all life. He was convulsing and juddering with his hand still frozen in the writhing gas which had started to creep up his arm.
An elderly man came to his aid but he was too late. Richey fell from his grip and hit the floor – stone cold dead.
I don’t remember much after that except the sudden storming of the hotel by official-looking officers. They dragged us about as though we were ragdolls and spat at us as we tried to flee. They said we weren’t fit enough to be on this planet and that if they had their way, we would never have seen the light of day. They took Richey’s body out in a body bag, the horrible noise of the zip making me nauseous.
I still have no idea how the unit were so quick to respond. My guess is that they were watching the place which called itself a hotel for a while and needed some sort of evidence before they could act. And Richey’s body served as this.
Mark has since re-appeared from around the corner and I can tell he wants to leave this wretched place. Every time I see him he looks even worse, as though the effects of time are eroding his features, which they are, mine included.
Luckily for Richey, he has joined the brightest stars at the end of the world.
An Uncanny Union
There is something odd going on here, I can sense it in the air like a cool hand pressing on the back of my neck, and creeping around my throat. All of the other guests look the same as though they are duplicates of their neighbour; the same sugar white skin and onyx black hair as though a sea of boot polish has been spread over the tops of a thousand heads. They repeat over and over and over again. And they all appear to be the same age, somewhere in their mid-thirties. The men wear fitted waistcoats, top hats and tails, while the ladies are resplendent in fine silk, chiffon, velvet and lace.
I am careful not to stare at any one person, although I cannot help but feel that I’m the odd one out in my plain mint dress and court shoes; the others sporting lace-up boots and gothic heels which make my eyes water. I feel like I shouldn’t be here; something other, outside of myself and beyond these strangers who currently occupy the same space.
The cathedral is statuesque and capacious sprouting gothic creations which date back to medieval times. I focus on a two-headed gargoyle with twisted features and hideous fangs. I fancy the fangs drip crimson blood onto the pale stone floor and search desperately for a familiar face. But the chalk-faced race are almost one and the same, their features a blurred smudge on top of pristine clothing. There is laughter – distant and infrequent – like sporadic cackles which puncture the quietude surrounding me.
There must be something wrong with the lighting too – over three hundred candles spilling their small orb of luminescence over the sea of liquorice-haired people below, casting terrible shadows across the walls and floor, shadow shapes of dogs and wolves and bears; predatory animals which bark and howl and growl, all with pin-sharp teeth – teeth like needles which pierce and wound.
I look at the few poesies some of the women hold and they are black, the colour of death, of finality. Black roses. Black lilies. Black orchids. Flowers leeched of colour but striking nonetheless. There is a river of them meandering through the legion of bodies like a liquorice ribbon, clutched tightly by daughters, granddaughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. An immortal lifeblood. The ladies are wrinkle-free, waxen-faced; the men have strong jaw lines and perfect bone structures.
What is their secret? I wonder. Special cream?
The air is thick with perfume – a heady floral scent tainted with bracken; a rich earthy scent I could easily drown in. I close my eyes, feeling myself pulled under by the sweetest of aerial tides when I hear a name – Darren. Yes, where is Darren? He told me he was going to park the car. That was nearly half an hour ago.
I reach into my bag, pull out my phone and dial Darren’s number. The signal is bad. After several rings, Darren answers, but all I hear is a static symphony as though Medusa’s serpents have taken over his mobile.
‘Hello? Hello Darren? Can you hear me?’
The phone goes dead. I notice a handful of guests looking straight at me, their eyes like glazed marbles – translucent and knowing. A few of them cough and turn away as though I have committed some terrible faux par. Others make no attempt to conceal their disgust.
Two women, who both look like Bellatrix Lestrange, hiss through their needle-fine teeth at me, while a tall, bland-faced man drapes his arms around them before they all dissolve into the crowd.
‘Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough of this weird shit,’ I say to no-one in particular and head towards the grand oak double doors at the far end of the cathedral.
I push past hordes of people who whisper endearments into their neighbour’s ears and elbow others in the ribs, as I make my way towards the exit. I know now that this is some sort of conspiracy against me.
My hands are like goose feathers on the doors. I push and push but the door doesn’t budge. There is no strength in them, no grip in my fingers which appear child-like, almost babyish. Instead I hammer away expecting another guest to come to my aid but no-one does, and soon my arms grow weak and tired. I let them hang by my side and gaze at the upset crowd. Eventually, a young woman takes me by the shoulders, her fingers like splinters of ice drawing me away from the door, away from salvation and says, ‘A lady like you shouldn’t be getting yourself all worked up like that. It isn’t healthy.’
She pauses, scouring the sea of indistinct faces staring back. The woman appears to be in her early thirties yet her voice is the voice of a crone, an elderly woman who should be at home in her nightgown and slippers. Then her face brightens, her eyes lighting up with pure love.
‘I should know,’ she continues. ‘My daughter was exactly the same when she was your age. Over here, Effie dear.’
She waves a lace-gloved hand above the crowd and soon a tall, slender woman sidles up to her and kisses her on both cheeks. The mother gestures for Effie to show me her hands. I gasp. They are not hands in the human sense but dove-white spatulas with the fingers fused together.
‘What happened?’ I say.
‘A door, just like that one,’ Effie replies. ‘I didn’t know how I got in to the chapel but I wanted to get out so I ran for the door and began clawing away.’
She pauses and puts her hands up in an act of submission.
‘This is what it did to me…but I’m happy, despite these. After all, I have Matthew.’
A short man comes into view, nods once, takes Effie’s hand and leads her away.
‘Her husband,’ her mother says. ‘And you’ll be alright soon enough. Not long to go now.’
But before I can ask her what she means, the young face with the old voice vanishes into the restless crowd. Everyone is now looking at me; their features smudged like oil paintings. One man stares at his watch as though he has the power to command its speed.
‘How did you get in here?’ someone asks. ‘Can’t you remember?’
My head is all fluff and cobwebs, fog and white space. I think back to earlier on in the day and recall Darren in the car, his eyes fixed unwavering on the horizon. He had a contented smile pasted across his face and couldn’t shut up about John and Cynthia’s big day.
‘But I’ve never even met them.’
‘Of course you have. You met them last year.’
I frowned. ‘Did I?’
‘Sure you did, you just don’t remember them.’
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘Actually yeah, I did meet a couple now that you come to mention it, but I’m sure they were called Edward and Helen.’
Darren didn’t respond to this but gripped the steering wheel tighter so that his knuckles were small mushrooms sprouting beneath his skin. I couldn’t remember anything else after this.
A hubbub of noise surrounds me as whispers break free from loose tongues, gossiping forces bringing me back into myself.
‘No, I don’t remember entering the cathedral,’ I say and stare accusingly at the blurred faces. ‘How did I get in?’
I watch as the crowd parts, a wave of icy terror crashing over me to reveal Darren resplendent in a fitted charcoal suit and frilly shirt, except there’s something distinctly different about him. He has glossy midnight hair and talcum powder skin. He looks like all the others. But this is nothing compared to the empty vial fastened around his neck.
‘What’s going on, Darren? What’s all this about? Who are these people?’
Darren smiles and laughs – the howl of a jackal.
‘Questions, questions, so many questions. You’ll be fine, love. Trust me.’
Trust comes out as truss. He advances slowly and spreads his arms wide as though casting an invisible net over the spectators.
‘I should introduce you to my extended family but you’ll get to know them soon enough.’
The crowd lean in, inspecting me and my features, my dress, my shoes. They look me up and down, but most look inside me, at my pure beating heart and whistle. The sound shatters my eardrums, practically lifting the roof off the cathedral.
A sudden gust of wind rushes in, snatching at my hair, tugging at my dress, crushing my chest. I watch as the wind changes my dress, enveloping a carmine silk luxury around me. My hair comes loose, spilling over my shoulders like a tossed auburn wave; the crowd sighs.
Darren smiles – a row of pearl white teeth marred by two hideously long fangs. There is static in the air again, this time accompanied by four generations of hisses, their disfigured mouths snarl and gnash away as Darren pounces, burrowing his ice cold face into my neck, devouring my humanity.
THE HEAVEN OF CANNIBALS
A new video game had just come out and stormed the charts, tearing it a brand spanking new number one – The Heaven of Cannibals. A pretty niche name considering. Miles had been recommended it by a number of his buddies including Adam, Tony and Stuart.
‘God, this game is to die for,’ Tony gushed.
Stuart added, ‘It’ll change your life. Trust me.’
That same evening, Miles left the interactive game shop with his purchase tucked safely under his arm. As soon as he got home, he quickly rustled up something in the kitchen and poured himself a cold sweating glass of coke. Once inside his bedroom he switched off his lights, turned his phone to silent and inserted the disc in his Xbox. He waited for the magic to begin.
CanAte is on your trail. He’s been lumbering around after you for some minutes now though he hasn’t found you. You can hear him breathing, that slow-grunting sound which secretly arouses you. CanAte is two hundred and thirty pounds with a thick tree-trunk neck and a dodgy buzz cut which isn’t even. He snarls and tears through the forest which fails to conceal his huge bulk. To you, the bracken is a godsend, acting like nature’s shield aiding your trek through the woods. You feel your heartbeat thrum in your temples and veins, and pray he doesn’t find you.
According to CanGod, the rules stipulate that there are two types of cannibal: CanGoods and CanEvils. The names speak for themselves. The objective is to win the CanGood’s trust and defeat the bastard CanEvils. Pretty simple.
With this rooted in mind you survey your surroundings and spot a gap through the dense bracken. This could be your chance. Your moment to escape. You have to act now.
With a final look around, you bolt towards the gap.
Back in his bedroom, Miles is too engrossed to think about sleep and ignores his body’s cue to rest. His eyes are hot like suns and his visions blurs beneath the strain. Still he continues to navigate his way through Cannibal Land using four buttons. His eyes flicker up to the top right of the screen and sees that he’s already on level thirteen. Miles pauses for a nanosecond and considers this. If he carries on at this rate, it’ll be game over in less than a week.
Shit, he thinks. Maybe I should call it a night.
But the allure is far too strong.
Miles plays until his eyeballs are molten orbs in a drained face; he has already discovered which cannibals are CanGoods and CanEvils. Luckily for him, the hot one is a CanGood. Now his character is talking to her, and though the sensation is odd, Miles actually thinks he’s speaking to her in reality. He can feel the soft lilt of her voice on his skin, and he’s becoming aware of something stirring down below.
Just another ten more minutes and then I’ll call it quits.
Miles plays on, becoming sucked into the storyline and the labyrinth of subplots which are branching out. He also gets to spend time with his cannibal lover, and fails to notice the clock reaching three a.m.
The sexy cannibal is called CanBite. You look at her in revered awe, secretly listing all the areas you would love her to bite. You remember Tony, or was it Adam, saying something about CanBabe. Perhaps they were referring to CanBite?
Her hair is a tossed dark caramel wave draped over her shoulders; her eyes are hazel stars, full of dim light. You are drawn to her mouth which isn’t pink or red but a deep purple – the colour of a bruise. It is full, each lip a plump cushion.
‘These are my siblings,’ she says and points to a man with tall spindly limbs and a long crescent-moon shaped face, and a girl of about fourteen or fifteen who is pretty but not sexy like CanBite. ‘My brother, CanTear. My sister, CanChew.’
On hearing her name, CanChew blushes and looks at the soiled ground which is littered with human debris including hair, nails and teeth. Bizarrely there are no bones.
‘What is your name?’ CanTear asks.
You notice his eyes are a little too close together which makes him comical and somewhat dim-witted; though you are wise to keep your thoughts to yourself.
‘I, CanTear, am CanAbel.’
‘Welcome, CanAbel. You have been indredibly fortunate to find us. We can offer you protection and shelter from those CanEvils. You will be safe with us.’
CanTear extends his leathery hand. Up close, it appears to be sweating. You hesitate. CanBite looks at you through hazel stars. CanChew bites her lower lip. You accept his hand.
When he woke up Miles had a maelstrom of a headache. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so shit. Surveying his room from the night before, he saw his half-empty glass of coke on the side, no longer sweating. The sight of it appalled him. He turned on to his side where he spied the bloodied cover of The Heaven of Cannibals. The words burned back in heart-red, a mess of intestines and organs adding decoration.
He rolled out of bed and picked up the case. It was warm as though a small child had clutched it for a long time. Odd, he thought and moved his hand to the bloody title. Miles found the blood was real. It slithered down his hand like a wet snake and stained his fingertips as if he’d been dabbling in paint.
A wave of fear and nausea washed over him, soaking him to the bone. Without yelling out, Miles searched his body checking for any open wounds. He felt no pain, no needle of fire. Surely if he had been hurt he would feel something?
The only thing swirling around his brain was whose blood is that? Otherwise his room remained untouched. Feeling a sudden chill, Miles quickly got dressed, took some paracetamol and left the house.
On his way to work, the headache hadn’t eased. In fact, to Miles it felt as though it had got twice as worse. He took another couple of pills on the train to try and alleviate the tension volcano between his ears, and wished it would disappear before he reached the office.
Adam and Stuart were already there when Miles stumbled through the front door.
‘You alright, mate?’ Stuart placed a hand on Miles’ shoulder. ‘Been a bit of a late night, has it?’
Adam was more forthcoming.
‘I know what you’ve been up to. You look fucked!’
‘What have you been up to?’ Stuart asked.
‘He’s been playing that cannibal game, getting all hard over that CanBabe. Am I right?’
Adam and Stuart continued to discuss the video game while Miles attempted to retain his grip on reality. Around him, chairs seemed to flow in and out of focus accompanied by a wave of spots. His buddies’ voices became static, white noise, meaningless and irritating, delving into his brain.
The next thing he knew he was on his knees and a man’s voice said, ‘Christ Miles, are you okay?’
The only thing Miles was thinking about wasn’t the excruciating pressure in his head but the blood he had found on his hands earlier. It had been wet and warm staining his fingertips and the sight of it had caused him to retch.
He still wasn’t any closer to finding out who it belonged to. His vision continued to swim from black to white, from white to black, his eyes feeling loose in his head. There was a scream or a cry in the background, something to upset the crowd anyway and then the world went black.
You’re not quite sure where you are but you feel lost, in limbo, trapped between two worlds. You recognise your bleak surroundings, a monochrome apocalypse where the extinction of mankind is looming on the horizon. Nothing grows here. There are no lights, no buildings projecting towards Heaven. Just a vast wasteland where people come to be eaten.
You are in the game.
You pinch yourself hard, a claret welt quickly blossoming on the surface. You are not your character – CanAbel, as you have been on previous occasions. You are yourself.
Above, the sky is the colour of cultured pearls. It is impossible to gage the time of day. In the distance, the horizon looks blurred and fuzzy, the usually straight line wavering with static interference. And then a loud bellow of thunder rolling, rolling, rolling. The heavens shake with forewarning.
You stand for a few moments wondering what is going to happen next when the drab background begins to flicker intermittently and you recognise Albert Street – the street where you work. Here, throngs of people hurry past one another, and you notice someone who doesn’t fit in: a shaven-headed, thick-necked, two hundred and thirty pound cannibal whose name is CanAte. He lunges into the crowd and bites a chunk out of a woman’s arm, then turns to bite a man’s face, finally finishing with a taste of breast. A cacophony of screams pierces the air as the first bolt of lightning strikes.
Adam, Tony and Stuart peered down at Miles who was flounced on his bed. Their faces were marble pillars, completely ashen despite the moderate heat. They all wore the same expression – fear.
Without asking the general consensus, Adam woke Miles.
‘Miles, thank fuck. You’ve gotta help us. That cannibal game you’re playing, it’s come true! They’re in our world, right fucking now. And they’re gonna eat us if you don’t do something fast!’
He blinked sleepily.
‘What did you say?’
Tony said, ‘Miles, there are fucking cannibals after us. You have to kill them. Do whatever you have to do. Just get them out of our world.’
Miles smiled dreamily.
‘Oh, how funny. I had a dream about that.’
Adam said, ‘You what?’
‘Yeah I had a dream.’ Miles looked down at his arm and saw the claret welt. His throat went dry. ‘Shit. It wasn’t a dream.’
Stuart looked thoughtful.
‘I think they might be projections, you know, of Miles’ subconscious. He’s been having terrible headaches and somehow through him they have managed to intercept reality. I think if Miles kills them in the game, he’ll kill them in reality.’
Now it was Miles’ turn to gape at Stuart.
‘You honestly think that’ll work? Fuck off.’
‘Hey,’ Tony said. ‘Anything’s worth a try.’
‘You better be fucking right,’ said Adam.
There is a pungent metallic stench in the air. The smell of fresh blood. You do everything to prevent yourself from gagging. Before you, stand three bloodied-mouthed cannibals – CanAte, CanChomp and CanRip. They grin through blood-soaked teeth. CanRip holds a limb, a smooth milk-white leg you have seen somewhere before. Attached to a small girl – CanChew.
They laugh, rusty chuckles serrating the air.
‘You fuckers. Where’s CanBite?’
‘You mean CanBabe. She’s safe.’
There is an arrogance in CanAte’s voice which makes you despise him even more. You feel the weight of your handguns tucked safely in your waistband. These fuckers don’t stand a chance. As soon as they start their shit, you’ll let it rip and send these bastards sky high.
‘Ain’t you gonna run?’ he asks. ‘Because we’re gonna tear you slowly, limb from limb.’
CanChomp breaks into a run, his bloodied mouth snarling, leaving a terrible blood-saliva trail down his chin, as the other two follow suit.
You automatically grab one of your guns and blast the bullets at their chests. The bullets impact with flesh, burrowing themselves deep within before exiting their backs. You fire again and again, watching as their bodies become bullet-ridden, juddering and jerking into a series of spasms as they collapse inches from your feet. This time their own blood exiting from their mouths. CanAte gurgles, spluttering pathetically on the ground as CanChomp convulses beside him. CanRip attempts to speak but his mouth is just one bloody mess.
In true western style, you blow the smoking tip of your gun and replace it in your waistband. You begin to dust your hands down when CanBite appears on the scene. She looks less sexy, her hair sweaty and matted with blood. You wonder what else is living in there. She stares coldly at the three useless bodies on the floor. Then she turns her cold glazed eyes at you. There is no recognition in her gaze. She opens her mouth to reveal a row of bloodied teeth and screams before running straight at you.
Without thinking, the other gun comes out and this time you aim high, shooting her in the forehead. She falls down like she weighs a ton, a river of blood leaving her body.
‘You better come out CanTear,’ you say, your heart tripping on adrenaline. Right on cue, he makes an appearance from seemingly out of nowhere, and pounces like an agile panther. Three bullets in the torso and two in the leg, and CanTear is just like his sister – a disgusting mess of flesh, blood and bone.
His name is Godfrey; it says so on his name tag. It’s a bit of a weird name, God-frey, as though the lord is cheap somehow. He hasn’t been working here long but already I can tell he’s not like the rest, all the other receptionists being women. He has this odd habit too of staring at patients, especially men as they wait in the stuffy, overcrowded waiting room before passing through the far wooden door to their respective GP. He hasn’t really looked at me, perhaps because I’m too young, but there’s definitely something wrong with him. We enter, Mum and I, even though I’m fine. It’s the summer holidays and for some unknown reason Mum won’t leave me home alone, so I have to come to the Doctors with her. It’s a personal matter, she tells me, but I’m still not sure what that means.
Surprisingly, the Doctor’s surgery is fairly empty and as we walk over to the counter I see Godfrey sitting there at his computer. His skin looks almost shiny today, polished to a peach sheen and his lips are poppy red as though he’s wearing lipstick. I turn away, afraid in case he catches me looking. Terry and Jake are huddled in the far corner, each with a parent. They indicate for me to join them.
“Mum, can I –”
“In a minute, love. I’m trying to get my appointment sorted out.”
Godfrey looks up from his computer and fixes me with his cold stare.
“Aren’t you a little fella?” he says, and laughs like a girl.
Mum shoots me a look as if to say this is all your fault.
It takes me a couple of seconds to register Godfrey’s overly-camp voice – I’m surprised he didn’t do the old limp-wrist thing.
“What seems to be the trouble partner?” he asks me. He emphasises this last word and I catch a few of the patients glancing over.
“Mum, everyone’s looking,” I say.
“Just keep quiet,” she hisses, and pretends to get something out of her handbag.
“Mmmm,” Godfrey persists. “Are we all better now? No more calling out.”
His eyelashes are ridiculously long and black, fanned out to perfection. They look pretty, too pretty for a man. I notice that his fingernails are shiny catching the gleam from the overhead lighting. He’s definitely wearing make-up because his face is several shades darker than his neck as though he’s smeared it with clay. My stomach churns as he winks at me. I tug at Mum’s sleeve, ignoring the glistening face of new recruit Godfrey.
“Can I sit down, pretty please?”
Mum rolls her eyes and nods.
“I’ll be over in a sec.”
I walk away from the counter feeling Godfrey’s eyes burning on the back of me. I sit down beside Terry and Jake. They nudge each other then turn to me.
“What was all that about? Between you and Gayfrey.”
“Sod off,” I say. “He’s called Godfrey.”
“Duh,” Jake says. “We know that.”
“Yeah and we also know he’s gay,” adds Terry. He does the limp wrist thing and pouts.
“Stop it,” I say. “He’s looking over.”
Terry stops and inspects his shoes instead. Jake’s mum is called in. We watch her go.
“So what are you up to this summer?” I say.
“Well we know what you’re up to,” Jake says.
“Woah, we won’t have any of that language in here,” Terry’s dad says, replacing the How to Quit Smoking pamphlet on the table.
“Sorry, Sir,” I say. “It won’t happen again.”
Then his name flashes up on the thin screen above.
“Right. You lot stay here. I won’t be long. And no more swearing.”
He shoots me a serious look before moving off. Mum is still stood at the front desk. She leans forward and points at the computer screen, while Gayfrey – I mean Godfrey – shakes his head.
“Have you seen them,” Jake asks pointing to the edge of the counter. A gaudy diamond patterned vase stands near to the self check-in, full of flowers.
“What are they?”
Terry stifles a laugh before saying, “Don’t you know what pansies are?”
“Are they pansies?”
“Course they are. Anyone’ll tell you that.”
The pansies are lovely and bright; pinks, purples, oranges and yellows which seem awkward in the ugly-looking vase.
“Don’t think much of the vase,” I say. “Do you know whose it is?”
Terry and Jake shrug.
“There was never a vase before Gayfrey turned up. It’s probably his.”
“Are the flowers his?”
I didn’t ask them how they know this. They both sound confident.
“Richie,” Mum calls. “I’ve got to go and see the nurse. Now you be good and I’ll be back soon.”
Now we are parent-free and strangely the only ones left in the waiting room. I am about to ask where everyone has gone when Terry and Jake begin to laugh.
“Who employed him?”
“Probably another pansy –”
Again, they erupt with laughter.
“Gayfrey the pansy. Gayfrey the pansy.”
“What are you boys going on about?” Godfrey asks, his eyes fixed squarely in our direction. “I have to warn you that you should be quiet whilst in the waiting room.”
“Why?” Jake says. “There’s no-one else in here.”
“Might I remind you what your mother said. About being good.”
They laugh, this time though it turns into a screeching cackle, a trace of malevolence starting to set in. I watch Godfrey’s face fall, his mouth turning sour as though having sucked a lemon.
“You heard us, Gayfrey.”
Terry and Jake are beaming, grinning stupidly as they watch Godfrey trying to hide his face behind his computer.
“You’re a pansy, Gayfrey. A pansy.”
I watch as Godfrey stands up, walks over to the wooden door and disappears.
“He’s going to fetch our parents,” I say. “And then we’ll be in trouble.”
“No we won’t. He’ll have to wait until the Doctor’s finished. That could take ages.”
Then they start to mess about, playfully punching each other in the arm.
“Screw you,” Jake says and begins to skip around the waiting room.
“Look at me, Terry. I’m Gayfrey. La-la-la-la-la. Ooh, this is me picking pansies.” He leans in and sniffs the flowers.
“Beautiful,” he grins.
Terry skips over to him.
“I wanna smell the pansies,” he says in a mock camp voice. But as he reaches the counter he misses his footing and strikes the surface hard with his arm. The vase topples over and crashes to the floor, sending a shower of brightly-coloured shards on to the carpet.
“Shit,” I say and get up. “Quick, where’s the bin?”
“Cool it, Richie. Gayfrey won’t be back for a while.”
“I’m not bothered about Gayfrey. What if someone else comes out like a doctor?”
Terry and Jake stop laughing.
Suddenly the wooden door opens and Godfrey gasps, clamping a hand over his mouth.
He breaks off.
“We’re really sorry,” I say.
Godfrey looks over and sees me standing in the corner while Terry and Jake are right next to the broken vase.
“You two,” he growls, placing his hands on his hips. “I should have known.”
And then before any of us can do anything, a doctor walks in and looks at the mess on the floor.
“What’s going on in here? What’s all this noise –”
“Er sorry, Dr Cartwright. I was just playing a game with the kids and I accidentally knocked over the vase. I’m really sorry, Sir. I’ll clean the mess up and I’ll replace the vase.”
Dr Cartwright studies each of our faces in turn.
“No you won’t,” he says. “Godfrey, I told you something like this was bound to happen. It’s too dangerous-”
“Sir, I’m really very sorry.”
“Just clean the mess up and get back behind the counter. You boys sit down and be quiet. This is supposed to be a waiting room.”
We nod and mumble our apologies. As soon as Dr Cartwright leaves, Godfrey looks at us.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Yeah,” Terry adds. “Thanks Gay-, Godfrey.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Jake says before sitting back down.
We spend the rest of our wait watching Godfrey – the strongest pansy I know – cleaning up the mess.
Sunrise Over Cappadacia
Adeline shakes her lipstick-red umbrella on the steps of the grand gallery which are huge slabs of polished marble, so shiny you can see your own reflection staring back. The effect is a little unsettling if Adeline is completely honest, but the building is what strikes her most; it looks like it has been crafted entirely from ivory with gold twists for door handles, like something taken from a dream.
Inside and Adeline feels its effects even more. The walls are huge white spaces, cavernous voids for spectators to lose themselves in, and the floors are waxed eggshells. Each room is a cube dedicated to a theme or specific object perfectly preserved for the curious spectator. As she enters each room, Adeline is highly conscious of her breathing as though, somehow, this act is not permitted on the premises.
She marvels over sculptures created from human flesh and blood, tapestries woven from animal hair, contraptions made from kitchen utensils and other household goods. She has never seen such weird and wonderful inventions.
But nothing can quite prepare her for what she sees in the next room.
In front of the photograph, about four feet away, is a slim bench presenting the spectator with the perfect view. Adeline tilts her head to one side, wondering where the name of the piece is. She looks at the empty space around the frame and sees nothing. There is no card above or below which declares the title. Nothing to clarify or confirm its identity.
Adeline inches her way closer to the photograph, hoping that the artist may have included the title somewhere in his artwork; again she is confronted by an absence. But then she studies the gilt-edged frame more carefully, peering at it the same way one peers through a window and notices a series of letters printed down the right hand side: Sunrise over Cappadocia.
She reads these three words over and over as though committing them to memory and settles on the last word – Cappadocia. She has never seen, read, or heard this word before. She rightly assumes it is the name of a place; although she has no idea where it is.
The word is completely foreign to her; she sounds the word aloud, though it feels like sandpaper on her tongue, coarse and unfamiliar. She has no idea how to pronounce it: Cappa-dokia, Cappa-dosia, Cappa-dosha.
In order to better appreciate the composition of the piece, Adeline takes her position on the bench. She barely acknowledges the softness of the seat, the plush cushioning beneath which makes one feel as though they are sitting on a cloud.
Sunrise over Cappadocia is an intense wilderness where mountains control the landscape and dwarf the sparse trees scattered about like streetlamps on country roads. It depicts a kingdom of sand and stone, not unlike the tales of Arabian Nights; a dual composition of fragility and strength.
But then something catches Adeline’s attention, something she is sure wasn’t there before. Glancing around the room, Adeline is greeted by half a dozen backs. She turns her attention back to the photograph and the world begins to change.
The first thing she feels when she wakes up is thirsty as though all the moisture has been drained from her body. Her head is heavy, her limbs aching and weak as if they haven’t been used in years. Adeline attempts to focus her gaze, to find one thing she can take control of, but the landscape seems to shift around her, slipping from sight.
When she does manage to adjust her eyes, the only colour she can see is beige. It is soft, something she is able to sink into. She notices the statuesque forms of the stone mountains like formidable, faceless gods bearing down on this arid wasteland.
The world is waking up, preparing for a new day as Adeline attempts to locate herself. Nothing moves. Even nature seems to have abandoned this place, preferring an environment that can offer them nourishment and shelter. A slow, meandering wind whips through the landscape, shifting layer upon layer of sand. Her hair blows about, a dark mist spread around her face.
This is a place to lose oneself, she thinks. A place to be forgotten and forget.
Adeline can no longer recall the hustle and bustle of frantic city life, people flitting to and fro like moths drawn to a flame. There is no sense of chaos or urgency here. And there is no such thing as time. Days are measured according to the movement of the sky, the arrangement of the stars at night, the sheer expectation of possibility.
And it is bliss, to not have people following; treading the same path you walked only a few moments ago, watching as the sun ascends higher and higher into the sky.
About twenty feet ahead, a cloaked figure stands, his cape a great black sail riding the air currents; his hair a mass of roguish curls.
Adeline rubs her eyes which are beginning to close, though she did not feel tired a minute ago. The air is thick and dense with the spice of cinnamon. Her lungs feel coated with honey, her stomach swollen with sugar, yet she cannot account for the sick sensation which has suddenly overwhelmed her.
The sky is alive with new-born light, the brightness unable to register in a common man’s eyes. Adeline blinks rapidly, hoping to dislodge the heaviness she feels in the back of her head, wanting to preserve the juxtaposition of this land: the rough with the smooth, knowing these images are already dying.
When she next opens her eyes, the cloaked figure is less than eight feet away, and Adeline can see that he hovers, his feet not touching the sand. She wonders if he is an apparition or whether he is an angel of death come to take her away from this shifting realm.
Until she sees the small leather pouch he carries.
The mountains begin to spin around her, the wind accelerating at a terrifying rate, blowing huge drifts of sand up into her hair and eyes. The sand does not sting or scratch but appears to soak into her skin. She watches the mighty dream lord approach, one hand immersed in his small leather pouch; his face a smooth milk-white mask, completely unreadable.
He extends one spindle-fingered hand towards her. A stitched smile spreads across his face. It is simultaneously nightmarish yet reassuring.
His cloak fans around him, the epitome of night, while the sky overhead breaks like an egg spilling its yolk faracross the land. A legion of blackbirds and starlings emerge from beneath the opened garment, dive-bombing at tremendous speeds.
Instinctively, Adeline covers her head from the avian attack; though she cannot move. The dream lord continues to approach, taking his hand from the small leather pouch and sprinkling it like confetti in to the wind.
A scent of cinnamon and honey blossom fills Adeline’s world as the sound of distant feet punctuate her thoughts. The tread grows heavier, constant, almost as if an army is approaching, while the mountains begin to crumble, the trees torn from the ground like plucked hairs, and the sunblisters the sand city turning it into a pure goldsea.
Back inside the gallery, the bench in front of the photograph remains empty; although a faint impression still remains.
After hours, the curator will study the photograph for a long time, considering the various elements which make up such acomposition.
But he will only notice one thing: a cloaked figure seemingly lost in Cappadocia.
‘This is real heavy weather’, he pants from beneath the floral garden canopy. Everyone agrees.
A dozen numb heads nod blindly, their skulls swelling with saturated thoughts of foreign lands and sweltering days. The weather is just as hot here. Lace fans snap open to cool down the odd flushed face and handkerchiefs are mopped across dew-dropped brows.
The air is heavy with sweat. And loss. No-one makes direct eye contact, and if they do, it is purely accidental. Glasses are filled, emptied and re-filled; an endless stream of fizzy lemonade pumping in and around inert figures.
A fan is dropped; the grass beneath cushions its fall. Silence. Two glasses clink together setting two pairs of teeth on edge.
It’s far too hot out here; I think and drive my heels into the baked earth.
Couldn’t agree more, a voice replies, though no-one has spoken. The other eleven faces are stuffed full of cream cakes and jam sandwiches. Raspberry. Seedless. My fingers are still sticky from my earlier exploits, where I dabbled them in the rich jar, bursting magenta.
Go on, flash us one.
My eyes flit from one face to another. All are composed, sedate. The odd sigh slips out, silent and unnoticed. I fancy I detect a faint trail of raspberry jam on Grandma Jeanie’s chin.
Go on darling. Just a quick one.
Who is that?
My eyes survey each occupied seat. Lemonade is drunk; a sherbet fountain permeating the airwaves and dousing dry tongues. The odd slice of cake munched. Aaahhh. Simple satisfaction. But no words. Not a single utterance.
In the far corner a distant relative (a great aunt perhaps), sits like a child in her sun lounger; a lilac and turquoise contraption which makes me feel sick. Apart from her awkward positioning, great aunt…Celia (I think) laughs delightedly into her glass without spilling a drop. She is draped in a coffee knitted shawl hiding the magnificent bones that protrude from her shoulders.
I used to think she was an angel.
Celia stands out from the rest of us; she is not flushed or flustered, her complexion remains bronzed and tropical, a sort of half caramel, half honey cocktail. I haven’t a clue which ancestor she takes after. Her hair is golden, syrup-like, and she is positively glowing from beneath her wide-brimmed, bleached white hat. How is she related to us, to me?
A fly distracts me and I feel the density of the clouds overhead; their pigeon-grey weight looming like silent poachers about to pounce any second now.
‘This bloody weather,’ Uncle Silas grumbles to himself as much as to anyone else. ‘It’ll be the death of me.’
Again a chorus of yeses hiss their way into the subdued air, as Grandma Jeanie remains faithfully by his side; eyes closed, head dipped, fast asleep.
‘What we need is rain,’ he says, growing excited at the thought of torrential floods.
‘Here here,’ is the unanimous cry.
‘How delightful,’ great aunt Celia smiles. ‘Rain in July. Ha!’
What do you think? That faceless voice again. Do you want rain?
I shrug my shoulders. Not fussed. You?
The voice is silent for a while. Make my day, sugar.
I exaggerate my yawn.
Everyone stirs to the sound of approaching wheels. Now a tea tray stands in the centre of our small group. Uncle Silas ignores the teapot and china tea cups. Instead his hands reach for something concealed on the bottom shelf. A great hurrah followed by clasped grateful hands. Only Celia remains unmoved; her eyes fixed hungrily on the steaming pot wishing it was a darker sort altogether.
‘A toast to celebrate,’ he grins.
A dozen breaths are held then suddenly released at the sound of a hearty pop. A round of applause and Grandma Jeanie reawakens to the world.
I get up and walk between plastic chairs which creak as the occupants shift in their seats, feeling their eyes pinned on the back of me.
I leave them to get drunk on manufactured bubbles and step indoors.
The weather follows.
Through the bathroom window I watch the sunlight fade, dipping behind adjacent rooftops. The garden is bare now with no sign of our little party earlier on, and yet the taste of raspberry jam still lingers. So does the heavy weather. I turn on the shower and listen to artificial rain falling. I think I’m in heaven.
I watch as the apricot moon becomes masked behind the creeping darkness, denting its gleam, and pull back the shower curtain. The dense, invisible cloud which has been pressing on my shoulders all afternoon will burst as soon as the water touches my skin.
The hours fly by like dandelion seeds in the wind; the minutes infinitesimal matter, practically invisible yet amalgamating to form a whole. Something tangible. Something real. Something you can observe and measure.
Like he does.
By now it has become a subconscious ritual. The man glances at the clock just before it signals a new hour; the hands reminding him of miniature pickaxes, chiselling their way through time.
It is a swift process. Carefully executed. He is in awe of the mechanism of the clock, the mechanics of time and space, and what it all means to the working classes. How fundamental it is to their everyday lives, shaping their very existences, furnishing it with structure, routine, meaning.
He savours this last word like it’s a gift from the Gods – precious, priceless. He hears it in the distant recesses of his mind, sees it painted in bright neon letters in his most vivid dreams.
By day he spends his time assembling toys; small dolls, teddy bears, toy trains and painted soldiers – a much smaller and manageable society. They do not answer back. They do not poke fun or ridicule him. They sit, perfectly still, silent on his workbench and watch the world through fixed eyes.
The man’s workday begins at 6am and ends at 6pm; during this time his hands hardly stop assembling, his eyes watching the clock, when one of his colleagues pokes his head around the door and announces its lunchtime. The man goes over to his rucksack and retrieves a small cube of a lunchbox packed with fresh, flavoursome greens and a smattering of nuts. On his more daring days he’ll have packed some fruit too – perhaps a kiwi and a handful of grapes.
He sits down to eat, his legs grateful for the welcome relief, while his co-workers burst through the doors in search of wholesome sunshine. The man pictures the sun soaking into his skin, making him feel twenty-five again, dissolving those crow’s feet, the puckers stitched around his mouth, lifting his heavy heart.
The man looks at the clock. It is approaching the half-hour and his heart gives a quiet lunge inside his rail-thin chest. Even his flesh has a hard time covering the bony xylophone beneath. He is only halfway through the day. And for some strange reason, the second half of the day crawls by. He continues to glance at the moon-shaped clock face; although he is more conscious of the passing of time, and has to actively tell himself to lift his eyes. If he does it too soon it will only be ten to the hour, and this throws everything into disarray.
The man sees sunspots, blotting out the time on the clock; for a moment he is lost in a timeless realm unable to locate both himself, and whether it is day or night.
Outside, his colleagues revel in the sun-dappled delight, taking photos of clouds, trees, whole landscapes. The idea of freedom written in everything they happen to look upon.
Inside, he replaces his half-empty lunchbox back in his bag and wipes his fingers absent-mindedly on his trousers. With lunch now over, he can resume toy-making, though one thought persists, the cogs in his brain making a terrific whirring which coincides with the mechanism of the clock: what happens when the clock stops ticking? Who will be there to wind it up if my ticker stops first?
The toys say nothing. They do not move. But stare absently ahead, their ears growing accustomed to the continual thrumming of the clock, the hands moving like acrobatic windscreen wipers, while their glazed eyes watch the stitching together of day and night.