/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror,thriller,sf_fantasy,sf_social, / Series: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. Vol 15

Stephen Jones

The World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award-winning series. This latest edition of the world's premier annual showcase devoted exclusively to excellence in horror and dark fantasy fiction contains some of the very best short stories and novellas by today's finest exponents of horror fiction. Also featuring the most comprehensive yearly overview of horror around the world, lists of useful contact addresses and a fascinating necrology, this is the only book that should be required reading for every fan of dark fiction. Like all of the other volumes in this series, award-winning editor Stephen Jones once again brings us the best new horror, revisiting momentous events and chilling achievements on the dark side of fantasy in 2004. This book was nominated for the 2005 British Fantasy Award.

Stephen Jones

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. Vol 15

In memory of Hugh B. Cave (1910–2004)

Goodbye old friend.

I would like to thank David Barraclough, Kim Newman, Hugh Lamb, Nick Austin, Pete Duncan, Ellen Datlow, Gordon Van Gelder, Barbara Roden, Rodger Turner and Wayne MacLaurin (sfsite.com), David J. Schow, Dennis Etchison, Mandy Slater,Brian Mooney, Ray Russell, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Dalby, Sara and Randy Broecker, Robert T. Garcia, Andrew I. Porter, Kelly Link, Peter Coleborn, Douglas E. Winter, Basil Copper, Sue and Lou Irmo, Harris M. Lentz III, Andy Cox, Robert Morgan and David Pringle for all their help and support. Special thanks are also due to Locus, Interzone, Classic Images, Variety and all the other sources that were used for reference in the Introduction and the Necrology.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INTRODUCTION: HORROR IN 2003 copyright © Stephen Jones 2004.

FEAR THE DEAD copyright © Ramsey Campbell 2003. Originally published in The Fear Within. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE HANGED MAN OF OZ copyright © Steve Nagy 2003. Originally published in Gathering the Bones. Reprinted by permission of the author.

MARA copyright © Michael Chislett 2003. Originally published in Conventional Vampires. Reprinted by permission of the author.

CELL CALL copyright © Marc Laidlaw 2003. Originally published in By Moonlight Only. Reprinted by permission of the author.

IN THE TUNNELS copyright © Pauline E. Dungate 2003. Originally published in Beneath the Ground. Reprinted by permission of the author.

HUNGER: A CONFESSION copyright © Spilogale, Inc. 2003. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author.

SEVEN FEET copyright © Christopher Fowler 2003. Origin-.illy published in Demonized. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE CENTIPEDE copyright © Susan Davis 2003. Originally published in All Hallows 33, June 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE GOAT CUTTER copyright © Joseph E. Lake, Jr. 2003. Originally published in Greetings from Lake Wu. Reprinted by permission of the author.

MAYBE NEXT TIME copyright © Michael Marshall Smith 2003. Originally published in More Tomorrow & Other Stories. Reprinted by permission of the author.

STORY TIME WITH THE BLUEFIELD STRANGLER copyright © John Farris 2003. Originally published in Borderlands 5: An Anthology of Imaginative Fiction. Reprinted by permission of the author.

HUNTER LAKE copyright © Gene Wolfe 2003. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author and the author's agents, the Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.

MR. SLY STOPS FOR A CUP OF JOE copyright © Scott Emerson Bull 2003. Originally published in Gathering the Bones. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE BEREAVEMENT PHOTOGRAPHER copyright © Steve Rasnic Tem 2003. Originally published in 13 Horrors: A Devil's Dozen Stories Celebrating 13 Years of the World Horror Convention. Reprinted by permission of the author.

KISSING CARRION copyright © Gemma Files 2003. Originally published in Kissing Carrion. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE WHITE HANDS copyright © Mark Samuels 2003. Originally published in The White Hands and Other Weird Tales. First published in substantially different form as «Amelia» in Black Tears No. 1, 1993. Reprinted by permission of the author.

WAYCROSS copyright © Caitlin R. Kiernan 2003. Originally published in Waycross. Reprinted by permission of the author.

LUCY, IN HER SPLENDOR copyright © Charles Coleman Finlay 2003. Originally published on MarsDust.com. Reprinted by permission of the author.

DEAD BOY FOUND copyright © Christopher Barzak 2003. Originally published in Trampoline: An Anthology. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE HAUNTING copyright © Spilogale, Inc. 2003. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author and the author's agents, John Hawkins and Associates.

DANCING MEN copyright © Glen Hirshberg 2003. Originally published in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories and The Dark: New Ghost Stories. Reprinted by permission of the author and the author's agents, Anderson Grinberg Literary Management,Inc.

BITTER GROUNDS copyright © Neil Gaiman 2003. Originally published in Mojo: Conjure Stories. Reprinted by permission of the author.

CHILD OF THE STONES copyright © Paul McAuley 2003. Originally published on SciFi.Com, November 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author.

THE SILENCE OF THE FALLING STARS copyright © Mike O'Driscoll 2003. Originally published in The Dark: New Ghost Stories. Reprinted by permission of the author.

EXORCIZING ANGELS copyright © Simon Clark and Tim Lebbon 2003. Originally published in Exorcizing Angels. Reprinted by permission of the authors.

NECROLOGY: 2003 copyright © Stephen Jones and Kim Newman 2004.

USEFUL ADDRESSES copyright © Stephen Jones 2004.

Ramsey Campbell

Fear the Dead

Ramsey Campbell has been named Grand Master by the World Horror Convention and has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association. Tor Books recently reprinted his landmark collection Alone With the Horrors, and a new edition of his Arkham House collection The Height of the Scream has been reissued by California ’s Babbage Press.

His latest supernatural novel, The Overnight, is now available from PS Publishing, and forthcoming from Sutton Hoo Press of Winona is a limited edition of an original ghost story, “The Decorations”, for Christmas 2004. The author is currently at work on a new novel, Secret Stories.

About the following story, Campbell explains: “I was asked to write a new tale for an anthology of stories about fear. I still have some I haven’t told yet. I’ve published a few recently that touch on the afterlife. We must hope they’re fiction.”

* * *

Someone else he didn’t think he’d ever seen before leaned down as if to let him count all her wrinkles. “I wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye to my grandmama, Jonathan.”

Another lady dressed in at least as much black and holding her wineglass askew parted her pale lips, which looked as though they had once been stitched together. “Now you know she’s at peace.”

As he remembered how his grandmother’s cheek had felt like a cold crumpled wad of paper he had to kiss, the winner of the wrinkle competition said “What a brave little soul. He’s a credit to his mother.”

“And his father.”

“Careful or you’ll drip.”

The stitched lady straightened up her glass. “We don’t want stains on your lovely carpet, do we, Jonathan? They don’t make them like that any more.”

He thought the elaborate carpet felt like the rest of the house — furtively chill and damp. “I can just hear her saying that, old Ire,” his father joined him to remark.

“Her friends never called Iris that,” the stitched mouth objected. “Oh, whatever’s wrong, you poor little fellow?”

While Jonathan struggled to think of a reply that wouldn’t be the truth, his mother hurried over to confront his father. “Are you upsetting him, Lawrence?”

“Only saying I could hear your mother pricing the contents of the house. Half of it Jonno wasn’t supposed to touch,” he confided to the wrinkled ladies. “You must have felt like you were living in a museum, did you, Jonno?”

Jonathan was yet more afraid to speak. The wineglass slouched again as its lady crooked her other thin arm around his shoulders and murmured “Don’t worry, your daddy wasn’t really hearing her. She’s gone to Jesus and she’ll be talking to him.”

The mention of Jesus appeared to draw the priest, who smelled rather like an unlit candle wrapped in linen. He hoisted his tumbler of orange juice to acknowledge Jonathan’s. “That’s the right road. That’s what real men drink.”

“Is my grandma really talking to Jesus now?”

“I shouldn’t be at all surprised, but it won’t do any harm to pray she is.”

“How long do you think she’ll be?” Jonathan pleaded.

“That’s one of the things God’s keeping as a surprise for us. We won’t know till we see her again.”

“The father means till we’re with Jesus too,” Jonathan’s mother made haste to say.

“Isn’t she supposed to be there for ever?”

“If you keep your faith up,” the priest said with a smile that was less than wholly aimed at Jonathan, “I’m sure she will be. You know Jesus has time for everyone.”

How could Jesus deal with all the dead? God was meant to be able to see everyone at once, and perhaps his son had inherited the trick, but that wasn’t the same as talking to them. If Jonathan’s grandmother thought she didn’t have Jesus’s full attention, Jonathan could imagine her stalking off in search of someone who would have to notice her. He might have put some of this into words if the priest hadn’t moved away, leaving Jonathan’s parents to argue. “What are you trying to make Jonathan think of my mother?”

“Whatever’s the truth, Essie.”

“You didn’t stay around to see it.”

“Jonno knows why, don’t you, Jonno? It’s nobody’s fault Ire and I didn’t get on. I expect there are people you don’t with.”

“Maybe it was up to you to make the effort, Lawrence, considering it was her house.”

“Well, now it’s yours, and I don’t feel any more welcome.”

“I don’t know how you’d expect me to change that.”

“It’s sounding like time I absented myself.”

Jonathan thought he might leave it at that, having loaded his voice with dignity, but then his father swayed at him as though its weight had unbalanced him. “I’m sorry this had to be our day this week, Jonno. I’ll take you somewhere better next weekend.”

Jonathan watched his father’s untypically sombre back view merge with the blackness of the crowd, and then he had to undergo a succession of pats on the head and kisses that felt like dried fruit brushing his cheek as mourners took their leave of his mother. Before long there was only Trudy, who also taught at the college. She ran her small hand several times up and down his mother’s hefty arm. “You need to talk, I can tell.”

“I could bear to,” his mother admitted, and gave him a smile beneath a frown. “Don’t bother helping clear up, Jonathan. You’ve had a long day and made us proud of you. I should go to bed.”

He never understood why people said they should do things when they meant him. “I’m hungry,” he said, not least in case he might be, and covered a plate with some of the remains of the buffet before sitting on a chair that protested like all his grandmother’s furniture. When he’d managed to clear almost half of the plate, his mother intervened. “Don’t stuff yourself for the sake of it or you won’t be able to sleep.”

That was something else to dread. He could only climb the stairs that were wider than his arms could stretch, and too dim under the yellowish chandelier, and creaked one by one as if they were playing a funeral tune. Until now he hadn’t minded that the bathroom, which was almost big enough to be public and just as whitely tiled, echoed all his noises as if someone thinner than himself was hiding in it. He rushed through a token version of everything he had to do and fled next door to his bedroom.

Why did it need to be so big? It was at least twice the size of his room in the house where he’d lived with his parents until his grandmother had to be looked after at night — sometimes she’d prayed without seeming to breathe, and sometimes she’d wanted his mother to remember everything they’d done together and agree there had never been any bad times. Jonathan tried to feel grateful for the room, though it shrank his bed to a cot and his desk to a toddler’s surrounded at a distance by furniture so gloomy — dressing-table, wardrobe, chest of drawers — he imagined it was waiting for him to misbehave. The books his grandmother had given him because she’d thought them suitable failed to welcome him; they just helped darken the room. The only one he could bring to mind concerned some children who made everyone believe an old lady was a witch, and it was too late for them to be sorry when she killed herself and couldn’t go to heaven. He struggled to forget it as he inched under the bedclothes without pulling them free of the mattress, but already knew what the story brought back to him.

“Never speak ill of the dead,” his grandmother used to warn him, “or they’ll come back and haunt you.” She’d gone into worse detail, especially during her last weeks. He would never say anything hurtful about her, and surely he needn’t be afraid his mother had wanted him out of the way so that she could. She and Trudy were climbing the stairs now and saying nothing at all.

Trudy placed a moist kiss on top of the one his mother left on his forehead. The women moved to either side of the bed to tighten the sheets over him, then retreated to the door. “Sweet dreams or none at all,” Trudy said, resting one black-varnished nail on the light switch. “Do we have the light out, Esther? I expect a big boy like Jonathan must.”

“We won’t be long. Trudy’s staying over. I know,” his mother said. “You have the light off and we’ll come up and talk in my room.”

He was afraid to aggravate her concern for him. “All right,” he mumbled and turned his back.

The dark fell on him at once. He made himself wait until their footsteps began imitating one another on the stairs, then he twisted face up and jabbed his fingers together on his chest. What was he expected to say? He’d only started praying when his grandmother had assumed he did and asked him to on her behalf. Every night before he went to sleep he’d implored God not to take her away, but the idea of pleading for her to return terrified him. “Please God take care of my grandma,” he muttered as he thought of it. “Please tell her she was the best grandma ever. And the best mum too,” he felt compelled to blurt.

Surely that would make up for any criticisms his mother might let drop. She and Trudy were laughing in the kitchen, but that could hardly be about his grandmother. He was unable to think how long it was since he’d heard his mother laugh. He remembered the night his grandmother had emitted a snore so loud it had made him giggle in bed. “Mother?” his mother had called, though she was beside her, and more loudly “Mother?” suggesting that his grandmother had been retreating into the distance of the room. Then there was silence until she’d said “Oh” as if what she was seeing had almost robbed her of breath.

She and Trudy had finished laughing, perhaps because the house made them sound too small and shrill. Now they were lowering their voices as they came upstairs. They weren’t scared to be overheard by anyone who’d been up here with him, he told himself: they were showing respect for his grandmother or trying not to waken him. Creaks marked their progress to his mother’s room. Her door hadn’t quite closed when he heard Trudy murmur “You say whatever you need to, Esther. It’s part of dealing with your loss.”

He couldn’t distinguish what his mother said, even once he dragged himself free of the, bedclothes and crouched against the headboard. When he lowered one reluctant foot, it was greeted with a creak by the floor, which felt as chill as his grandmother’s face had last time he’d touched her. More than a dozen hasty paces took him through the dimness thick as the musty curtains, past the audience of hulking half-seen furniture, to the door. He inched it ajar and was confronted by his grandmother’s room.

Her door was shut. That managed to seem reassuring until he thought of the darkness beyond it, even vaster than the dark behind him. Suppose that as he’d ventured to his door, his grandmother had reached hers with far longer strides of her spidery legs and was pressing her face against an upper panel? He was trying to find his next breath when he heard his mother say “I hate to admit it, but Lawrence was right. She was never happy till you knew how much everything she had was worth.”

Jonathan sucked in air so that he could whisper “You were just proud of it, weren’t you, grandma? I expect you still are. You should be, because it’s so nice.”

He was frightened to raise his voice, but equally frightened by the possibility that she was close enough to hear his whisper. He didn’t realise he’d flinched from the prospect that her door might jerk open until the floor creaked beneath him. “Is that you, Jonathan?” his mother called.

He hung onto the door while he closed it as swiftly as he could without making a sound, then had to let go and turn to the glimmering slab of his bed. “I didn’t hear anything. Have a top up so you sleep as well,” he heard Trudy say, and a clink of glass. The creaks of his retreat obscured what the women said next, and once he was huddled in bed he couldn’t understand them. “Please God don’t let my grandma hear anything bad about her,” he began to whisper, interspersed with words to her. “Mum thinks you were the best mum. She’s just talking because she’s upset like her friend said.”

Soon the only word he was aware of uttering was mum. It must have lulled him to sleep, because he was awakened by his name creeping like a draught into his ear. A face was looming almost into his. He shrank across the mattress, dragging the bedclothes free, before he realised that daylight was showing him Trudy. “Shush now,” she murmured. “We’ll have to do something about those nerves of yours. Get up quietly and get ready and I’ll run you to school. Esther’s catching up on her sleep.”

Once dressed, he found that Trudy had readied a bowl of cereal and some bread and jam, presumably because cookery might rouse his mother. Trudy watched with tentative fondness as he did his duty by the breakfast, then stopped just short of touching him while ushering him out to her car, which had front seats but no rear. Its smallness was a relief from the house, but drew the amusement of dozens of boys on the way to his school. The massive houses split amoeba-like along the route, and the school had undergone even more fission, separating into six unequal buildings that felt like a test the place was setting him. He was halfway through his first term, but the school still overwhelmed him. When Trudy left him at the gates with a wave of her fingertips that bore a kiss, he would have lost himself in the enormous crowded schoolyard if two boys a head taller than himself hadn’t stopped him. “She your girlfriend?” said the one with a moustache or grime occupying sections of his upper lip.

“Could be his new ma,” said his crony, the left side of whose chin boasted a single black curly hair.

“Gently now, gentlemen.” This was Mr Foster, the long-faced English teacher who wore his greying hair in a ponytail. He pinched or massaged the backs of their necks until he’d finished saying “We don’t harass our new fellows, do we? Especially when they’ve just lost a member of the family.”

“Never mind touching us,” one boy muttered as Mr Foster steered Jonathan away by an elbow to enquire “Are you fit to come back to school, Hastings?”

Being addressed by his surname was yet another aspect of the place Jonathan had still to accept. “I think so, sir,” he said.

He’d hoped school would take his mind off his grandmother, but now he felt that anybody there might bring her up. Suppose she proved to be the theme of the morning assembly? Once the pupils had been herded into the main building, however, and the staff had taken their seats onstage in the assembly hall, the headmaster lectured about the football team and how their performance should inspire the other pupils to try harder. Jonathan was trying to keep that in mind when Mr Foster singled him out at the beginning of the English lesson. “Is there anything you’d like to share with us, Hastings?”

“Like what, sir?”

“Such as, I believe you mean. About your bereavement.”

“Such as what, sir?” Jonathan wished he didn’t feel bound to ask.

“Forgive me if you think I’m prying.” The teacher’s face had managed to lengthen itself, and looked capable of pouting when Jonathan failed to answer. “Recollect in tranquillity,” Mr Foster told himself, and seemed inspired. “That can be your subject for homework, all of you. Write about a loss, whatever it may be.”

Could Jonathan’s grandmother read what he wrote about her? In at least one way writing was different from talking — it was even harder — but surely it would give him more to say aloud about her. The trouble was that the prospect of writing drove all his thoughts for it out of his head. His skull felt emptied throughout the English lesson and the other classes, interrupted by lunch and larking in the schoolyard, activities that came no nearer reaching him than the questions teachers aimed at him. He assumed they toned down their responses to his uselessness because they knew about his grandmother.

None of the boys he’d made any kind of friends with lived near him. Soon his route home left him alone with the November dark, which he could have imagined the houses were hauling down from the sky. The dark had moved into his grandmother’s house. The faltering light of the streetlamp beyond the unreasonably long drive showed him the key in his hand. The jerky shadow of a branch of the tree that hid the house from passers-by clawed at his wrist as he unlocked the front door.

Like his grandmother, it was half as tall again as Jonathan. The dimmest stretch of the glow from the streetlamp twitched underfoot as he sprinted to turn on the jangling chandelier. Its grudging illumination lent him the courage to shut himself in before dashing to switch on the kitchen light. He dropped his schoolbag on the table with a thump that seemed both too loud and dwarfed by the room, and hauled open the refrigerator to pour himself a drink. At once he knew what he could write.

He spread his books across the table and sat on the least creaky chair. “I’m going to say some nice things about you, grandma,” he murmured. “I’ll read you them when I’ve finished.”

He wished he hadn’t thought of that — it made him nervous of the silence around him and behind him. Having ceased its mousy scurrying across the page, the nib emitted a blot like an emphatic full stop. He crossed out the sentence that seemed eager to complete itself. Mr Foster said you had to show your first draft as well as your finished work, though Jonathan’s grandmother had kept saying it looked untidy. The idea of her prowling soundlessly behind him to crane over his shoulder made him feel steeped in the lurking chill of the house. “I’ll read you what I’ve written,” he said as loudly as he dared.

He wanted to believe she was at least as distant as her room. He raised his voice so that it would be audible up there, and didn’t realise it was deafening him to any sounds until he was asked “Have you brought someone home, Jonathan?”

“Just doing my homework,” he found the breath to tell his mother as she and Trudy marched along the hall.

“Why, do you have to read it to your class?” She kissed his forehead before stooping to examine his homework while Trudy looked uncertain whether to do either. Eventually his mother straightened up and blinked at his forehead as though she had a mind to take back the kiss. “Well, if that’s how you remember it, Jonathan.”

“That’s how grandma was.”

“No need to shout. We’re only here.” He was hoping she would leave it at that when she said “I’d like to be home when you come in, you know, even if I mightn’t give you snacks so close to dinner. Unfortunately I have to earn a living, particularly since my mother’s attitudes got to be too much for your father. And by the way, I don’t think you need to upset yourself over the fridge. If you can open it she could. Most of the time she wasn’t quite as feeble as she liked to pretend.”

“Go on, Esther, let it all come out.” To Jonathan Trudy said “People have different ways of grieving, and this is how your mother has to. Are you finding yours?”

“I’ve got to go upstairs now.”

“You can work better there, I expect,” his mother said. “We’ll call you when it’s dinner.”

He could tell she wanted to believe she hadn’t distressed him, while Trudy thought he was off to grieve. Neither was the case. He loaded his schoolbag and climbed into the dimness that hung around the chandelier. Even when he switched on the upstairs light, gloom seemed to cling to the landing and the corridor. He felt as if his grandmother’s disapproval had been roused: she used to say you shouldn’t have more than one light on at a time. She’d just been trying to save money for her family, he told himself. “Mum only meant she wished she could be more like you, grandma,” he muttered. “I expect that means she will be.”

His voice faltered as he saw his blurred shadow growing smaller on a lower panel of his grandmother’s door. Either he was unaware of shrinking from the notion that she was within arm’s reach of the other side or the door was creeping open. The voice that made him see it lurch backwards because he had was his mother’s. “Is that Jonathan talking to himself? What’s wrong with him?”

“Will it be his way of coping, do you think?”

He should have closed the kitchen door. He shut himself in his room and moved his desk away from the wall so that he could sit facing the room with surely no space for anyone, no matter how thin, to sidle behind him. He didn’t need to finish his English homework until the weekend. Instead he applied himself to sums that he was supposed to call arithmetic now that he’d changed schools. He was feeling sure enough of his pencilled answers to commit ink to them when Trudy called “It’s waiting for you, Jonathan.”

He left his bedroom light on so that it would be there for him, his mother’s phrase that finally conveyed some meaning, and hurried to the dining-room. His mother was ladling out a lamb casserole as Trudy filled glasses with wine and his with juice while the sideboard and dresser kept their distance from the table yet helped it aggravate the disapproving sombreness. “Did you get much done?” his mother asked him.

“I won’t do it about grandma after all.”

“I hope that’s not because of me.” When he failed to think of a safe reply she said “What does your subject have to be?”

“Losing something.”

“What else can you say you’ve lost beside your grandmother? Unless you’re intending to tell your teacher how your father absconded.”

Jonathan wasn’t sure of the last word, but otherwise his thoughts seemed not to be hidden from anyone. “Are you still unhappy about him, Jonathan?” Trudy said, stroking his arm.

“Sometimes.”

“Doesn’t seeing him every week help?” Having watched until Jonathan repeated his nod, she said “Give it time and maybe there’ll be someone extra in your life if that’s what you’d like.”

Just now he felt he had to concentrate all his liking on his grandmother. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.

Rather less than a look passed between Trudy and his mother. He could have done without the impression that another secret was at large in the house. Once dinner was finished he would have watched the Tuesday quiz shows with his mother, but their guest had to see a programme she’d told her history students to watch. The documentary about people being tortured by the Inquisition until they believed they were as bad as they were told only sharpened his unease. As soon as the credits began to crawl up the screen he retreated upstairs to talk to God and his grandmother.

He hadn’t been in bed long when his mother came to give his forehead a lingering kiss, which she used to say was putting good dreams in. “Not asleep yet? I expect having the light off will help,” she said. “Don’t be surprised if you hear someone else upstairs.”

“Who?” Jonathan gasped, scarcely a word.

“Trudy, of course. She’ll be staying.”

Since she would hardly be sleeping in his grandmother’s old bed, presumably she would share his mother’s — had shared it last night too. He wished he’d asked to sleep there instead of alone in the dark. Once his mother left him in it he found a solitary sentence to repeat. “Please God let my grandmother hear just nice things about her.”

Shouldn’t that settle everything? At last it let him sleep. He lurched awake, anxious not to be confronted by Trudy’s face again, but only daylight had stolen into his room. While he was in the bathroom Trudy and his mother collaborated on breakfast before running him to school in his mother’s car, which had space for all of them. Outside the school gates, as he leaned forward from the back seat to deliver a kiss he hoped would be too swift for his schoolfellows to see, both women turned to him. Their cheeks brushed together, and they exchanged smiles not unlike shy kisses, magnifying his awkwardness as he stumbled into the yard.

Yesterday’s tormentors converged on him. “Found them yet?” said the boy with the tidemarked upper lip.

“What?” Jonathan was distracted enough to wonder.

“They’re a what now, are they?” said the boy whose chin flourished a lone hair. “Thought it was a who you lost.”

“She died,” Jonathan said, hoping that would silence them. “My grandma.”

“Was she old?” That sounded sympathetic until the greyish-lipped boy added “Did she smell?”

“Bet she does now,” his friend said.

“He was right after all. She’ll be a what by now.”

“Like the dead cat we found with maggots for eyes.”

“Looked like he was laughing about it.”

“Those girls didn’t laugh much when we threw-”

That was the last Jonathan heard as he dodged almost blindly through the crowd in search of somewhere he could be alone to talk to his grandmother. A smell of something like tobacco drifted out of the toilets, but even if they’d been deserted, how could he have invited her to follow him in there? He sneaked into the main school building by a side door and dashed along the overheated corridor to sit on the hard seat attached to his desk. “They don’t know anything about you, grandma,” he murmured urgently. “You’ll never be like that. They were just making it up.”

He couldn’t hear her voice, he reassured himself, but remembering was close to hearing. “Never speak ill of the dead or they’ll come back and haunt you. They’ll come back and show you how ugly you’ve made them.” When the bell shrilled he bruised his knees on the underside of the desk. He reached the hall in time to mingle with the others so that the staff wouldn’t realise he’d skulked into the school rather than being healthy in the yard. Throughout the headmaster’s address, and intermittently in all the lessons, he kept hearing his grandmother’s words and could only respond with last night’s prayer. More boys giggled each time he had to mutter. The teachers must be restraining themselves because of his grandmother — he had no idea how he might have responded if they’d spoken rather than merely frowning at him.

Tattered clouds like cobwebs laden with grime raced to meet him as he hurried home. They left the sky behind them no less dark. He let himself into the house and switched on the dimness before venturing upstairs. “You didn’t hear anything bad today, did you, grandma?” he whispered at her door. “God wouldn’t let you. Please God don’t.”

There was no sound from her room. If she’d been listening, the floorboards would surely have made her presence as apparent as they were making his. He was suddenly convinced he had been talking to nobody at all — for how long, he didn’t know. He grabbed the chilly scalloped brass knob and threw open the door.

The room looked yet more enormous for its emptiness. He could have imagined all the heavy mournful furniture was huddling against the walls. A wedge of murky twilight had managed to slip between the ponderous sombre curtains to emphasise the isolation of the bed, on which a fat faded patchwork quilt was drawn over a flattened stack of pillows. “Aren’t you there, grandma?” Jonathan barely said.

Perhaps he glimpsed the shadow of a cloud that was drifting unseen past the window, but the quilt appeared to stir as if something it concealed was trying to take shape and draw breath. He peered into the dimness until he grasped how terrified he was to see. Flinging himself backwards, he dragged the door shut and fled downstairs. “I’m sorry, grandma. I didn’t mean to-” he cried, and interrupted himself. “Please God don’t let her,” he repeated while he spread his schoolbooks across the kitchen table and attempted to work.

He didn’t know how his mother might react to his writing about his father. It could wait until the weekend, when Jonathan would be staying with him. The boy chanted his prayer as an accompaniment to copying a map of the world, and fell silent only when he heard Trudy and his mother at the front door.

Their wide smiles were virtually identical. “So how was your day?” Trudy asked.

It seemed safest not to be specific. “Just stuff.”

“What did you learn, then?” said his mother.

All he could remember was praying. “More stuff.”

“Never mind if you’d rather not tell us.” Her smile drained into her face as she remarked to Trudy “I expect we’d hear it all if my mother was doing the asking.”

Could his grandmother take that as a criticism? “I’m just…” Jonathan mumbled, and ran upstairs. “See, I said mum wants to be like you,” he whispered from the top stair, and repeated his plea to God several times before descending to the kitchen.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” his mother assured him. “Eat up your dinner and forget what I said.”

He was able to achieve the first requirement and pretend the second was accomplished. Might she refrain from talking about his grandmother for fear of upsetting him? After dinner he finished his geography homework in the kitchen and then watched some of a television programme about how men were the cause of all conflict. He didn’t mind if his mother and Trudy thought that included him so long as it drew blame away from his grandmother.

He still had to pray with every breath so as to fall asleep. He wakened in daylight to hear laughter downstairs — the night seemed to have renewed the women somehow. His tormentors didn’t come to find him in the schoolyard, and his classmates had tired of giggling when he felt compelled to pray. He couldn’t have predicted the question with which his mother greeted him that night. “Jonathan,” she said, sitting down at the table to clasp his hands. “Aren’t you happy at this school?”

“Why?” he blurted in case that gave him time to think.

“Just tell me. Tell us, Trudy’s your friend too. What’s disturbing you?”

He could think of nothing his grandmother mightn’t be blamed for. It was Trudy who said “Shouldn’t you explain…”

“You’re right, I’ve missed a step. Jonathan, your headmaster rang me. He says you keep talking to yourself in class.”

Barely in time he saw how to tell something like the truth. “I was just trying to get things right.”

“So that’s why you were reading out your essay the other night. You’ll have to stop doing it at school, though, or you’ll have people thinking you’re-You’ll put them off their own work.”

He thought he’d convinced her all was well. He was on his way to bed when he overheard her saying “It’s my mother again. Living with her, that’s what’s made him so nervy, and no wonder.”

He dashed into his room and huddled in the bed to pray. He had to stop when he heard Trudy and his mother on the stairs: if his mother overheard him she would think he was mad — she’d almost said so — while explaining his behaviour seemed capable of making the situation even worse. At last his prayers under the bedclothes gave way to sleep and then to muddy daylight that smelled of hot food.

His mother and Trudy insisted on kissing him before he could escape from the car. He hastened through the gates to find his tormentors awaiting him. “How many mothers have you got?” enquired the boy with the grubby upper lip.

His singularly hairy crony imitated his disgusted grin. “Do they both live at your house?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” Jonathan was confused enough to ask.

“Bet your grandma wouldn’t like it.”

“Bet they’re glad she’s dead.”

“Bet they wouldn’t want to smell her now, though.”

All Jonathan’s dismay and bewilderment surged like bile into his mouth. “Maybe you will.”

The boys looked as if he’d shocked them by going further than they dared. “What do you reckon you’ll do?” the boy with the sole hair spluttered.

“Nothing. You’ve done it,” Jonathan told them and hid in the crowd.

He wasn’t going to pray to protect them. He didn’t mutter once in class. He mustn’t ask his mother about Trudy in case his grandmother might indeed have disapproved of her — in case that made his mother say things he would have to rectify. Instead he could tell her about his day} except that when she and Trudy came home, holding hands just long enough for him to see, she surprised him by asking “Would you like Lawrence to pick you up from school tomorrow?”

“Don’t you mind?”

“Why would anyone mind? That way you can spend a long weekend with him to make up for the last one and Trudy and I will sort out the house.”

Would that include his grandmother’s room? Tonight he had no sense of her presence. If the room was cleared out, mightn’t that mean she would stay with Jesus, since she would have nowhere to return to? He thought it best to continue praying once he was in bed. “Please God don’t let her hear us saying anything bad about her,” he repeated on the way to sleep.

He felt as if he’d hidden the implications of his words from himself until he was back at school. He couldn’t see his tormentors when he braved the yard. He left his suitcase full of clothes and other weekend items in the secretary’s office and hurried out to search, only to be found by Mr Foster, who was on yard duty. “There’s a pensive young face.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“No need to apologise for thinking.” As Jonathan wondered if that was necessarily true, the teacher said “Feeling more at home now?”

“I think so, sir.”

“You can expect a respite from the comedy, at any rate.”

Jonathan had noticed none. “Which is that, sir?”

“The comedians. The young teasers you encountered earlier in the week. The school will have to do without their routines for a while.”

That almost robbed Jonathan of the breath it took to demand “Why?”

“They appear to have taken up slapstick.” Mr Foster frowned at himself or at Jonathan’s terseness. “They climbed up on a roof they should have known wouldn’t support them, not that they ought to have been anywhere near it.”

What might they have been fleeing? Jonathan’s grandmother would have said they’d brought it on themselves. Having thanked Mr Foster, who seemed to wonder why, he found a gap between two school buildings to hide in. “Please God look after my grandma now. Don’t let her hear anything else bad,” he added, and “I expect those boys have learned their lesson.”

He wouldn’t have minded if they had returned to school in time to see his father collect him in the Land Rover. His father had finished work early, having designed enough houses for one week. He’d once said Jonathan’s grandmother’s house was too big for today and itself, which she’d taken as an insult. “We’ll have a lively weekend, shall we?” he said, shaking Jonathan’s hand.

Jonathan tried as hard as he could tell his father’s lady did. She was called but not spelled Zoh, and kept attempting to make her face even smaller and prettier while she acted girlish with his father or motherly with Jonathan. She and his father took him to restaurants and films and a museum and a game where they had to dodge through a maze and shoot one another with lasers, Zoh emitting a coy reproachful squeal whenever she was hit. Between some of these events he spent time in their apartment, where the rooms were uncluttered and elegantly plain and unobtrusively warm. He was sure they were just the right size, not least his bedroom, but he felt as if the place wasn’t quite reaching him. Perhaps it was the other way round, since he couldn’t stop wondering what was happening at his grandmother’s house.

Wondering overwhelmed his English homework. The harder he struggled to resolve his uncertainty or to write, the more the page and his brain competed at blankness. He had to welcome the sight of half a car on Sunday, though it was only Trudy who had come for him. He even wished he hadn’t greeted her with “Where’s mum?”

“Making a welcome-home dinner.”

Given the looks Trudy was exchanging with Zoh and his father, Jonathan felt all the more anxious to return to his grandmother’s. “See you next weekend,” he said, dealing his father’s hand a shake and disappointing Zoh with one before scrambling into the car.

The fairground neon of the city centre had faded beyond the old and in some cases unbroken lamps standing guard throughout the suburb when Trudy said “Had a good break?”

“What from? I don’t need a break from my mum.”

“Nor from me either, I hope.”

He felt bound to be polite while he tried to think. “No,” he mumbled.

“That’s good. Esther and I have had a chance to get a few things clearer.”

All at once he was certain he knew why they’d wanted him out of the way — knew what he’d failed to realise. “You’ve been talking about my grandma.”

“Among other issues.”

“What did you say about her?”

“Me, nothing to speak of.”

“What did mum?”

“Quite a flood. Everything she had to. It wasn’t all bad.”

“How much was?”

“Best if you discuss it together. I expect she’d like to share your memories now.”

She mustn’t until he’d remembered enough to counteract hers. Why hadn’t he written about his grandmother while he’d had the chance? As the car turned along her street he felt like a small animal trapped inside his own head, darting about in search of a way of escape. He would have to flee upstairs and pray his hardest without being heard by his mother, but how long would she leave before coming to find him?

His suitcase dragged his arm down as he followed Trudy to the house. The shadow of a branch clutched at her wrist when she inserted his grandmother’s key in the lock. He wished he were seeing his grandmother catch hold of her as the door swung inwards, revealing the dark.

Why was the house unlit if his mother was home? It didn’t feel deserted, and her car was in the drive. He hung back until Trudy switched on the chandelier, illuminating a note in his mother’s handwriting on the third stair. Just run down the road for ingredients, it said.

So it wasn’t his mother he sensed waiting in the house. At once he was sure what to do. His grandmother’s condition was Trudy’s fault — she’d encouraged his mother to say all she could. Had his mother even finished? Perhaps she might have more and worse to say if Trudy stayed. He used his luggage to push the front door shut and dumped his suitcase in the hall. “Come and see something,” he said.

“Is it a surprise?” Trudy said, widening her eyes and raising half her mouth.

“You’ll have to say,” he told her and turned hastily to the stairs.

The house felt as breathless with anticipation as he was. The creak of stairs counted the seconds and confirmed Trudy was following. The chandelier seemed to lower itself like a huge murkily luminous spider while the door of his grandmother’s room held itself still as a trap. On the landing he halted, uncertain whether he’d heard the faintest sound beyond her door — a shuffling that grew thinner, increasingly less suggestive of feet, as it approached. “What is it, Jonathan?” Trudy said.

“Your surprise. Come and look.”

On the whole she seemed pleased he’d grabbed her hand. She accompanied him willingly enough, even when he seized the icy knob and flung open his grandmother’s door. “You put the light on,” he said.

“Of course, if you want me to.” Making it clear that she was puzzled but determined, she stepped through the doorway and pressed down the switch with a fingertip. “What am I meant to be seeing, Jonathan? It’s just a room.”

“Have a better look,” he said, though he was tempted to believe her: the room was emptier than last time he’d seen it — the bed had been stripped to its stale piebald mattress. His grandmother wouldn’t want to lie on that; perhaps she was hiding in one of the massive wardrobes, though she’d disliked games she considered to be childish. He urged himself into the room and swung around to catch Trudy’s hand again. “Let’s look in-”

His voice froze in his throat as he saw what was crouched behind her in the dimmest corner of the room. It could almost have been a swollen bunch of sticks, except that it was patched with rags of clothes or skin. Lolling on top of it was an object that looked pinched with chill and peeling with damp and distorted by worse than either. It hadn’t much he would have liked to call a mouth or a nose, and was crowned with lumps of dust or hair. He might not have recognised it if his grandmother’s eyes hadn’t been glaring out of a section like an irregular piece of old toadstool. He hung onto Trudy and nodded at the corner. “There,” he whispered.

She kept her gaze on him. “What now, Jonathan?”

“What you wanted. It’s behind you, look.”

“You mustn’t do things like that. Even if you’re still upset it isn’t very pleasant, is it? You can tell me what’s wrong. I’d like you to, it’d make me feel more like family. Just talk.”

He saw his grandmother’s eyes bulge in the remnant of a face while the rest of her crouched smaller and lower as if she was about to spring. He tried to drag Trudy to confront this — he was growing desperate enough to reach up for her head to twist it round. “I will if you look.”

He felt her grow tense and make herself relax. She was beginning to turn her head when the shape in the corner unfolded itself and tottered to its full height. It jerked out a hand with little in the way of fingers, and he thought it was going to fasten on Trudy’s shoulder. The next moment the light was gone, and Trudy clutched at him. “Did you-”

He wriggled free and dodged out of the room, snatching the door shut. If Trudy switched the light on she would come face to face with the thing she’d made of his grandmother, and otherwise she would be alone with it in the dark. It was suddenly apparent to him that his grandmother didn’t want anyone to see her as she was now, and he wondered what she might do to gain control of the light-switch. He was hanging onto the doorknob with both hands when the front door slammed. “I’m back again,” his mother called. “Where’s everyone?”

“Could you come up?” Trudy responded rather less than steadily. “I’m shut in and I can’t seem to find…”

“Where are you? Hold on.” Jonathan’s mother ran upstairs and halted at the top. “Where’s Trudy?” she asked him. “What are you-”

“I’m in here, Esther.”

“What on earth do you think you’re doing, Jonathan? Let go at once.”

He was afraid that if she opened the door she would see his grandmother. She had to prise his fingers off the knob in order to let Trudy out. As Trudy fled onto the landing, he saw that the room was still unlit. “Trudy, I’m sorry,” his mother cried. “Tell me what happened.”

“Just an attempt to scare me off,” Trudy said more or less evenly. “I’m afraid someone doesn’t want me here.”

“My grandma doesn’t. She doesn’t like you making mum say bad things about her.”

“I think you’d better get ready for bed and stay in it,” his mother told him.

The women followed him into the hall and watched him trudge, weighed down by injustice and luggage, to his room. Was Trudy staying? His grandmother wouldn’t have to go far to find her, then. The thought failed to lessen his dismay at his grandmother’s state. He raced through preparing for bed and took as much refuge in it as he could. Trudy and his mother were murmuring downstairs, largely incomprehensibly. “He’ll have to get used to it,” he heard his mother say.

Did she mean Trudy or her own criticisms of his grandmother? How much would he have to pray to compensate for whatever she’d said over the weekend? He set about chanting his plea, only to wonder if it was too late. He couldn’t bring any other prayers to mind. Before long his mind gave up being awake.

He dreamed Trudy was inciting his mother to say worse and worse — at least, he hoped it was a dream. “That’s right, keep pulling me to bits,” he seemed to hear his grandmother complain. “Pull some more off me.” She’d go to Trudy in the night, he thought, hoping she would. The idea transfixed him with panic. At first he couldn’t understand why, even when he floundered awake — and then he realised how much of the fault was his. He’d willed his grandmother to look her worst for Trudy and his tormentors in the schoolyard.

He couldn’t deny he was glad that Trudy had crept into his room and was stooping to rouse him. When he blinked his eyes wide, however, it wasn’t Trudy’s face he saw looming closer in the dimness. What the boys had said about his grandmother had overtaken her. Even if she couldn’t see him, she could grope in search of him. He cowered under the bedclothes and tried to pray but could think of no words. Surely the noise he was making would bring his mother, or Trudy would do. Perhaps they were punishing him, because all it attracted was the sensation of less than hands plucking at the bedclothes. The time until dawn felt like for ever, and dawn might only show him what was waiting to be seen.

Steve Nagy

The Hanged Man of Oz

Steve Nagy lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters. He studied journalism at Kent State University in Ohio, and worked as a reporter and copy editor for several newspapers in the Midwest before becoming a phone support rep for a software company that services the newspaper industry. Nagy’s story “The Revelation of St Elvis the Impersonator” recently appeared in Electric Velocipede, and he is working on various short stories and two novels.

One of the novels is a horror tale set during the First World War and the Roaring Twenties. The other tackles the issues of cloning and identity. When he isn’t writing or spending his free time with his family, Nagy works as fiction editor for the fan lifestyle eZine Mars Dust.

“‘The Hanged Man of Oz’ is the first story I ever sold,” reveals the author, “and its genesis was an unlikely series of coincidences. I had never heard the urban legend about the hanging until my wife Melissa and I went to a dinner party with some friends. One was a fanatic about the movie, and he played the tape for our kids while we ate dinner. As the video reached the scene at the Tin Man’s cabin, he told me about the Hanged Man.

“When I saw the ‘hanging’ I wasn’t sure whether the story was true or not. That day, I thought it was a bird. But the legend stayed with me and I couldn’t stop thinking about how people let their imagination trick them. I wrote the tale thinking about those ‘tricks’ and the characters did take on a life of their own beyond the page. I know I can’t watch the film any longer without pausing at the hanging scene, so I can understand the power found in obsession.

“I submitted the story several places before sending it to Dennis Etchison to consider for an HWA anthology he was editing. He turned it down for that book, but said he had another in mind for which he might want it. That anthology turned out to be Gathering the Bones. When I told my family I had sold the story, my oldest daughter Lindsey was especially excited because Bones had a story by Ray Bradbury in it and her freshman English class was reading Fahrenheit 451. She thought that was the coolest thing about my sale.”

* * *

Knee-high grass dominated the scene, thick blades uprooting the foundation of a sagging cabin, pushing aside cobbles in the shaded road, trees circled the clearing and an abandoned orchard lay behind the cabin, straight rows masked by weeds and windrows of dead leaves and forgotten fruit.

A pastoral display except for the people posed throughout — two middle-aged men, one dressed as a hobo, the second clad in a dirty threadbare uniform; an old woman sporting too much rouge and mascara, skinny legs visible beneath the hem of a little girl’s dress; and a dead man, hanging from a tree, his feet twitching at odd moments in time with some unheralded tune raised by the wind whistling through the forest.

* * *

Obsession is an art form.

And if you’re lucky it’s contagious.

Denise and I got together for dinner and drinks at her place. Our first date, although we saw each other in the apartment hall every day. I lived in 2B. She had moved into 2C in February. I’d made great strides, starting with an occasional nod and shared rides to work. I’d eventually thrown out an off-the-cuff comment about her hair, which she’d shorn from its ponytail length to a flapper-style skullcap. Guys should notice changes like that; it’s an easy way to score points.

After that first compliment, the progression from casual to intimate was natural. We left in the morning at the same time, talked about our days, compared notes on work. If you practice something enough, anything is possible. I knew the boy-next-door routine better than when to observe national holidays. And the Fourth of July doesn’t change from year to year.

Besides dinner and drinks, Denise made me sit down and watch The Wizard of Oz.

“You’ve seen this before, Michael?”

“Lots of times,” I said. “Not lately, though. Isn’t it usually on around Easter?”

“Until recently,” Denise said. “Ted Turner bought the rights and pulled it for theatrical release.”

Oz? God save me. I already regretted the date and struggled to keep an interested expression as Denise gave me the inside scoop. It was like a psychotic version of Entertainment Tonight.

When I was in college I worked at a greasy spoon as a busboy. The chef was a compact Italian named Ricky Silva who came across as uneducated, unhealthy, and gullible. I stayed late one night, and I found Silva poring over a stamp collection in a back booth. I questioned him about it, saying something crass because the idea of Silva as a philatelist didn’t match my preconceptions. He told me there were an infinite number of worlds. Each existed next to the other, always overlapping and occasionally intertwining. Learning about his deeper reality forced me to change my opinion of him.

Denise and Oz were like that. The places she went and the things she did contained wholly unexpected layers. Up until now I’d only seen her “hallway” face.

But I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The trivia litany went like this:

Buddy Ebsen — the original Tin Man — almost died from pneumonia, suffering a bad reaction to aluminum dust from his make-up, which let Jack Haley jump into his metal shoes.

The Cowardly Lion’s costume was so hot Bert Lahr passed out at least a dozen times.

The Munchkins raised so much holy hell on the set that Chevy Chase mined that aspect for Under The Rainbow.

Shirley Temple led the pack for Dorothy’s role. Probably because everyone considered Judy Garland too old and a poor box-office draw. The movie lost money, costing about $4.6 million and earning only $4 million the first time out.

Studio executives cut a groundbreaking dance number that showcased Ray Bolger. They believed audiences wouldn’t sit through a “children’s movie” if it was too long.

Faulty special effects burned Margaret Hamilton at the end of her first scene as the Wicked Witch. This was shortly after Garland arrived in Oz. Hamilton tried grabbing the ruby slippers, but was thwarted by the Good Witch, an actress named Billie Burke. Hamilton dropped below the stage and right into a badly timed burst of smoke and flame…

It went on and on and on, everything you never wanted to know. Peccadilloes, idiosyncrasies; in other words, crap.

Then Denise told me a story about the man who hanged himself during filming — and she claimed the final print showed the incident.

“What? You’re kidding me. I’ve never seen a dead guy.”

Denise licked her lips, imitating a poorly belled cat. “Not everybody does. It’s like those 3-D pictures where you cross your eyes.”

“Prove it.”

Denise paused the video. Onscreen, Dorothy and the Scarecrow were in the midst of tricking the trees into giving up their apples, frozen seconds before stumbling across the Tin Man.

“It’s at the end of this section. I’ll run it through once at regular speed. Let me know if you catch it.”

She hit PLAY. Dorothy and the Scarecrow freed the Tin Man, did a little song-and-dance, fought off the Wicked Witch, and continued their trek. I didn’t see anything strange and shrugged when Denise paused it.

“Nothing, right?” She rewound the tape to a point immediately after the witch disappeared in a cloud of red-orange smoke (this time minus the hungry flames), then advanced the video frame by frame.

Our date had progressed from strange to surreal, and I couldn’t wait for an excuse to leave.

Then I saw him — the hanged man.

Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man skipped down the road. Before the scene cut away to the Cowardly Lion’s forest, the jerky movement of the advancing frames highlighted activity inside the forest edge.

A half-shadowed figure moved in the crook of a tree about ten feet off the ground. I thought it might be one of the many birds spread throughout the clearing and around the cabin, but its shape looked too much like a man. The next frame showed him jumping from his perch. His legs were stiff, as if bound. Or maybe determination wouldn’t let him go all loose and disjointed at this defining moment. Before his feet touched the ground, they wrenched to the right. Whatever held him to the upper branches swung his ill-lit body back into the shadows. I think I heard his neck snap, although with the tape playing at this speed there wasn’t any sound. Even at regular speed I knew the only sound would come from the three actors, voicing in song their desire to see the Wizard.

My heart raced and for a minute I worried that its syncopated thrum might attract the Tin Man, prompting him to step into the apartment and take it for his own.

“I can’t believe it,” I said. “It’s a snuff film.”

“Awesome, isn’t it?” Denise restarted the film. I couldn’t picture her smile as kind; it seemed too satisfied. “I stay awake some nights,” she said, “letting my mind experience what it was like. The studio buried the whole thing. Can you imagine the bad press? I even think Garland started drinking because of it.”

On the television screen, Bert Lahr made his appearance. His growls matched the rough nature of Denise’s monologue. As the film continued I offered small talk, made Denise vague promises that I would see her in the morning, and left as the credits rolled.

“I feel as if I’ve known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?” “I don’t see how. You weren’t around when I was stuffed and sewn together, were you?”

“And I was standing over there rusting for the longest time…”

I knew I was asleep, sprawled on my couch. The past five days had stretched me to the limit. I always had a headache. Aspirin and whiskey didn’t kill the pain. My conversations with Denise were forced; she mentioned the movie at every opportunity.

We’d had a second date. I agreed because Denise invited two friends from her work. Stan and Lora were smokers, rail-thin and shrouded in a pall of smoke. I think Denise brought them along (one) so she could look good in contrast and (two) so she had someplace to hide if things went sour. We hit a club and during a busy night on the dance floor I demonstrated I wasn’t a klutz. I guess you could say it was the modern social equivalent of an Army physical. Denise and Lora exchanged approving nods near the end and Stan loosened up enough so that he took a minute between shots of tequila and his chain-smoking to talk to me.

Between all the alcohol and nicotine, I got a contact buzz and found myself obsessing about the hanged man and the way he disappeared into the shadows. Denise was still attractive to me, but I couldn’t forget how pleased she’d looked as she talked about the death.

My thoughts hid me beside the Tin Man’s cabin, watching the trio skip past. I would move onto the road. The hanged man was visible ahead. They must have turned their eyes to follow the road as it bent to the right because they didn’t see him.

But I did.

* * *

Denise had seemed like her old self in the mixed company, and I assumed I was overreacting. So I agreed to a third date. Instead of a rerun with the mystery man in the trees, I got Stan and Lora again and a nice restaurant. I was almost happy when I saw their wan faces.

Almost. Denise and Lora left to powder their noses, and Stan asked me a question.

“How did you like the movie?”

“What?”

“You know what I mean. You look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a while.”

“How do you know that?”

“Denise is predictable. I’d be more surprised if she hadn’t shown you the film yet.”

I gulped my beer. “You’ve… seen him?”

Stan shrugged. “What about it?”

“The guy hung himself. She seems so glad.”

“Someone dies somewhere every second. Get used to it. Life will get a lot easier if you do.”

Before I could ask what he meant, Denise and Lora returned from the bathroom.

* * *

I had the dream again the next night. It started at the same point. The Tin Man finished his dance, stumbled off the road, collapsed in a heap on a tree stump near the cabin. The others rushed to his side, Technicolor concern painting their expressions.

No one noticed me. I couldn’t hear everything they said. It did seem to change night to night, probably because I couldn’t remember the dialogue verbatim.

The Wicked Witch screeched at the three adventurers from her perch on the roof above, surprising me again. I crouched and prayed she wouldn’t see me. She tossed a fireball at the Scarecrow and even from this distance I felt the heat. The Tin Man smothered the flames under his funnel hat, but not before the silver paint bubbled and blistered on the edge and on several of his fingers.

The Wicked Witch took off on her broom. Smoke billowed like a tumor in her wake. No trapdoors this time; my position offered an excellent view behind the cabin. Her flight left a rough scar across the sky that traced the road’s path toward the Emerald City and beyond to the land of the Winkies.

“I wonder how many she’ll kill when she gets home?”

I jumped from my crouch. The Scarecrow stood beside me. Dorothy and the Tin Man remained in the road. Instead of the concern I’d seen earlier, they appeared curious.

“What are you doing?” I glanced toward the trees. The hanged man swung from his rope, as solid as a mirage, flirting with the shadows. I turned back to the Scarecrow. “You’re supposed to be on your way to the Emerald City.”

The Scarecrow, who looked less and less like Bolger, dropped his gaze and shrugged. The simple gesture produced a sound reminiscent of dead leaves. “I’m not supposed to tell you,” he said, his words more rustle than speech.

Dorothy and the Tin Man, poor doubles for Garland and Haley, edged towards the bend. “We have to go, Scarecrow,” the not-Garland said. “There’s not much time left and we’re expected.”

The Scarecrow joined them. “I’m not supposed to tell you, Michael,” he repeated. “Talk to Stan.” He glanced towards the trees one last time as he and his companions moved away. “Stay away from the Hanged Man.”

I woke drenched with sweat. I don’t know what happened after the three left. Maybe they found the Cowardly Lion, became a quartet, maybe not. Stay away from the Hanged Man.

Even the memory of those words hurt.

Talk to Stan.

What was I involved in here? Were my dreams random subconscious processes? Talk to Stan? I didn’t even know his last name. Denise introduced him by his first name. I only knew Denise’s — Fleming — because the apartment glued labels to the lobby mailboxes. When we met, we exchanged greetings and first names. Surnames never came into it because right from the start we were always personal.

Hours remained until dawn. I left the apartment and hit Kroger. The big grocery on Carpenter stayed open all night — and its video selection included The Wizard of Oz.

I wanted a copy because… because I wanted privacy. I’d need Denise soon enough to find Stan, if I gathered the courage necessary to broach the subject. The hanged man was a drug and I was a junkie. If I had my own copy, I might control the addiction. I’d first seen him with Denise and everything stemmed from that. I’d entered one of Silva’s infinite worlds; privacy might let me create a new perspective.

The shadowed streets looked different than they did during the day. The late-night wind didn’t touch the trees. Each moved on its own, apple hoarders, ready for a rematch.

“Just wait,” a voice rasped beside me. “It gets worse.”

I shouted and slammed the brakes. My car swerved, shuddered to a halt and stalled. I turned and found myself facing the Scarecrow.

“What do you what do you want?” I tried sounding angry, but my voice shook.

My Scarecrow smiled and the maw formed by his mouth — old burlap, leather, and rotting hay — made my stomach turn. “I won’t hurt you, Michael.” He nodded toward the back. “But I can’t speak for her.”

I twisted in my seat and craned to look. A shape huddled there, its outline weird and broken by too many angles. I fumbled to turn on the overhead dome light, but the person in the back actually cackled and I leaped from the car and into the deserted street.

I tripped before I’d gone half a dozen steps. Scrambling up, I looked over my shoulder, expecting pursuit — and saw nothing. The car door was open and the dome light revealed the empty interior. The only sound was the chime that signaled the keys were still in the ignition.

This isn’t happening, I told myself. The Scarecrow was in the passenger seat and the Witch — yes, the Witch — was in the back.

A soft noise broke the breathless silence. I saw something slowly swinging in the tree shadows across the way. I knew the noise was a rope creaking under the strain of a dead man’s weight. I retreated to my car, more scared of what hid outside than of my elusive passengers.

The residential speed limit was twenty-five. I did at least fifty and ran every red light getting home.

* * *

Two hours more till dawn.

I shredded the box wrap and popped the tape into my VCR. My head throbbed with too many ideas, as if I’d overdosed on coffee and Tylenol. I let it play and tried to clear my mind. I tried to tell myself there was no place like Oz. And this time the scene ran the same as I remembered it from my childhood.

The Tin Man stumbled and landed on the tree stump. Dorothy and the Scarecrow ran over to help. The Wicked Witch made her threats, threw her fireball, bolted in a puff of smoke. The three adventurers danced off down the road.

There wasn’t any sign of the Hanged Man.

There was movement among the trees, but I could see it was a long-necked bird moving one of its wings. Was there something different on Denise’s tape? I didn’t consider myself gullible. Because I didn’t trust my eyes. I rewound the tape and played it again, cursing myself for doing that.

The Tin Man collapsed on the tree stump. But he didn’t resemble Haley. His fingers and hat were burned, warped by some tremendous heat, even though the fireball lay moments in the future. Dorothy and the Scarecrow ran to help him. But she looked middle-aged and the Scarecrow was the rotting bag from my car. Once, all three stared at me. The screen thinned to gauze as thin as the dust coating its surface.

And the Wicked Witch screamed to life on the roof — a gangrenous, misshapen version of Denise.

I stopped the tape.

I waited in my car for two hours before Denise left the apartment. I didn’t want to meet her in the hall. She had started the avalanche of fear that had buried my senses, and I wasn’t ready for a confrontation.

Stay away from the Hanged Man.

Talk to Stan…

I stayed at least a block behind her. She worked at a department store in the mall and liked to arrive early. I parked in the side lot. She was inside by the time I walked to the front entrance. I hung around there, wondering if I was too late. Entering the store wasn’t an option. If Denise caught me inside, I didn’t have any excuses. She’d know I’d followed her. Besides, I worked at a union job shop, creating ads on a computer, and I caught hell when I missed a shift.

Ten minutes later, Stan entered the lot.

I ran over and hovered as he locked his car. I’m not sure what I expected from him.

“I need help,” I said.

“What are you doing here, Michael? Don’t you have to work?”

“I’m taking a sick day.”

Stan nodded, lit up a cigarette. I could blame my imagination, but I thought his hands shook. “So? What are you doing here?” he asked again. He didn’t seem in any hurry to get to work.

“The Scarecrow told me to talk to you.”

Stan didn’t laugh. His mouth twitched, though.

“You know about it.”

He shoved past me. “You’re crazy,” he said, walking briskly towards the store.

I followed, grabbed his arm. I glanced around the lot to see if anyone was watching. No one was close.

“Don’t call me crazy,” I said. “The Scarecrow popped in and out of my car like a damned ghost and he brought the Wicked Witch along for the ride and I’m scared. This is all Denise’s fault and you know something. You asked me about the movie. Don’t dare tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Stan jabbed his lit cigarette against my hand as I held his arm. I jerked it away, hissed with pain, put my mouth over the burn. Stan backed up and pinned a sneer on his pale face.

“Get away from me, Michael.” He paused. “If you don’t, I’ll tell Denise.”

I stood there, silent, and watched him leave.

* * *

This time I observed the speed limit on my way home. A ghostly Dorothy rode shotgun. Toto sat in her lap. I didn’t recall seeing the mutt before. A taxidermist had worked him over, mounting him to a wood base, so he traveled well, no tongue-flapping out the window, no prancing from one side to the other, claws digging into your thighs. The Scarecrow and the Tin Man held the rear seats.

All four were quiet, which didn’t bother me. Maybe the daylight silenced them. I parked in my slot, killed the engine. When I climbed out, chaff and aluminum dust and the ripe scent of a dead dog floated through the empty interior.

The apartment hall was empty. I pressed my hands against the cold surface of Denise’s door. The number and letter glimmered as each reflected the fluorescent light, incandescent with a promise like prophecy. I knew now that I wanted to see. The knowledge might release me.

My fingers ached where I touched the door, as if the wood sucked at my bones, robbing them of warmth. The 2C pulsed and my breath frosted the air, crystallizing inside my chest until I forgot to breathe.

Then my legs buckled under fatigue and gravity, and the door answered my weakness with its own, selling its solid soul so I could fall through into the reality that lay beyond.

* * *

Dry grass rustled beneath me as I fell to my knees. A brick-paved road ran past, its surface a river of yellow pus baked solid under a neon-strobe sun. Disease festered in the scabbed cracks, more efficient as a contagion than as mortar.

The Tin Man’s cabin sat across from me, wearing its abandonment like a badge. The logs sagged, eaten by dry rot and unable to sustain their weight. Years had passed since glass sealed the windows and thick cobwebs, choked with dead insects, served as the only curtains. The stone chimney wore moss and ivy like a fur coat, its only protection against the cold. Large gaps riddled the roof’s green slate like open sores. In the places where there were not yet holes the sun glinted off shallow pools of water.

I stood and crossed the road, glancing left and right along its bumpy length — no one was visible in either direction. Not the intrepid trio or their hanged observer.

Light fell through the rear windows and the roof, illuminating the room. The sun had almost died in the west, but it was enough so I could pick out the familiar details of Denise’s apartment.

From the front window to the door, I picked out the vague outlines of furniture. A mildewed couch slumped on broken legs. Two rickety crates supported several planks that served as a table, with an apish skull still wearing shreds of flesh as a centerpiece. Instead of the entertainment center, a cauldron sat before the fireplace, its mealy contents still bubbling.

A mask hung above the mantel like a trophy stuffed and mounted by a hunter. The facial lines were soft, cheeks frozen in a perpetual smile, spawning dimples on both corners. But the eyes were empty and soulless, the mouth a toothless hole, and they sucked away whatever resemblance to humanity the mask ever possessed.

It was Denise.

I backed away from the cabin, dazed by what I’d seen. Before I knew it, I’d crossed the road to my original entry point, just as a dark shape moved across the cabin roof, catching my eye. The Wicked Witch froze, straddling the peak like an Impressionist vision of the Statue of Liberty, broom held high in place of a torch.

“It took you long enough, Michael,” she said, her smile as uneven as the road. “I thought I’d need to send someone out after you again.”

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, Denise, but I’m finished with these dreams.”

She cackled. “Stubborn to a fault, Michael. I love that. The longer you doubt, the closer I get. Eventually, it will be too late…”

I walked towards the cabin, my first steps tentative as loose bricks threatened to turn my ankles. I stopped once, crouched, pulled one broken piece loose, steeled myself against the slimy feel as I clenched it in my fist. I needed a weapon. I didn’t think this ball-sized brick would hurt her, but it might serve as a distraction.

“You’re right. I don’t believe.” Debris littered the yard between the cabin and the road and matched the landscape of my chaotic dreams. “You’ve drugged or hypnotized me. Whichever, I don’t care. It’s over.”

From behind the trees the Scarecrow moved into the clearing. Dorothy and the Tin Man skulked in his shadow.

“Calling in your troops, Denise?” I asked.

Age lines shredded each of their faces, changing grins into something as old as the brown apples piled under the trees, something as calculated as the way the trees’ prehensile branches reached out, straining against the roots that kept each woody demon in place.

“Her name isn’t Denise,” said the Tin Man, brandishing an ax that looked freshly honed. “I don’t think she has one.”

“Names don’t matter here,” the Scarecrow said.

“Is that why you told me to talk to Stan?”

The Scarecrow cringed, glanced at the Wicked Witch. His companions backed away. I looked at the Wicked Witch too, expecting her to nail his straw frame with a quick fireball.

“You warned him?” she asked.

“No! No! I was trying to prepare him!”

The Wicked Witch leaped off the roof, black dress billowing behind her like crows hovering around a fresh kill. She landed in the middle of the road, nimble as a black widow.

Forget the rock, I thought. I needed something bigger if I wanted to come out of this alive. I crouched beside rubble from the chimney, dropped my brick and grabbed a discarded axe handle where it lay half-buried among the weeds.

The Scarecrow trembled, begged. “Please don’t hurt me! Please!”

The Wicked Witch formed her hand into a claw. Eldritch flames sprouted from her bitten nails, knotted into a pulsing globe.

“I release you, Scarecrow! I give you your freedom — in death!”

She hurled the fire and the Scarecrow tried to block it with upraised hands.

The ball hit him and ate his body up in seconds.

The Wicked Witch stepped into the yard, blocked my way to the road, as the Tin Man and Dorothy circled the Scarecrow’s smoldering remains. If I braved the apple orchard, I’d have to fight them both, one armed with an ax, the other with a dead dog.

“This is taking too long,” the Wicked Witch said. “It’s time for you to join me, Michael.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Denise.” I waved the ax handle before me.

“My name is not Denise. I can’t remember my name. It’s been such a long time since I heard it.”

“But if you’re not Denise…”

My words trailed off. I let my eyes trace the lines in her face. I barely recognized the woman I’d flirted with in the hallway. She might be there under the thick cheeks, the warts, the bony chin and green skin, but there wasn’t enough to convince me.

“Then… I must be the Wicked Witch!” she said.

I swung my weapon and reached for the roof. The handle cracked when it hit, cut my hands as it splintered. The Tin Man was nearest the cabin and he screamed. His voice squeaked. You’re going to need to oil more than that, buddy. My blow shook the roof’s remaining boards and the water puddles washed into the yard, striking the Tin Man. He scrambled into the road, metal limbs clanking, joints squealing from friction. The shower streaked Dorothy’s make-up, washed her brown tresses blonde, knocked Toto from her arms.

The Wicked Witch smiled.

She raised her claws to meet the deluge running across her body, black rags clinging to her stick frame. The shape beneath was suddenly too skeletal and bulged in all the wrong places, cancerous and demonic. She licked the stagnant moisture off her lips with a leprous tongue, slurping at the algae.

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Like no one’s ever tried water before.”

I ran but a tree stopped me. Not one of the apple trees. Those were back by the cabin.

The Wicked Witch screamed — “Get him! I won’t lose two today!” — and I looked over my shoulder, trying to spot a pursuer. When I turned forward again I ran face first into a lightning-split oak.

As I lay there dazed, my audience assembled.

“You can’t get away, Michael,” the Wicked Witch said.

“What do you want?”

“I was thrown out of my land a long time ago and I can never go back.” She gestured at the forest, the ramshackle cabin, and the rotting orchard. “This is my home. This is my reality. This is my dream.”

I shook my head. “A dream?”

Dorothy wiped her face and left fingerprints in the wet mascara and rouge. “More than a dream. We play our parts, we keep her from loneliness.”

“Stan was one of us,” the Tin Man said. “He served his time. When she tired of him, she let him serve her outside.”

“Be quiet, beehive!” said the Wicked Witch, pushing him aside. “You’ll learn my ways soon enough, Michael. You’re going to replace him.”

“You’re crazy!” I pulled myself up against the split trunk. “I’ll never do anything you want!”

“That’s why I love you, Michael.” She motioned towards the tree. “Lift him up.”

A noose dropped over my head and cinched tight. At the other end, hidden among the leaves, an orangutan jumped into the air, guiding its descent with spread wings as it hauled the rope across a thick branch.

My neck snapped.

* * *

The Witch’s obsession traps us here, and her magic forces us into these forms. When I dream I’m still in my old life, but it fades as her obsession burns, tarnishing the memory. She watches and we try to amuse her. When she tires, I may stop hanging myself. And someday I will escape.

Her madness is contagious.

Мichael Chislett

Mara

Michael Chislett has had his stories published in such magazines as Ghosts & Scholars, Supernatural Tales and All Hallows, along with anthologies published by the Oxford University Press and Ash-Tree Press. A collection is forthcoming from the latter imprint.

He is currently working on two novels, Jane Dark’s Garden and The Night Friends, both of which are set in the same general area of London as “Mara”, though they are contemporary, and another story, “Off the Map”, appeared in Best New Horror Volume Thirteen.

As the author explains: “Axel Crescentius, the hero, if that is what he is, of the tale, features in some other stories, only one of which has so far been published.

“I wanted to write a Gothic vampire story with a London setting and the actual places described in the tale — the hill with its view of the River Thames, the creek and the cemetery — do exist, though not as close to each other as described in the text. Instead, they have come together in the geography of my mind to become one place — Mabbs Hill, which, I have been assured by one who claims to know, exists in some other alternative London in which we can travel usually and fortunately only in the imagination.”

* * *

After my involvement in the revolution of 1848 I was obliged to flee Germany and make my way to England and exile. For a time I resided just outside London, south of the River Thames, at a place called Mabbs End.

My custom was, after a day of study at the British Museum, to return by train from London and on reaching Mabbs End have a walk of about fifteen minutes to my lodgings. My journey would take me across a stone bridge spanning a creek, a narrow finger of the Thames that ran through the district. I then had to ascend a steep hill where the buildings gave way to hedges and market gardens.

This rise was called Mabbs Hill and, once on its crest, a short walk along an unpaved road led to my lodging, in a house newly built, one of a row as yet unconnected to the town other than by the way that I had come.

From this hill, on clear days, I had the most marvellous view of London. The dome of St Paul ’s would gleam in the sun and on the river there were more ships than had besieged Troy. Indeed, all of the Thames, both up-and downstream, then revealed itself to me in a most pleasing prospect. I say on clear days, for most often the metropolis was covered by that thick fog for which it is notorious. Mabbs Hill did not suffer so much from this but frequently, at night, the mist would creep from off the river to lie heavy over the creek so that I would have to cross blind to where a solitary lamp stood sentinel in the murk.

One such night the fog had travelled with me from London and rolled in great grey waves that increased by the moment. Shivering at its chill touch, I hurried along the High Street from the station. The glow of gas lamps did little to light my way, and those few others abroad flitted through the fume like phantoms with sinister, muffled footsteps, seeming to be about on fell missions which had but waited the chance of this complicit shroud to be done.

My native land was by the Baltic and I, Axel Crescentius, had been born to mist and fog, for it had haunted those shores. But I had travelled long and far since then.

Uncanny thoughts of how, on misty nights like this, when all becomes unreal, then we are in another world through which we travel not knowing what unseen companions walk with us, fretted me. After blindly crossing the bridge where the fog muffled the usual splash of water, I heard the sound of weeping, the cry of a child lost in murk-black night.

To my left, where the sound came from, lay an alley, narrow and dubious enough by daylight and certainly no place to linger by with this pall about. Sensing danger, I released the catch on my swordstick and held it ready to be drawn. Hearing another cry, sharp as a vixen’s, I stepped back into a doorway where, doubly concealed, I stood to watch and listen.

There was a disturbance at the alley’s fog-thick mouth and a woman passed barely an arm’s length from me. Her movement disturbed the mist, scrims of which detached from the cottony mass to cling about her body, reminding me uneasily of feeding eels, or snakes. She pulled a hood over her head, but not before I had seen a coil of long dark hair hanging down over her breast. Then she vanished into night and fog, becoming one with them.

“Give it back to me!”

The voice wailed and I tensed as, from the alley, a young girl staggered. Her tear-stained face bore the look of one mortally stricken by some deadly pestilence, a wretch under sentence of death from which there could be no reprieve.

She fled toward the bridge, another wraith lost in the mist, but her voice still cried, lamenting whatever had been taken from her.

It was no more than an affair between street women, but that look of desolation on the girl’s face — she was no more than a child — had been terrible to see. Brooding on this, I made a cautious way up the hill as the mist thinned somewhat until, at the crest, the air grew marvellously clear, the sky cloudless and I gazed down at the still and silent sea that covered the world below.

The heavens were all aglow with stars, the waxing moon their sovereign. I studied the firmament, bitterly regretting the loss of my telescope, abandoned with so many other things upon my abrupt departure from Germany.

For a while I watched the stars until my neck began to ache, then turned my gaze down to the mist. It was rising, steady as an incoming tide, toward me and I formed the conceit that I was some demigod who floated above these clouds which seemed solid enough for me to walk on.

I did not hear any footsteps in the mist until, with a shiver of surprise, I saw a hooded head rise from the cloudy mass, at first seeming to be curiously disembodied before the rest of the figure became visible, gliding through the grey air as though floating.

So uncanny was this apparition that my heart beat fast, but I recognized the woman who had emerged from the alley below by her cowl-like hood. The surprise of her appearance, with wraiths of mist still clinging to her body as if feeding, robbed me of speech and when, after walking a few paces in the clear air she stopped to boldly return my stare, I, who had lectured before congregations of the most learned men, blushed like a boy.

“Pardon me, miss,” I said stupidly, “but can I be of assistance to you?”

“You are not English?” she said. Her voice, the contralto purr of some great cat, issued strangely from beneath the shadow of the hood, where her face was invisible.

“I am of German birth. Dr Axel Crescentius at your service.”

The hood fell back to reveal full and sensual lips, eyes dark as night, face sharp and high-boned as a vixen’s.

“I have no need of a doctor, or of your service, but if you wish to walk a little way with me then come.”

Without waiting for a reply, she set off along the crest of the moonlit hill and I found myself following after.

“Do you live by here?” I asked, after catching up with her.

“Beneath the hill,” she replied, pointing to a fork in the pathway.

The way that she indicated led down the far side of Mabbs Hill, a path untrod by me.

“Would you accompany me, down to my dwelling place?”

Her face glowed silver in the moonlight as she spoke these words and the mask it became dazzled my eyes. A wave of desire, the like of which I had never before felt, filled me as I closed my eyes to clear them of the uncanny glow that lit the woman’s face.

“Yes, let me come with you.”

She was, I told myself, but a streetwalker who, for a few pennies, I could slake my aroused passion upon. I reached out a hand to take her, but with a slight movement she evaded me.

“You think,” she said, “that no honest woman would be out on such a night. But consider, I ask you, what good man would be abroad?”

The woman possessed a lively wit. Then again, without waiting for me, or another word, she walked down the path into the mist. I hesitated for but a second, then followed before she could be lost to me.

As we walked down and the mist covered us again I kept a firm hold on my swordstick, for I entertained a suspicion that there might lurk, somewhere in the obscurity, a bully in league with her to waylay and rob me.

The path fell sharply as the mist became icy, chilling with its touch. She turned a smile on my shivering, and I wondered at how she could show no apparent discomfort at the cold.

“I never feel the cold,” she told me. “Once, long ago I did, but a fever of the blood took me, so now ice and fog are nothing to me.” The woman smiled and her teeth showed sharp and white. “I am of those in whom blood turns to fire in their veins.”

“Such conditions are not unknown,” said I, nodding sagely. “I am, however, a doctor of philology, not medicine.” “Studying words and languages must be interesting. Though I have found” (she smiled knowingly) “that certain things can be understood by all, no matter what tongue they speak. You must be a clever man to know so much about words. My name is Mara.”

I was surprised that she knew the meaning of the word “philology”, and as the woman Mara spoke her name I thought to see, through the mist, a gleam as of smoky embers in her eyes.

“That,” I said foolishly, “is a nice name.”

“It is a terrible name.”

Desire was strong within me, and I thought to take her there on the path, where she had stopped and smiled upon me. None would see us. In this place, concealed by the mist, we could do as we — as I — wished.

“Here is where I must leave you.”

With a swift movement, her head darted forward and her lips sought mine. For a long moment we kissed, and the breath was drawn from my body as my head became peculiarly dizzy. I would have clipped her close to kiss again but she had gone, swallowed by the mist, leaving me alone and baffled at her abrupt disappearance.

My lips felt numb and I tasted blood — she had bitten me during our cold and foggy kiss. It had been long since I had been given a true and good love-kiss, one not bought and paid for. I held a hand before my eyes to see blood, black in the mist, stain the fingers. For she had bitten me on places other than my lips, though I could not exactly recall the bites, and I wondered what the price of her love and kisses might be.

All seemed unreal to me, the boundaries between worlds weak, but I took a resolute step forward, my swordstick held before me like a blind man’s cane and I felt it strike and sound against metal.

Barely inches from my eyes I saw an iron gate, its tall bars vanishing up into the murky air. Padlocks secured it, three of them, rusty and obviously not opened for many a year. The strange sensation of being beneath the earth, in a vault, gripped me. The triple-locked gate the entrance to a place deeper yet.

“Mara!”

My voice was muffled in the foggy shroud but I heard and saw one of the locks open with a dry click and fall to the ground. I listened, but nothing else broke the stillness and silence.

The mist stifled me, choking my throat, and I made my way up the path, hurrying along its length like a grave-robber fleeing a necropolis until, after but a few minutes, not nearly so long as my descent had taken, I found myself once more on the crest of Mabbs Hill and in the clear air.

Through the icy moonlight I hurried to my lodgings, shivering as one possessed by an ague. I was soon abed, but it took a long while for sleep to claim me.

Strange thoughts flitted batlike through my brain, night-frights rising to vex and nag at me. When at last I fell into a restless slumber, my dreams were all of tomb and sepulchre, dreadful hollow vaults beneath the earth, in which I was lost. Something had me in a smothering embrace, pressing down on my chest. I thought myself to be immured in a grave, and that which lay atop me was feeding horribly upon my still-living corpse.

With the first light of dawn I lay awake, weak as one sucked dry, the woman Mara haunting my burning thoughts as my drained yet unappeased body hungered for her.

* * *

The day dawned bright and chill, and I resolved to explore the pathway that I had walked with Mara. The mist had gone, and I looked from the crest of Mabbs Hill toward London and wondered at how long it would be before the metropolis engulfed this quiet place and its environs.

Swinging my cane at the weeds by the side of the path, my night-fears forgotten, I made a way down. After but a minute the trees closed in above to turn the morning into twilight. I soon found the gate, set in a high wall that ran to either side for some distance. Thick spider webs, glistening with dew and long undisturbed, clung to the bars. With my cane I tore at them and looked within to see gravestones and broken tombs, all much worn by time.

Though I searched, no dwelling could I find. I saw the fallen lock and the two remaining. They, though rusted, seemed secure. I noted how the trees that twisted above and about me were oddly flourishing, even though it was winter. Perhaps their nourishment was drawn from that ground.

I soon left that place and stood again atop the hill. Looking down I could see nothing but the waving branches of trees, covering the graveyard on Mabbs Hill and wherever Mara dwelt.

Something odd struck me, for I realized that all the time I had been down there, by the cemetery, no noise of birds had I heard. But there was no leisure to confirm that, for I had a train to catch and so I set off, at a run, down the hill to the station.

* * *

The evening was bright with starlight. I stood on the bridge above the creek, watching the moon’s reflection break in silver shards amid the flow, and I became lost in a reverie. Hearing a soft voice, I turned to see a girl staring intently at the moon-glade.

“Give it back to me, moon-witch. I can see you there, laughing at me.”

It was the girl whom I had seen crying the night before. She leant over the bridge to throw a stone into the stream and the moon’s face there shattered into a thousand pieces.

“Killed you!” she cried triumphantly. But her voice changed to a sob as the moon gathered up its shards to grin sardonically back at us.

She hurried away past me, and I held out my hand to stay her, asking if I could be of aid. She was a pretty thing, or would have been but for the look of utter desolation marring her face. Her red hair had been sheared short and uneven, sticking out at odd, uncombed angles about her head, and I was again reminded of one condemned.

“It’s a mask.” She pointed to the water below. “I know, the moon-witch told me. That grave-woman who said I was a moonchild… me who was just me mum’s love child. The moon’s a thief!” She screamed these words and buried her face in her hands. “I’m a dead one now because of what she took from me.”

“What did she take?” I asked gently.

Her eyes peeped at me through parted fingers and she giggled, as though I had said something amusing.

“You’ve had yours taken too, I can tell. But you don’t care. I hope you was happy with what you got for it. I didn’t get nothing, nothing at all. I want it back.”

Her distracted face was bathed white as a mask by the moonlight and she held out her hands towards me, as though making an offering. I looked and saw a moth sitting upon her palm, its wings fluttering ever so slightly. There was something unusual about it and I looked close.

“It’s a strange thing, but the moon is really under the ground and no one knows that except me and you and her.”

I could not look into the girl’s eyes, so intently did they watch me as she spoke.

Then, lowering her hands, she fled away, across the bridge. Whether she still held the moth, or had dropped the thing, I did not know. But uselessly I searched the stone bridge, washed grey by moonlight, for it; and as I sought, the girl’s voice was raised in a distant, wistful song:

“I am just a love-child, “Lost in moon dreams am I.”

Giving up my search for the moth, I listened for a space of time to the girl’s song. It seemed that, though gone, she was still close by, but invisible, a ghost conjured by the moon to trill for its amusement.

I forced myself away and up the hill. My meeting with the girl had been distressing, bringing more disturbing thoughts and memories to my mind, for all that day the woman Mara had haunted me. Thoughts of her sensual mouth sucking on mine, biting with those sharp white teeth so hard that I bled. Strange and lurid sensations ran through me at the memory of it.

Mabbs Hill shone before me, lit by moonlight. A heavy frost sparkled the ground, a purse of silver thrown to Earth by the moon. No living thing had I seen since the girl and she, poor thing, bore the certain mark of one who soon would not be.

A footfall in a rime of frost sounded behind me, ominous as the snap of breaking bone.

I turned to see the hooded figure that followed.

“Is this not well met by moonlight?”

Her voice thrilled me as moonlight and starlight played with silver fire on the frost.

We stood regarding each other and the hood fell back. Eyes, dark as grapes, captured me, and her feline smile beguiled.

“I knew that we would meet again,” she sighed, a sound almost a moan of pleasure as she looked up to let the moon bathe her face. “How I love the moon and so do you. I saw how you gazed at her last night. She is my mother. Ah! The mist and the moonlight, they are my elements.”

“I have already met with a moonchild tonight,” I said, “who told me that the moon is beneath the earth.”

“That pretty little thing did not wish to give me a little pretty thing that I desired from her. Soon she will not be so pretty.” Mara looked searchingly at me. “A moonchild indeed! Perhaps she is your wish-child? Would you rather her than me? Surely not!”

“What did you take from her, Mara? She said that the moon was a thief.”

“Her hope, her youth, her flowering beauty. Her red hair was so long and lovely that I grew jealous of it and made her shear the tresses. Such a silly girl, so easy to beguile. She would never have missed her pretty little soul and I would have sent her out into the world to seek others for me.”

A great fear seized me. Instinctively I released the catch on my swordstick and eased the blade slightly from its sheath. My action caused Mara some amusement, for she laughed.

“I shall leave you if you are so afraid and must draw your weapon on little me. But I promise that no great harm will befall you, on this night, unless you so wish it.”

The blade slid back into its sheath as Mara’s cold hand lightly brushed my face. She then took my hand and we walked up Mabbs Hill, at the top of which we looked down on the city below, the lights of which blazed — a town of fire lit by the flames of Hell — which, as the poet said, is a city much like London.

“All this could be yours,” whispered Mara the temptress. “Better than knowledge, Herr Doctor Crescentius of the mouldy old books.”

“No! There is nothing better than knowledge,” I denied her.

“Shall I call you Faustus?” she mocked. “There is something better than that. Did not your hero sigh for the love of Helen?”

What was knowledge compared to the mystery of Mara’s body? Mara, who could read my thoughts. For, secretly, I would often beguile myself with the conceit of being a new Faust, and learn the secrets of the natural world and of that occult one which is so close but yet so far from us.

Cold hand in mine, she led me down the path that led under the hill.

“You know who I am,” Mara teased. “But you have put it from your mind. A wise fool indeed.”

“You are Lilith, you are Hecate.”

“Just Mara,” she said, as clumsily I tried to kiss her and she easily evaded me.

A strange silver light, like a will-o’-the-wisp, danced before us as down, ever down we went, showing a way through what else would have been grave-dark. For it seemed that walls of earth surrounded us, until we came to the gate of that city of the dead, beneath the hill.

Mara fell into my arms at last, like one surrendering to a deep need whose satisfaction had been long denied to them. Her lips burnt mine with their cold as she bit and sucked, and a feeling of release from all care took hold of me as I let her drink.

“It is gone already.”

Mara stepped back, out of my arms, and I saw the smear of blood on her lips.

“My soul, you mean. That is long gone,” I answered truly. “Taken by another, freely given by me. Why, even your little moonchild knew that… recognized a similar loss in herself, perhaps.”

A veil clouded my sight as I spoke, and Mara slipped away like a shadow.

Confounded, I peered into the dark, calling her name. Tearing at the spider web on the bars of the gate, I looked into the necropolis that was washed with a pale light like that from a subterranean moon. A place of luxurious foliage of horrid nurture it was, and I thought of how by day it was above ground, of that I was sure, but by night below.

Those who walk restless when by rights they should lie quiet made themselves known, drawing near between the tumbled graves to call and to beckon. None of them was Mara — she was not of those poor spirits, but a much more terrible thing.

A lock fell from the gate, leaving but one now to bar it. Those that walked within shuddered and drew closer. I recoiled from them, and hurried back up that tunnel through the hill, that grave-mound, until at last I was in the open with the light of moon and stars blazing above.

Soon I was home and abed, but again my night was one of fret.

An invisible bed-mate clung leech-close to me, draining my body. My tired eyes conjured shadows into phantasmagorical shapes, all becoming that of Mara, who tantalized me so that I cried out aloud for her. Until, with the dawn, I looked from my window to assure myself that I was still on the Earth and had not yet been taken below.

* * *

Later, as I approached the bridge over the creek, I saw that a crowd had gathered there and curiously joined them to look.

On the mud of the bank stood a group of men, who raised a figure covered by a sheet to silently bear it upon their shoulders. They used her more gently, I think, than anyone ever had in her poor life. The cover fell to reveal her face, the shorn red hair, the blank eyes that looked up at me. A woman cried out and another began a prayer; a man said what a shame it was that such a pretty thing had done that to herself.

The sheet was pulled back over her face, dead and white as the moon’s, and I hurried down to the station, reaching it as the rain began to fall as tears of grief.

* * *

That evening, on my reluctant return to Mabbs End — I should not have returned at all, perhaps then Mara might have left me alone — the rain had become a downpour. I found my perversity in daring this danger, for that was what I knew it to be, quite frankly, amazing. By the time I reached the bridge I was soaked through, but I ignored this chilly discomfort for I anticipated meeting Mara. That we would encounter each other again I did not doubt.

I stood on the beach watching the torrent of water run down the creek and the reflection of a gas lamp flickering in the flood. Or was it the pale face of a lost girl, a moonchild, a dream child, a love child, my wish-child, seeking for her soul?

Wearily, I climbed Mabbs Hill, looking all around me for Mara. But the murk-black rain fell in sheets, and I could see little. I kept vigil under the shelter of an oak until, when I was on the point of giving up, I felt her presence by me and saw that she stood near, watching me with a raptorial smile. Her uncovered hair gleamed slick with the rain that ran down the valley between her breasts.

“I cannot escape you,” she purred. “We meet together in mist and frost, now rain, you strange man without a soul. I am curious about what you were given for it. Was it a good price?”

“That is no business of yours. It is long gone and there is nothing that you could give me that I would want.”

“I have a web, cunningly fashioned, in which souls are trapped. When I wish to feed, I pluck one out and drink.” She laughed, and her teeth showed sharp. “I like to play with them too, pull their wings off. For they take the form of moths, each with a human face, and yours, I think, is one among them.”

Mara came close to me, and I was like to fall into the trap of her eyes but turned mine away. Her lips touched my ear as she whispered, and I thought of those sharp teeth and my blood in that mouth, and could not help but flinch from them.

“Come with me,” tempted Mara, “and I shall show you such wonders. I know where your soul is. Shall I give it back?”

“It is not yours to give,” I answered, and remembered the red-haired girl, the moonchild, with her pale-dead face, and knew what I must do. “But you may take me there with you, under the hill to see, for I am curious.”

The earth of Mabbs Hill parted before her, it seemed, and we were at the gate of the necropolis, a city for those dead interred deeper than any could imagine, save in nightmare.

The third lock fell from the gate and it drew open, pulled, it seemed, by invisible hands. Through the gate we went and to a great tomb about which, shining silver in the light of that mock-moon, a thick web clung. Pale as bone, the orb shining below ground. I knew it for the face of Mara by the smear of blood, the Grave-Queen’s mask watching over her dominion.

In the web were held poor struggling things, those caught in the moon-spider’s net, trawled by that Mara.

I looked closely, on the web. Seeing her, I plucked the moth-girl carefully from the holding strands and blew my breath on her until a shiver throbbed there. Unsteadily, with beating wings, she rose from my hand and flitted about, unsure of which way to turn.

I watched her unsteady flutter, willing her to fly away. But, after a few moments of confused flitting, the moth-girl fell back, straight as an arrow, to the web, willingly caught again in its toils.

“You should have taken her with you,” said Mara. “Perhaps put her in a bottle to look at when it pleased you to. A curiosity to show your friends — a moth with a girl’s flower-face. No better off than she is in my web. I could have given her to you, your little red witch, bound with thongs made of her own hair. It was very long, and there was more than enough for that.”

Enough, too, to tie a tether about my heart. Though my soul was gone, I still had that to my sorrow. I knew that between myself and Mara there could be but one thing. My hand shook as I unsheathed the swordstick’s blade, and she looked at me with such terrible desire.

“Would you like to cut me with your steel?” she mocked as I hesitated. “See me bleed? I can always obtain a sufficiency of blood, so will take no harm. I will scream most prettily for you too, if that is your need. You may do anything to me, anything you desire, and all I want from you is but a kiss.”

The guise fell from her like a discarded garment, and she snarled like a beast — the fangs that bite, the lips that suck, and the tongue to lap the blood.

I did not hesitate but, with one swift motion, sunk my sword into the creature’s body. Cold iron is a sovereign remedy against the powers of the air, the undead, those too much alive for the good of mankind.

She uttered a groan at my thrust, the sound of one far gone in passion. Then, to my horror, with a mocking and ironic bow, she herself withdrew the blade from her own flesh to hand it back to me. In a moment the deep wound that I had caused her miraculously healed itself before my eyes, leaving not a mark there.

“You have had your will of me,” purred Mara. “Now I will take from you. That is only fair.”

She seized me, and I was held helpless as she bit. I felt a brief instant of vertigo, sickening in its intensity, followed by a burning joy that was too soon over. My head spinning, I fell to the ground and lay there, looking up at her like a drunkard gazing at the moon.

“You are mine for ever, but then you always have been — all men are.”

I saw my blood smearing her grinning lips, and staggered to my feet. Again, in a frenzy, I struck at her with my sword, slashing at the flesh as she mocked. Her blood steamed molten as those fires within the earth. At last my arm grew weary, and the glamour fell from my eyes to reveal what had been destroyed.

Hacked and black with blood, the poor carrion lay before me. I was no longer beneath the mound of Mabbs Hill, as it had seemed, but upon our middle earth where the rain had ceased and the betraying moon burst through cloud to reveal what I had done. A hand, completely severed, pointed up in accusation at me, and I shuddered in horror at my crime.

Then, uttering a laugh such as demons give, Mara rose up before me, bearing no trace of a wound upon her bare body. Again I was in that netherworld where she ruled her get, who gathered about to mock and jeer me.

I fled, uselessly trying to pull shut the gates against her, but they would not move. Three locks had fallen and now naught could keep them down.

Wildly I ran. Reaching the crest of Mabbs Hill, all out of breath, I had to stop. Mara danced past me, leading her children — dancing like moths then changing before my eyes to human form — beautiful and tempting to a man… and to a woman too. Her sons and daughters who mockingly saluted me, their liberator, as they passed to plague the world with their dreadful appetites.

Mara had been playing a game with me, using me for sport and to free her progeny, who now walk among us, another legion among the many who torment humanity. The moonchild was among them, her red hair was long again, enough to bind a man’s heart and soul, and she tried to take my hand. But I fled from her, though she cried out a promise to always follow…

* * *

I soon left London, and at Cambridge I found one of Mara’s spawn. She tried to drink from me, but I overwhelmed her and threw the body into the river Cam. I can never look down over a bridge since, nor into water, for she revealed her true form as Mara’s long dark hair spread out like a Medusa and her black eyes stared at me.

In Berlin I carefully dissected and left parts of her body scattered about the city. While about this task, she accosted me in the Alexandraplatz and laughed at her joke.

I have tried so many times but should know this: one cannot slay the slayer, the cruel mother, bringer of nightmare, blood-drinking grave-queen, the moon-witch Kali, Mater Tenebrarum, call her as you will. She who rules the dark places, Our Lady of Shadow and Darkness, who is after all the true queen of this world and of the one below.

Marc Laidlaw

Cell Call

Marc Laidlaw was born in Los Angeles, spent many years in San Francisco, and currently lives in Redmond, Washington, with his wife and daughters.

His novels include Dad’s Nuke, Neon Lotus, {California, The Orchid Eater, The Third Force and The 37th Mandala (winner of the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel). In 1997, he joined Valve Software in order to write and design computer games, beginning with the very successful Half-Life.

“It must be a writer’s reflex to encounter a new piece of technology and wonder impulsively, ‘How can I get a story out of this?’“ speculates Laidlaw. “More specifically, for this writer, a ghost story. The attraction is to figure out the latest twist on something very old. The danger is that such stories may age very poorly — especially if the object of the piece is something faddish and prone to fade.

“I wrote this story in an evening and didn’t show it to a soul for four years. I suppose I was waiting to see if it might be rendered obsolete before I pinned any hopes on it. Also, it is a story that depresses me immensely, but since that was sort of the point, I can’t blame the poor story for the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to touch it again until very recently.”

* * *

He wasn’t used to the cell phone yet, and when it rang in the car there was a moment of uncomfortable juggling and panic as he dug down one-handed into the pocket of his jacket, which he’d thrown onto the passenger seat. He nipped the end of the antenna in his teeth and pulled, fumbling for the “on” button in the dark, hoping she wouldn’t hang up before he figured this out. Then he had to squeeze the phone between ear and shoulder because he needed both hands to finish the turn he’d been slowing to make when the phone rang. He realized then that for a moment he’d had his eyes off the road. He was not someone who could drive safely while conducting a conversation, and she ought to know that. Still, she’d insisted he get a cell phone. So here he was.

“Hello?” he said, knowing he sounded frantic.

“Hi.” It was her. “Where are you?”

“I’m in the car.”

“Where?”

“Does it matter that much?”

“I only meant, are you on your way home? Because if you are I wanted to see if you could pick up a pack of cigarettes. If you have money.”

“I’m on my way home, yes.” He squinted through the window for a familiar landmark, but considering the turn he’d just taken, he knew he was on a stretch of older suburban road where the streetlights were infrequent. There was parkland here, somewhere, and no houses visible. “But I don’t think there’s a store between here and home.”

“You’ll pass one on the way.”

“How do you know which way I went?”

“There’s only one way to go.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“If you have any sense, there is.”

“I have to get off. I can’t drive and talk at the same time. I’m driving the stick-shift, remember?”

“If you don’t want to then forget it.”

“No, I don’t mind. I’ll take a detour.”

“Just forget it. Come home. I’ll go out later.”

“No, really. I’ll get them.”

“Whatever. Goodbye.”

He took the phone out of the vice he’d made with jaw and shoulder. His neck was already starting to cramp, and he didn’t feel safe driving with his head at such an angle, everything leaning on its side. He had to hold the phone out in front of him a bit to be sure the light had gone out. It had. The read-out still glowed faintly, but the connection was broken. He dropped the phone onto the seat beside him, onto the jacket.

The parkland continued for another few blocks. The headlights caught in a tangle of winter-bared hedges and stripped branches thrusting out into the street so far that they hid the sidewalk. It would be nice to find a house this close to woods, a bit of greenbelt held in perpetuity for when everything else had been bought up and converted into luxury townhouses. If all went well then in the next year, maybe less, they’d be shopping for a house in the area. Something close to his office but surrounded by trees, a view of mountains, maybe a stream running behind the house. It was heaven here but still strange, and even after six months most of it remained unfamiliar to him. She drove much more than he did, keeping busy while he was at work; she knew all the back roads already. He had learned one or two fairly rigid routes between home and office and the various shopping strips. Now with winter here, and night falling so early, he could lose himself completely the moment he wandered from a familiar route.

That seemed to be the case now. In the dark, without any sort of landmark visible except for endless bare limbs, he couldn’t recognize his surroundings. The houses that should have been lining the streets by now were nowhere to be seen, and the road itself was devoid of markings: No center line, no clean curb or gutter. Had he turned into the parkland, off the main road? He tried to think back, but part of his memory was a blank — and for good reason. When the phone rang he’d lost track of everything else. There had been a moment when he was fumbling around in the dark, looking at the seat next to him, making a turn at a traffic light without making sure it was the right light. He could have taken the wrong turn completely.

But he hadn’t turned since then. It still wasn’t too late to backtrack.

He slowed the car, then waited to make sure no headlights were coming up behind him. Nothing moved in either direction. The road was narrow — definitely not a paved suburban street. Branches scraped the hood as he pulled far to the right, readying the car for a tight turn, his headlights raking the brittle shadows. He paused for a moment and rolled the window down, and then turned back the key in the ignition to shut off the motor. Outside, with the car quieted, it was hushed. He listened for the barking of dogs, the sigh of distant traffic, but heard nothing. A watery sound, as if the parkland around him were swamp or marsh, lapping at the roots of the trees that hemmed him in. He wasn’t sure that he had room to actually turn around; the road was narrower than he’d thought. He had better just back up until it widened.

He twisted the key and heard nothing. Not even a solenoid click. He put his foot on the gas and the pedal went straight to the floor, offering no resistance. The brake was the same. He stamped on the clutch, worked the gearshift through its stations — but the stick merely swiveled then lolled to the side when he released it. The car had never felt so useless.

He sat for a moment, not breathing, the thought of the repair bills surmounting the sudden heap of new anxieties. A walk in the dark, to a gas station? First, the difficulty of simply getting back to the road. Did he have a flashlight in the glove-box? Was he out of gas? Would he need a jump-start or a tow? In a way, it was a relief that he was alone, because his own fears were bad enough without hers overwhelming him.

He started again, checking everything twice. Ignition, pedals, gears. All useless. At least the headlights and the dashboard were still shining. He rolled up the window and locked the door. How long should he sit here? Who was going to come along and…

The phone.

Jesus, the cell phone. How he had put off buying one, in spite of her insistence. He didn’t care for the feeling that someone might always have tabs on him, that he could never be truly alone. What was it people were so afraid of, how could their lives be so empty, and their solitude of so little value, that they had to have a phone with them at every minute, had to keep in constant chattering contact with someone, anyone? Ah, how he had railed at every driver he saw with the phone in one hand and the other lying idly on the steering wheel. And now, for the first time, he turned to the damned thing with something like hope and relief. He wasn’t alone in this after all.

The cell phone had some memory but he’d never programmed it because he relied on his own. He dialed his home number and waited through the rings, wondering if she was going to leave the answering machine to answer, as she sometimes did — especially if they had been fighting and she expected him to call back. But she answered after three rings.

“It’s me,” he said.

“And?” Cold. He was surprised she hadn’t left the machine on after all.

“And my car broke down.”

“It what?”

“Right after you called me, I got…” He hesitated to say lost; he could anticipate what sort of response that would get out of her. “I got off the regular track and I was looking to turn around and the engine died. Now it won’t start.”

“The regular track? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that I, uh-”

“You got lost.” The scorn, the condescension. “Where are you?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Can you look at a street sign? Do you think you could manage that much or am I supposed to figure out everything myself?”

“I don’t see any,” he said. “I’m just wondering if something happened to the engine. Maybe I could take a look.”

“Oh, right. Don’t be ridiculous. What do you know about cars?”

He popped the hood and got out of the car. It was an excuse to move, to pace. He couldn’t sit still when she was like this. It was as if he thought he’d be harder to hit if he made a moving target of himself. Now he raised the hood and leaned over it, saying, “Ah,” as if he’d discovered something. But all he could see beneath the hood was darkness, as if something had eaten away the workings of the car. The headlights streamed on either side of his legs, losing themselves in the hedges, but their glare failed to illuminate whatever was directly before his eyes.

“Uh…”

“You don’t know what you’re looking at.”

“It’s too dark,” he said. “There aren’t any streetlights here.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Maybe I got into a park or something. Just a minute.” He slammed the hood, wiped his gritty-feeling fingers on his legs, and went back to the door. “There are lots of roads around here with no lights… it’s practically…” He pressed the door handle. “… Wild…”

At his lengthy silence, she said, “What is it?”

“Uh… just a sec.”

The door was locked. He peered into the car, and could see the keys dangling in the ignition. He tried the other doors, but they were also locked. They were power doors, power windows, power locks. Some kind of general electrical failure, probably a very small thing, had rendered the car completely useless. Except for the headlights?

“What is it?” she said again.

“The keys… are in… the car.” He squeezed hard on the door handle, wrenching at it, no luck.

“Do you mean you’re locked out?”

“I, uh, do you have the insurance card? The one with the emergency service number on it?”

“I have one somewhere. Where’s yours?”

“In the glove-box.”

“And you’re locked out.”

“It looks that way.”

Her silence was recrimination enough. And here came the condescension: “All right, stay where you are. I’ll come get you. We can call the truck when I’m there, or wait until morning. I was just about to get in bed, but I’ll come and bring you home. Otherwise you’ll just get soaked.”

Soaked, he thought, tipping his head to the black sky. He had no sense of clouds or stars, no view of either one. It was just about the time she’d have been lying in bed watching the news; there must have been rain in the forecast. And here he was, locked out, with no coat.

“How are you going to find me?” he asked.

“There are only so many possible wrong turns you could have taken.”

“I don’t even remember any woods along this road.”

“That’s because you never pay attention.”

“It was right past the intersection with the big traffic light.”

“I know exactly where you are.”

“I got confused when you called me,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at the road. Anyway, you’ll see my headlights.”

“I have to throw on some clothes. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

It was an unusually protracted farewell for such a casual conversation. He realized that he was holding the phone very tightly in the dark, cradling it against his cheek and ear as if he were holding her hand to his face, feeling her skin cool and warm at the same time. And now there was no further word from her. Connection broken.

He had to fight the impulse to dial her again, instantly, just to reassure himself that the phone still worked — that she was still there. He could imagine her ridicule: he was slowing her down, she was trying to get dressed, he was causing yet another inconvenience on top of so many others.

With the conversation ended, he was forced to return his full attention to his surroundings. He listened, heard again the wind, the distant sound of still water. Still water which made sounds only when it lapped against something, or when something waded through it. He couldn’t tell one from the other right now. He wished he were still inside the car, with at least that much protection.

She was going to find him. He’d been only a few minutes, probably less than a mile, from home. She would be here any time.

He waited, expecting raindrops. The storm would come, it would short out his phone. There was absolutely no shelter on the empty road, now that he had locked himself out of the car. He considered digging for a rock, something big enough to smash the window, so he could pull the lock and let himself in. But his mistake was already proving costly enough; he couldn’t bring himself to compound the problem. Anyway, it wasn’t raining yet. And she would be here any minute now.

It was about time to check in with her, he thought. She had to be in her car by now. Did he need a better excuse for calling her?

Well, here was one: The headlights were failing.

Just like that, as if they were on a dimmer switch. Both at once, darkening, taken down in less than a minute to a dull stubborn glow. It was a minute of total helpless panic; he was saved from complete horror only by the faint trace of light that remained. Why didn’t they go out all the way? By the time he’d asked himself this, he realized that his wife had now lost her beacon. That was news. It was important to call her now.

He punched the redial number. That much was easy. The phone rang four times and the machine answered, and then he had to restrain himself from smashing the phone on the roof of the car. She wouldn’t be at home, would she? She’d be on the road by now, looking for him, cruising past dark lanes and driveways, the entrance to some wooded lot, hoping to see his stalled headlights — and there would be none.

What made all this worse was that he couldn’t remember the number of her cell phone. He refused to call her on it, arguing that she might be driving if he called her, and he didn’t want to cause an accident.

Should he… head away from the car? Blunder back along the dark road without a flashlight until he came in sight of the street? Wouldn’t she be likely to spot him coming down the road, a pale figure stumbling through the trees, so out of place?

But he couldn’t bring himself to move away. The car was the only familiar thing in his world right now.

There was no point breaking the window. The horn wouldn’t sound if the battery had died. No point in doing much of anything now. Except wait for her to find him.

Please call, he thought. Please please please call. I have something to tell-The phone chirped in his hand. He stabbed the on button.

“Yes?”

“I’m coming,” she said.

“The headlights just died,” he said. “You’re going to have to look closely. For a… a dark road, a park entrance, maybe…”

“I know,” she said, her voice tense. He pictured her leaning forward, driving slowly, squinting out the windshield at the street-sides. “The rain’s making it hard to see a damn thing.”

“Rain,” he said. “It’s raining where you are?”

“Pouring.”

“Then… where are you? It’s dry as a bone here.” Except for the sound of water, the stale exhalation of the damp earth around him.

“I’m about three blocks from the light.”

“Where I was turning?”

“Where you got turned around. It’s all houses here. I thought there was park. There is some park, just ahead… that’s what I was thinking off. But…”

He listened, waiting. And now he could hear her wipers going, sluicing the windshield; he could hear the sizzle of rain under her car’s tires. A storm. He stared at the sky even harder than before. Nothing up there. Nothing coming down.

“But what?” he said finally.

“There’s a gate across the road. You couldn’t have gone through there.”

“Check it,” he said. “Maybe it closed behind me.”

“I’m going on,” she said. “I’ll go to the light and start back, see if I missed anything.”

“Check the gate.”

“It’s just a park, it’s nothing. You’re in woods, you said?”

“Woods, marsh, parkland, something. I’m on a dirt road. There are… bushes all around, and I can hear water.”

“Ah…”

What was that in her voice?

“I can… wait a minute… I thought I could see you, but…”

“What?” He peered into the darkness. She might be looking at him even now, somehow seeing him while he couldn’t see her.

“It isn’t you,” she said. “It’s a car, like yours, but… it’s not yours. That… that’s not you, that’s not your…”

“What’s going on?” The headlights died all the way down.

“Please, can you keep on talking to me?” she said. “Can you please just keep talking to me and don’t stop for a minute?”

“What’s the matter? Tell me what’s going on?”

“I need to hear you keep talking, please, please,” and whatever it was in her voice that was wrenching her, it wrenched at him too, it was tearing at both of them in identical ways, and he knew he just had to keep talking. He had to keep her on the phone.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Whatever it is. I won’t make you stop and tell me now, if you don’t want to talk, if you just want to listen,” he said. “I love you,” he said, because surely she needed to hear that. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m just, I wish you could talk to me but-”

“No, you talk,” she said. “I have to know you’re all right, because this isn’t, that’s not, it can’t be…”

“Sh. Shhh. I’m talking now.”

“Tell me where you are again.”

“I’m standing by my car,” he said. “I’m in a dark wooded place, there’s some water nearby, a pond or marsh judging from the sound, and it’s not raining, it’s kind of warm and damp but it’s not raining. It’s quiet. It’s dark. I’m not… I’m not afraid,” and that seemed an important thing to tell her, too. “I’m just waiting, I’m fine, I’m just waiting here for you to get to me, and I know you will. Everything will be… fine.”

“It’s raining where I am,” she said. “And I’m…” She swallowed. “And I’m looking at your car.”

Static, then, a cold blanket of it washing out her voice. The noise swelled, peaked, subsided, and the phone went quiet. He pushed the redial button, then remembered that she had called him and not the other way round. It didn’t matter, though. The phone was dead. He wouldn’t be calling anyone, and no one would be calling him.

I’ll walk back to that road now, he thought. While there’s still a chance she can find me.

He hefted the cell phone, on the verge of tossing it overhand out into the unseen marshes. But there was always a chance that some faint spark remained inside it; that he’d get a small blurt of a ring, a wisp of her voice, something. He put it in a pocket so he wouldn’t lose it in the night.

He tipped his face to the sky and put out his hand before he started walking.

Not a drop.

It’s raining where I am, and I’m looking at your car.

Pauline E. Dungate

In the Tunnels

Pauline E. Dungate lives in Birmingham, England, and is a teacher at the local Nature Centre. Her stories have appeared in such anthologies as Skin of the Soul, Narrow Houses, Swords Against the Millennium, Birmingham Noir, Birmingham Nouveau, Merlin, Victorious Villains and Warrior Fantastic.

She has won awards for her poetry and has also written numerous critical articles and reviews under the name “Pauline Morgan”. One of the leaders of the Cannon Hill Writers’ Group, her other interests include gardening, cooking, truck driving and bat watching.

As the author explains, “‘In the Tunnels’ is a drawing-together of a number of things seen around Birmingham or garnered over the years. Often, I start with an image and let the other things fall into place around it. In this case it was a pupil I used to teach. When he left school, at sixteen, he was still only about five feet tall. He had a round, gnome-like face and his front teeth were pointed. And he often wore Wellingtons to school.”

* * *

The platform of Birmingham’s Moor Street Station was crowded. Late shoppers and office workers stood crushed together waiting for the Leamington train. Bernie, who wanted the one that followed, stood out of the way near the mouth of the tunnel. It fascinated him, this dark cavern that ran under the city and disgorged trains at regular intervals. He had walked through it once, just before they had reopened the rail link between Moor Street and Snow Hill, the station at its far end. But there had been too many people on that special trek for him to be able to appreciate fully its echoing magnificence.

Just a minute or so before the train arrived, there was a disturbance. Shouting distracted Bernie from his contemplation of underground places. As he turned he saw a ripple of movement and a child-sized figure belting along the platform towards him, weaving and barging between commuters. Vaguely registering the cries of “Stop, thief!” Bernie prepared to make a grab for the boy. The child slowed, grinned at him and leapt onto the rails.

“Ilyas!” Bernie would have plunged after him if someone hadn’t grabbed him from behind.

The figure disappeared into the tunnel moments before the lights of the train became visible round the curve in the track. He tensed, waiting for the impact. But the carriages drew quietly into the station. Doors banged open as passengers scrambled for seats, emptying the platform of all but those waiting for the Stratford train, and a small knot of people halfway along.

“D’ya know the kid, sir?” the porter who had restrained him asked Bernie.

“Yes… no… it couldn’t have been,” he stuttered.

“But yer got a good look?”

“Yes, but…”

“An’ yer’d know ‘im agin?”

“I think so.”

“Could yer come an’ ‘ave a word with the station manager, then?”

Bernie glanced at the clock. The yellow numbers flicked over to show 17:39, one minute to his train. His mother would hardly notice if he was late for tea. She never did. “If you think I can help,” he said.

There was a policeman in the Station Manager’s office when they finally showed Bernie in. A tearful woman was being led out as he entered.

“Now, young man, the constable would like you to answer a few questions if you don’t mind.”

Bernie nodded and gave his name and address.

“Do you know the bag-snatcher?” the policeman asked.

“No, sir. He just looked a bit like someone I knew at school.”

“What was his name?”

“Ilyas. I can’t remember his other name. He was in my class, that’s all.”

“This lad was about twelve,” the manager said.

That’s why it couldn’t be him, Bernie thought. He wouldn’t recognize most of the kids from school, just the few he saw sometimes down the market, like Javad who’d nick things off the stall if he wasn’t watching, or Shazad who had a club foot. In six years, Ilyas was sure to have grown a bit, and changed.

The phone rang part-way through the interview. The manager listened, nodding his head from time to time. When he cradled the receiver he spoke to the constable.

“He hasn’t come out at Snow Hill yet. And none of the drivers have seen anyone on the track.”

The policeman wrote it down in his notebook.

Finally, they let Bernie go, just in time to catch the 18:40, the manager saying, “Thank you so much for your help, young man.”

It was dark and raining when the train pulled out. Bernie sat staring at his reflection in the window, seeing the round, grinning face of Ilyas as he passed under the bridges that muted the sound of the wheels. Whoever the boy was, he couldn’t have disappeared.

* * *

Bernie found himself searching crowds for familiar faces, especially those pushing their way through the market towards the subway leading to the station. He found it easy to superimpose features on his customers at the fruit stall. Once he was sure he caught sight of the small, dark-haired figure of Ilyas disappearing behind an unloading lorry. When the boy re-emerged he could see clearly that it wasn’t. But from the back…

“Stop daydreaming, lad. We’ve got customers,” his boss told him.

Bernie blinked and stared down at the change he was clasping tightly. He grinned nervously and handed it to the old lady who counted the coins carefully before stowing them in her purse.

“Where’s me oranges?” she said.

Bernie passed her the bag, thankful that no one could see his blushes.

“I don’t know what’s got into you recently, lad,” his boss said later when they were clearing away. “You’ve been a pretty good worker up till now. Don’t spoil it.”

Bernie gave himself a mental shake and resolved to concentrate.

At the station, Bernie took to standing as close to the tunnel entrance as he could. He remembered the Station Manager’s words about the boy not coming out at the other end. There were caverns under Birmingham, he had heard. Vast concrete hangars where they had stored supplies in the war. Perhaps there was a way in through the tunnel. He couldn’t remember any side branches on the day he had walked through.

Bernie decided that he had to go through the tunnel again. Instead of heading for Moor Street as he usually did, he set off across town, deliberately choosing a roundabout route to take him through as many underpasses as possible. He liked the enclosed spaces and wished there were fewer people around. He wanted to hear his own footsteps echo from the walls.

There was a busker in the underpass leading to the main-line station, a bald, elderly violinist whose squeaky music followed Bernie as he passed.

He walked through Old Square. They were just locking the basement doors to Lewis’s. He could see the security man of the department store through the heavy plate glass as he slid the bolts into place. Then down the ramp and past the toilets. Bernie hadn’t realized there were so many small men in the city centre. There was another of them leaning on a broom in the entrance to the gents’. He looked like a gnome.

Bernie glanced at his watch and began to hurry. He didn’t want to miss the train.

The trip was a little disappointing. He managed to get a seat at the front so that he could see through the driver’s cab and out onto the track but it was difficult to watch both sides at once. There were lights strung all along the tunnel and although he could see the shadows of archways set into the walls he missed any dark opening leading away.

Under Colmore Circus, he saw Ilyas again. Bernie had taken to staying later and later in the market area, taking the most circuitous route he could devise to the station and lingering in the empty subways. Some were shabby and rubbish-filled and stank of urine. Others had murals painted on them or incised in the tiles. He was surprised how little graffiti was added to those pictures; the street artists seemed to confine their efforts to the railway, scarring the walls along the lines with their spray-on paint.

Sometimes a subway would open out into an oasis of green.

* * *

The walls of the Horsefair had a delicate mosaic depicting the old market, and plants grew unmolested in the centre. Bernie had almost forgotten his search for Ilyas in his growing delight at the variety of underground passages.

Then he saw him. The small figure had his back to him as he crossed the open space under the traffic island. Ilyas disappeared behind a supporting pillar. Bernie hurried after him.

“Ilyas!” he called.

The boy stopped and turned. Ilyas was exactly as he had been six years before, when they had both walked out of school for the last time. They had never been friends, and Bernie remembered him most for his broken front teeth and the fact that he only ever seemed to wear wellies to school.

“It is Ilyas, isn’t it?” Bernie said.

Ilyas grinned.

“It’s me. Bernie Robinson. From school.”

“Hi,” Ilyas said.

“What are you doing these days?” It was an inane question but Bernie couldn’t think of anything else to say. He couldn’t very well ask if the other boy had been stealing handbags.

Ilyas shrugged. “Working for my uncle.”

“I’ve got a job in the market,” Bernie said. “Selling fruit.”

“That’s nice. See you around.” And Ilyas disappeared into the shadows so quickly that Bernie hardly saw him go. Bernie started after him, reluctant to lose him after all this time; but the doorway he thought Ilyas had gone through was only a locked service duct. Bernie looked round, expecting to see Ilyas hurrying up one of the ramps. There was a movement to his left that quickly stilled when he turned that way and an echo that might have been laughter, or the tail end of a whistled tune. The only other person in sight was an old tramp whom Bernie was now used to seeing around town. He believed he slept on the steps outside the NatWest bank.

* * *

People didn’t disappear into walls. Only ghosts did that and Bernie didn’t believe in ghosts. Ilyas was real. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that there was a way underground. Probably several ways.

He made up his mind and bought himself the most powerful torch he could find, and some spare batteries. He chose a Saturday night for his exploration, after the trains had ceased to run on the branch line, and caught the night-service bus into town. If graffiti artists could get onto the railway line so, Bernie reasoned, could he.

The subways, now totally deserted, resounded to the echoes of his footsteps. Bernie was torn between increasing the resonance of the sounds by stamping his feet and a desire for silence — since he was about to break the law.

The station was locked up as expected but next to the old part was a rutted car-parking lot surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Bernie glanced around quickly before sauntering in through the gate. He had expected to have to climb the swaying fence but it lay trampled in the dirt by other feet. He crossed boldly. To his left the old part of the station was secured from intruders, the fencing topped with vicious twists of barbed wire.

Bernie stepped over the rusting rails and walked round, past the sign that warned NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT.

Finally, he stood between the rails, looking into the maw of the tunnel. It was lightless. A solid wall of dark, facing him. Beckoning. His heart thudded with excitement — and with fear. Bernie took two steps inside, then another two. The sound of the gravel beneath his feet was loud but muffled, as though the black air tried to erase his presence while the curved walls wanted to advertise it. He felt everything was being focused back on him.

He looked back and was reassured by the paler arch that marked the cavernous mouth, an orange-tinted grey fed by the lights of the city above. Bernie switched on his torch and began to walk slowly, swinging the beam from side to side, scanning the soot-coloured brickwork for doorways, anything that would suggest a way underground. A rat, startled by the light, scuttled along the bottom of the wall and vanished into a recess. Bernie ran his hands over the brickwork, hunting for an opening. Nothing.

He went on.

At one point he switched off the torch and just stood. The darkness was total. Out of sight of either tunnel mouth it enfolded him gently. Far above he could hear the occasional rumble of passing cars. There was the odd tick of metal and mortar contracting. Bernie shivered. It was cooler than he had expected. It was supposed to get warmer, the further you went underground.

He found it almost by accident. A streamer of paper had caught on the cable that was strung between the lamps. It stirred in a ghostly breeze as the torch beam flashed past it. Bernie looked upwards, expecting to see some shaft burrowing from the tunnel’s roof to the surface and creating a draught. There was none. Neither was there a discernible wind blowing through the tunnel itself. He stood still wondering if his own movements had caused the fluttering. But no — the strip still jigged about in the torchlight.

Bernie crouched next to it, feeling for the airstream. He traced it to a crack at the base of the wall in another of the alcoves. He pushed tentatively. The brickwork seemed solid until he tapped it. It had a hollow ring. There was no fastening that he could see. He pushed harder, in all the places and directions that he could think of.

He grinned in the darkness as a panel slipped suddenly sideways. He shone the torch through the opening. It was a service passage running parallel with the tunnel and connected with it by a short linking corridor, five paces long. Cables and pipes stretched in both directions, but there was room for a small man to move carefully between them.

Bernie jumped as the panel slid and snicked back into place. He felt a momentary rise of panic as his beam caught the blank, closed wall. A quick check showed how easy it was to open again.

Bernie turned right towards Snow Hill. It was damp here, condensation forming and dripping from the ducts to form intermittent puddles. Some pipes gurgled with the passage of water through them.

There was a grille in the wall a little way along that slid to the side like the door of an old-fashioned lift. Peering through, Bernie could see steps spiralling down. The passage was tiled with pale blue. It reminded him of the steps leading down to the lower levels of some of London ’s Underground stations. He’d spent a week’s holiday there two years ago, haunting the network and wishing he could follow the trains that burrowed into the earth like giant worms.

The gate was secured by a rusted padlock. Bernie stared longingly into the inviting gloom before searching for something to break it with. The penknife he always carried was too flimsy, the blade bending as he twisted it in the catch. He needed a more sturdy length of metal, like a screwdriver. He cast around, without much hope, for something suitable. The piece of wood he found snapped the moment he applied force to it.

Bernie tugged viciously at the padlock in his frustration. The loop snapped. It lay in the palm of his hand for a few moments before he realized what had happened. Then he carefully put it in his pocket. Passing through the gate, he pulled it almost closed behind him, satisfied that he could get out easily.

His footsteps echoed, the sound bouncing and reflecting from the curving walls, continuing after he stopped. It was almost as if there were someone simultaneously in front of and behind him.

There was someone behind him. Another pair of shoes keeping time with him. But not quite. The click of the heels was slightly different to the slap of his trainers.

“Who’s there?” Bernie called. The cry stretched. Amplified by the stairs, it was returned to him altered: “Hoos sair”.

Bernie dithered, knowing he was trespassing. As long as he remained still, so did the other. He tried tiptoeing down, then, flashing the torch suddenly behind him, miscalculated and bashed it against the wall. The light flickered.

“You don’t scare me,” he whispered into the darkness.

“Scairee,” it came back.

The torch went out.

“Scairee,” the echo repeated.

Bernie froze. Being underground wasn’t quite so much fun any more.

He started to creep back up the steps, fingers of one hand touching the tiles, the other holding the torch up as a club.

He encountered no one.

He stumbled on the top step and sprawled across the floor, hitting his head on the gate. He hauled himself to his feet and pulled at the grid. It didn’t move. He tugged again. And heard laughing.

He thought it was just the gurgle in the pipes above him, but it continued. Chuckling at first, then louder. A demented sound. Bernie shook and rattled the gate.

“Let me out,” he shouted.

“Ow, ow, ow,” came the reply from behind him.

He clasped his hands over his ears to shut out the sounds.

He could wait, he thought, wait until morning. Until someone came.

But perhaps no one ever came.

He brushed a tickle from his cheek. It was wet. A tear. He wiped his face on his sleeve. Men didn’t cry. And there must be another way. Besides, whoever it was had been behind him.

Without light, Bernie picked his way down the stairs again, feeling for every step with his toes before committing himself. It made his legs ache. But there were no echoes.

As he descended he became aware that he could see. Not clearly. Just the dim outline of his outstretched hand. There were lights below. People.

Bernie stopped. People had locked him in. His throat was dry, his head sore and he could smell his own sweat. He edged round the last bend.

It wasn’t much of a light. A pale glowing in the distance, its source blocked by a dark shadow. Bernie sank down, his back to the wall, shivering. He was in a cavern, he realized, the roof held up by massive columns.

The wartime caverns. Now empty. What was it he had read in the newspaper? If the idea had been to convert them into a huge bus depot then there must be another way out. And the light must be a bonfire lit by vagrants. They would know.

Bernie bent his head to rest it on his knees. To calm down. To still the fear. He would walk across to them. Warm himself, ask the way. It was nothing to get fretted about.

He was right up to them before he saw them. Grey figures stooping over a pile of burning sticks. One picked up a brand and straightened. He was no taller than a twelve-year-old boy. None of them were. Slowly they reached for the flaming torches. The flames illuminated only their faces. They were round and wrinkled and ugly. Like goblins.

One smiled. His teeth were small and sharp and pointed. Bernie spun round. They were behind him too. He panicked.

He screamed. He ran, heedless of the fact that he couldn’t see.

He hit a pillar with his shoulder. He held his arms out before him and ran into another.

* * *

“Bernie, Bernie.” Someone was shaking his shoulder.

“The alarm’s not gone off,” he muttered trying to pull the blankets over his head. There weren’t any. He was cold.

“Bernie.”

His head throbbed. His shoulder ached and there was pain in one of his wrists. He knew his eyes were open but he couldn’t see.

“It’s Ilyas, Bernie. Do you remember me?”

“I can’t see you,” Bernie said.

“What are you doing here?” Ilyas asked. There was a babble of unintelligible voices around him.

“Exploring,” Bernie said.

One of the other people spoke to him. He couldn’t understand. Ilyas answered in his own tongue, then spoke to Bernie in English. “I’ve told them we were at school together. That they cannot have you.”

“What do you mean?” The feeling of panic was coming back, seeping through the pain of Bernie’s hurts. He remembered the leering faces, the pointed, eager teeth.

“You must go,” Ilyas said. “Can you stand?”

“I’m locked in. Someone locked the gate.” Bernie heard himself whining.

“I’ll show you the way.” Ilyas put his arm under Bernie’s shoulder and helped him to his feet. Bernie swayed, disorientated. He felt invisible walls pressing in on him and the weight of Birmingham descending slowly to crush him. He whimpered.

The voice in the darkness spoke again, sharply, insistently. Ilyas replied and began to lead Bernie forward.

Bernie felt hands pawing him, long nails touching his face. Ilyas spoke and they withdrew. Bernie could hear feet shuffling after them and somewhere a squeaky sound as a violin began to play. It was a dirge.

They splashed into water, which became deeper, soaking his trainers and numbing his legs inside wet trousers. The sound changed as though they were entering a narrow, enclosed space.

“This is the river Rea,” Ilyas said. “It runs underground here, down through Digbeth.”

“What’re you doing here?” Bernie asked, partly to drown out the sound of the scuffles of their followers. He felt slightly safer now. The air around was a bit warmer, though it smelt a little of sewage.

“I live here. My people always have. We steal from above when we have to, and eat what comes down to us.”

“But we were at school together.”

“Times change. We have to adapt.”

Progress was slow. Bernie staggered when he tried to walk unaided. He blundered into the tunnel wall. Pain shot up his arm from the damaged wrist.

He leant heavily on Ilyas, though it was uncomfortable due to the other’s lack of stature. There were splashings and squealings from the water.

“Just rats,” Ilyas said, “squabbling over food.”

Bernie shuddered. He would have felt happier if he could have seen the animals. Something soft brushed by him. Far behind he thought he heard howling, the kind that could emanate from human throats.

Then Bernie could see. The end of the tunnel was a small orange-grey circle in the distance. It looked much too tiny for him to get through. The shaft they were traversing began to narrow. Old brick was replaced by smooth concrete. The water, concentrated into the compressed space, was deeper and swirled faster, tugging at his legs.

“You will have to crawl,” Ilyas said. “There was no time to fetch the raft.”

He tried, but his wrist gave way, throwing him into the water. He screamed with pain and swallowed foul-tasting liquid. He surfaced, spluttering and sobbing.

“I can’t,” he said.

“You must. I can’t keep them away for ever. There’s a grid at the end but it lifts up easy. I used to come this way to school most days.”

Bernie dragged himself through the tube. Cold and soaked, he kept watching the patch of light.

Ilyas started back the other way, whispering a hasty, “Goodbye.”

* * *

Bernie peered through bars set about nine inches apart. Beyond them the river ran between steep banks, above which were silhouetted buildings outlined by sodium lights. The fringes of the water were studded with the debris of city life. He could hear the sound of an occasional car.

A piece of chicken wire stretched across the bottom of the bars, catching paper, twigs and gnawed bones as the river flowed out of he culvert. The gate itself had been repaired recently and was held in place by shiny new bolts. By reaching through, Bernie could just reach them. He had drawn one when he heard the snuffling behind him, and a whispering. He stretched for the other. Refusing to glance behind, he stared out at freedom, and at the four men who were walking towards him.

A street lamp created a brighter pool of light, illuminating the round wizened face and the pointed teeth.

Dale Bailey

Hunger: A Confession

Dale Bailey lives in Hickory, North Carolina, with his wife Jean and daughter Carson. A frequent contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, he has also published stories in SciFiction, Amazing Stories, Pulphouse, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Nebula Awards 31, and the two most recent collections of The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction.

His short fiction has been collected in The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories from Golden Gryphon Press. In addition to the Nebula-nominated title story, presently under option to Twentieth Century Fox, the collection includes “Death and Suffrage”, a winner of the International Horror Guild Award.

The author has also published two novels, The Fallen, a nominee for the International Horror Guild Award, and House of Bones (both from Signet). A crime novel, Sleeping Policemen, is forthcoming from Golden Gryphon, written in collaboration with Jack Slay, Jr., and a study of contemporary horror fiction, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction is published by Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Bailey also writes a regular column on death and grieving for The Dodge Magazine, published by one of the world’s leading manufacturers of embalming equipment and chemicals.

As the author recalls: “I started writing ‘Hunger: A Confession’ by longhand during a six-hour airport delay following the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention, and continued drafting the piece during the flight that followed. By the time the plane touched down, I had the first draft well in hand.” He adds that he is terrified of flying and cannot help wondering if some element of his own anxiety might have infected the piece in question.

* * *

Me, I was never afraid of the dark. It was Jeremy who bothered me — Jeremy with his black rubber spiders in my lunchbox, Jeremy with his guttural demon whisper (I’m coming to get you, Simon) just as I was drifting off to sleep, Jeremy with his stupid Vincent Prince laugh (Mwha-ha-ha-ba-ha), like some cheesy mad scientist, when he figured the joke had gone far enough. By the time I was walking, I was already shell-shocked, flinching every time I came around a corner.

I remember this time, I was five years old and I had fallen asleep on the sofa. I woke up to see Jeremy looming over me in this crazy Hallowe’en mask he’d bought: horns and pebbled skin and a big leering grin, the works. Only I didn’t realize it was Jeremy, not until he cut loose with that crazy laugh of his, and by then it was too late.

Things got worse when we left Starkville. The new house was smaller and we had to share a bedroom. That was fine with me. I was seven by then, and I had the kind of crazy love for my big brother that only little kids can feel. The thing was, when he wasn’t tormenting me, Jeremy was a great brother — like this one time he got a Chuck Foreman card in a package of Topps and he just handed it over to me because he knew the Vikings were my favorite team that year.

The room thing was hard on Jeremy, though. He’d reached that stage of adolescence when your voice has these alarming cracks and you spend a lot of time locked in the bathroom tracking hair growth and… well, you know, you were a kid once, right? So the nights got worse. I couldn’t even turn to Mom for help. She was sick at that time, and she had this frayed, wounded look. Plus, she and Dad were always talking in these strained whispers. You didn’t want to bother either one of them if you could help it.

Which left me and Jeremy alone in our bedroom. It wasn’t much to look at, just this high narrow room with twin beds and an old milk crate with a lamp on it. Out the window you could see one half-dead crab-apple tree — a crap-apple, Jeremy called it — and a hundred feet of crumbling pavement and a rusting 1974 El Camino which our neighbor had up on blocks back where the woods began. There weren’t any street lights that close to the edge of town, so it was always dark in there at night.

That was when Jeremy would start up with some crap he’d seen in a movie or something. “I heard they found a whole shitload of bones when they dug the foundation of this house,” he’d say, and he’d launch into some nutty tale about how it turned out to be an Indian burial ground, just crazy stuff like that. After a while, it would get so I could hardly breathe. Then Jeremy would unleash that crazy laugh of his. “C’mon, Si,” he’d say, “you know I’m only kidding.”

He was always sorry — genuinely sorry, you could tell by the look on his face — but it never made any difference the next night. It was like he forgot all about it. Besides, he always drifted off to sleep, leaving me alone in the dark to ponder open portals to Hell or parallel worlds or whatever crazy stuff he’d dreamed up that night.

The days weren’t much better. The house was on this old winding road with woods on one side and there weren’t but a few neighbors, and none of them had any kids. It was like somebody had set off a bomb that just flattened everybody under twenty — like one of those neutron bombs, only age-specific.

So that was my life — interminable days of boredom, torturous insomniac nights. It was the worst summer of my life, with nothing to look forward to but a brand-new school come the fall. That’s why I found myself poking around in the basement about a week after we moved in. Nobody had bothered to unpack — nobody had bothered to do much of anything all summer — and I was hoping to find my old teddy bear in one of the boxes.

Mr Fuzzy had seen better days — after six years of hard use, he literally had no hair, not a single solitary tuft — and I’d only recently broken the habit of dragging him around with me everywhere I went. I knew there’d be a price to pay for backsliding — Jeremy had been riding me about Mr Fuzzy for a year — but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I’d just finished rescuing him from a box of loose Legos and Jeremy’s old Star Wars action figures when I noticed a bundle of rags stuffed under the furnace. I wasn’t inclined to spend any more time than necessary in the basement-it smelled funny and the light slanting through the high dirty windows had a hazy greenish quality, like a pond you wouldn’t want to swim in — but I found myself dragging Mr Fuzzy over toward the furnace all the same.

Somebody had jammed the bundle in there good, and when it came loose, clicking metallically, it toppled me back on my butt. I stood, brushing my seat off with one hand, Mr Fuzzy momentarily forgotten. I squatted to examine the bundle, a mass of grease-stained rags tied off with brown twine. The whole thing was only a couple feet long.

I loosened the knot and pulled one end of the twine. The bundle unwrapped itself, spilling a handful of rusty foot-long skewers across the floor. There were half a dozen of them, all with these big metal caps. I shook the rag. A scalpel tumbled out, and then a bunch of other crap, every bit of it as rusty as the skewers. A big old hammer with a wooden head and a wicked-looking carving knife and one of those tapered metal rods that butchers use to sharpen knives. Last of all a set of ivory-handled flatware.

I reached down and picked up the fork.

That was when I heard the stairs creak behind me.

“Mom’s gonna kill you,” Jeremy said.

I jumped a little and stole a glance over my shoulder. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, a rickety tier of backless risers. That’s when I remembered Mom’s warning that I wasn’t to fool around down here. The floor was just dirt, packed hard as concrete, and Mom always worried about getting our clothes dirty.

“Not if you don’t tell her,” I said.

“Besides, you’re messing around with the furnace,” Jeremy said.

“No, I’m not.”

“Sure you are.” He crossed the room and hunkered down at my side. I glanced over at him. Let me be honest here: I was nobody’s ideal boy next door. I was a scrawny, unlovely kid, forever peering out at the world through a pair of lenses so thick that Jeremy had once spent a sunny afternoon trying to ignite ants with them. The changeling, my mother sometimes called me, since 1 seemed to have surfaced out of somebody else’s gene pool.

Jeremy, though, was blond and handsome and already broad-shouldered. He was the kind of kid everybody wants to sit with in the lunchroom, quick and friendly and capable of generous strokes of kindness. He made such a gesture now, clapping me on the shoulder. “Geez, Si, that’s some weird-looking shit. Wonder how long it’s been here?”

“I dunno,” I said, but I remembered the landlord telling Dad the house was nearly a hundred and fifty years old. And hasn’t had a lick of work since, I’d heard Dad mutter under his breath.

Jeremy reached for one of the skewers and I felt a little bubble of emotion press against the bottom of my throat. He turned the thing over in his hands and let it drop to the floor. “Beats the hell out of me,” he said.

“You’re not gonna tell Mom, are you?”

“Nah.” He seemed to think a moment. “Course I might use that scalpel to dissect Mr Fuzzy.” He gazed at me balefully, and then he slapped my shoulder again. “Better treat me right, kid.”

A moment later I heard the basement door slam behind me.

I’d been clutching the fork so tightly that it had turned hot in my hand. My knuckles grinned up at me, four bloodless white crescents. I felt so strange that I just let it tumble to the floor. Then I rewrapped the bundle, and shoved it back under the furnace.

By the time I’d gotten upstairs, I’d put the whole thing out of my mind. Except I hadn’t, not really. I wasn’t thinking about it, not consciously, but it was there all the same, the way all the furniture in a room is still there when you turn out the lights, and you can sense it there in the dark. Or the way pain is always there. Even when they give you something to smooth it out a little, it’s always there, a deep-down ache like jagged rocks under a swift-moving current. It never goes away, pain. It’s like a stone in your pocket.

The bundle weighed on me in the same way, through the long night after Jeremy finally fell asleep, and the next day, and the night after that as well. So I guess I wasn’t surprised, not really, when I found myself creeping down the basement stairs the next afternoon. Nobody saw me steal up to my room with the bundle. Nobody saw me tuck it under my bed. Mom had cried herself to sleep in front of the TV (she pretended she wasn’t crying, but I knew better) and Dad was already at work. Who knew where Jeremy was?

Then school started and Mom didn’t cry as often, or she did it when we weren’t around. But neither one of our parents talked very much, except at dinner Dad always asked Jeremy how freshman football was going. And most nights, just as a joke, Jeremy would start up with one of those crazy stories of his, the minute we turned out the light. He’d pretend there was a vampire in the room or something and he’d thrash around so that I could hear him over the narrow space between our beds. “Ahhh,” he’d say, “Arrggh,” and, in a strangled gasp, “When it finishes with me, Si, it’s coming for you.” I’d hug Mr Fuzzy tight and tell him not to be afraid, and then Jeremy would unleash that nutty mad-scientist laugh.

“C’mon, Si, you know I’m only kidding.”

One night, he said, “Do you believe in ghosts, Si? Because as old as this house is, I bet a whole shitload of people have died in it.”

I didn’t answer, but I thought about it a lot over the next few days. We’d been in school a couple of weeks at this point. Jeremy had already made a lot of friends. He talked to them on the phone at night. I had a lot of time to think.

I even asked Dad about it. “Try not to be dense, Si,” he told me. “There’s no such thing as ghosts, everybody knows that. Now chill out, will you, I’m trying to explain something to your brother.”

So the answer was, no, I didn’t believe in ghosts. But I also thought it might be more complicated than that, that maybe they were like characters in a good book. You aren’t going to run into them at the Wal-Mart, but they seem real all the same. I figured ghosts might be something like that. The way I figured it, they had to be really desperate for something they hadn’t gotten enough of while they were alive, like they were jealous or hungry or something. Otherwise why would they stick around some crummy old cemetery when they could go on to Heaven or whatever? So that’s what I ended up telling Jeremy a few nights later, after I’d finished sorting it all out inside my head.

“Hungry?” he said. “Christ, Si, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” He started thrashing around in his bed and making these dumb ghost noises. “Oooooooh,” he said, and, “Ooooooooh, I’m a ghost, give me a steak. Ooooooooh, I want a bowl of Cheerios.”

I tried to explain that that wasn’t what I meant, but I couldn’t find the words. I was just a kid, after all.

“Christ, Si,” Jeremy said, “don’t tell anybody anything that stupid. It’s like that stupid bear you drag around everywhere, it makes me ashamed to be your brother.”

I knew he didn’t mean anything by that — Jeremy was always joking around — but it hurt Mr Fuzzy’s feelings all the same. “Don’t cry, Mr Fuzzy,” I whispered. “He didn’t mean anything by it.”

A few days later, Jeremy came home looking troubled. I didn’t think anything about it at first because it hadn’t been a very good day from the start. When Jeremy and I went down to breakfast, we overheard Dad saying he was taking Mom’s car in that afternoon, the way they had planned. Mom said something so low that neither one of us could make it out, and then Dad said, “For Christ’s sake, Mariam, there’s plenty of one-car families in the world.” He slammed his way out of the house, and a few seconds later we heard Mom shut the bedroom door with a click. Neither one of us said anything after that except when Jeremy snapped at me because I was so slow getting my lunch. So I knew he was upset and it didn’t surprise me when he came home from football practice that day looking a bit down in the mouth.

It turned out to be something totally different, though, because as soon as we turned out the light that night, and he knew we were really alone, Jeremy said, “What happened to that bundle of tools, Si?”

“What bundle of tools?” I asked.

“That weird-looking shit you found in the basement last summer,” he said.

That was when I remembered that I’d put the bundle under my bed. What a crazy thing to do, I thought, and I was about to say I’d taken them — but Mr Fuzzy kind of punched me. He was so sensitive, I don’t think he’d really forgiven Jeremy yet.

I thought it over, and then I said, “Beats me.”

“Well, I went down the basement this afternoon,” Jeremy said, “and they were gone.”, “So?”

“It makes me uncomfortable, that’s all.”

“Why?”

Jeremy didn’t say anything for a long time. A car went by outside, and the headlights lit everything up for a minute. The shadow of the crap-apple danced on the ceiling like a man made out of bones, and then the night swallowed him up. That one little moment of light made it seem darker than ever.

“I met this kid at school today,” Jeremy said, “and when I told him where I lived he said, ‘No way, Mad Dog Mueller’s house?’ ‘Mad Dog who?’ I said. ‘Mueller,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows who Mad Dog Mueller is.’“

“I don’t,” I said.

“Well, neither did I,” Jeremy said, “but this kid, he told me the whole story. ‘You ever notice there aren’t any kids that live out that end of town?’ he asked, and the more I thought about it, Si, the more right he seemed. There aren’t any kids.”

The thing was, he was right. That’s when I figured it out, the thing about the kids. It was like one of those puzzles with a picture hidden inside all these little blots of color and you stare at it and you stare at it and you don’t see a thing, and then you happen to catch it from just the right angle and — Bang! — there the hidden picture is. And once you’ve seen it, you can never unsee it. I thought about the neighbors, this scrawny guy who was always tinkering with the dead El Camino and his fat wife — neither one of them really old, but neither one of them a day under thirty, either. I remember how they stood out front watching us move in, and Mom asking them if they had any kids, her voice kind of hopeful. But they’d just laughed, like who would bring kids to a place like this?

They hadn’t offered to pitch in, either — and people always offer to lend a hand when you’re moving stuff inside. I know, because we’ve moved lots of times. I could see Dad getting hotter and hotter with every trip, until finally he turned and said in a voice just dripping with sarcasm, “See anything that strikes your fancy, folks?” You could tell by the look on Mom’s face that she didn’t like that one bit. When we got inside she hissed at him like some kind of animal, she was so mad. “Why can’t you ever keep your mouth shut, Frank?” she said. “If you kept your mouth shut we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

All of which was beside the point, of course. The point was, Jeremy was right. There wasn’t a single kid in any of the nearby houses.

“See,” Jeremy said, “I told you. And the reason is, this guy Mad Dog Mueller.”

“But it was some old lady that used to live here,” I said. “We saw her the first day, they were moving her to a nursing home.”

“I’m not talking about her, stupid. I’m talking like a hundred years ago, when this was all farm land, and the nearest neighbors were half a mile away.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t like the direction this was going, I have to say. Plus, it seemed even darker. Most places, you turn out the light and your eyes adjust and everything turns this smoky blue color, so it hardly seems dark at all. But here the night seemed denser somehow, weightier. Your eyes just never got used to it, not unless there was a moon, which this particular night there wasn’t.

“Anyway,” Jeremy said, “I guess he lived here with his mother for a while and then she died and he lived here alone after that. He was a pretty old guy, I guess, like forty. He was a blacksmith.”

“What’s a blacksmith?”

“God you can be dense, Si. Blacksmiths make horseshoes and shit.”

“Then why do they call them blacksmiths?”

“I don’t know. I guess they were black or something, like back in slavery days.”

“Was this guy black?”

“No! The point is, he makes things out of metal. That’s the point, okay? And so I told this kid about those tools I found.”

“I’m the one who found them,” I said.

“Whatever, Si. The point is, when I mentioned the tools, the kid who was telling me this stuff, his eyes bugged out. ‘No way,’ he says to me, and I’m like, ‘No, really, cross my heart. What gives?’“

Jeremy paused to take a deep breath, and in the silence I heard a faint click, like two pieces of metal rubbing up against each other. That’s when I understood what Jeremy was doing. He was “acting out”, which is a term I learned when I forgot Mr Fuzzy at Dr Bainbridge’s one day, back at the clinic in Starkville, after I got suspended from school. When I slipped inside to get him, Dr Bainbridge was saying, “You have to understand, Mariam, with all these pressures at home, it’s only natural that he’s acting out.”

I asked Dr Bainbridge about it the next week, and he told me that sometimes people say and do things they don’t mean just because they’re upset about something else. And now I figured Jeremy was doing it because he was so upset about Mom and stuff. He was trying to scare me, that was all. He’d even found the little bundle of tools under my bed and he was over there clicking them together. I’d have been mad if I hadn’t understood. If I hadn’t understood, I might have even been afraid — Mr Fuzzy was, I could feel him shivering against my chest.

“Did you hear that?” Jeremy said.

“I didn’t hear anything,” I said, because I wasn’t going to play along with his game.

Jeremy didn’t answer right away. So we lay there, both of us listening, and this time I really didn’t hear anything. But it seemed even darker somehow, darker than I’d ever seen our little bedroom. I wiggled my fingers in front of my face and I couldn’t see a thing.

“I thought I heard something.” This time you could hear the faintest tremor in his voice. It was a really fine job he was doing. I couldn’t help admiring it. “And that would be bad,” Jeremy added, “because this Mueller, he was crazy as a shithouse rat.”

I hugged Mr Fuzzy close. “Crazy?” I said.

“Crazy,” Jeremy said solemnly. “This kid, he told me that all the farms around there, the farmers had about a zillion kids. Everybody had a ton of kids in those days. And one of them turned up missing. No one thought anything about it at first — kids were always running off — but about a week later another kid disappeared. This time everybody got worried. It was this little girl and nobody could figure out why she would run off. She was only like seven years old.”

“She was my age?”

“That’s right, Si. She was just your age.”

Then I heard it again: this odd little clicking like Grandma’s knitting needles used to make. Jeremy must have really given that bundle a shake.

“Shit” Jeremy said, and now he sounded really scared. Somebody ought to have given him an Oscar or something.

He switched on the light. It was a touch of genius, that — his way of saying, Hey, I’m not doing anything! which of course meant he was. I stared, but the bundle was nowhere in sight. I figured he must have tucked it under the covers, but it was hard to tell without my glasses on. Everything looked all blurry, even Jeremy’s face, blinking at me over the gap between the beds. I scooched down under the covers, holding Mr Fuzzy tight.

“It was coming from over there,” he said. “Over there by your bed.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” I said.

“No, I’m serious, Si. I heard it, didn’t you?”

“You better turn out the light,” I said, just to prove I wasn’t afraid. “Mom’ll be mad.”

“Right,” Jeremy said, and the way he said it, you could tell he knew it was an empty threat. Mom had told me she was sick when I’d knocked on her bedroom door after school. I opened the door, but it was dark inside and she told me to go away. The room smelled funny, too, like the stinging stuff she put on my knee the time Jeremy accidentally knocked me down in the driveway. “I just need to sleep,” she said. “I’ve taken some medicine to help me sleep.”

And then Jeremy came home and made us some TV dinners. “She must have passed out in there,” he said, and that scared me. But when I said maybe we should call the doctor, he just laughed. “Try not to be so dense all the time, okay, Si?”

We just waited around for Dad after that. But Jeremy said he wouldn’t be surprised if Dad never came home again, the way Mom had been so bitchy lately. Maybe he was right, too, because by the time we went up to bed, Dad still hadn’t shown up.

So Jeremy was right. Nobody was going to mind the light.

We both had a look around. The room looked pretty much the way it always did. Jeremy’s trophies gleamed on the little shelf that Dad had built for them. A bug smacked the window screen a few times, like it really wanted to get inside.

“You sure you didn’t hear anything?”

“Yeah.”

Jeremy looked at me for a minute. “All right, then,” he said, and turned out the light. Another car passed and the crab-apple man did his little jig on the ceiling. The house was so quiet I could hear Jeremy breathing these long even breaths. I sang a song to Mr Fuzzy while I waited for him to start up again. It was this song Mom used to sing when I was a baby, the one about all the pretty little horses.

And then Jeremy started talking again.

“Nobody got suspicious,” he said, “until the third kid disappeared — a little boy, he was about your age too, Si. And then someone happened to remember that all these kids had to walk by this Mueller guy’s house on their way to school. So a few of the parents got together that night and went down there to see if he had seen anything.”

It had gotten colder. I wished Jeremy would shut the window and I was going to say something, but he just plowed on with his stupid story. “Soon as he answered the door,” Jeremy said, “they could tell something was wrong. It was all dark inside — there wasn’t a fire or anything — and it smelled bad, like pigs or something. They could hardly see him, too, just his eyes, all hollow and shiny in the shadows. They asked if he’d seen the kids and that’s when things got really weird. He said he hadn’t seen anything, but he was acting all nervous, and he tried to close the door. One of the men held up his lantern then, and they could see his face. He hadn’t shaved and he looked real thin and there was this stuff smeared over his face. It looked black in the light, like paint, only it wasn’t paint. You know what it was, Si?”

I’d heard enough of Jeremy’s stories to be able to make a pretty good guess, but I couldn’t seem to make my mouth say the word. Mr Fuzzy was shaking he was so scared. He was shaking real hard, and he was mad, too. He was mad at Jeremy for trying to scare me like that.

“It was blood, Si,” Jeremy said.

That was when I heard it again, a whisper of metal against metal like the sound the butcher makes at the grocery store when he’s putting the edge on a knife.

Jeremy gasped. “Did you hear that?”

And just like that the sound died away.

“No,” I said.

We were silent, listening.

“What happened?” I whispered, because I wanted him to finish it. If he finished he could do his dumb little mad-scientist laugh and admit he made it all up.

“He ran,” Jeremy said. “He ran through the house and it was all dark and he went down the basement, down where you found those rusty old tools. Only it wasn’t rust, Si. It was blood. Because you know what else they found down there?”

I heard the whisper of metal again — shir shir shir, that sound the butcher makes when he’s putting the edge on a knife and his hands are moving so fast the blade is just a blur of light. But Jeremy had already started talking again.

“They found the missing kids,” he said, but it sounded so far away. All I could hear was that sound in my head, shir shir shir. “They were dead,” Jeremy was saying, “and pretty soon Mueller was dead, too. They killed the guy right on the spot, he didn’t even get a trial. They put him down the same way he’d killed those kids.”

I swallowed. “How was that?”

“He used those long nails on them, those skewer things. He knocked them on the head or something and then, while they were out, he just hammered those things right through them — wham wham wham — so they were pinned to the floor, they couldn’t get up. And then you know what he did?”

Only he didn’t wait for me to answer, he couldn’t wait, he just rolled on. He said, “Mueller used the scalpel on them, then. He just ripped them open and then-” Jeremy’s voice broke. It was a masterful touch. “And then he started eating, Si. He started eating before they were even dead-”

Jeremy broke off suddenly, and now the sound was so loud it seemed to shake the walls — SHIR SHIR SHIR — and the room was so cold I could see my breath fogging up the dark.

“Christ, what’s that sound?” Jeremy whimpered, and then he started making moaning sounds way down in his throat, the way he always did, like he wanted to scream but he was too afraid.

Mr Fuzzy was shaking, just shaking so hard, and I have to admit it, right then I hated Jeremy with a hatred so pure I could taste it, like an old penny under my tongue. The darkness seemed heavy suddenly, an iron weight pinning me to my bed. It was cold, too. It was so cold. I’ve never been so cold in my life.

“Christ, Si,” Jeremy shrieked. “Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT!”

Mr Fuzzy was still shaking in my arms, and I hated Jeremy for that, I couldn’t help it, but I tried to make myself get up anyway, I really tried. Only the dark was too thick and heavy. It seemed to flow over me, like concrete that hadn’t quite formed up, binding me to my mattress with Mr Fuzzy cowering in my arms.

Jeremy’s whole bed was shaking now. He was grunting and wrestling around. I heard a pop, like a piece of taut rubber giving way, and a metallic wham wham wham. There was this liquidy gurgle and Jeremy actually screamed, this long desperate scream from the bottom of his lungs. I really had to admire the job he was doing, as much as I couldn’t help being mad. He’d never taken it this far. It was like watching a master at the very peak of his form. There was another one of those liquidy thumps and then the sound of the hammer and then the whole thing happened again and again. It happened so many times I lost track. All I knew was that Jeremy had stopped screaming, but I couldn’t remember when. The only sound in the room was this muffled thrashing sound, and that went on for a little while longer and then it stopped, too. Everything just stopped.

It was so still. There wasn’t any sound at all.

The dark lay heavy on my skin, pinning me down. It was all I could do to open my mouth, to force the word out-

“Jeremy?”

I waited then. I waited for the longest time to hear that stupid Vincent Price laugh of his, to hear Jeremy telling me he’d gotten me this time, he was only joking, Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha.

But the laugh never came.

What came instead was the sound of someone chewing, the sound of someone who hadn’t had a meal in ages just tucking right in and having at it, smacking his lips and slurping and everything, and it went on and on and on. The whole time I just lay there. I couldn’t move at all.

It must have gone on for hours. I don’t know how long it went on. All I know is that suddenly I realized it was silent, I couldn’t hear a thing.

I waited some more for Jeremy to make that stupid laugh of his. And then a funny thing happened. I wasn’t lying in my bed after all. I was standing up between the beds, by the milk crate we used for a nightstand, and I was tired. I was so tired. My legs ached like I’d been standing there for hours. My arms ached, too. Every part of me ached. I ached all over.

I kept having these crazy thoughts as well. About ghosts and hunger and how hungry Mad Dog Mueller must have been, after all those years down in the basement. About how maybe he’d spent all that time waiting down there, waiting for the right person to come along, someone who was just as hungry as he was.

They were the craziest thoughts, but I couldn’t seem to stop thinking them. I just stood there between the beds. My face was wet, too, my whole face, my mouth and everything. I must have been crying.

I just stood there waiting for Jeremy to laugh that stupid mad-scientist laugh of his and tell me it was all a game. And I have to admit something: I was scared, too. I was so scared.

But it wasn’t the dark I was scared of.

God help me, I didn’t want to turn on the light.

Christopher Fowler

Seven Feet

Christopher Fowler lives and works in central London, where he is a director of the Soho movie-marketing company The Creative Partnership, producing TV and radio scripts, documentaries, trailers and promotional shorts. He spends the remainder of his time writing short stories and novels, and he contributes a regular column about the cinema to The 3rd Alternative.

His books include the novels Roofworld, Rune, Red Bride, Darkest Day, Spanky, Psychoville, Disturbia, Soho Black, Calabash, Full Dark House and The Water House, and such short-story collections as The Bureau of Lost Souls, City Jitters, Sharper Knives, Flesh Wounds, Personal Demons, Uncut, The Devil in Me and Demonized. Breathe is a new novella from Telos Publishing.

Fowler’s short story “Wageslaves” won the 1998 British Fantasy Award, and he also scripted the 1997 graphic novel Menz Insana, illustrated by John Bolton.

“I wrote this story when I was researching feral animals in London,” the author explains, “and found that proximity to rats was changing in cities because of fast-food outlets. During the hot summer of 2003, I noticed that at 2:00 a.m. every morning I could hear scampering noises across my bedroom ceiling. I went up on the roof (it’s a terraced street) but didn’t see anything. However, a few nights later, a rat came into my kitchen from the open back door and I found myself battling it with a broom.

“My hysterical overreaction to what was basically a small terrified rodent is apparently normal. The rat-catcher relies on this to charge me Ј200.00 for putting poison down while telling me horror stories about rats, some of which I’ve included here.”

* * *

Cleethorpes was a crap mouser. She would hide underneath the sink if a rodent, a squirrel or a neighbour’s cat even came near the open back door. Clearly, sleeping sixteen hours a day drained her reserves of nervous energy, and she was forced to play dead if her territory was threatened. She was good at a couple of things: batting moths about until they expired with their wings in dusty tatters, and staring at a spot on the wall three feet above the top of Edward’s head. What could cats see, he wondered, that humans couldn’t?

Cleethorpes was his only companion now that Sam was dead and Gill had gone. He’d bought her because everyone else had bought one. That was the month the price of cats skyrocketed. Hell, every cats’ home in the country sold out in days, and pretty soon the mangiest strays were changing hands for incredible prices. It was the weirdest form of panic-buying that Edward had ever seen.

He’d lived in Camden Town for years, and had been thinking of getting out even before he met Gill; the area was being compared to Moscow and Johannesburg after eight murders on its streets in as many weeks earned the area a new nickname: “Murder Mile”. There were 700 police operating in the borough, which badly needed over a thousand. It was strange, then, to think that the real threat to their lives eventually came not from muggers, but from fast-food outlets.

Edward lived in a flat in Eversholt Street, one of the most peculiar roads in the neighbourhood. In one stretch of a few hundred yards there was a Roman Catholic church, a sports centre, a legendary rock pub, council flats, a bingo hall, a juvenile detention centre, an Italian cafe, a Victorian men’s hostel for transients and an audacious green-glass development of million-pound loft apartments. Edward was on the ground floor of the council block, a bad place to be as it turned out. The Regent’s Canal ran nearby, and most of the road’s drains emptied into it. The council eventually riveted steel grilles over the pipe covers, but by then it was too late.

Edward glanced over at Gill’s photograph, pinned on the cork noticeboard beside the cooker. Once her eyes had been the colour of cyanothus blossom, her hair saturated in sunlight, but now the picture appeared to be fading, as if it was determined to remove her from the world. He missed Gill more than he missed Sam, because nothing he could do would ever bring Sam back, but Gill was still around, living in Hackney with her two brothers. He knew he was unlikely ever to see her again. He missed her to the point where he would say her name aloud at odd moments for no reason at all. In those last days after Sam’s death, she had grown so thin and pale that it seemed she was being erased from her surroundings. He watched helplessly as her bones appeared beneath her flesh, her clothes began hanging loosely on her thin arms. Gill’s jaw-length blonde hair draped forward over her face as she endlessly scoured and bleached the kitchen counters. She stopped voicing her thoughts, becoming barely more visible than the water stains on the walls behind her. She would hush him with a raised finger, straining to listen for the scurrying scratch of claws in the walls, under the cupboards, across the rafters.

Rats. Some people’s worst nightmare, but the thought of them no longer troubled him. What had happened to their family had happened to people all over the city. “Rats!” thought Edward as he welded the back door shut, “they fought the dogs and, killed the cats, and bit the babies in the cradles...” He couldn’t remember the rest of Robert Browning’s poem. It hadn’t been quite like that, because Camden Town was hardly Hamelin, but London could have done with a pied piper. Instead, all they’d got was a distracted mayor and his dithering officials, hopelessly failing to cope with a crisis.

He pulled the goggles to the top of his head and examined his handiwork. The steel plates only ran across to the middle of the door, but were better than nothing. Now he could sort out the chewed gap underneath. It wasn’t more than two inches deep, but a cat-sized rat was capable of folding its ribs flat enough to slide through with ease. He remembered watching thousands of them one evening as they rippled in a brown tapestry through the back gardens. There had been nights when he’d sat in the darkened lounge with his feet lifted off the floor and a cricket bat across his knees, listening to the scampering conspiracy passing over the roofs, feet pattering in the kitchen, under the beds, under his chair. He’d watched as one plump brown rat with eyes like drops of black resin had fidgeted its way between books on a shelf, daring him into a display of pitifully slow reactions.

The best solution would be to rivet a steel bar across the space under the door, but the only one he had left was too short. He thought about risking a trip to the shops, but most of the ones in the high street had closed for good, and all the hardware stores had sold out of stock weeks ago. It was hard to imagine how much a city of 8 million people could change in just four months. So many had left. The Tubes were a no-go zone, of course, and it was dangerous to move around in the open at night. The rats were no longer frightened by people.

He was still deciding what to do when his mobile buzzed its way across the work counter.

“Is that Edward?” asked a cultured, unfamiliar voice.

“Yeah, who’s that?”

“I don’t suppose you’ll remember me. We only met once, at a party. I’m Damon, Gillian’s brother.” The line fell warily silent. Damon, sanctimonious religious nut, Gill’s older brother, what was the name of the other one? Matthew. Fuck. Fuck.

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah, sorry, you caught me a bit by surprise.”

“I guess it’s a bit of a bolt from the blue. Are you still living in Camden?”

“One of the last to leave the epicentre. The streets are pretty quiet around here now.”

“I saw it on the news, didn’t recognize the place. Not that I ever really knew it to begin with. Our family’s from Hampshire, but I expect you remember that.”

Stop being so damned chatty and tell me what the hell you want, thought Edward. His next thought hit hard: Gill’s condition has deteriorated, she’s made him call me.

“It’s about Gillian, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid — she’s been a lot worse lately. We’ve had a tough time looking after her. She had the problem, you know, with dirt and germs-”

Spermophobia, thought Edward, Mysophobia. A lot of people had developed such phobias since the rats came.

“Now there are these other things, she’s become terrified of disease.”

Nephophobia, Pathophobia. Once arcane medical terms, now almost everyday parlance. They were closely connected, not so surprising when you remembered what she’d been through.

“It’s been making life very difficult for us.”

“I can imagine.” Everything had to be cleaned over and over again. Floors scrubbed, handles and counters sprayed with disinfectant, the air kept refrigerated. All her foodstuffs had to be washed and vacuum-sealed in plastic before she would consider eating them. Edward had watched the roots of fear digging deeper within her day by day, until she could barely function and he could no longer cope.

“She’s lost so much weight. She’s become frightened of the bacteria in her own body. She was living on the top floor of the house, refused to take any visitors except us, and now she’s gone missing.”

“What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. We thought you should know.”

“Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

“She couldn’t have gone anywhere, that’s the incredible part of it. We very badly need your help. Can you come over tonight?” This is a turnaround, Edward thought. Her family spent a year trying to get me to clear off, and now they need me.

“I suppose I can come. Both of you are still okay?”

“We’re fine. We take a lot of precautions.”

“Has the family been vaccinated?”

“No, Matthew and our father feel that The Lord protects us. Do you remember the address?”

“Of course. I can be there in around an hour.”

He was surprised they had found the nerve to call at all. The brothers had him pegged as a man of science, a member of the tribe that had helped to bring about the present crisis. People like him had warmed the planet and genetically modified its harvests, bringing abundance and pestilence. Their religion sought to exclude, and their faith was vindictive. Men who sought to accuse were men to be avoided. But he owed it to Gill to go to them.

He used the short steel bar to block the gap in the door, and covered the shortfall by welding a biscuit-tin lid over it. Not an ideal solution, but one that would have to do for now. The sun would soon be setting. The red neon sign above the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet opposite had flickered on. It was the only part of the store that was still intact. Rioters had smashed up most of the junk-food joints in the area, looking for someone to blame.

Pest-controllers had put the massive rise in the number of rats down to three causes: the wetter, warmer winters caused flooding that lengthened the rats’ breeding periods and drove them above ground. Councils had reduced their spending on street cleaning. Most disastrously of all, takeaway litter left the street-bins overflowing with chicken bones and burger buns. The rat population rose by thirty per cent in a single year. They thrived in London ’s Victorian drainage system, in the sewers and canal outlets, in the Tube lines and railway cuttings. Beneath the city was a maze of interconnected pipework with openings into almost every street. They moved into the gardens and then the houses, colonizing and spreading as each property became vacant.

One much-cited statistic suggested that a single pair of rats could spawn a maximum number of nearly a hundred billion rats in just five years. It was a sign of the burgeoning rodent population that they began to be spotted during the day; starvation drove them out into the light, and into densely populated areas. They no longer knew fear. Worse, they sensed that others were afraid of them.

Edward had always known about the dangers of disease. As a young biology student he had been required to study pathogenic microbes. London had not seen a case of plague in almost a century. The Black Death of the Middle Ages had wiped out a third of the European population. The bacterium Yersinia pestis had finally been eradicated by fire in London in 1666. Plague had returned to consume 10 million Indians early in the twentieth century, and had killed 200 as recently as 1994. Now it was back in a virulent new strain, and rampant. It had arrived via infected rat fleas, in a ship’s container from the East, or perhaps from a poorly fumigated cargo plane, no one was sure, and everyone was anxious to assign blame. Rats brought leptospirosis, hantavirus and rat-bite fever, and they were only the fatal diseases.

Edward drove through the empty streets of King’s Cross with the windows of the Peugeot tightly closed and the air-conditioning set to an icy temperature. Lying in the road outside McDonald’s, a bloated, blackened corpse had been partially covered by a cardboard standee for Caramel McFlurrys. The gesture, presumably intended to provide some privacy in death, had only created further indignity. It was the first time he’d seen a body on the street, and the sight shocked him. It was a sign that the services could no longer cope, or that people were starting not to care. Most of the infected crept away into private corners to die, even though there were no red crosses to keep them in their houses this time.

The plague bacillus had evolved in terms of lethality. It no longer swelled the lymph glands of the neck, armpits and groin. It went straight to the lungs and caused catastrophic internal haemorrhaging. Death came fast as the lungs filled with septicaemic pus and fluid. There was a preventative vaccine, but it proved useless once the outbreak began. Tetracycline and streptomycin, once seen as effective antibiotics against plague, also failed against the emerging drug-resistant strains. All you could do was burn and disinfect; the city air stank of both, but it was preferable to the smell of death. It had been a hot summer, and the still afternoons were filled with the stench of rotting flesh.

Edward had been vaccinated at the college. Gill had blamed him for failing to vaccinate their son in time. Sam had been four months old when he died. His cradle had been left near an open window. They could only assume that a rat had entered the room foraging for food, and had come close enough for its fleas to jump to fresh breeding grounds. The child’s pale skin had blackened with necrosis before the overworked doctors of University College Hospital could get around to seeing him. Gill quickly developed a phobic reaction to germs, and was collected by her brothers a few weeks after.

Edward dropped out of college. In theory it would have been a good time to stay, because biology students were being drafted in the race to find more powerful weapons against the disease, but he couldn’t bear to immerse himself in the subject, having so recently watched his child die in the very same building.

He wondered why he hadn’t fled to the countryside like so many others. It was safer there, but no one was entirely immune. He found it hard to consider leaving the city where he had been born, and was fascinated by this slow decanting of the population. An eerie calm had descended on even the most populous districts. There were no tourists; nobody wanted to fly into Britain. People had become terrified of human contact, and kept their outside journeys to a minimum. Mad-cow disease was a comparative picnic, he thought, with a grim chuckle.

The little car bounced across the end of Upper Street, heading toward Shoreditch. The shadows were long on the gold-sheened tarmac. A blizzard of newspapers rolled across the City Road, adding to the sense of desolation. Edward spun the wheel, watching for pedestrians. He had started to think of them as survivors. There were hardly any cars on the road, although he was surprised to pass a bus in service. At the junction of Old Street and Pitfield Street, a shifting amoeba-shape fluctuated around the doorway of a closed supermarket. The glossy black rats scattered in every direction as he drove past. You could never drive over them, however fast you went.

There were now more rats than humans, approximately three for every man, woman and child, and the odds kept growing in their favour. They grew bolder each day, and had become quite brazen about their battle for occupancy. It had been said that in a city as crowded as London you were never more than fifteen feet away from a rat. Scientists warned that when the distance between rodent and human lowered to just seven feet, conditions would be perfect for the return of the plague. The flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, sucked up diseased rat blood and transported it to humans with shocking efficiency.

A great black patch shimmered across the road like a boiling oil slick, splitting and vanishing between the buildings. Without realising it, he found himself gripping the sweat-slick wheel so tightly that his nails were digging into his palms.

Rattus rattus. No one knew where the black rat had originated, so their Latin name was suitably unrevealing. The brown ones — the English ones, Rattus norvegicus — lived in burrows and came from China. They grew to nearly a foot and a half, and ate anything at all. They could chew their way through brick and concrete; they had to keep chewing to stop their incisors from growing back into their skulls. The black ones were smaller, with larger ears, and lived off the ground in round nests. Edward had woken in the middle of the night two weeks ago and found a dozen of them in his kitchen, feeding from a waste bin. He had run at them with a broom, but they had simply skittered up the curtains and through a hole they had made in the ceiling to the drainpipes outside. The black ones were acrobats; they loved heights. Although they were less aggressive, they seemed to be outnumbering their brown cousins. At least, he saw more of them each day.

He fumigated the furniture and carpets for ticks and fleas, but still developed clusters of painful red welts on his ankles, his arms, his back. He was glad that Gill was no longer here, but missed her terribly. She had slipped away from him, her mind distracted by a future she could not imagine or tolerate.

Damon and Matthew lived with their father above offices in Hoxton, having bought the building at the height of the area’s property boom. These had once been the homes of well-to-do Edwardian families, but more than half a century of neglect had followed, until the district had been rediscovered by newly wealthy artists. That bubble had burst too, and now the houses were in fast decline as thousands of rats scampered into the basements.

As Edward climbed the steps, spotlights clicked on. He could hear movement all around him. He looked up and saw the old man through a haze of white light. Gill’s father was silently watching him from an open upstairs window.

There was no bell. Edward slapped his hand against the front door glass and waited. Matthew answered the door. What was it about the over-religious that made them keep their hair so neat? Matthew’s blond fringe formed a perfect wave above his smooth scrubbed face. He smiled and shook Edward’s hand.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he said, as though he’d invited Edward to dinner. “We don’t get many visitors.” He led the way upstairs, then along a bare white hall into an undecorated space that served as their living quarters. There were no personal effects of any kind on display. A stripped-oak table and four chairs stood in the centre of the bright room. Damon rose to shake his hand. Edward had forgotten how alike the brothers were. They had the eyes of zealots, bright and black and dead. They spoke with great intensity, weighing their words, watching him as they spoke.

“Tell me what happened,” Edward instructed, seating himself. He didn’t want to be here any longer than was strictly necessary.

“Father can’t get around any more, so we moved him from his quarters at the top of the house and cleaned it out for Gillian. We thought if we couldn’t cure her we should at least make her feel secure, so we put her up there. But the black rats…”

“They’re good climbers.”

“That’s right. They came up the drainpipes and burrowed in through the attic, so we had to move her. The only place we could think where she’d be safe was within our congregation.” Ah yes, thought Edward, the Church of Latter-Day Nutters. I remember all too well. Gill had fallen out with her father over religion. He had raised his sons in a far-right Christian offshoot that came with more rules than the Highway Code. Quite how he had fetched up in this biblical backwater was a mystery, but Gill was having none of it. Her brothers had proven more susceptible, and when the plague rats moved in the two of them had adopted an insufferably smug attitude that drove the children further apart. Matthew was the father of three immaculately coiffed children whom Edward had christened “the Midwich Cuckoos”. Damon’s wife was the whitest woman Edward had ever met, someone who encouraged knitting as stress therapy at Christian coffee mornings. He didn’t like them, their politics or their religion, but was forced to admit that they had at least been helpful to his wife. He doubted their motives, however, suspecting that they were more concerned with restoring the family to a complete unit and turning Gill back into a surrogate mother.

“We took her to our church,” Matthew explained. “It was built in 1860. The walls are three feet thick. There are no electrical cables, no drainpipes, nothing the smallest rat could wriggle its way into. The vestry doors are wooden, and some of the stained-glass windows are shaky, but it’s always been a place of safety.”

Edward had to admit that it was a smart idea. Gill’s condition was untreatable without access to a psychiatrist and medication, and right now the hospitals were nightmarish no-go areas where rats went to feast on the helpless sick.

Matthew seated himself opposite. “Gillian settled into the church, and we hoped she was starting to find some comfort in the protection of the Lord. Then some members of our congregation started spending their nights there, and she began to worry that they were bringing in plague fleas, even though we fumigated them before entering. We couldn’t bear to see her suffer so we built her a special room, right there in the middle of the apse-”

“-We made her as comfortable as we could,” Damon interrupted. “Ten feet by twelve. Four walls, a ceiling, a floor, a lockable door and a ventilation grille constructed from strong fine mesh.” He looked as sheepish as a schoolboy describing a woodwork project. “Father directed the operation because he’d had some experience in carpentry. We moved her bed in there, and her books, and she was finally able to get some sleep. She even stopped taking the sleeping pills you used to give her.” The pills to which she had become addicted when we lived together, thought Edward bitterly. The habit I was blamed for creating.

“I don’t understand,” he said aloud. “What happened?”

“I think we’d better go over to the church,” said Matthew gently.

It wasn’t far from the house, smaller than he’d imagined, slim and plain, without buttresses or arches, very little tracery. The former Welsh presbytery was sandwiched between two taller glass buildings, commerce dominating religion, darkening the streets with the inevitability of London rain.

Outside its single door sat a barrel-chested black man who would have passed for a nightclub bouncer if it weren’t for the cricket pads strapped on his legs. He lumbered aside as Damon and Matthew approached. The small church was afire with the light of a thousand coloured candles looted from luxury stores. Many were shaped like popular cartoon characters: Batman, Pokemon and Daffy Duck burned irreverently along the altar and apse. The pews had been removed and stacked against a wall. In the centre of the aisle stood an oblong wooden box bolted into the stone floor and propped with planks, like the back of a film set. A small door was inset in a wall of the cube, and that was guarded by an elderly woman who sat reading in a high-backed armchair. In the nave, a dozen family friends were talking quietly on orange plastic chairs that surrounded a low oak table. They fell silent with suspicion as Edward passed them. Matthew withdrew a key from his jacket and unlocked the door of the box, pushing it open and clicking on a light.

“We rigged a bulb to a car battery because she wouldn’t sleep in the dark,” Damon explained, waving a manicured hand at the room, which was bare but for an unfurled white futon, an Indian rug and a stack of dog-eared religious books. The box smelled of fresh paint and incense.

“You built it of wood,” said Edward, thumping the thin wall with his fist. “That makes no sense, Damon. A rat would be through this in a minute.”

“What else could we do? It made her feel safer, and that was all that counted. We wanted to take away her pain. Can you imagine what it was like to see someone in your own family suffer so much? Our father worshipped her.”

Edward detected an undercurrent of resentment in Damon’s voice. He and Gill had chosen not to marry. In the eyes of her brothers, it was a sin that prevented Edward from ever being treated as a member of the family. “You’re not telling me she disappeared from inside?” he asked. “How could she have got out?”

“That’s what we thought you might be able to explain to us,” snapped Matthew. “Why do you think we asked you here?”

“I don’t understand. You locked her in each night?”

“We did it for her own good.”

“How could it be good to lock a frightened woman inside a room?”

“She’d been getting panic attacks — growing confused, running into the street. Her aunt Alice has been sitting outside every night since this thing began. Anything Gillian’s needed she’s always been given.”

“When did she go missing?”

“The night before last. We thought she’d come back.”

“You didn’t see her leave? Edward asked the old lady.

“No,” replied Alice, daring him to defy her. “I was here all night.”

“And she didn’t pass you. Are you sure you never left your chair?”

“Not once. And I didn’t fall asleep, either. I don’t sleep at night with those things crawling all over the roof.”

“Did you let anyone else into the room?”

“Of course not, Alice said indignantly. “Only family and regular worshippers are allowed into the church. We don’t want other people in here.” Of course not, thought Edward. What’s the point of organized religion if you can’t exclude unbelievers?

“And no one except Gillian used the room,” Damon added. “That was the point. That was why we asked you to come.”

Edward studied the two brothers. He could just about understand Damon, squeaky clean and neatly groomed in a blazer and a pressed white shirt that provided him with an aura of faith made visible, but Matthew seemed in a state of perpetual anger, a church warrior who had no patience with the unconverted. He remained a mystery.

“Why me?” Edward asked. “What made you call me?”

Momentarily stumped, the brothers looked at each other awkwardly. “Well — you slept with her.” Presumably they thought he must know her better for having done so.

“I knew her until our son died, but then — well, when someone changes that much, it becomes impossible to understand how they think any more.” Edward hoped they would appreciate his point of view. He wanted to make contact with them just once. “Let me take a look around. I’ll see what I can do.”

The brothers stepped back, cognisant of their ineffectiveness, their hands awkwardly at their sides. Behind them, the church door opened and the congregation slowly streamed in. The men and women who arranged themselves at the rear of the church looked grey and beaten. Faith was all they had left.

“I’m sorry, it’s time for our evening service to begin,” Damon explained.

“Do what you have to do.” Edward accepted the red plastic torch that Matthew was offering him. “I’ll call you if I find anything.”

A series of narrow alleys ran beside the church. If Gill had managed to slip past the old lady, she would have had to enter them. Edward looked up at the dimming blue strip of evening sky. Along the gutters sat fat nests constructed of branches and bin bags, the black plastic shredded into malleable strips. As he watched, one bulged and disgorged a family of coal-eyed rats. They clung to the drainpipes, staring into his torch beam before suddenly spiralling down at him. He moved hastily aside as they scurried over his shoes and down the corridor of dirt-encrusted brick.

The end of the alley opened out into a small litter-strewn square. He hardly knew where to begin his search. If the family had failed to find her, how would he succeed? On the steps of a boarded-up block of flats sat an elderly man swathed in a dirty green sleeping bag. The man stared wildly at him, as if he had just awoken from a nightmare.

“All right?” asked Edward, nodding curtly. The old man beckoned him. Edward tried to stay beyond range of his pungent stale aroma, but was summoned nearer. “What is it?” he asked, wondering how anyone dared to sleep rough in the city now. The old man pulled back the top of his sleeping bag as if shyly revealing a treasure, and allowed him to look in on the hundred or so hairless baby rats that wriggled over his bare stomach like maggots, pink and blind.

Perhaps that was the only way you could survive the streets now, thought Edward, riven with disgust: you had to take their side. He wondered if, as a host for their offspring, the old man had been made an honorary member of their species, and was therefore allowed to continue unharmed. Although perhaps the truth was less fanciful: rats sensed the safety of their surroundings through the movement of their own bodies. Their spatial perception was highly attuned to the width of drains, the cracks in walls, the fearful humans who moved away in great haste. Gill might have been panicked into flight, but she was weak and would not have been able to run for long. She must have stopped somewhere to regain her breath. But where?

He searched the dark square. The wind had risen to disturb the tops of the plane trees, replacing the city’s ever-present bass-line of traffic with natural susurration. It was the only sound he could now hear. Lights shone above a corner shop. Slumped on the windowsill, two Indian children stared down into the square, their eyes half-closed by rat bites.

Edward returned to the church, slipping in behind the ragged congregation, and watched Matthew in the dimly illuminated pulpit.

“For this is not the end but the beginning,” said Matthew, clearly preaching a worn-in sermon of fire and redemption. “Those whom the Lord has chosen to keep in good health will be free to remake the land in His way.” It was the kind of lecture to which Edward had been subjected as a child, unfocused in its promises, peppered with pompous rhetoric, vaguely threatening. “Each and every one of us must make a sacrifice, without which there can be no admittance to the Kingdom of Heaven, and he who has not surrendered his heart to Our Lady will be left outside, denied the power of reformation.”

It seemed to Edward that congregations always required the imposition of rules for their salvation, and desperate times had forced them to assume that these zealous brothers would be capable of setting them. He moved quietly to the unguarded door of the wooden box and stepped inside, shutting himself in.

The sense of claustrophobia was immediate. A locked room, guarded from outside. Where the hell had she gone? He sat on the futon, idly kicking at the rug, and listened to the muffled litany of the congregation. A draught was coming into the room, but not through the door. He lowered his hand down into darkness, and felt chill air prickle his fingers. At first he failed to see the corner of the hatch, but as he focused the beam of the torch more tightly he realized what he was looking at: a section of flooring, about three feet by two, that had been sawn into the wooden deck beside the bed. The flooring was plywood, easy to lift. The hatch covered the spiral stairwell to the crypt. A black-painted Victorian iron banister curved away beneath his feet. Outside, Matthew was leading a catechism that sounded more like a rallying call.

Edward dipped the light and stepped onto the fretwork wedges. Clearly Gill had been kept in the wooden room against her will, but how had she discovered the staircase to the chamber beneath her prison? Perhaps its existence was common knowledge, but it had not occurred to anyone that she might be able to gain access to it. The temperature of the air was dropping fast now; could this have been its appeal, the thought that germs would not be able to survive in such a chill environment?

He reached the bottom of the steps. His torch beam reflected a fracturing moon of light; the flagstones were hand-deep in icy water. A series of low stone arches led through the tunnelled crypt ahead of him. He waded forward and found himself beneath the ribbed vault of the main chamber. The splash of water boomed in the silent crypt.

With freezing legs and visible breath, Edward stood motionless, waiting for the ripples to subside. Something was wrong. Gillian might have lost her reason, but she would surely not have ventured down here alone. She knew that rats were good swimmers. It didn’t make sense. Something was wrong.

Above his head in the church, the steeple bell began to ring, cracked and flat. The change in the congregation was extraordinary. They dropped to their knees unmindful of injury, staring toward the tattered crimson reredos that shielded the choir stall. Damon and Matthew had reappeared in sharp white surplices, pushing back the choir screen as their flock began to murmur in anticipation. The dais they revealed had been swathed in shining gold brocade, discovered in bolts at a Brick Lane saree shop. Atop stood the enshrined figure, a mockery of Catholicism, its naked flesh dulled down with talcum powder until it resembled worn alabaster, its legs overgrown with plastic vines.

The wheels of the wooden dais creaked as Damon and Matthew pushed the wobbling tableau toward the altar. The voices of the crowd rose in adulation. The figure on the dais was transfixed in hysterical ecstasy, posed against a painted tree with her knees together and her palms turned out, a single rose stem lying across the right hand, a crown of dead roses placed far back on her shaved head, her eyes rolled to a glorious invisible heaven. Gillian no longer heard the desperate exultation of her worshippers; she existed in a higher place, a vessel for her brothers’ piety, floating far above the filthy, blighted Earth, in a holy place of such grace and purity that nothing dirty or harmful would ever touch her again.

Edward looked up. Somewhere above him the bell was still ringing, the single dull note repeated over and over. He cocked his head at the ribs of the vault and listened. First the trees, then the church bell, and now this, as though the forgotten order of nature was reasserting itself. He heard it again, the sound he had come to know and dread, growing steadily all around him. Raising the torch, he saw them scurrying over the fine green nylon webbing that had been stretched across the vault ceiling, thousands of them, far more than he had ever seen in one place before: black rats, quite small, their bodies shifting transversely, almost comically, as they weighed and judged distances.

They had been summoned to dinner.

They gathered in the roof of the main chamber, directly beneath the ringing bell, until they were piling on top of each other, some slipping and swinging by a single pink paw, and then they fell, twisting expertly so that they landed on Edward and not in the water, their needle claws digging into the flesh of his shoulders to gain purchase, to hang on at all costs. Edward hunched himself instinctively, but this exposed a broader area for the rats to drop onto, and now they were releasing themselves from the mesh and falling in ever greater numbers, more and more, until the sheer weight of their solid, sleek bodies pushed him down into the filthy water. This was their cue to attack, their indication that the prey was defeatable, and they bit down hard, pushing their heads between each other to bury thin yellow teeth into his soft skin. He felt himself bleeding from a hundred different places at once, the wriggling mass of rat bodies first warm, then hot, now searing on his back until they made their way through his hair, heading for the tender prize of his eyes.

Edward was determined not to scream, not to open his mouth and admit their poisonous furred bodies. He did the only thing he could, and pushed his head deep under the water, drawing great draughts into his throat and down into his lungs, defeating them in the only way left to him, cheating them of live prey.

Gill, I love you, was his final prayer. / only ever loved you, and wherever you are I hope you are happy. Death etched the thought into his bones and preserved it for ever.

In the little East End church, a mood of satiated harmony fell upon the congregation, and Matthew smiled at Damon as they covered the tableau once more, content that their revered sister was at peace. For now the enemy was assuaged, the commitment had been made, the congregation appeased.

Science had held sway for long enough. Now it was time for the harsh old gods to smile down once more.

Susan Davis

The Centipede

Susan Davis’s short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and widely published in anthologies and magazines. These include Panurge, Metropolitan, Mslexia and Staple. Three ghost stories have also appeared in All Hallows.

The author’s comic-horror trilogy for Young Adults comprises The Henry Game, Delilah and the Dark Stuff and Mad, Bad and Totally Dangerous, published by Random House/Corgi Books.

“‘The Centipede’ grew out of a holiday in remote rural Spain,” recalls Davis. “The insect was disturbed during a track maintenance procedure and smartly chopped in half by the workman’s spade. The subsequent tales I heard about the creature, also the oppressive atmosphere of the place, combined to haunt me, and this was the result.”

* * *

She wished Elsa hadn’t told them about the poisonous centipede. Annie kept her head down, negotiating the track like a minefield. The centipede could be right here, coiled in the long grasses with purple vetch and lilies fluttering. It could be tunnelled beneath those stones, or down where the old garden gave way to scrub, the silly Mickey Mouse ears of the prickly pears.

“You go on inside,” she called out to her husband and sister-in-law who stood below, on the terrace of Peep’s old cottage.

“Okay. We’ll go and do the recce.” Elsa’s voice boomed up at her. Elsa was swinging Pepe’s great key from her hand. She looked as if she were doing the pendulum test over the belly of a pregnant woman. “We’ll have to holler to frighten the rats,” she added cheerfully.

Left, alone, Annie paused to sneeze. The drifts of flowers released a hot peppery tang, which irritated her nose. The air was so dry. She might shrivel up out here: defenceless, her skin would slough off. The centipede knew this. The centipede was waiting just for her.

* * *

“Friend of mine met up with one of the things in the shower.” It was one of Elsa’s dinner-party anecdotes. Last night, as she’d cracked open mussel shells and decapitated prawns, she’d told them of the malevolent habits of the centipede.

“Had to prise it off her arm with the shower head.” Elsa sucked at the squid until the black ink oozed at the corners of her mouth. “They won’t let go once they get a grip on you. They stick like leeches, hang on for grim death.”

Elsa would probably never have mentioned the creature. But earlier that week, just before Mark and Annie arrived in Anda-lucia, a neighbouring campesino had disturbed one while digging a hole for a water pipe.

“Chopped it into three separate pieces, every piece still squirming all by itself.” She waggled inky fingers at them. “Poor thing. I was quite pissed off about it. What are you frowning at, Annie?”

“I was just thinking…” Annie hesitated, knowing that contradicting Elsa was a reckless act. “I read somewhere that over thirty thousand bulls are tormented to death in this country, every year. Surely that’s something to get upset about?”

Elsa shrugged. Bulls? What of it? Dull, lumbering great creatures bred for entertainment. But the centipede was beautiful. “The way I see it,” Elsa said, “anything beautiful has the right to life.”

* * *

Annie continued down the track. She could hear Elsa’s voice now, echoing in the emptiness of Pepe’s cottage. The cottage was for sale. Elsa’s idea was that Mark and Annie should buy it and move to Spain for good.

Inside, the three rooms smelled of rats and mouldy garlic and damp. Mark reached out and pulled Annie close, as if they were newly-weds inspecting their new home, as if the decision were already made.

“What d’you think, love? It’s a snip, Elsa says. Did you see the olive trees, and the almonds?”

In Elsa’s presence Mark seemed to shrink. Annie felt a pang of sympathy and irritation. This air of bravado was thrown on for Elsa’s benefit, like the linen jacket and Panama hat. They could not disguise what he really was: timid, unfit, an ineffectual schoolteacher.

Elsa was striding about, wrenching the shutters open as if she owned the place herself.

“It takes imagination, that’s all. A good airing; it needs living in again.” Elsa’s bare feet in their flip-flops shuffled carelessly through the rat droppings and dead leaves which had blown in under the door.

“You don’t think they might be nesting here?” Annie glanced nervously about.

“What? The rats? Oh, more than likely.”

Elsa feared nothing, it seemed. Not rats, nor spiders, nor snakes, nor poisonous centipedes. Nothing. Look at her now, peering into cupboards, into cavernous fireplaces, dodging a shower of debris with a kind of elegant flamenco move. The Carmen-style blouse revealed an opera singer’s cleavage, the same weathered texture as those pots on the terrace: her legs were ropy with veins. And yet Elsa carried herself, straight-backed Spanish style, bosom thrust forwards, head thrown back, so that she seemed to be looking down upon everything.

It was strange. Annie was the younger of the two women, yet, in her sister-in-law’s presence, she felt faded and frail. She knew that in the southern sun she would not flesh out like Elsa into a tawny handsome woman; she would simply frizzle up like an empty seed-pod and grow old.

“The garden needs work, naturally.” Elsa pushed past them to the terrace. “But you can take cuttings from my place.”

Annie said mildly that she hadn’t got as far as thinking about gardens just yet.

“Why not?” Elsa swung around to face her, small amber eyes piercing, demanding explanations.

Annie raised her head and blinked. It was always like this. Confronted by Elsa she felt as if she were gazing into the sun. Black spots danced before her eyes. She felt suddenly drowsy.

“Well, there are things to be considered…” She glanced toward Mark for support, but he stood smiling vacantly out at the view, content to allow his big sister to make the decisions.

“Like what?”

“Oh… money for one thing…”

“Sod the money!” Elsa spat the words as if she had something between her teeth. “I have money. I want to help.”

“Oh well, that’s very kind… but the children…”

“What children? You’re not pregnant again, are you?”

“Of course not. I mean Bethan and Simon, well, I know Simon’s in his last year at college, and Bethan lives with her boyfriend, but they still need…”

“They’re all grown up!” Elsa roared, not letting her finish even. Dismissing Annie’s children, Elsa strode to the lower terrace to inspect the olives. “You can’t mollycoddle them for ever, Annie.”

“That’s what I keep telling her.” Surfacing from his trance, Mark sounded petulant. “We should put ourselves first for once.”

Annoyed, Annie started back up the track. What did Elsa know about families? She had married a Galician poet who gave her no children, who was her child himself. The poet had died four years ago. Elsa, who had guarded him like a lioness from journalists, fans and interruptions of any sort, saw him off with an elaborate funeral.

Did Elsa now have lovers? Pondering this a little jealously, Annie forgot to look where she was walking. Halfway up the track, she screamed: “I’ve been bitten, I’ve been bitten by something!” She shrieked shamelessly, hopping on one foot. Her fault. Thinking of Elsa’s lovers, she’d forgotten about the danger lurking in the grass… the centipede. “I didn’t see what it was. I didn’t see it!”

In an instant Elsa was beside her. For such a large woman she moved rapidly, darting to Annie’s side, grasping her shin, “Let’s have a look, then… ah, that’s all it is, horse fly. My God, what a bloody fuss!”

Feebly, Annie explained, “I thought it might be that thing you told us about, you know, the centipede…” She trembled upon one leg, frail as a stork.

Elsa laughed, “Listen, my darling girl, if it had been the centipede, you’d be writhing on the ground in bloody agony, I assure you. And anyway, the last person to be killed by the bite in this country was four years ago. Did you know that?”

“No. No, I didn’t.” Once again, Annie squinted as if to protect her eyes from the sun.

“Well, there you are then!”

* * *

The poet had left Elsa in some style. Inside, the hacienda was all polished Gothic gloom, great thronelike chairs and chests with rusting iron locks; chests that might have been brimming with Conquistador gold rather than spare bedding. The dining table was sombre, immense; its glassy surface relieved by a gaunt candelabra and a shallow dish of medlars.

Through these rooms, Elsa blazed in her gaudy kaftans, a fire catching. She suffered, it seemed, no ill effects from her bare feet on cold marble floors. Annie watched enviously. She herself would surely have developed a kidney infection at once. She was careful always to wear her sandals or canvas shoes inside the house.

“You used to hate her once.” Annie had tracked Mark down in the study. “You told me. Even your mother told me… she once tried to smother you in your pram by getting the cat to sit on your face.”

“Did she? I don’t remember that.”

“She smeared fish paste on your chin.”

“Hmmmm…?” Mark watched the TV screen doggedly. He had the look of a man in denial while ships sank, while houses burned around him.

“She must’ve been about seven, love. I don’t think she’d want the cat to sit on my face now, do you?”

“But why, why is she so keen for us to take Pepe’s cottage?”

“Is it the rats you’re scared of? It’s all right, Elsa left Paco instructions to put poison down — he’s cleared them out, apparently.”

“It’s not the rats, it’s the thought of living two miles away from your sister. She’s… she’s…”

But what could she honestly say about Elsa? Elsa, who was the perfect hostess, feeding and entertaining them, even wanting to help buy them a house in the sun, and refusing any contribution towards their keep; Elsa with her jokes and stories and her great crushing bear hugs and her temper.

“Annie… Annie, are you there?” Now the summons brought her trotting, trit-trot along the passage towards the open door of Elsa’s room, and the furious rattling of clothes hangers. Elsa was having a clear-out.

“These are for you, madam. Try them on. I can’t wear them bloody all, and I hate waste!”

Flashing her amber eyes at Annie as if she suspected her of harbouring butter mountains, of compulsive shopping orgies. The dresses were like cosmic accidents: bright floral splodges, violent starbursts in gold and flame.

Annie held one against herself. She looked as if she were being swallowed whole by some gigantic jungle man-eating flower. “Thank you, Elsa.” What else could she say? Elsa’s generosity always disarmed her. “You’re too good to us, really. Thank you.”

* * *

They were supposed to be staying for a month. Mark was convalescing from a mild breakdown. Arriving in this country strained and jittery, now he seemed almost tranquil, lulled both by the heat and his sister’s motherly attentions.

Elsa was “motherly” in her way. Always up before them in the mornings, humming a strident flamenco as she stirred the porridge. Into the porridge she dripped a stream of golden honey, the precious Miel de Canna, produced exclusively in one of the white Moorish villages thereabouts. Then she would stand with her arms folded, watching until Mark had licked his spoon clean.

“He can’t go back to teaching, Annie, it will kill him,” Elsa told her. More of a proclamation, really. She had packed Mark off on a walk with map and picnic. From the terrace, they could see him, leaping goatlike on a distant hillside across the valley. No, not a hillside, a mountain. Annie could hardly bear to look. She held her breath as Mark ascended to a brittle precipice, crimped and fragile as pastry edging.

“He’ll fall,” she had whispered, “Oh my God! It makes me dizzy just watching.”

“Don’t be pathetic,” Elsa roared. “It’s only a pimple. We should all learn to live a little dangerously from time to time.”

* * *

With Mark packed off for the day, Annie had to accompany her sister-in-law to the market, where Elsa would haggle over vegetables, silk blouses, lace tablecloths, waving her fleshy arms about, exclaiming in her exuberant Spanish. Later, the market produce would reappear in a paella with everything thrown in: fish heads, or claws, or eyeballs goggling up at them from the plate. Elsa would tuck in heartily. There was not much that she considered inedible. Once, a guest joined them for dinner, a handsome Spaniard who flicked his napkin with a bullfighter’s grace. Elsa lowered her head and spoke to this guest in a throaty flirtatious whisper. Her amber eyes flickered dangerously. Elsa’s lover. Of this, Annie had no doubt. It was not surprising. After all, her sister-in-law was a woman of large appetities.

The paella did not agree with Annie. After frequent trips to the loo, she felt she must be growing thinner and frailer. Her body remained greenish white, sappy like a bluebell stalk; her head weighed heavy. Elsa’s very presence exhausted her. The energy radiating from the magnificent woman had sapped Annie’s own strength. She could only fidget listlessly on the terrace, viewing the distant figure of her husband as he cavorted about the hills, growing bronzer and fitter on mountain air and his sister’s honeyed porridge.

* * *

Strange how Annie felt most alive at siesta, when Elsa retired behind the great oak door of her room, curled up in her kaftan like some voluptuous beast. At these times, Annie felt like a bird who sees the cage door open and fidgets on its perch, uncertain whether to chance flying into the light.

Outside the light was dazzling. There were strange rustlings among the geraniums; lizards basked in the heat, crickets chirped.

Inside the house, Annie rustled in the cool of Elsa’s study, finding the book she wanted with its picture of the centipede, the thickness of a man’s two middle fingers. There it was with its waspy stripe. The book was written in Spanish. But she recognized the word muerte. Death. The centipede meant death. How could she come to live in a country where such things existed?

* * *

They were waiting for Elsa. The town was beginning to stir slowly into life after siesta. Men clustered in the bars. The abrupt gunfire of their conversation reached Annie as she sat with Mark at the fountain.

An old woman passed with that stoical waddle common to the locals, arms laden with gladioli. She was making her way toward the church where all about the crumbly stucco of the tower the swifts dived, darted endlessly. The men’s voices, the swifts, the smooth hiss of the fountain were soothing.

Annie was thinking that, yes, she could grow comfortable here; even perhaps live in Pepe’s cottage. It would please Mark. He sat now, twirling his sunglasses in his hands, gazing towards the abogado’s office for his sister. If only she could relax. If only she could give herself up to it, to the sweet drowsy heat… to Elsa… No, not to Elsa! At once Annie sat upright, grasped the rim of the fountain, for here she was, Elsa, crossing the plaza, bouncing toward them.

“Hola! Hola, Maria!” Elsa called gaily to the gladioli lady, who appeared startled and murmured something. Did Annie imagine it, or did the woman cross herself as Elsa passed? Elsa waved triumphantly at Annie and Mark, flourishing a wad of papers, then halted by Juan’s bar to call to the little lame dog which always skulked there: “Here, perro! Look, see what mummy’s got…” The mutt limped forward as Elsa crumbled stale blood sausage which she always kept for this purpose in her bag. Nervously it suffered her caress, her croonings, before shrinking back to the doorway.

Elsa rose, dazzling as a sunflower in her kaftan, her strings of amber beads, bronzed arms chinking with bangles. Annie could almost smell her from across the square. Or was it the acacia trees, releasing a fragrance so strong she almost swooned? She clutched harder at the fountain, feeling the lukewarm spray in her face. Elsa bounded toward them now, and it seemed the swifts dive-bombed the church tower in a kind of panic; some German tourists at one of the pavement tables seemed suddenly to flag in the heat beneath striped awnings.

“Darlings!” Elsa was upon them, thrusting her warm solid flesh between them both. “It’s all settled. Nothing for you two to worry about. I’ve signed the papers myself.” She beamed at them, “I’ve bought Pepe’s old place in my name, but God, what do I need of it? It’s for you two. A present.”

Annie could remember little after that, just Mark’s wittering gratitude. And being almost crushed by Elsa’s thigh next to her, the heavy scent of her, the energy… and she… Annie, clinging and clutching at the damp stone rim to stop from falling. The water gave off a rancid scent. It was evaporating in the heat. Soon there would be nothing left but a greenish vapour.

* * *

Annie’s first thought on waking was that she was in jail. But she was looking at the iron grille at her bedroom window. Mark was leaning over her: “Elsa says you’ve had a touch of sunstroke. She says with your fair colouring it’s madness to go out without a hat. And look… she found you one. She thinks of everything.”

The hat smelt of dog basket. The great flopping brim was wound about with a bronzy chiffon scarf. Turn it upside down and you could sail the Atlantic, across the choppy Bay of Biscay, all the way to Dover, safe from the sun and Elsa and centipedes… Annie’s eyes closed again.

“What time is it?”

“Nearly eight. We thought we’d take an evening stroll over to the cottage. Our cottage, I mean. Not Pepe’s. God, I can’t get used to the idea. Annie and Mark’s cottage… how does it sound?”

“You mean Elsa’s cottage,” she said dully. “It belongs to Elsa.”

But he was drifting towards the door, telling her to stay there and rest. He was drifting away from her, from England, into Elsa’s burning stratosphere, into Spain. She called out after him: “Watch out for the centipede.” But he was gone.

* * *

The centipede burrows below ground to hatch its grubs. It prefers undisturbed land, the thatch of dead grasses, skeleton leaves, powdered seed heads; it lurks in cracks and craters, in the dust beneath the bony roots of olive trees. You might never see one in your whole life, except in a book. You might go hunting it out deliberately, turning every stone, peeping into crevices, and yet find only ants and spiders. Or — and no one can rule out this possibility — you might just be one of the very few who come upon it suddenly, its deadly amber stripe flashing its warning… too late. You might be an unlucky statistic, a few lines in the newspaper, the wrong place, the wrong time. Statistically it’s rare. But not impossible. Nothing is impossible.

* * *

The sun was low as Annie started towards Pepe’s cottage. She was wearing the pale blue sundress, and Elsa’s straw hat, and sandals. To the west, the sun brushed the mountaintops, turning the land the colour of Miel de Canna, porridge honey.

Things were biting her shins, mean little pinpricks of pain which she ignored. She had grown tired of it, this fear she had of wild dogs and sickness and insects; of this bright burning landscape, of skulking in Elsa’s shadow. Somehow she must steal back the initiative, show Elsa that she was no frail sappy Englishwoman to be dried out and crushed.

A slight breeze ruffled the grass as she descended to the cottage. The purple and yellow wild flowers undulated like a quilt.

“Elsa!” she sang out bravely, “Elsa… are you down there?” Then, as Elsa appeared, “This hat you gave me is too big!”

They were looking up at her, Elsa and Mark, as she flung the hat into the grass. There! That would show Elsa what she could do with her gifts. Big generous Elsa, now so silent. Both of them. As if they didn’t want her there.

Something twitched, just beneath the brim of the hat, tilting it up slightly… shifting. Annie looked down, noticing her own toes, vulnerable in the sandals. There was a moment almost of relief that she had come face to face with it at last.

It was the hat, of course, that had disturbed its nesting place. She recalled quite coolly what the book had said, how fast they moved, the centipedes, full of a mad voracious energy, poison flowing like ink from tiny steel-trap jaws.

“Once they get a grip,” Elsa had said, “you can’t shake them off.”

Elsa and Mark were clambering towards her. They seemed to be moving in slow motion. The sun going down lit Elsa’s hair in a curious two-tone of dark honey with an amber stripe. Funny how she had never noticed before, that stripe in Elsa’s hair.

As they drew closer to her, the sun vanished altogether; the eucalyptus trees shivered in the breeze. The pain was really no worse than she’d expected.

Jay Lake

The Goat Cutter

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2004 his short stories appeared in dozens of markets, including Asimov’s, Chiaroscuro, Postscripts and Realms of Fantasy. His collection Greetings from Lake Wu was a Locus Recommended book for 2003 and his follow-up collection, Dogs in the Moonlight, is available from Prime Books.

About “The Goat Cutter”, Lake explains: “Everything in this story is true in one form or another, except that the Bible bus sits a bit up the road from my mother’s old farm instead of on the middle of her property.

“While I never personally met the Devil in the Texas woods, I’m pretty sure I heard him shouting on moonless nights. Life in Caldwell County can be, if anything, stranger than fiction.”

* * *

The devil lives in Houston by the ship channel in a high-rise apartment fifty-seven stories up. They say he’s got cowhide sofas and a pinball machine and a telescope in there that can see past the oil refineries and across Pasadena all the way to the Pope in Rome and on to where them Arabs pray to that big black stone.

He can see anyone anywhere from his place in the Houston sky, and he can see inside their hearts.

But I know it’s all a lie. Except about the hearts, of course. ‘Cause I know the Devil lives in an old school bus in the woods outside of Dale, Texas. He don’t need no telescope to see inside your heart, on account of he’s already there. This I know.

* * *

Central Texas gets mighty hot come summer. The air rolls in heavy off the Gulf, carries itself over two hundred miles of cow shit and sorghum fields and settles heavy on all our heads. The katydids buzz in the woods like electric fans with bad bearings, and even the skeeters get too tired to bite most days. You can smell the dry coming off the Johnson grass and out of the bar ditches.

Me and my best friend Pootie, we liked to run through the woods, climbing bob wire and following pipelines. Trees is smaller there, easier to slip between. You gotta watch out in deer season, though. Idiots come out from Austin or San Antone to their leases, get blind drunk and shoot every blessed thing that moves. Rest of the time, there’s nothing but you and them turkey vultures. Course, you can’t steal beer coolers from turkey vultures.

The Devil, he gets on pretty good with them turkey vultures.

So me and Pootie was running the woods one afternoon somewhere in the middle of summer. We was out of school, waiting to be sophomores in the fall, fixing to amount to something. Pootie was bigger than me, but I already got tongue off Martha Dempsey. Just a week or so ago back of the church hall, I even scored a little titty squeeze inside her shirt. It was over her bra, but that counts for something. I knew I was coming up good.

Pootie swears he saw Rachel MacIntire’s nipples, but she’s his cousin. I reckoned he just peeked through the bathroom window of his aunt’s trailer house, which ain’t no different from me watching Momma get out of the shower. It don’t count. If there was anything to it, he’d a sucked on ‘em, and I’d of never heard the end of that. Course I wouldn’t say no to my cousin Linda if she offered to show me a little something in the shower.

Yeah, that year we was big boys, the summer was hot, and we was always hungry and horny.

Then we met the Devil.

* * *

Me and Pootie crossed the bob wire fence near the old bus wallow on county road 61, where they finally built that little bridge over the draw. Doug Bob Aaronson had that place along the south side of 61, spent his time roasting goats, drinking tequila and shooting people’s dogs.

Doug Bob was okay, if you didn’t bring a dog. Three years back, once we turned ten, he let me and Pootie drink his beer with him. He liked to liquor up, strip down to his underwear and get his ass real warm from the fire in his smoker. We was just a guy and two kids in their shorts drinking in the woods. I’m pretty sure Momma and Uncle Reuben would of had hard words, so I never told.

We kind of hoped, now that we was going to be sophomores, he’d crack some of that Sauza Conmemorativo Anejo for us.

Doug Bob’s place was all grown over, wild rose and stretch vine and beggar’s lice everywhere, and every spring a huge-ass wisteria wrapped his old cedar house with lavender flowers and thin whips of wood. There was trees everywhere around in the brush, mesquite and hackberry and live-oak and juniper and a few twisty old pecans. Doug Bob knew all the plants and trees, and taught ‘em to us sometimes when he was less than half drunk. He kept chickens around the place and a mangy duck that waddled away funny whenever he got to looking at it.

We come crashing through the woods one day that summer, hot, hungry, horny and full of fight. Pootie’d told me about Rachel’s nipples, how they was set in big pink circles and stuck out like little red thumbs. I told him I’d seen that picture in Hustler same as him. If’n he was gonna lie, lie from a magazine I hadn’t stole us from the Triple E Grocery.

Doug Bob’s cedar house was bigger than three double wides. It was set at the back of a little clearing by the creek that ran down from the bus wallow. He lived there, fifty feet from a rusted old school bus that he wouldn’t never set foot inside. Only time I asked him about that bus, he cracked me upside the head so hard I saw double for days and had to tell Uncle Reuben I fell off my bike.

That would of been a better lie if I’d of recollected that my bike’d been stolen three weeks gone. Uncle Reuben didn’t beat me much worse than normal, and we prayed extra long over the Bible that night for forgiveness.

Doug Bob was pretty nice. He about never hit me, and he kept his underpants on when I was around.

* * *

That old smoker was laid over sidewise on the ground, where it didn’t belong. Generally, Doug Bob kept better care of it than anything except an open bottle of tequila. He had cut the smoker from a gigantic water-heater, so big me and Pootie could of slept in it. Actually, we did a couple of times, but you can’t never get ash out of your hair after.

And Pootie snored worse than Uncle Reuben.

Doug Bob roasted his goats in that smoker, and he was mighty particular about his goats. He always killed his goats hisself. They didn’t usually belong to him, but he did his own killing. Said it made him a better man. I thought it mostly made him a better mess. The meat plant over in Lockhart could of done twice the job in half the time, with no bath in the creek afterward.

Course, when you’re sweaty and hot and full of piss and vinegar, there’s nothing like a splash around down in the creek with some beer and one of them big cakes of smelly purple horse soap me and Pootie stole out of barns for Doug Bob. Getting rubbed down with that stuff kind of stings, but it’s a good sting.

Times like that, I knew Doug Bob liked me just for myself. We’d all smile and laugh and horse around and get drunk. Nobody got hit, nobody got hurt, everybody went home happy.

* * *

Doug Bob always had one of these goats, and it was always a buck. Sometimes a white Saanen, or maybe a creamy La Mancha or a brown Nubian looked like a chubby deer with them barred goat eyes staring straight into your heart. They was always clean, no socks nor blazes nor points, just one colour all over. Doug Bob called them unblemished.

And Doug Bob always killed these goats on the north side of the smoker. He had laid some rocks down there, to make a clear spot for when it was muddy from winter rain or whatever. He’d cut their throats with his jagged knife that was older than sin, and sprinkle the blood all around the smoker.

He never let me touch that knife.

* * *

Doug Bob, he had this old grey knife without no handle, just rags wrapped up around the end. The blade had a funny shape like it got beat up inside a thresher or something, as happened to Momma’s sister Cissy the year I was born. Her face had that funny shape until Uncle Reuben found her hanging in the pole barn one morning with her dress up over her head.

They puttied her up for the viewing at the funeral home, but I recall Aunt Cissy best with those big dents in her cheek and jaw and the one brown eye gone all white like milk in coffee.

Doug Bob’s knife, that I always thought of as Cissy’s knife, it was kind of wompered and shaped all wrong, like a corn leaf the bugs been at. He’d take that knife and saw the head right off his goat.

I never could figure how Doug Bob kept that edge on.

He’d flay that goat, and strip some fatback off the inside of the hide, and put the head and the fat right on the smoker where the fire was going, wet chips of mesquite over a good hot bed of coals.

Then he’d drag the carcass down to the creek, to our swimming hole, and sometimes me and Pootie could help with this part. We’d wash out the gut sack and clean off the heart and lungs and liver. Doug Bob always scrubbed the legs specially well with that purple horse soap. We’d generally get a good lot of blood in the water. If it hadn’t rained in a while, like most summers, the water’d be sticky for hours afterward.

Doug Bob would take the carcass and the sweetbreads — that’s what he called the guts, sweetbreads. I figured they looked more like spongy purple and red bruises than bread, kind of like dog food fresh outta the can. And there wasn’t nothing sweet about them.

Sweetbreads taste better than dog food, though. We ate dog food in the winter sometimes, ate it cold if Uncle Reuben didn’t have work and Momma’d been lazy. That was when I most missed my summers in the woods with Pootie, calling in on Doug Bob.

Doug Bob would drag these goat parts back up to the smoker, where he’d take the head and the fat off the fire. He’d always give me and Pootie some of that fat, to keep us away from the head meat, I guess. Doug Bob would put the carcass and the sweetbreads on the fire and spit his high-proof tequila all over them. If they didn’t catch straight away from that, he’d light ‘em with a bic.

We’d watch them burn, quiet and respectful like church on account of that’s what Doug Bob believed. He always said God told him to keep things orderly, somewhere in the beginning of Leviticus. Then he’d close the lid and let the meat cook. He didn’t never clean up the blood around the smoker, although he would catch some to write Bible verses on the sides of that old school bus with.

* * *

The Devil lives in San Francisco in a big apartment on Telegraph Hill. Way up there with all that brass and them potted ferns and naked women with leashes on, he’s got a telescope that can see across the Bay, even in the fog. They say he can see all the way to China and Asia, with little brown people and big red demon gods, and stare inside their hearts.

The Devil, he can see inside everybody’s heart, just about.

It’s a lie, except that part about the hearts. There’s only one place in God’s wide world where the Devil can’t see.

* * *

Me and Pootie, we found that smoker laying over on its side, which we ain’t never seen. There was a broken tequila bottle next to it, which ain’t much like Doug Bob neither.

Well, we commenced to running back and forth, calling out “Doug Bob!” and “Mister Aaronson!” and stuff. That was dumb ‘cause if he was around and listening, he’d of heard us giggling and arguing by the time we’d crossed his fence line.

I guess we both knew that, ‘cause pretty quick we fell quiet and starting looking around. I felt like I was on TV or something, and there was a bad thing fixing to happen next. Them saloon doors were flapping in my mind and I started wishing mightily for a commercial.

* * *

That old bus of Doug Bob’s, it was a long bus, like them revival preachers use to bring their people into town. I always thought going to Glory when you died meant getting on one of them long buses painted white and gold, with Bible verses on the side and a choir clapping and singing in the back and some guy in a powder-blue suit and hair like a raccoon pelt kissing you on the cheek and slapping you on the forehead.

Well, I been kissed more than I want to, and I don’t know nobody with a suit, no matter the color, and there ain’t no choir ever going to sing me to my rest now, except if maybe they’re playing bob-wire harps and beating time on burnt skulls. But Doug Bob’s bus, it sat there flat on the dirt with the wiry bones of tires wrapped over dented black hubs grown with morning glory, all yellow with the rusted old metal showing through, with the windows painted black from the inside and crossed over with duct tape. It had a little vestibule Doug Bob’d built over the double doors out of wood from an old church in Rosanky. The entrance to that vestibule was crossed over with duct tape just like the windows. It was but number seven, whatever place it had come from.

And bus number seven was covered with them Bible verses written in goat’s blood, over and over each other to where there was just red-brown smears on the cracked windshield and across the hood and down the sides, scrambled scribbling that looked like Aunt Cissy’s drool on the lunch table at WalMart. And they made about as much sense.

I even seen Doug Bob on the roof of that bus a few times, smearing bloody words with his fingers like a message to the turkey vultures, or maybe all the way to God above looking down from His air-conditioned heaven.

So I figured, the smoker’s tipped, the tequila’s broke, and here’s my long bus bound for glory with Bible verses on the side, and the only choir is the katydids buzzing in the trees and me and Pootie breathing hard. I saw the door of the wooden vestibule on the bus, that Doug Bob never would touch, was busted open, like it had been kicked out from the inside. The duct tape just flapped loose from the door frame.

I stared all around that bus, and there was a new verse on the side, right under the driver’s window. It was painted fresh, still shiny and red. It said, “Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand.”

“Pootie.”

“Huh?” He was gasping pretty hard. I couldn’t take my stare off the bus, which looked as if it was gonna rise up from the dirt and rumble down the road to salvation any moment, but I knew Pootie had that wild look where his eyes get almost all white and his nose starts to bleed. I could tell from his breathing.

Smelled like he wet his pants, too.

“Pootie,” I said again, “there ain’t no fire, and there ain’t no fresh goat been killed. Where’d the blood come from for that there Bible verse?”

“Reckon he talking ‘bout your Uncle?” Pootie’s voice was duller than Momma at Christmas. Pootie was an idiot. Uncle Reuben never had no twelve thousand in his life. If he ever did, he’d of gone to Mexico and to hell with me and Momma. “Pootie,” I tried again, “where’d the blood come from?”

I knew, but I didn’t want to be the one to say it.

Pootie panted for a little while longer. I finally tore my stare off that old bus, which was shimmering like summer heat, to see Pootie bent over with his hands on his knees and his head hanging down. “It ain’t his handwritin’ neither,” Pootie sobbed.

We both knew Doug Bob was dead.

* * *

Something was splashing around down by the creek. “Aw, shit,” I said. “Doug Bob was — is — our friend. We gotta go look.”

It ain’t but a few steps to the bank. We could see a man down there, bending over with his bare ass toward us. He was washing something big and pale. It weren’t no goat.

Me and Pootie, we stopped at the top of the bank, and the stranger stood up and turned around. I about shit my pants.

He had muscles like a movie star, and a gold tan all the way down, like he’d never wore clothes. The hair on his chest and his short-and-curlies was blond, and he was hung good. What near to made me puke was that angel’s body had a goat head. Only it weren’t no goat head you ever saw in your life.

It was like a big heavy ram’s head, except it had antlers coming up off the top, a twelve-point spread off a prize buck, and baby’s eyes — big, blue and round in the middle. Not goat’s eyes at all. That fur kind of tapered off into golden skin at the neck.

And those blue eyes blazed at me like ice on fire.

The tall, golden thing pointed to a body in the creek. He’d been washing the legs with purple soap. “Help me with this. I think you know how it needs to be done.” His voice was windy and creaky, like he hadn’t talked to no one for a real long time.

The body was Doug Bob, with his big gut and saggy butt, and a bloody stump of a neck.

“You son of a bitch!” I ran down the bank, screaming and swinging my arms for the biggest punch I could throw. I don’t know, maybe I tripped over a root or stumbled at the water’s edge, but that golden thing moved like summer lightning just as I slipped off my balance.

Last thing I saw was the butt end of Doug Bob’s ragged old knife coming at me in his fist. I heard Pootie crying my name when my head went all red and painful.

* * *

The Devil lives in your neighborhood, yours and mine. He lives in every house in every town, and he has a telescope that looks out the bathroom mirror and up from the drains in the kitchen and out of the still water at the bottom of the toilet bowl. He can see inside of everyone’s heart through their eyes and down their mouth and up their asshole.

It’s true, I know it is.

The hope I hold secret deep inside my heart is that there’s one place on God’s green Earth the Devil can’t see.

* * *

I was naked, my dick curled small and sticky to my thigh like it does after I’ve been looking through the bathroom window. A tight little trail of come itched my skin. My ass was on dirt, and I could feel ants crawling up the crack. I opened my mouth to say, “Fine,” and a fly buzzed out from the inside. There was another one in the left side of my nose that seemed ready to stay a spell.

I didn’t really want to open my eyes. I knew where I was. My back was against hot metal. It felt sticky. I was leaning against Doug Bob’s bus and part of that new Bible verse about Uncle Reuben under the driver’s window had run and got Doug Bob’s heart blood all down my back. I could smell mesquite smoke, cooked meat, shit, blood, and the old oily metal of the bus.

But in all my senses, in the feel of the rusted metal, in the warmth of the ground, in the stickiness of the blood, in the sting of the ant bites, in the touch of the fly crawling around inside my nose, in the stink of Doug Bob’s rotten little yard, there was something missing. It was an absence, a space, like when you get a tooth busted out in a fight, and notice it for not being there.

I was surrounded by absence, cold in the summer heat. My heart felt real slow. I still didn’t want to open my eyes.

“You know,” said that windy, creaky voice, sounding even more hollow and thin than before, “if they would just repent of their murders, their sorceries, their fornication, and their thefts, this would be a lot harder.”

The voice was sticky, like the blood on my back, and cold, coming from the middle of whatever was missing around me. I opened my eyes and squinted into the afternoon sun. Doug Bob’s face smiled at me. Leastwise it tried to. Up close I could tell a whole lot of it was burnt off, with griddle marks where his head had lain a while on the smoker. Blackened bone showed through across the cheeks. Doug Bob’s head was duct-taped to the neck of that glorious, golden body, greasy black hair falling down those perfect shoulders. The head kept trying to lop over as he moved, like it was stuck on all wompered. His face was puffy and burnt-up, weirder than Doug Bob mostly ever looked.

The smoker must of been working again.

* * *

The golden thing with Doug Bob’s head had Pootie spread out naked next to the smoker. I couldn’t tell if he was dead, but sure he wasn’t moving. Doug Bob’s legs hung over the side of the smoker, right where he’d always put the goat legs. Cissy’s crazy knife was in that golden right hand, hanging loose like Uncle Reuben holds his when he’s fixing to fight someone.

“I don’t understand…”I tried to talk, but burped up a little bit of vomit and another fly to finish my sentence. The inside of my nose stung with the smell, and the fly in there didn’t seem to like it much neither. “You stole Doug Bob’s head.”

“You see, my son, I have been set free from my confinement. My time is at hand.” Doug Bob’s face wrinkled into a smile, as some of his burnt lip scaled away. I wondered how much of Doug Bob was still down in the creek. “But even I cannot walk the streets with my proud horns.”

His voice got sweeter, stronger, as he talked. I stared up at him, blinking in the sunlight.

“Rise up and join me. We have much work to do, preparations for my triumph. As the first to bow to my glory you shall rank high among my new disciples, and gain your innermost desire.”

Uncle Reuben taught me long ago how this sweet bullshit always ends. The old Doug Bob liked me. Maybe even loved me a little. He was always kind to me, which this golden Doug Bob ain’t never gonna be.

It must be nice to be loved a lot.

I staggered to my feet, farting ants, using the ridges in the sheet metal of the bus for support. It was hot as hell, and even the katydids had gone quiet. Except for the turkey vultures circling low over me, I felt like I was alone in a giant dirt coffin with a huge blue lid over my head. I felt expanded, swollen in the heat like a dead coyote by the side of the road.

The thing wearing Doug Bob’s head narrowed his eyes at me. There was a faint crinkling sound as the lids creased and broke.

“Get over here, now.” His voice had the menace of a Sunday-morning twister headed for a church, the power of a wall of water in the arroyo where kids played.

I walked toward the Devil, feet stepping without my effort.

* * *

There’s a place I can go, inside, when Uncle Reuben’s pushing into me, or he’s using the metal end of the belt, or Momma’s screaming through the thin walls of our trailer the way he can make her do. It’s like ice cream without the cone, like cotton candy without the stick. It’s like how I imagine Rachel MacIntire’s nipples, sweet and total, like my eyes and heart are in my lips and the world has gone dark around me.

It’s the place where I love myself, deep inside my heart.

I went there and listened to the little shuffling of my pulse in my ears.

My feet walked on without me, but I couldn’t tell.

* * *

Cissy’s knife spoke to me. The Devil must of put it in my hand.

“We come again to Moriah,” it whispered in my heart. It had a voice like its metal blade, cold from the ground and old as time.

“What do you want?” I asked. I must of spoke out loud, because Doug Bob’s burned mouth was twisting in screaming rage as he stabbed his golden finger down toward Pootie, naked at my feet next to the smoker. All I could hear was my pulse, and the voice of the knife.

Deep inside my heart, the knife whispered again. “Do not lay a hand on the boy.”

The golden voice from Doug Bob’s face was distant thunder in my ears. I felt his irritation, rage, frustration building where I had felt that cold absence.

I tried again. “I don’t understand.”

Doug Bob’s head bounced up and down, the duct tape coming loose. I saw pink ropy strings working to bind the burned head to his golden neck. He cocked back a fist, fixing to strike me a hard blow.

I felt the knife straining across the years toward me. “You have a choice. The Enemy promises anything and everything for your help. I can give you nothing but the hope of an orderly world. You choose what happens now, and after.”

I reckoned the Devil would run the world about like Uncle Reuben might. Doug Bob was already dead, and Pootie was next, and there wasn’t nobody else like them in my life, no matter what the Devil promised. I figured there was enough hurt to go around already and I knew how to take it into me.

Another one of Uncle Reuben’s lessons.

“Where you want this killing done?” I asked.

The golden thunder in my ears paused for a moment, the tide of rage lapped back from the empty place where Doug Bob wasn’t. The fist dropped down.

“Right here, right now,” whispered the knife. “Or it will be too late. Seven is being opened.”

I stepped out of my inside place to find my eyes still open and Doug Bob’s blackened face inches from my nose. His teeth were burnt and cracked, and his breath reeked of flies and red meat. I smiled, opened my mouth to speak, but instead of words I swung Cissy’s knife right through the duct tape at the throat of Doug Bob’s head.

He looked surprised.

Doug Bob’s head flew off, bounced into the bushes. The golden body swayed, still on its two feet. I looked down at Pootie, the old knife cold in my hands.

Then I heard buzzing, like thunder made of wires.

* * *

I don’t know if you ever ate a fly, accidental or not. They go down fighting, kind of tickle the throat, you get a funny feeling for a second, and then it’s all gone. Not very filling, neither.

These flies came pouring out of the ragged neck of that golden body. They were big, the size of horseflies. All at once they were everywhere, and they came right at me. They came pushing at my eyes and my nose and my ears and flying right into my mouth, crawling down my throat. It was like stuffing yourself with raisins till you choke, except these raisins crawled and buzzed and bit at me.

The worst was they got all over me, crowding into my butt crack and pushing on my asshole and wrapping around my balls like Uncle Reuben’s fingers right before he squeezed tight. My skin rippled, as if them flies crawled through my flesh.

I jumped around, screaming and slapping at my skin. My gut heaved, but my throat was full of flies and it all met in a knot at the back of my mouth. I rolled to the ground, choking on the rippling mess that I couldn’t spit out nor swallow back down. Through the flies I saw Doug Bob’s golden body falling in on itself, like a balloon that’s been popped. Then the choking took me off.

* * *

I lied about the telescope. I don’t need one.

Right after, while I was still mostly myself, I sent Pootie away with that old knife to find one of Doug Bob’s kin. They needed that knife, to make their sacrifices that would keep me shut away. I made Pootie seal me inside the bus with Doug Bob’s duct tape before he left.

The bus is hot and dark, but I don’t really mind. There’s just me and the flies and a hot metal floor with rubber mats and huge stacks of old Bibles and hymnals that make it hard for me to move around.

It’s okay, though, because I can watch the whole world from in here.

I hate the flies, but they’re the only company I can keep. The taste grows on me.

I know Pootie must of found someone to give that old knife to. I try the doors sometimes, but they hold firm. Somewhere one of Doug Bob’s brothers or uncles or cousins cuts goats the old way. Someday I’ll find him. I can see every heart except one, but there are too many to easily tell one from another.

There’s only one place under God’s golden sun the Devil can’t see into, and that’s his own heart.

* * *

I still have my quiet place. That’s where I hold my hope, and that’s where I go when I get too close to the goat cutter.

Michael Marshall Smith

Maybe Next Time

Michael Marshall Smith lives in North London and Brighton with his wife Paula and two cats. His first novel, Only Forward, won the August Derleth and Philip K. Dick Awards; his second, Spares, was optioned by Steven Spielberg and translated in seventeen countries worldwide; his third, One of Us, was optioned by Warner Brothers.

His most recent novels, The Straw Men and The Lonely Dead (a.k.a. The Upright Man), published under the name “Michael Marshall”, have been international best-sellers, and he is currently working on a third volume in the series.

Smith’s short fiction has won the British Fantasy Award three times, and is collected in What You Make It and the International Horror Guild Award-winning More Tomorrow & Other Stories. Six of his tales are currently under option for television.

About the following story, the author reveals: “Every now and then the reality of time hits you: the fact that it really is passing, and that there will come a point where the seemingly random things that happen every day will reach a conclusion, and stop, and then they will be all that ever happened.

“The act structure of one’s life will then finally become evident — but only when it is too late to do anything about it: too late to punch up the action in the middle section, or spread some more laughs throughout, to take it all just a bit more seriously — or perhaps less seriously. This story came from one of those realizations, and wonders what it might be like if the universe worked otherwise.”

* * *

At first, when David Began to consider the problem, he wondered if it was related to the start of a new year. January in London is not an exciting time. You’d hardly contend the month showed any part of the country at its best, but there were places — the far reaches of Scotland, perhaps, or the stunned emptiness of the midland fens — where you could at least tell it was winter, a season with some kind of character and point. In London, the period was merely still-grey and no-longer-New Year and Spring-not-even-over-the-horizon. A pot of negatives, a non-time of non-events in which you trudged back to jobs that the festive break had drunkenly blessed with purpose, but which now felt like putting on the same old overcoat again. But still, however much David unthinkingly lived a year that began in the Autumn — as did most who had soldiered their way through school and college, where promise and new beginnings came with the term after the summer — he could see that January was the real start of things. He thought at first that might be it, but he was wrong. The feelings were not coming after something, but pointing the way forward. To May, when he would have his birthday. To May, when he would be forty years old.

* * *

The episodes came on quietly. The first he remembered happened one Thursday afternoon when he was at his desk in Soho, pen hovering over a list of things to do. The list was short. David was good at his job, and believed that a list of things to do generally comprised of a list of things that should already have been done.

His list said he had to (1) have a quick and informal chat with the other participants in the next day’s new-business meeting (2) have a third and superfluous scan through the document explaining why said potential clients would be insane not to hand their design needs over to Artful Bodgers Ltd (3) make sure the meeting room had been tidied up and (4)…

David couldn’t think what (4) might be. He moved his pen back, efficiently preparing to cross out the numeral and its businesslike brackets, but didn’t. He dimly believed that his list was incomplete, in the same way you know, when wandering around the kitchen periodically nibbling a biscuit, whether you finished it in the last bite or if there’s a portion still lying around.

There was something he was supposed to do… nope, it had gone.

He went home, leaving the list behind. When he covertly glanced at it towards the end of the meeting the following morning, his sense of mild satisfaction (the pitch was going well, the new clients in the bag) was briefly muted by the sight of that (4), still there, still unfilled. The list now had a (5), a (6) and a (7), all ticked, but still no (4).

For a moment he was reminded of the old routine—

Item 1: do the shopping

Item 2: mow the lawn

Item 4: where’s item 3?

Item 3: ah, there it is… — and smiled. He was disconcerted to realize that the most senior of the clients, a man with a head which looked carved out of a potato, was looking at him, but the smile was easily converted into one of general commercial warmth. The deal was done. By lunchtime he was on to other things, and the list was forgotten.

This, or something like it, happened a couple more times that month. David would find himself in the kitchen, wiping his hands after clearing away the dinner that Amanda had cooked, thinking that he could sit down in front of the television just as soon as he had… and realize there was nothing else he had to do. Or he would take five minutes longer doing the weekly shop in Waitrose, walking the aisles, not looking for anything in particular but yet not quite ready to go and take his position in the checkout line. In the end he would go and pay, and find himself bagging only the things he had come out looking for, the things on his and Amanda’s list.

February started with a blaze of sunshine, as if the gods had been saving it for weeks and suddenly lost patience with clouds and grey. But it turned out that they hadn’t stocked as much as they thought, and soon London was muted and fitful again. David worked, put up some shelves in the spare bedroom, and went out once a week to a restaurant with his wife. They talked of things in the paper and on the news, and Amanda had two glasses of wine while he drank four. But plenty of mineral water too, and so the walk home was steady, his arm around her shoulders for part of the way. Artful Bodgers continued to make money, in a quiet, unassuming fashion. The company’s job was to take other companies’ corporate identities and make them better. Spruce up or rethink the logo, make typeface decisions, provide a range of stationery to cater for all contingencies: business cards, letterheads, following-page sheets (just the logo, no address), document folders, fax sheets, envelope labels, cassette boxes for the video companies. They had the latest Macs and some decent young designers. Their accounts department was neither mendacious nor incompetent. Everyone did their job, well enough to weather the periodicity of corporate confidence and wavering discretionary spend. His company was a success, but sometimes David thought the only interesting thing about it was the name. He’d chosen it personally, on start-up, seven years before. Everyone else — including Amanda — had thought it a bad idea. All too easy to take the second word and run with it. Who wants to hire bodgers, even if you know it’s a little joke? David fought, arguing that it showed a confident expectation that clients would never feel the need to make the association. He won, and it worked, and there were other times when David thought that the name was probably the most boring thing about the company, too.

One evening in February he found himself in Blockbuster, looking for a film he couldn’t name. He was twice becalmed at pub bars, both times with clients, having remembered what he wanted to drink, but then forgotten it again. On both occasions he bought a glass of Chardonnay, which was what he always drank.

Once again, too, David found himself hesitating in the midst of jotting a note at work: apparently unsure not so much of what he was going to write as of the precise physical nature of the act. He hadn’t forgotten how to use a pen, of course. It was more a question of choice, like recalling whether one played a tennis backhand with one or two hands on the racket. When he eventually started writing, his handwriting looked odd for a while.

But it was not until the next month that he could honestly say that he started to think about any of these things.

* * *

On 4 March David dreamed. This was not in itself unusual. He dreamed as much as the next man, the usual intermittent cocktail of machine-like anxiety or amusing but forgettable trivia. On the fourth of March he dreamed of something different. He didn’t know what it was; could not, when he awoke, remember. But he was distracted as he sat with his first cup of the day, feeling as if some recollection was hidden just behind a fold in his brain. He stood, stared out of the window, and did not move even after Amanda had come down after her shower.

She rummaged in the cupboard, looking for a new box of her current brand of herbal tea. “What are you thinking about?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Why have we got so many olives?”

“Hmm?” He turned to look at her. The memory felt neither closer nor further away. She held up a jar of green olives.

“There’s three of these in there.”

“You didn’t buy them?”

“No.” She held the jar so he could see the label: Waitrose own-brand. He always did the Waitrose shop, and did it alone. Supermarkets made Amanda irritable.

“Then I must have bought them.”

“You don’t like olives.”

“I know.”

Ten minutes later she was gone, off to work. David was still in the kitchen, sitting now with a second cup of tea, no closer to remembering his dream. All he could recall was an atmosphere of affectionate melancholy. It reminded him of another dream from five or six years before. This had been of his college, of returning there alone and walking the halls and corridors which had shaped three years of his life, back when the future seemed deliciously malleable. In the dream he’d met none of his friends from that period, and had notably not encountered the girl with whom he’d spent most of that time. The dream hadn’t been about them, but about him. It was about absence. About some distance he had travelled, or perhaps had failed to come, since those days: a period now backlit by its passing, at the time merely the day-today. The dream he could not now remember had something of this about it too, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t about college. It wasn’t about anything he could recall.

It was enough to nudge him into awareness, however, and at the end of the day he sat in the living room, after Amanda had gone upstairs, and thought back over the previous couple of months. He considered the missing (4), the drinks without a name, remembered also standing one afternoon in Soho Square and gazing at the shapes of the buildings that surrounded it, as if they should mean something more to him than they did. At the time each of these non-incidences, these failures to mean, had seemed distinct from each other, distinct from anything at all. Now they did not. Once gathered together, they referred to a whole. There was something on his mind, that was clear. He just didn’t know what it was.

It was then that he tried connecting them with the start of the year, with the feeling of something beginning. Though in general a level-headed man, David was sometimes surprised to find himself prey to rather New Age notions. Perhaps this year, this 2004, was trying to tell him something. Maybe some celestial timepiece, some combination of shadow and planetary sphere, had reached its predetermined mark. Perhaps 2004 was the year of…

He couldn’t make the thought go anywhere, and soon zoned out into watching the television screen. It showed a crazy-haired old gent tramping around an undistinguished patch of countryside. He couldn’t remember selecting the channel, and with the sound off it really wasn’t very interesting. Was it worth turning the sound up? Probably not. It increasingly seemed to him that television was being created for someone else. He was welcome to watch it, of course, but it was not he whom the creators had in mind.

As David left the room he passed one of the bookcases, and paused a moment when a book caught his eye. He took it down, opened it. It was a first edition of Conjuring and Magic by Robert Houdin, published in 1878, bought some months before at a stall in Covent Garden. He’d told himself it was merely an investment — at fifty pounds for a vg+ copy, it was certainly a bargain — but actually he’d bought it in the hope that going back to the classics might help. In fact, it had yielded no better results than the small handful of cheap paperbacks he’d desultorily acquired over the last few years, since he’d realized that a little magic was something he’d very much like to be able to do. The problem with magic, he’d discovered, was that there was no trick to it. There was practice, and hard work — and the will to put these things into practice. Even buying the little gewgaws of the trade didn’t help. All but the most banal still required sleight of hand, which had to be acquired the old-fashioned way. If you learned how a trick worked, all you actually gained was confirmation that it required a skill you didn’t have and lacked the time and energy to acquire. Learning how a trick worked was the same as being told you couldn’t do it. You gained nothing, and lost everything.

He flicked through the book for a few moments, admiring the old illustrations of palming techniques, and then put the volume back on the shelf. It wasn’t worth even trying tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

Instead he went into the kitchen and ate half a jar of olives while he waited for the kettle to boil.

* * *

David dreamed a few more times in March, but remained unable to take anything from them. All he was left with the next morning was absence and the unnameable smell of open water. An absence, too, was what he felt during most of the last weekend of the month, which they spent down in Cornwall. It was the third time they’d taken a romantic mini-break in Padstow. Both previous occasions had been great successes. They’d walked along the craggy coast, bought a couple of little paintings which now graced the bathroom, enjoyed a superlative dinner in Rick Stein’s restaurant (having taken efficient care to book ahead). Good, clean, adult fun. This time David couldn’t seem to get into it. They did the same things, but it wasn’t the same, and it wasn’t merely the repetition which made the difference. Amanda was in good form, braced by the wind and the sky. To him they seemed merely there. In some way it all reminded him of an experience he’d had a couple of weeks previously, during a meeting at work. A creative powwow, with, as it happened, the clients with the potato-headed boss. There had come a point when David had found himself talking. He had been talking for a little while, he realized, and knew that he could keep going for as long as he wanted. The other people around the table were either his employees or clients gathered to take advantage of his keen design brain, his proven insights into the deep mysteries of corporate identity. Their gazes were all on him. This didn’t frighten him, merely made him wonder if they were in fact listening, or rather staring at him and wondering who he was, and what he was talking about. They were all nodding in the right places, so this seemed unlikely. Presumably it was only David, therefore, who was wondering these things. And wondering too whether it was ever worth speaking, if no one wanted you to stop.

On the second evening in Padstow they paid their tribute to the god of seafood. Amanda seemed happy, perky in a new Karen Millen and smelling faintly of expensively complimentary shampoos and unguents. David knew that it was remarkable that a woman of thirty-seven should look so good in fashion tailored for the young and slim, and was glad. Not delighted — because, to be honest, he had grown accustomed to Amanda looking good — but glad. The food was predictably excellent. David ate it. Amanda ate it. They talked of things in the news and in the papers. They were benignly tolerant of the next table, which featured two well-behaved but voluble children. Neither had anything against children. They didn’t have any because it had been discussed, seven or eight years before, when David was launching the business and Amanda had just switched companies and embarked on the route to her current exalted position in publishing. At the time it would have been a mistake to complicate their lives, or might have been a mistake. It was then still more or less appropriate, too, for Amanda to make that amusing joke about not needing children just yet, because she was married to one. David did little to sustain this idea now bar an occasional hangover and a once-in-a-while good-humoured boisterousness, but having children wasn’t something they discussed at the moment. Maybe later.

They went back to their room after dinner and made love. This was nice, if a little self-conscious and laden with implicit self-congratulation. They’d still got it, still knew how to have a good time. That much was clear.

In the middle of the night David awoke. Amanda was sound asleep beside him, and remained so for the two hours he spent lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. This time he’d brought something more back with him than an atmosphere. An image of long grasses near somewhere watery. Of somewhere not close, but not far away.

A sense that this was not the beginning of something after all.

* * *

By the second week of April David was waking almost once a night to find himself lying in a strange bed. Familiarity closed in rapidly, but for a moment there was a sense of inexplicability, like moving on from the missing (4) to the comfort of the present (5). He could remember things about the dreams now. Very small things. The long grasses, often, though sometimes they seemed more like reeds. The sense of water: not moving fast, not a river or stream, but present nonetheless.

Finally, a building, or the remains of one.

He knew it was a building, and that it was ruined, though in the dream his point of view was too close up to make out anything more than lichened stone and clouded blue sky above. As if he was crouched down low, and glancing up.

That morning Amanda look at him over her cup of mint tea. “Where did all those olives go?”

“I ate them,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Are you sleeping okay?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You don’t seem to be. You look tired. And sometimes you thrash about The other night I thought I heard you say ‘Goodbye, love’ in your sleep.”

“‘Goodbye, love’? That doesn’t sound like me.”

“Quite.”

David shrugged. He knew that he should tell her about what was happening. He hated films in which a character keeps secrets from the very people or person who should be on his side: a source of cheap tension that had more to do with padding the plot than representing real life. But he didn’t tell her, all the same. It didn’t seem relevant. Or she didn’t, perhaps.

He went to work, and came home, and went to work again. He went to the gym, as usual: moving weights nowhere, running the same rolling yard, strutting and fretting his half-hour on the elliptical trainer. Artful Bodgers won more business, and he gave everyone a little bonus. He considered taking over one of their suppliers, then shelved the decision for another day. He came home, he went to work again. He dreamed of the building once more, this time from a little further away. The fact that it was ruined was clearly apparent. And that it was somewhere in England. There was nothing about it that proved that. David simply knew it.

* * *

“You spoke in your sleep again,” Amanda said, at another breakfast. “You said, ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying.’“

He looked at her. “But what does that mean?”

She turned a page in this morning’s manuscript. “You tell me,” she said. “God, this novel’s shite.”

He started visiting bookstores in his lunch breaks, and stopping off at Borders on his way home from work. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, so he just browsed. He looked in the travel sections (domestic); he looked at books on the English countryside. Nothing seemed to help. He didn’t have enough to work with, and there was a sense, when he looked at pictures, that he shouldn’t need to. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a puzzle. It wasn’t supposed to be hard.

In the last week of April, now only a week from his birthday, Amanda sometimes worked in her study with her door shut. He knew that she would be wrapping little presents for him. David knew that they would be nice. He had no desire to know what they were yet. He liked surprises. They came along seldom enough.

Amanda surprised him in another way, before the day. She asked if he was going to visit his mother. He realized both that he should, and that he should do it on the day itself. Without her, after all, there wouldn’t be forty years to mark. He called her, and arranged it. She said she’d put on a little lunch.

He was dreaming now, almost constantly, but through a veil. He felt sick some mornings, as if he had failed to digest something. Nothing he looked at seemed to be what he should be seeing. None of his lists had anything on them except numerals in brackets.

He finally mentioned this to Amanda. She kissed him, and put her arms around him. She was his wife. She understood, or thought she did.

* * *

David got up at the usual time on the fourth of May, though he had taken the day off work. He had breakfast in bed, then came down in a dressing gown to a kitchen table on which his presents had been laid. They were all very nice, and Amanda left for work fifteen minutes later than usual. She sat with him, and had an extra cup of tea, and they smiled and laughed.

After she’d gone he showered and dressed and then went out and got in his car. He forged a route out of London and onto the M1l, taking it up past Cambridge and into the countryside. He tried to find something on the radio to listen to, some CD in the glove compartment, but none of them sounded right. He could remember buying them, but none of them seemed to be his.

He reached Willingham a little before midday, on time. His mother was standing at the door to her house, steel-haired, compact and smiling. Once the land on which she stood had been part of a farm, a larger holding belonging to one of her ancestors. Like everything else, it had been made smaller by time.

His mother had made sandwiches and cake. While she laid them out he wandered around the house where he had grown up, trying to remember how long it had been since he’d visited. A couple of years, certainly. She occasionally made it down to London, and that tended to be where they met. Tea at the Ritz, sometimes. An overnight or two in the house he owned with Amanda, tucked up safe in the spare bed. Not so very often, for the person who had been his mother, but that tended to be the way it went. You moved further from the start, and towards something else: eyes turned always forward, the past something you only remembered once in a while, generally through something heard. Things weren’t about beginnings any more. They were about persistence, and endings, for the most part. Persistence, above all.

He found himself drawn to one room in particular. His parents’ old room; his mother’s still. He stood in the centre, unsure of what he was doing there. He looked up at the ceiling. Off-white, as it always had been. If you allowed your eyes to fall out of focus then the imperfections blurred away, and its colour became all you could see.

His mother’s voice floated upstairs.

After lunch he asked her about her bedroom. Had something changed? She said no. Nothing had changed for her in several years.

David shrugged, took a risk: told her how he’d felt compelled to stand in there. She was a woman. She’d understand.

She did, and perhaps more than he’d expected. More than he did. “Well,” she said, “it’s your birthday.”

He shook his head, not comprehending. She smiled, as if it were self-evident. “That’s where it happened, up there in that room. That’s where you were born,” she said, and then winked. “You can live down in that London all you like,” she added. “But this is where you’re from.”

He barely heard anything else she said, and left twenty minutes later. When he reached the end of the village, he did not take the left turn which would lead to the A-road and later back to the M11. Instead he turned right, and kept driving.

He drove for an hour, out into the countryside, out beyond the villages and into the country proper, to where the fens began. To the place where water became as much a part of the world as earth, to where grass and reeds and flatness were all the land had to say.

After a while he turned again, not back on himself, but at an angle, and headed in a different direction. A little later, he did so once more.

He could have driven for hours, for days. He could have looked for weeks and never found it, were it not for the church. That, presumably, had been the point. It had worked, in the end.

It was half-ruined, and stood by itself in the middle of a field. David knew enough to understand this meant it most likely represented the last lingering sign of a lost village. Seen from above, from a low-flying plane, there would have been crop marks to show where domestic buildings had once been, a previous lay of the land. But that had been long, long ago.

When he saw the two remaining walls, the jagged half-steeple, it took his breath away and every unremembered dream came back at once.

He lurched the car over to the side of the road and parked chaotically on the verge. Then he got out, stepped gingerly over the low barbed-wire fence, and started to walk towards the ruin. It was probably private land. He didn’t care. Twice he disappeared up to one knee in the boggy ground. He didn’t care about that either. His mobile phone went once. He didn’t even hear it.

He walked slowly around the church. He knew it only meant one thing to him, that he had only been here once before. He approached it, finally, and stood close up against the wall. The sky was blue above, flecked with cloud. It looked the same wherever you stood, whether inside the remains of the structure or without, and at any point along the walls. But again, he had planned well, and eventually he found the heavy stone.

He went down on one knee and prised his fingers around the sides. Gym savvy told him to protect his back, and he took his time to pull the big flat stone out of place. Underneath was a small metal box.

He lifted it out, and sat down on the grass.

Inside the box was a small old sack, stained with time and wrapped over itself. David waited for a while, wishing for a cigarette, though he had never smoked. He thought about the ceiling in his mother’s bedroom, knowing it not to be the first thing he had ever seen. Finally he opened the bag, and pulled out the envelope inside.

He recognized the handwriting, from a list he had written back in February. The letter said:

To whoever I might beI hope this time it has worked, and I’m young, that I’ve caught me in time. Better still I hope I will find this and smile, knowing it was unnecessary, knowing I can palm anything, make coins appear out of people’s ears, and that I have not come here alone. But just in case:

1) Do things. Do everything. Learn, explore, open the world’s boxes while you’re young and time stretches out infinitely far.

2) Make mistakes, and make them early, not late. Too soon can be undone. Too late cannot.

3) Marry the one who could break your heart.

4) There is no (4). The first three will be enough.

Good luck, Yourself.

Ten minutes later David put the letter back in the bag. He wished he had known to bring the Houdin book with him. He could have put it in there as well, for next time. But if he remembered this late then too, there would be little point. He might as well sell it, hope it would find, someone who would use it in time.

When the stone was back in place he spent a while standing close to the wall of the ruined church, memorizing the shape of the road, the pattern of the water inlets in the distance: anything he might reasonably hope would be here next time. Finally he walked back over to the car, climbed in, and sat for a while looking out at the flat fens.

Then he started the drive back to London, where he knew a surprise party was waiting for him.

John Farris

Story Time With the Bluefield Strangler

John Farris is best known as the author of The Fury (filmed by Brian De Palma in 1978, starring Kirk Douglas and Amy Irving). He followed it with the belated sequels The Fury and the Terror, The Fury and the Power and the forthcoming Avenging Fury.

Described by Stephen King as “America’s premier novelist of terror”, the author’s other books include When Michael Calls (filmed as a TV movie), All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, Catacombs, Son of the Endless Night, Wildwood, Nightfall, Fiends, Soon She Will Be Gone and Phantom Nights. His short stories have been collected in Scare Tactics and Elvisland, the latter published by California ’s Babbage Press. Farris has also recently collaborated with his son Peter on a screenplay entitled Class of 1347.

It is a pleasure to welcome him to the pages of Best New Horror. As you would expect from an author of his skill and experience, the following story about an imaginary friend has a killer twist…

* * *

Six-year-old Alison on the candy-striped swing set in the side yard of the big white house on the hill. Turning her head at the sound of tires on the gravel drive. Daddy’s home. Alison holds Dolly in the crook of one arm, holds the swing chain with her other hand. Alison has many dolls that Daddy and Mommy have given her but Dolly was the first and will always be special, in spite of wear and tear.

Alison turns her head when Daddy calls. He comes across the bright green lawn of the white house on the hill, smiling at her. Daddy smiles a lot. He doesn’t frown. One hand is behind his back. Of course he has a present for her. He brings home something every day. There is one huge tree on the lawn at the top of the hill (Alison sometimes forgets that). The leaves of the tree are dark green. They shade the swing set and play area where she spends her day. Every day. Because it never rains in the daytime on the hill with the big white house.

Daddy sets his briefcase down. Some days he wears a blue suit to work, some days it’s brown. His shoes are always black and shiny. One day Daddy had a mustache but Alison decided she didn’t like it so Daddy doesn’t wear it any more.

“Here’s my girl!” Daddy says, crouching and waiting for her to run into his arms. It’s what he says every afternoon when he comes home.

(“Where does your daddy work?” Lorraine asks Alison, and after a few moments Alison says, “In an office,” as if it isn’t important to her. “Do you know what kind of work he does?” Lorraine asks then. Alison shakes her head with a hint of displeasure. Lorraine smiles, and doesn’t ask more questions.) Alison reaches around Daddy, trying to find out what he has for her. Daddy laughs and teases for the few seconds Alison will put up with it. Then he offers her the present. It’s tissue-wrapped, and tied with a pink ribbon. Alison allows Daddy to hold Dolly, which is a special privilege on the occasion of gift-bringing, while she unwraps her present.

It’s a glass jar in the form of a girl with pigtails. Like Alison herself. And it’s filled with candy. Red candies. Daddy shows Alison how to open the jar. The glass girl’s head twists off.

Mommy comes out to the back steps of the porch and waves. “Hey, you two.” Mommy wears her blue apron. Mommy is beautiful. She is so blonde her hair looks silver in the sunlight. She wears it in a bun on the back of her head. Alison calls back, as she always does, “Daddy’s home!” (as if Mommy can’t see that for herself). And he brought me a present.” (As if Mommy couldn’t guess.) They love Alison so much. Mommy calls out, “Just one of those before supper, Alison!”

“Just one,” Daddy repeats to Alison, and she nods obediently. Daddy picks up his briefcase and walks across the lawn as if he has forgotten that he has Dolly in one hand. Alison runs after him and tugs Dolly away from him. Privilege revoked. She hugs Dolly and the glass girl against her breast and watches Daddy give Mommy a big hug. They love each other, a whole lot. Alison watches them and smiles. But then she looks up from the porch, way way up, to the third floor of the big white house and he’s up there in one of the rooms looking out the window. Alison can’t smile any more. She takes a deep breath. Big Boy is home. The day is spoiled.

(“Why haven’t you said anything to Daddy and Mommy about Big Boy?” Lorraine asks, after an unusually long, glum silence on Alison’s part. Sometimes Alison isn’t willing to talk about Big Boy. Today she shifts Dolly from the crook of one arm to another, picks at a flaking lower lip while she slides down until almost horizontal in the big leather chair in Lorraine ’s office. Staring at her feet straight out in front of her. Her shoes are red slip-on Keds sneakers. “Because they’d be scared,” Alison says finally.) After dinner. After her bath. Mommy undoes Alison’s pigtails and brushes her hair smooth down over her shoulders while Alison reads to both of them from her storybook. Daddy comes upstairs to Alison’s room with cookies and milk. Then it’s lights out and time for sleep. Mommy forgets and shuts the bedroom door all the way. Alison calls her back. The door is left open a few inches. Mommy and Daddy go down the hall to their own bedroom. Alison lies awake with Dolly on her breast and waits for Big Boy.

(“How long has Big Boy been in the house?” Lorraine asks. Alison fidgets. “A long time. It’s his house.” Lorraine nods. “You mean Big Boy was there before you and Daddy and Mommy moved in.” Alison mimics Lorraine ’s sage nod. She fiddles with her box of crayons. The lid remains closed. Alison hasn’t drawn anything today. Not in the mood. “Only nobody knew about him,” Lorraine says. “So does that mean he hides during the day?” Alison nods again. She opens the Crayola box and pulls an orange crayon half out and looks at it with one eye squinched shut. “Do you know where?” Lorraine continues. Now Alison shrugs. “Oh, in the walls.” “So he lives in the walls.” “Yes,” Alison says, turning around so that she is on her knees in the big leather chair with her back to Lorraine. Well-traveled Dolly continues to stare at Lorraine with a single button eye. The other eye is missing. Dolly has yellow yarn curls around a sewn-on face.) Tell me a story, Big Boy says. It’s always the first thing he says to Alison on those nights when he comes out of the walls. The second thing is, Or I’II go down the hall to their room and hurt them.

Alison holds herself rigid beneath the covers so that he can’t see her shudder. She looks at his shadow on the section of wall between the windows with the shades half pulled down on the tree of night and stars so bright beyond the hill where the big white house is. She doesn’t look at Big Boy’s face very often, even when he comes to stand at the foot of her bed, lean against one of the bedposts with folded arms. One hand tucked into an armpit, the other, the hand with the missing finger, on his elbow. Big Boy’s hair is dark, short, mussed-looking. He’s only fifteen, but already he has a man’s shoulders and strength.

Alison clears her throat.

There was a beautiful butterfly, Alison begins, a thrum of desperation in her heart, who — who lived in a glass jar shaped like a little Dutch girl with pigtails.

(Bluefield detective sergeant Ed Lewinski says to Lorraine, over coffee in the cafeteria of the children’s hospital, “I did a global on the street name ‘Big Boy’. Nothing turned up. No wants, no arrest record, juvenile or adult.” Lorraine sips her coffee. “What about the missing finger? That’s an interesting detail, even for an imaginative six-year-old.” But Lewinski shakes his head. He’s having a doughnut with his coffee. The doughnut’s stale. After two bites he shoves the plate away. “Maybe that wasn’t just the kid’s imagination, Doc. She could’ve seen someone on staff here at the Med who has a missing finger. That could be a traumatic thing, for a kid who may have been traumatized already.” “May have been?” Lorraine says with a wry smile. “Traumatized? Oh, yes, deeply. Alison is quite a challenge, Ed.” Lewinski nods sympathetically. “Three months, but nobody’s come forward. Kids get abandoned all the time; we have to assume that’s what happened to Alison.” Lorraine doesn’t disagree. “How long before Family Services takes over?” he asks. Lorraine says firmly, “She’s not emotionally prepared to go into a foster home. Alison shows no willingness to interact with other children here. Abandonment can crush a child. In Alison’s case her psychic refuge, her protection, is a vivid imagination. Betrayed by her real mother and/or father, she’s blanked them from her mind and created new ones — parents who adore her and never, never, would do such a terrible thing to her.” Lewinski thinks this over. “I understand her need to invent new parents. But what’s all this about ‘Big Boy’? How does he fit into her, what d’ya call it, psychological schematic?” Lorraine checks her watch, says, “Let you know when I know, Ed. I have a couple of ideas I want to explore.” They walk out of the cafeteria together. “Do something different with your hair this weekend, Doc?” “I cut it. Two weeks ago. Some detective you are.” Lewinski has a fair face that blushes easily. “Seeing our girl this afternoon? Sorry I couldn’t turn up ‘Big Boy’ for real; might’ve been some help to you. Bad for Alison, but a break for us cops.” Lorraine, already on her way to the elevators, turns and stares at him. Lewinski laughs. “I mean, Bluefield doesn’t need another teenage Strangler, no matter what his name is.”) Three a.m.

The low drone of a siren in the night. Alison wakes up on her back, looking at the flush of ambulance light on the ceiling of the small room. Dolly in the crook of a thin arm. Alison knowing instantly that she’s in the Wrong Place, where they keep the crazy children. She must get back to the White House on the Hill, to her beautiful room with wallpaper and the white cases filled with dolls and books that Daddy made for her in his workshop. But something bad has happened. Out There. On a lonely street. With trees to hide behind, shadows. The red light swirling on her ceiling, a crackle of radio voices too distant to be understood distracts her; she can’t leave the Wrong Place.

Alison trembles.

And becomes aware of someone standing in a corner opposite the iron bed in this bleak room that smells like medicines, stale peepee.

Oh no.

“Wake you up?” Big Boy says.

“What are you doing h-here? You’re never s’posed to be here.”

“Tell me about it,” Big Boy says; and he moves a couple of steps, to where the light from the single window with its chickenwire glass and shabby shade bathes his face in a hellfire glow. “But if you’re here, then I have to be here, don’t I?”

“No! I don’t know. Just go away.”

Big Boy, grinning. Closer.

“Don’t you want to know what I did tonight? Out There?”

Alison flinches, cold from terror. “No no no! Not Mommy and Daddy!”

“Whoa. I’ll never hurt them. Not as long as you tell me stories.”

“But I’m in the Wrong Place!”

“So what?”

“I can’t think of any stories here, it — it isn’t pretty and smells like peepee!”

“Oh.” He sighs, a big show of regret. “That’s too bad, Alison. I really wanted to hear a story tonight.” Big Boy shrugs, on his way to the door.

“W-where’re you going?”

“The only other place I can go,” Big Boy says with a glance over his shoulder.

“Oh no please don’t!”

Big Boy hesitates at the door.

“It’ll be dark for a few more hours. I’ll find another pretty head to twist off.”

“No no no wait!”

“Alison. It’s what I like to do.”

“Tell you — tell you a story if you don’t!”

That sly Big Boy grin. “But you said you couldn’t think of a story. Because you’re in the Wrong Place.”

“I’ll try I’ll really try!”

Big Boy considers her appeal, then nods.

“Know you will, Alison. Because the one thing you don’t want is for me to twist Mommy and Daddy’s heads off. Because without Mommy and Daddy to go to, where would you be? You’ll just have to stay with the Crazy Children forever. And nobody loves you here.”

“I’ll… try…”

“Okay, okay, Alison. Don’t cry any more. Tell you what. I’ll help you out.” Big Boy sits on the side of the bed with her. “Let me put my thinking cap on, now. Umm-hmmm. Hey, I know! I’ve got a swell idea for a story. Want me to start? Then you can pitch in.”

“Oh — kay.”

“It’s a story about… Dolly, and how she got lost.” And before Alison can react, tighten her grip on one-eyed Dolly, Big Boy has mischievously snatched her away with the hand that has the missing finger. He holds Dolly high in the air, letting her swing by a stuffed lanky leg, delightedly watching Alison’s mouth open and close in horror.

(“His name was Walter Banks,” Ed Lewinski says to Lorraine. They’ve stopped at a Wendy’s for burgers after the movie. “I heard about him from an old-timer at the jail; the case file went into dead storage twenty years ago. I thought old Eb was just yarning, so I looked up Banks in the Tribune’s morgue. Sure ‘nuff. Between 1943 and 1945 Banks may have murdered as many as eight women in Bluefield. Same m.o. every time. He broke their necks. He was all of sixteen when he started his career as a serial killer. Eighteen when he disappeared, and the stranglings stopped, about the same time as World War Two ended.” Lorraine adds ketchup to her double with cheese, takes a bite, stares thoughtfully at Lewinski until he smilingly waves a hand through her line of concentration. “Sorry,” Lorraine says. Ed says, “Your eyes turn a different color when you do that.” Lorraine nods but she’s already out of focus again, thinking. “Is there a photo of Walter Banks in the Trib’s file?” “From his high-school yearbook. I copied it for you.” “I don’t suppose you know where the Banks kid lived.” Lewinski takes an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and lays it on the table. “ Two-oh-four Columbine Street. The house is still there, but it’s badly rundown.” Lorraine gives him a questioning look. “I drove by this afternoon and took some pictures. Two-oh-four Columbine is occupied, but they all look like slackers and drifters. Take better care of their Harleys than they do their own selves.” He shakes his head before Lorraine can ask. “Yeah, Doc, I showed the present occupants Alison’s picture. They didn’t know her. But like I said: drifters.”) Six-year-old Alison on the candy-striped swing set in the side yard of the big white house on the hill. Drawing tablet in her lap, crayons in a pocket of her apron, blue like the one Mommy always wears. Alison has been drawing furiously all afternoon: bears, dragons, spaceships. But now Mommy calls from the steps of the back porch: it’s time to go shopping.

“Alison? How about some lemonade now?” A few minutes before the close of their hour together, during which Alison has been deeply involved with her artwork and uncommunicative, she sighs and closes her drawing tablet, careful not to let Lorraine see what she was working on — that’s a special intimate privilege when things are going well between them, but not today — and replaces all of her crayons in the box. She looks at the pitcher on Lorraine ’s desk. There’s nothing Alison likes more than lemonade when she’s thirsty. Lorraine pours a cupful for each of them. “Alison, I wonder if you’d mind looking at a couple of pictures for me?” Alison nods, sipping. Lorraine places one of Ed Lewinski’s shots of two-oh-four Columbine Street on the edge of her desk. Alison leans forward in her chair, needing to crane a little to see. She doesn’t touch the digital photo. Studies it with no change of expression. “Is that where you live, Lorraine?” “No. I thought you might-” “I’m glad. Because it isn’t pretty.” Alison’s nose wrinkling. “I wouldn’t live there.” There is a hint of something in the girl’s face that gives Lorraine a reason to press on. “But have you ever been to this house?” “No,” Alison says, with a show of revulsion to close the subject. “It looks like it has rats.” Lorraine smiles and withdraws the photo of two-oh-four Columbine Street. “Could be.” She replaces it with a murky copy of Walter Banks’s old yearbook photo. “Do you know this boy?” Alison stares at the likeness of Walter Banks for almost ten seconds before blinking, twice. Then she sits back in the deep leather chair and closes her eyes. “Alison?” “I have to go home now,” Alison says. A small hand twitches in her lap. There is a sighing in her throat, a windy plaintive sound. “I have to… help Mommy bake the cake. Because today is… Daddy’s birthday.”) And what a wonderful party they have, in the big white house on the hill! Surprises galore for Daddy after his special birthday dinner. And the cake, oh, oh, she can’t count how many candles blazing in thick swirls of icing. Alison did most of the frosting herself.

With tears in his eyes, Daddy gathers Mommy and Alison into his arms and kisses them both. He loves them so much. Alison knows that they are the happiest family that ever lived. If Lorraine could be there she would see that, and never ask another question. But there are barriers that Lorraine cannot cross. Alison won’t permit that. And this has made Lorraine jealous. Alison is fearful of her jealousy, afraid of what she might do. Because somehow she has found out. She knows.

“She knows who you are,” Alison tells Big Boy later, after everyone is in bed. Alison treated to a cool breeze from the open windows, nightingale’s trill, treasure-house of stars.

Big Boy is silent for quite a long time. Silence making Alison nervous. She plays with the yarn curls of Dolly’s stuffed and sewn head.

“So what?” Big Boy says at last.

“Well… I thought…”

Big Boy, arms folded, waits. Alison arranges the yarn curls this way and that.

“What?”

“You might want to… do something about Lorraine.”

Unexpectedly he grins. “Having Bad Thoughts, Alison?”

Alison thrusts Dolly away, face down, in a tangle of curls. A seam, twice restitched, is popping again where Dolly’s head joins her neck. Alison looks at it, face filled with dread. No, she doesn’t think Bad Thoughts in the big white house under the stars, because… because otherwise what good is it to be there at all? Shuddering, she recalls one of the smudgy photographs Lorraine showed her. That shabby brick bungalow with its mildew and greasy kitchen smells. It’s what Lorraine wants her to go back to, instead of to her real home, Mommy and Daddy’s clean, airy house. The place where instead of stars shining into her bedroom there were the eyes of prowling rats. She wants Alison to go back to that. Lorraine is not her friend any more, if she ever was. Alison’s heart beats furiously at the thought, she feels a flush of outrage in her cheeks. No, never! And rising blood forces a flood of tears.

“She wants to… send me back to that stinking ol’ place! And if I have to go… you’ll have to go back there too!”

Alison grabs a corner of bedsheet to wipe her streaming eyes. Big Boy sits beside her.

“There’s some snot on your upper lip,” he says.

Alison wipes it away, glaring at him.

“Well… what can you do?”

But Big Boy shakes his head.

“It’s only what you can do that matters, Alison.”

Lorraine gets up slowly from her side of the bed so as not to wake Ed Lewinski, who is sleeping on his stomach. She bends to kiss a naked shoulder, then pulls on a nightshirt from her chest of drawers before walking downstairs to the kitchen of her garden condo to get something to drink. Mouth parched from all the kissing and those other things she did with him, after more years than she cares to remember new meaning to going all the way; around the moon and back with sweet Eddie Lew. Carton of tomato juice on the top shelf in the fridge. She pours a glass, adds a squeeze from the fat plastic lime-juice container, adds Tabasco: Virgin Mary. Leans against the sink smiling to herself as she sips, probably could use a shower but relishes the smell of her lover on her still-tingling body.

The phone. It’s the hospital. Damn.)

By the time Lorraine walks into Alison’s room in the children’s wing Alison has been sedated and is half-asleep.

“Must’ve been a nightmare,” the charge nurse says. “She woke up hysterical, and what a time we had with her. She wet the bed.”

Alison’s head moves on the pillow. Her face is nearly colorless except for the small cherry bow of her mouth.

“Rats and bugs. Fights… all the time. She hurts me.”

Lorraine looks sharply at her. “How are you doing, Sweetie?”

Alison can open her milky eyes only part way. “Headache.”

Lorraine holds her hand. “Can you tell me what you were dreaming about?”

“Nuh.”

“That’s okay. We’ll talk about it later. You rest now.”

Instead of closing her eyes and subsiding into her sedative cocoon, Alison trembles.

“Where’s Dolly?”

“Oh,” Lorraine says, noting that Dolly isn’t in her usual place in the crook of Alison’s arm, “I don’t see her.”

In spite of the dockable sedative more hysteria threatens.

“Dolly!”

Lorraine glances at the charge nurse, who shrugs. Alison begins to wail. Lorraine has a quick look around the spartan room but Dolly isn’t lurking anywhere. Then she remembers: Alison wet the bed, so the sheets could’ve been changed… she questions the nurse, who nods. Possible. Dolly could’ve left the room in a wad of soiled sheets. Lorraine moves swiftly to Alison’s side.

“I think I know where Dolly’s gone. She’s not lost. I’ll bring her to you.” She holds the girl close.

“P-promise?”

“Just give me a few minutes.”

Lorraine takes the elevator to the second-basement level.

Dead quiet down there, no working in the laundry at one-thirty in the morning. The machinery of the elevator seems unnaturally loud to her ears in the quiet of the cavernous basement. Corridors criss-crossing beneath the entire hospital complex. The concrete walls are painted grey and pale green. Yellow ceiling bulbs in wire baskets. Signs point to different areas. Crematory, Electrical, Maintenance, Storage. Laundry.

The metal door, twenty feet from the elevator, is closed. Lorraine pushes it open.

There’s a windowless outer room with a couple of tables, chairs, vending machines for the laundry workers. The room would be full dark except for the illuminated facades of the machines. By their glow she sees, inside the laundry itself, a dumpster-size canvas hamper on wheels that sits beneath the drop chute. And there’s a dim light deep inside the shadowy room. She hears a lone clothes-dryer thumping dully as it makes its rounds.

Lorraine draws a breath that burns her throat, eases around the canteen tables into the laundry. The big room has glass-block windows on one wall, above the pipe complex that grids the ceiling. The one dim bulb is behind pebbled glass in an office door eighty feet away; not enough light to cast her shadow. She tries a wall switch inside the door but nothing much happens to the fluorescent fixtures overhead: a cloudy flickering in two or three of the five-foot tubes.

She draws another breath and begins to search the hamper, pulling out sheets one at a time, shaking them. There are sheets recently peed on, all right, but no Dolly.

“I think I have what you’re looking for,” he says.

Lorraine turns with a jolt that has her skin sparking.

“Who’s there?”

She hears a phlegmy chuckle, then the quavering voice again.

“It’s only me. Did I scare you?”

“Did you-? Hell, yes,” Lorraine says, shaking her head in annoyance. She is unable to tell where his voice is coming from. Next she hears a dry reedy sucking sound, like someone pulling on a straw to get the last drops from a container of soda or fruit juice. That gets on her nerves fast. “Who are you?”

“Oh — I work nights around here. Just washed my old sneakers, now I’m waiting for them to come out of the dryer.”

“What did you mean, you have what I’m looking for? How would you know why-”

She sees him then, shadowy, as he rises from a stool behind a long sorting table; his head, in silhouette against the glass of the office door, looks shaggy. “I believe you come down here for her doll. Throwed out by mistake, was it?”

“Yes. But-”

“Come and get it, then,” he says, chuckling, his amusement causing him to wheeze at the end.

“No. Bring it to me,” Lorraine says. And adds, “Please.”

“All right. All right.” Sounding a little cross. The stool legs scrape on the concrete floor. He comes toward Lorraine, slowly, soundlessly. His sneakers clunking around in the dryer. “How’s little Missy doing? She calm down some from her bad dreams?”

“Were you upstairs earlier? In the children’s wing?”

“That I was. That I was.”

“I see. But how did you know Alison’s doll was missing?”

“Oh, I know things. I know lots of things. Been here almost all my life.”

“Do I know you? What’s your name?”

At the instant she asks, the fluorescent tubes flare overhead with the violence of lightning, the laundry is garishly illuminated, and he is closer than she thought, white-haired, stooped, unkempt head thrust forward of his shoulders as he shuffles toward her. Alison’s Dolly offered in his right hand. Chuckling fit to kill, is Walter Banks. The thumping of old sneakers round and round the dryer tub is like an echo of the accelerated tempo of her heart. She stares in hammering fright at the missing finger on the veiny hand that grips the doll.

“Oh Jesus-!”

The door is only a few feet away, he is old now, and slow and obviously not strong, she can get away easily; Lorraine turns but-There is no room for her to run.

Because Alison is standing in the doorway in her nightie, arms folded, looking up at Lorraine, rigid in her purpose, baleful.

“Oh Alison! But — you can’t do this!”

Alison shakes her head slowly, unyielding. Then Lorraine feels the hand with the missing digit on her shoulder. She glances at it. Not an old man’s juiceless spidery spotted claw, the skin is smooth, unblemished, large, strong: strong enough to grind her bones. Even with a finger gone.

“Alison — God — it’s wrong — listen to me!”

Alison in a quiet kind of huff shuts the door in her face and is gone.

Big Boy bears down and Lorraine screams. He pulls her slowly around to face him. He smiles fondly at Lorraine.

“You don’t want to go yet,” he says. “It’s storytime.”

Gene Wolfe

Hunter Lake

Gene Wolfe was born in New York City and raised in Houston, Texas. He began writing in 1956, and his first sale was “The Dead Man” to Sir magazine in 1965.

The author of hundreds of short stories and dozens of novels, including The Fifth Head of Cerberus, The Devil in a Forest, Free Live Free, There Are Doors, Castleview, Pandora by Holly Hollander, the World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award and British Science Fiction Award-winning “Book of the New Sun” sequence, “The Long Sun” tetralogy and “The Short Sun” trilogy, his story “The Death of Doctor Island” (collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories) also won the Nebula, his novel Peace won the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award and “The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps” was awarded the Rhysling Award for SF poetry. He is also a recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Wolfe has recently published The Knight and The Wizard, a two-part novel under the umbrella title “The Wizard Knight”. Innocents Aboard is a new collection with another, Starwater Strains, forthcoming. Also due are the novels Pirate Freedom and The Soldier of Sidon, the latter the third book in the “Soldier” series (after Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete).

He writes five pages each day, often rising at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to work before breakfast, and sometimes completing the fifth page around midnight. Every page of his stories receives at least three drafts and some go through ten or more.

As Wolfe reveals: “I had written a story called ‘My Name is Nancy Wood’ in which I attempted a female narrator; I liked the result, and wanted to try another in which most of the characters were women or girls.

“I combined that ambition with a dream — a sort of mild nightmare — involving my own mother, and wrote ‘ Hunter Lake ’. The old farmhouse recurs in my dreams with some frequency. In part it is surely my grandmother Wolfe’s house, which she inherited and which predated the American Civil War. The other elements are (I think) drawn from houses I visited as a child. England may well be the most haunted country on Earth, but the US is not far behind — New England and the old Confederacy particularly.”

* * *

“You’ll get arthritic eyes,” Susan declared, “if you keep watching that thing. Turn it off and listen a minute.”

Ettie pressed MUTE.

“Off!”

Obediently, Ettie pressed the red button. The screen went dark.

“You know what Kate told us. There’s a lake here — a beautiful lake that isn’t on anybody’s map.”

“I did the Internet search, Mom. Remember?”

“And you sit watching an old TV with rabbit ears in a rented cabin.” Susan was not to be distracted. “You know what your father says — people who get eyeball arthritis see only what they’re supposed to see, like that TV screen. Their eyes stiffen-”

Ettie brought out the artillery. “If Dad’s so smart and such a good father, why did you divorce him?”

“I didn’t say he was a good husband. Come on! Get your coat. Don’t you want to look for a haunted lake?”

Thinking it over, Ettie decided she did not. For one thing, she did not care for ghosts. For another, she was pretty sure this was a dream, and it might easily turn into a bad one. A haunted lake would give it entirely too much help. Aloud she said, “You’re going to write a magazine article and get paid. What’s in it for me?”

“I’ll take pictures, too,” Susan declared. “Lots of pictures. It’s supposed to be very scenic. If a ghost shows up in one of my pictures, the sale will be a…”

“Snap,” Ettie supplied.

“Foregone conclusion.”

The car door slammed, and the car pulled smoothly away from the one-room log cabin that had been their temporary home. Ettie wondered whether she had left the TV on and decided she had. Would Nancy Drew have remembered to turn it off? Absolutely.

“The Indians performed unspeakable rites there,” Susan continued. Studying Ettie from the corner of her eye, she concluded that more selling was in order. “They tortured their white prisoners, gouging out their eyes and scalping them while they were still alive. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Native Americans never did anything like that.” Ettie sounded positive, even to herself.

“Oh yes, they did! A hunter found the lake hundreds of years afterward, and took his family there for a picnic because it was so pretty. His little daughter wandered away and was never seen again.”

“I knew I wasn’t going to like this.”

“Her spirit haunts it, walking over the water and moaning,” Susan declared with relish.

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“It’s what everybody says, Kate says. So today we’ll find it — you and me, Ettie — and we’ll stay out there all night and take lots and lots of pictures. Then I can write about how a sudden chill descended at midnight, a chill our struggling little fire could not dispel, seeming to rise from the very waters that-”

“Mother!”

“Harbor the ghosts of hundreds of Mohicans massacred by the Iroquois and thousands — no, innumerable — Iroquois massacred by white settlers, waters said to harbor pike of enormous size, fattened for centuries upon-Ah! There’s the farmhouse.”

It looked horrible, Ettie decided. “Burning that down would be an improvement.”

“They’re old and poor. It’s not polite to make fun of old people. Or poverty.” A wrench at the wheel sent the car gliding into a farmyard from which no chicken fled in terror.

“They’re dead, if you ask me.” Ettie pointed toward the little cemetery that should have been the front yard. Its cast-iron fence was rusting to pieces, and its thin limestone monuments leaned crazily.

Susan took her key from the ignition. “Just a private burying-ground, Ettie. Lots of old farms have them.”

“Right in front of the house?”

“I think that’s touching. They cared about their dead.” They were climbing broken steps to a ramshackle porch innocent of paint. “Probably they sat out here on rockers and talked to them.”

“Cozy.”

“It is, really. The dead are nearer the living than you know, Ettie.”

You’re dead yourself, Ettie thought rebelliously, and ohmyGod how I miss you.

Susan knocked. The knocks echoed inside the old farmhouse. There was no other sound.

“Let’s go,” Ettie suggested.

“I’m right here, dear.”

“I know you are,” Ettie said. “I’m scared anyway. Let’s go. Please?”

“Kate says there’s an old man here who knows precisely where Hunter’s Lake is. I’m going to question him and tape everything he says. I’m going to take his picture, and take pictures of this house.”

Somebody behind them said, “No, you’re not.”

Ettie found that she had turned to look, although she had not wanted to. The woman behind them was old and bent, and looked blind.

Susan smiled, laid a hand on Ettie’s shoulder and tried to grasp that shoulder in a way that would make it clear to Ettie that she, Susan, was counting on her not to misbehave. “Mrs Betterly?”

“Ain’t no business of yours, young woman.”

“My name’s Susan Price,” Susan continued bravely, “and my daughter and I are friends — good friends — of Kate Eckert’s. We’re looking for Hunter’s Lake — ”

The old woman moaned.

“And Kate said your husband would help us.”

“He won’t talk to no women,” the old woman declared. “He hates women. All of us. Been fifty years since he spoke civil to a woman, he told me once.”

Susan looked thoughtful. “My daughter isn’t a woman yet.”

“Mother!”

“Really now, Ettie. What would Nancy Drew say?”

“ ‘I’m getting out of here,’ if she had any sense.”

“He won’t hurt you. How old is he, Mrs Betterly?”

“Eighty-seven.” The old woman sounded proud. “He’s ten year old’n me, and won’t never die. Too mean.”

Susan gave Ettie her very best smile. “You see? What are you afraid of? That he’ll hit you with his walker? He might call you a name, at worst.”

“Or shoot me.”

“Nonsense. If he shot little girls for asking polite questions, he’d have been sent to prison long ago.” Susan turned to the old woman. “All right if Ettie tries?”

“Door’s not locked,” the old woman said. After a moment she added grudgingly, “That’s a brave little gal.”

As though by magic, Ettie found that her hand was on the doorknob.

“He’ll be in the parlor listenin’ to us. Or if he ain’t, in the sittin’ room. If he ain’t in the sittin’ room, he’ll be in the kitchen for sure.”

The hinges are going to squeak, Ettie told herself. I just know it.

They did, and the floorboards creaked horribly under her feet. She closed the door so that her mother would not see her fear and pressed her back against it.

Outside, Susan endeavored to peep through several windows, returned to her car, and got her camera. “All right for me to take your picture, Mrs Betterly?”

“Just fog your film,” the old woman said. “Always do.”

“Then you don’t mind.” Susan snapped the picture, being sure to get in a lot of the house.

In it (it appeared immediately on the back of her camera) the old woman was holding a bouquet of lilies. “Where did you get the flowers?” Susan asked.

“Picked ‘em,” the old woman explained. “Grow wild ‘round here. Buttercups, mostly.”

“Where did they go?” Susan tried to hide her bewilderment.

“Threw ‘em away once your picture was took.”

Inside, Ettie was poking around the parlor, pausing every few seconds to look behind her. The carpet, she noticed, was too small for the room, torn and moth-eaten. Dust covered the bare floor, and there were no footprints in the dust save her own.

He isn’t here, she thought. He hasn’t been here for a long, long time.

And then: I could take something. A souvenir. Anything. None of this stuff is doing anybody any good, and I’ve earned it.

There was a glass-topped case at the end of one of the divans. It held old coins and arrowheads, and the top was not locked. She selected a worn little coin with a crude picture of a Native American on it, and slipped it into her pocket. It had not looked valuable, and she would have it always to remember this day and how frightened she had been.

There was no one in the sitting room and no one in the kitchen. No one in the dining room, either.

A crude stair took her upstairs as effortlessly as an escalator. He’s old, she thought, I’ll bet he’s sick in bed.

There were three very old-fashioned bedrooms, each with its own small fireplace. All were empty.

He’s gone, Ettie told herself happily. He’s been gone for years and years. I can tell Mother anything.

Outside again, speaking to Susan from the porch, she said, “Do you want everything, or just the important parts?”

“Just the important parts.”

“Where’s the old lady?”

“She went away.” For an instant, Susan forgot to look perky. “I turned around, and she wasn’t there. Did her husband call you names?”

That was easy. Ettie shrugged. “You said you just wanted the important stuff. Here it is. He said for us to go home.”

Susan sighed. “That’s not what I sent you in to find out.”

“Well, that was the important thing.” Ettie did her best to sound reasonable.

“All right, everything. But leave out the names.”

“Okay. He said, ‘Little lady, that lake’s a real bad place, so don’t you ever forget you’re a grown woman and got a Ph.D. and a daughter of your own.’ Am I supposed to do the dialect?”

“No.”

“Fine. He also said, ‘If you got to go there, you time it so your alarm goes off before anything bad happens. You go home. One way or the other. That’s all I’m going to tell you. Get on home.’“

Curious, Susan asked, “Did he really call you ‘little lady’?”

“Heck, no. You said to leave out the names so I did.”

Susan sighed. “I suppose it’s better that way. How did he say to get to the lake?”

“He didn’t.” Ettie shrugged. “Want me to go in and ask him again?”

“Will you?”

“Not unless you tell me to.”

“All right. Ettie, you get yourself back in there and tell him we must find Hunter Lake. Don’t take no for an answer. You have to be firm with men, and you might as well learn now.”

Nodding, Ettie went back inside. It would be smart, she told herself, to spend quite a bit of time in there. She pulled a book off the shelf in the parlor and opened it. The Alhambra by Washington Irving. It looked as though it had never been read.

After a minute or two, she realized that her mother was trying to peer through the very dirty window-pane and the filthy curtains, and went into the sitting room. There was a nice old rocker in there. She sat in it and rocked a while, reading Washington Irving.

Outside again, blinking in the sunlight, she realized that she had never really decided what to say when she came out. To buy time, she cleared her throat. “You really want to hear this?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Okay, first he asked me all about you. That was after I had said you kept sending me back in. He said you sounded like a real bitch, and if you came in he’d get the chamber pot and throw shit at you.”

“Ettie!”

“Well, you said you wanted to hear it. After that he explained to me about Hunter Lake. He said didn’t I know why they called it that? I said because a hunter found it. He said that was wrong. He said it was ‘cause it hunted people. He said it could move all around just like bear and climb trees-”

Susan stamped her foot. “We want directions.”

“What do you mean, ‘we’?”

“Did he give you any directions? Any directions at all?”

“Just go home. I told you that the first time.”

“We need directions, not stories. Go back in there and tell him so.”

Ettie walked through the empty house, slowly, stopping to stare at things and open drawers, until she felt that something was following her. When she did, she hurried back outside, slamming the door and running down off the porch. “I’m not going back in there! Never! Never any more. You can ground me forever! I won’t!”

Susan studied her, her lips pursed. “That bad, huh?”

“Yes!”

“Did he give you directions?”

Mutely, Ettie went to the car and got in. Two minutes passed before Susan slipped into the driver’s seat next to her. “Ettie?”

Ettie said nothing, and Susan started the engine.

“Get out of here,” Ettie told her. “Pull out onto the road again. Turn left.”

“That’s away from the cabin. I thought you wanted to go home.”

“Home-home,” Ettie said. “Not away-home. Turn left.”

“Our bags are back at the cabin.”

“Left.”

Susan turned left.

“Go down this road,” Ettie said, “ ‘til you see a road off to the right through the corn field. There’s no sign and it’s easy to miss.”

Wanting to do more than glance at her, Susan slowed instead. Twenty miles an hour. Fifteen. Ten.

“Slower,” Ettie told her. “Follow it to the woods. Stop the car and get out. Look for the path. Follow the path to the house. A Injun named George Jones lives in the house. He knows. Give him ten dollars.”

“You said ‘Injun’,” Susan muttered. “You never even say Indian.”

Ettie said nothing.

Half a mile later, Susan saw the road, braked too late, backed up, and turned down it — a red-dirt road barely wide enough for a farm truck, two ruts flanking a strip of grass and weeds.

When the road would take them no farther, she and Ettie got out.

“Please don’t lock the car,” Ettie said. “I’ve got a feeling we might want to get in and get away quick.”

Susan stared, then shrugged. “I think I see the path. I’m going down it. You can wait in the car if you want to, but it may be quite a while.”

“You won’t leave the keys?”

“No.”

“Two will be safer than one,” Ettie said.

The house was a shack, perhaps ten feet by fifteen. An Indian woman was tending a tiny plot of vegetables. Susan said, “We’re looking for George Jones,” and the Indian woman straightened up and stared at her.

“We need his help. We’ll pay him for it.”

The Indian woman did not speak, and Ettie wanted to cheer.

Susan opened her purse and took a ten-dollar bill from her wallet. She showed it to the Indian woman. “Here it is. Ten dollars. That’s what we’ll pay him to guide us to Hunter Lake.”

Something that was no expression Susan had ever seen before flickered in the Indian woman’s eyes. And was gone. “He fish,” she said.

“In Hunter Lake?”

Slowly, the Indian woman nodded.

Susan breathed a sigh and gave Ettie one triumphant glance. “Then take us to him, or tell us how to find him.”

The Indian woman held out her hand, and Susan dropped the ten into it. The Indian woman clutched it, wadding it into a tiny ball.

“How do we get there?”

The Indian woman pointed. The path was so narrow as to be almost invisible even when they were on it. A game trail, Susan decided. “Deer made this,” she told Ettie.

If Ettie spoke, twenty or thirty feet behind her, she could not be heard.

“They need water,” Susan explained, “just like us. They must go to Hunter Lake to drink.” Privately, she wondered how far it was, and whether her feet would hold up. She was wearing her jogging shoes, but she rarely jogged more than a couple of blocks. Ettie, in jeans, T-shirt, and loafers, was probably worse off still. But younger, Susan told herself. Ettie’s a lot younger, and that counts for a lot. “Ettie?” She had stopped and turned.

“Yes, mother?”

“Am I going too fast for you? I can slow down.”

“A little bit.”

Susan waited for her to catch up. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.”

Susan bent and kissed her. “Really, dear. I love you. You know that. I’ll always love you.”

Ettie shook her head. “That’s not how it will be. Not really. I’ll always love you, Mom.”

Susan kissed her again. “Now tell me what’s troubling you.”

“I was wondering if I’d turned off the TV before we left.”

“Really, dear?”

Ettie nodded.

“Is that all?”

“Why I’d told you that stuff. About the Native American. All this. I could have just said he wouldn’t tell, only I didn’t.”

“Because you’re an honest, decent person, Ettie.”

Ettie shook her head. “Because he made me. I don’t know how he did it, but he did.”

“Well, come on.” Susan turned and began to walk again. “It’s probably right over the next hill.”

“It’s a long, long way,” Ettie said despondently. “Besides, this path doesn’t even go there. We’ll walk until we’re too tired to walk any more, and be lost in the woods. Nobody will ever find us.”

In point of fact, Susan was right. The path skirted the crest of the hill and descended sharply through close-packed hardwoods. For almost twenty minutes Susan and Ettie picked their way through these, Susan holding up branches for Ettie, who hurried under them, waving away mosquitoes.

As abruptly as the explosion of a firework, they emerged into sunlight. Water gleamed at the bottom of a steep hillside thick with ferns. On the other side of the gleam, water like molten silver cascaded down the face of a miniature cliff.

Susan raised her camera. A hundred yards or so down to the water — from here, she could only suggest that by showing a few fern fronds at the bottom of the picture. Then the water, then the cliff with its waterfall, then white clouds in the blue sky, and thank God for sky filters.

She snapped the picture and moved to her left.

“Are we really going to stay here?” Ettie asked.

“Only overnight, dear. We’ll have to carry some gear from the car — not the tent, just the sleeping bags and a little food. It won’t be all that hard. Will you want to swim?”

Ettie shook her head, but Susan was looking through her viewfinder and did not see her. It wasn’t really a hundred yards, she decided. More like fifty. She snapped the picture, and decided the next should be taken at the water’s edge.

“Mom…”

She stopped and turned. “Yes, Ettie? What is it?”

“I wish you wouldn’t go down there.”

“Afraid I’ll fall in? I won’t, and I doubt that it’s very deep close to shore.” Susan turned and began walking downhill again. She was a little tired, she decided; even so, walking down a gentle slope over fern was remarkably easy.

“Mom!”

She stopped again.

“Where’s the Native American man, Mom? Where’s George Jones? He was supposed to be down here fishing. I can see the whole lake. There’s nobody here but us.”

Suddenly, Ettie was tugging at her arm. “It’s coming up! Get back!”

It was, or at least it seemed to be. Surely the lake had not been that large.

“It’s a natural phenomenon of some kind,” Susan told Ettie, “like the tide. I’m sure it’s harmless.”

Ettie had released her arm. Ettie was running up the slope like the wind. A loafer flew off one foot as Susan watched, but Ettie never paused. She walked up the slope to the spot, found the loafer, and looked back at the water.

In a moment more it would be lapping her feet.

She turned and ran, pausing for a moment at the highest point of the path to watch the water and take another picture. That was probably a mistake, as she realized soon after. The water had circled the hill, not climbed it. She ran then, desperately, not jogging but running for all that she was worth, mouth wide and eyes bulging, her camera beating her chest until she tore it off and dropped it. The Indian shack was nowhere in sight; neither was her car. Woods gave way to corn, and corn to woods again, and the water was still behind her. When the land over which she staggered and stumbled rose, she gained on the water, when it declined, the water gained on her with terrifying rapidity.

Ettie had turned back to look for her, limping on tender feet. She met the water before she had gone far, and thereafter ran as desperately, leaving a trail of blood the water soon washed away. Twice she fell, and once crashed straight though a tangle of briars whose thorns did nothing at all to hold back the water behind her.

“Here, Ettie! Over here!”

She looked to her left, and tried to shout Mom. There was precious little breath left for Mom.

“It’s our cabin! Over here!”

It was not. The cabin they had rented had been of logs. This was white clapboard.

“Get in!” Susan was standing in the doorway. (Behind Susan, Ettie glimpsed the flickering television screen.) Ettie stumbled in, and fell.

Susan slammed the door and locked it. “It’ll try to get in under it,” she said, “but we’ll pack it with towels. Clothes. Anything.” She had thrown her suitcase on the bed. She opened it. Ettie raised her head. “I’ve got to wake up, Mom.” “We’ll beat it!” Briefly, Susan bent to kiss her. “We’ve got to!” Then Ettie faded and was gone, and Susan was alone in the clapboard cabin. Water crept past the towels and her terrycloth robe to cover the cabin floor. When the water outside had risen higher than the windowsills, it crept under and around the sashes to dribble on the floor.

* * *

Henrietta woke sweating, terrified of something she could not name. Through the closed door, Joan said, “Everything’s ready, Mom. You want to have your Mother’s Day breakfast in bed?”

“No,” Henrietta whispered. More loudly, “No. I don’t want to stay in here. I’ll be out in a minute, Honey.”

There were two robes in her closet, terrycloth and silk. Henrietta put the silk one on over her nightgown and tied its belt with a sudden violence she could not have explained.

The bed was a mess, sheet and blanket twisted and half on the floor. Pausing to straighten it up before she left the bedroom, her eyes caught the dull red of old copper. Once the worn little coin was in her hand, memories came flooding back.

Bacon and waffles, real butter and almost-real maple syrup in the sunshine-yellow breakfast nook, and Joan spraying Pam on the waffle iron. “Coffee’s on the stove,” Joan announced.

Henrietta sat, put the penny on her plate, and stared at it. A minute passed, then two. At last she picked it up and dropped it into a pocket of her robe.

“Do you know,” she told Joan, “I’ve just recalled how your grandmother died, after being wrong about it all these years. She drowned.”

“Sure.” Joan held the steaming coffee pot. She filled Henrietta’s cup. “Fluid in her lungs. Uncle Ed told me.”

Scott Emerson Bull

Mr Sly Stops for a Cup of Joe

Scott Emerson Bull plies his dark trade in the rural charms of Carroll County, Maryland. When he’s not keeping an eye out for ghosts or suspicious-looking types at his local convenience store, he scribbles stories, some of which have appeared in Darkness Rising: Caresses of Nightmare, Outer Darkness, Night to Dawn and chizine.com. He lives with his wife Deb, his two step-kids, a cat and a proud little puppy.

“It amazes me how many people love the character, Mr Sly,” admits Bull. “He’s even getting some fan mail! I mean, he’s not a very nice guy, although he does have a wicked sense of humour.

“I guess we would all like to have his sense of fearlessness, but I doubt we’d want to run into him…”

* * *

Mr Sly and fear were old acquaintances, though when they usually met it was at Mr Sly’s invitation and on his terms. He never expected to run into fear at twelve-thirty on a Tuesday night in a Quik-stop convenience store while he chose between the Rich Colombian Blend and the De-Caf Hazel Nut coffees. But then, fear always did have a mind of its own.

A kid had ushered in fear. He did it when he yelled, “Everybody in back. This is a robbery.”

Mr Sly crushed the empty coffee cup in his hand and dropped it to the floor. Dammit, he thought. He knew he should’ve just got what he needed and skipped the coffee. If he had, perhaps he’d have avoided this, but he had to have his fix, didn’t he? Now his work at home would have to wait. He’d have to deal with this first.

“Come on, Fat Man. That means you, too.”

He turned towards the direction of the voice. The first thing he saw was the gun. The kid holding it wasn’t much, just some local Yo-boy wannabe with bleached hair and a bad attitude. The gun, however, was big as a cannon. Mr Sly hated guns. Blam blam blam and all you had left was a big ugly mess. Mr Sly preferred knives. Knives required skill and demanded intimacy. Kind of like fucking without all the post-coital chit-chat.

“As you wish,” he said. “You seem to be in charge.”

The kid pointed him towards an office in the back, where Mr Sly joined the Indian girl who ran the register and a well-dressed woman of about thirty who’d also been buying coffee. He looked for a window or a second door, but there was no other exit. Not good.

“Okay. On the floor!”

Mr Sly turned to the kid. He had to look downward, since he had a good eight inches on the boy.

“Do you want us sitting or face down?” he asked.

“Huh?”

Mr Sly looked into the boy’s bloodshot eyes. He didn’t see much sign of intelligence.

“Do you want us to sit on the floor or lie on it face down?”

“Face down,” the kid said.

The two women complied. Mr Sly remained standing.

“Why would you want us to do that?” he asked.

“Because I fucking said so, okay?”

Mr Sly shrugged. “That’s not how I would do it. I’m assuming you plan on shooting us in the back of the head.”

“Maybe,” the kid said. One of the women sobbed.

Mr Sly shook his head. “For what? Maybe a hundred bucks in the register? Where’s the fun in that?” He made a gun with his index and forefinger and aimed it at his own temple. “Don’t you want to see our faces when you pull the trigger?”

The kid’s eyes widened.

“Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“You don’t have a clue, do you?”

“Fuck you, man. On the floor! Now!”

“Okay, but I’m going to do you a favor and stay sitting up. If you shoot me, I want you to see my face.”

“Just fucking sit down.”

Mr Sly did as he was told, keeping his anger in check. At six eight, three hundred and fifty pounds, he could easily crush this punk’s head with his bare hands, but the gun equalized the situation. He lowered his bulk and sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Now don’t move. I’m gonna be right out here. I hear anyone move, you’re all dead, okay?”

Mr Sly nodded.

The kid left the room and started banging on what sounded like the register. The well-dressed woman sat up and turned to Mr Sly.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Mr Sly smiled at her. He could see she was in the first stage of fear, what he liked to call disbelief. That was when your mind still refused to come to grips with what was happening, although your body had accepted it fully. He could see that by the sweat on the woman’s brow and the red splotches on her cheeks. He wondered if she’d wet herself yet. Most of them did and Mr Sly hated that. How could you enjoy the deliciousness of dread with soggy panties?

“I must tell you that I thought you were rather rude a few minutes ago,” he said.

“What?”

Mr Sly didn’t like this woman. He didn’t like her at all.

“I thought you were rather rude when you reached in front of me to get that coffee cup. You could have been more patient.”

“Are you insane? Any minute that kid’s going to blow our brains out and you’re lecturing me on patience? Is that all you’re worried about?”

“Perhaps not the only thing.”

“Well, good. Now will you please cooperate so we’ll have a chance of getting out of this alive.”

He felt an urge to slap this woman across the mouth, but fought it off.

“Either way he’s going to shoot us,” he said. “So why do you want to deny me a little fun in the last minutes of my life?”

“My God, you’re insane.”

“As the day is long,” he said, smiling.

They could hear the kid returning, so the woman lay back down on the floor. When the kid came in, he looked agitated.

“There’s only seventy-five dollars in the cash drawer. Where’s the rest of the money?”

“Told you so,” Mr Sly said.

“Shut up.” The kid motioned with his gun to the Indian girl. “Get up and open the safe.”

“I’m not sure I can open it,” the girl said, rising to her feet. Tears dampened her delicate brown face. Now Mr Sly liked her. He loved the diamond stud in her nose and the way her small breasts pushed against her Quik Stop T-shirt. She displayed an intoxicating blend of terror and submission. In the end, these were the ones that really fought back or at least took some dignity in suffering.

“Just relax and give it a try,” Mr Sly said.

“Did I ask you for any help?” the kid said.

“No, you did not. I apologize. I hate it when someone interferes with my work, too.”

“Man, you’re fucked in the head.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

They left the room. Mr Sly could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out the words. The woman sat up again.

“You want us to get killed, don’t you?”

“Not particularly. I’m just trying to feel him out.”

“And your opinion is?”

“I’d say one of us is going to die.”

“Oh, terrific. And this doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really. Not when I figure you’re the one that’s going to take a bullet.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Excuse me?”

Mr Sly leaned closer and whispered.

“The way I see it, our best shot is for you to make a move on him. He’ll have to react to you, most likely by blowing your head off, but at least I’d be able to subdue him.”

“You’re insane.”

“Perhaps, but it’s a good plan.”

“It sucks. I end up getting killed.”

“I didn’t say it was perfect.”

“Well, why do I have to be the brave one? Why don’t you make a move on him?”

“Because if he shoots me, you’ll never be able to take him down. Then you get shot and most likely so does the girl. If I get a hold of him, I’ll twist the little bastard’s head off. Then at least the girl and I make it.”

“It still sucks.”

“Look, lady. If you have a better idea, I’m waiting to hear it.”

The gun appeared at the door, followed in by the kid.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Plotting your death,” Mr Sly said.

“Man, I am this fucking close to shooting you. And you.” He pointed the gun at the woman. “Back on the floor.”

“No.” The woman straightened her back “If he sits up, then I sit up, too.”

The room exploded with a hail of smoke and coffee grounds. The kid had blasted a four-inch hole in a can of Colombian mix on the shelf above their heads. Mr Sly’s ears rang from the noise. He suppressed a smile when he saw the woman face down on the floor again.

The kid had the gun pointed at Mr Sly.

“Next one’s gonna be lower. You get my drift?”

“Loud and clear.”

The kid left the room. Mr Sly could smell piss.

“Fear should be our friend,” he told the woman.

“Dear God, we’re going to die,” she said.

Yes, they were, Mr Sly thought, unless he thought of something soon. He closed his eyes and thought of his walnut chest at home, the one he kept his knives in. He wished he had one now, but he never took them out of the house, because of the risk they presented if he was caught with one. After tonight, he might have to rethink that policy, if he got the chance.

“Fear brings clarity,” he said. “It fires the brain. I don’t mind admitting that I’m scared, but I’m trying to enjoy this experience and learn from it. I don’t often get this perspective.”

The woman looked up at him, her face a series of red splotches on a pale white canvas.

“I don’t want to know what you do in your spare time, do I?”

Mr Sly smiled. As he did, they heard the gun go off out in the store.

“I guess she couldn’t get the safe open,” he said.

The woman put her face in her hands and wept.

The kid rushed back into the room. His gun seemed bigger now, as if reacting to some exhilaration it got from firing its shiny missiles. The kid looked wired. Either the drug he’d taken had finally peaked or he finally understood what this was all about.

“All right. Wallets. Jewelry. Anything you got. Dump it on the floor.”

The woman sat up and dumped out her purse. Mr Sly eyed the contents: a wallet, eyeliner, lipstick. A container of Mace landed near his foot. He looked at the woman, catching her eye, then looked back at the Mace.

“Not all that shit. Just the money and credit cards.” The kid aimed the gun at Mr Sly. “You, too. Get your wallet out now.”

Mr Sly studied the gun, figuring the bullet’s probable trajectory and the distance between himself and the kid. He reached towards his left back pocket where he kept his wallet. Then he stopped.

“I only have twelve dollars. I really only needed a cup of coffee and some maxi pads.”

The kid’s grip tightened on the gun.

“Maxi pads?”

“Let’s just say I’m entertaining tonight and she’s in no position to pick them up herself.”

“Just give me your wallet.”

Mr Sly looked back at the gun. He wondered if he’d survive taking a bullet in the gut. Given all his fat, he probably stood a pretty good chance of making it, but doing time in a hospital wasn’t something he could afford, nor could he afford a few days of questioning by the police. That was all he’d need, some bright cop putting two and two together.

“I can’t get it out,” he said.

“What?”

Mr Sly switched hands and reached towards his right rear pocket.

“It’s the problem with being fat,” he said. “My pants are too tight. I’ll have to stand up if you want me to take out my wallet.”

The kid took a step back. Mr Sly could see him sizing up the situation. The kid didn’t seem to like it, but luckily greed was still foremost in his mind.

“All right, but get up real slow.”

Mr Sly laughed. He had no choice but to get up slow. His leg muscles strained as they lifted his weight from the floor. He felt like an old grizzly bear raring up for one final attack. He only hoped he looked that way, too.

“That feels much better,” he said, stretching up to full height. “My legs were going to sleep.”

The kid looked up at Mr Sly, who now dwarfed him. Some of the kid’s cockiness seemed to drain away, but that didn’t stop him from sticking his hand out for the wallet.

“You have no sense of fun, do you?” Mr Sly reached for his right rear pocket. “A man should love his work no matter what line he chooses. Don’t you think?”

The kid cocked the trigger.

“Just give me your wallet.”

“As you requested.”

Mr Sly stopped time. He could do this when he wanted to, just like a quarterback when he gets into the zone or a racing driver when he pushes his car towards two hundred-plus miles per hour. Everything slows down when you’re in total control. He watched as his arm came from behind his back. Watched the look of horror on the kid’s face, then the split second of consternation when he saw that the big man’s weapon was a comb, a simple plastic comb. He watched as it tore into the kid’s cheek.

The gun went off, but the bullet missed. The kid slumped back against the door and screamed when he saw a generous portion of his skin hanging from the broken plastic teeth of the comb. The woman picked up the Mace and sprayed it in the kid’s face. Ouch, that had to hurt on an open wound. The gun fell to the floor and Mr Sly kicked it away. Then he delivered a finishing blow to the kid’s head, letting him drop like the proverbial sack of potatoes.

“Only good thing my drunken daddy ever taught me,” Mr Sly said, shaking the flesh loose from the comb. “A plastic comb can come in handy if you ever find yourself in a bar fight without a weapon.”

“Charming,” the woman said. She pointed the Mace at Mr Sly. “Now I think it’s time for you to leave.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “Just let me tie him up first.”

The woman kept the Mace pointed at Mr Sly as he bound the kid’s feet and hands together with packing tape.

“We should check on the girl,” he said. “See if she’s dead.”

“You first.”

They walked into the store with Mr Sly leading. They found the girl behind the counter, a purplish welt rising on her forehead. There was a bullet hole in the safe.

“He really was an amateur, wasn’t he?” Mr Sly said, as he turned to face the woman. “I’m glad she’s okay, aren’t you?”

Before the woman could answer, Mr Sly had grabbed the Mace from her.

“Sorry, but I don’t like people pointing things at me.”

The woman shrunk back against the counter. Mr Sly read the concern on her face and laughed.

“You didn’t believe all that stuff I said back there, did you?”

“Well.”

“You needn’t worry.” He picked up some maxi pads and threw them into a plastic Quik Stop bag. “Think I’ll skip the coffee. I’m keyed up enough already, aren’t you?”

The woman stared at him.

Mr Sly went to leave, but when he reached the front door and looked out at the empty street, he turned around.

“Mind if I take something with me?”

“By all means,” the woman said.

He went back into the storage room and came out with the kid thrown over his shoulder. “And just in case you get a sudden bout of sympathy for our attacker here.” Mr Sly held up the woman’s driver’s license.

“I can’t imagine that happening,” she said.

He walked with the boy over his shoulder towards the door.

“Wait,” the woman called. “I suppose I should say thank you.”

He turned and smiled. “No need,” he said. “Most fun I’ve had in years.”

Then Mr Sly went out the door and disappeared into the night.

Steve Rasnic Tem

The Bereavement Photographer

A regular contributor to the Best New Horror series, Steve Rasnic Tem’s stories and poetry have recently appeared in the revived Argosy magazine and the anthologies Quietly Now, Taverns of the Dead, The Many Faces of Van Helsing and The Devil’s Wine.

A chapbook entitled The World Recalled was published by Wormhole Books, and a collection of his selected poetry, The Hydrocephalic Ward, appeared from Dark Regions Press.

“I’ve wanted to write this story for a long time,” explains Tem about his contribution to this volume. “I was looking for a container for some of the things I had observed with grieving parents, with people dealing with loss in general.

“I’ve also always been fascinated by those photographs of the dead taken in the early years of this country — often retouched by painting pupils on the permanently closed eyelids. Dead children dressed up like ‘little angels’. Dead children looking as if they’d been unable to stay awake for their important, formal portraits. The way parents deal with what cannot be dealt with, finally, without being changed for ever.

“When I found out that a contemporary version of these photographs exists today, the story came about not without effort, but also without my ability to halt it.”

* * *

“So, have you been doing this a while now?” “A few years.”

“Sorry for asking, and tell me if I’m out of line, but you can’t possibly be making a full-time living doing this can you?”

I actually almost say, “It’s a hobby,” which would be disastrous. But I don’t. I look at the fellow: sandy-haired, a beard whose final length appears to be forever undecided. He looks terrible in the suit — either long outgrown or borrowed for the occasion. And it is an occasion — a grim occasion but an occasion none the less. He watches me as I set up, without a glance for his child. The young wife fusses with her to make ready for this picture, this family portrait.

I’m used to this. Who could blame him?

“I’m a volunteer. They reimburse me for film and lab costs. It’s a way… of being of service.”

He glances down, gazes at his wife rearranging the baby in her arms, glances away again, with no place to look.

Me, I have only one place to look. I peer through the lens, musing on composition issues, the light, the shadows, the angles of their arms. “Could you move her a little to the left?” The husband and father stares at me, puzzled, then bends to move his wife’s chair. She blushes.

“No, sorry. You, ma’am.” I straighten up behind the camera. “Could you move the baby a little to the left?” Notice how I said “the” baby, not “your”. I try to avoid upsetting words. These are family portraits, after all. Just like all families have. Most parents don’t want to be crying. I have folders full of photographs of mothers and fathers wailing, faces split in the middle. Believe me, they don’t want to keep those. Sometimes I have taken roll after roll until there is sufficient calm for me to make the picture that will go into some leather-bound matte, slipped into some nondescript manila folder, or, if they’re so inclined, up on the living room mantel in a place of honor, there, oh so much there, for the whole world to see.

I’ve been doing this for years. But still I find that hard to imagine.

I feel bad that I haven’t found the right words for this father, the words that will soothe, or at least minimize his discomfort and embarrassment. But sometimes there are just no right words. At least, I can’t always find them.

“I’ll be taking the shot in a few minutes,” I say. “Just make yourself comfortable. This isn’t going to be flash flash flash and me telling you to smile each time. The most important thing is to try to make yourselves comfortable. Try to relax and ease into this shared moment.”

This shared moment. Whatever words I say to my subjects, I always include these. Even though I’ve never been sure they were accurate, or fair. The moment is shared in that it happens to both of them. But most of the time, I think, the experience is so personal and large it will soon split the marriage apart if they’re not careful.

I’ve seen it happen so much. I’ve seen so much.

“Okay, then,” I say in warning and again I move behind the camera, almost as if I expect it to protect me from what is to come. As I peer into the electronic viewfinder, so like a small computer screen, so distancing in that same way, I see the mother’s smile, and it is miraculous in its authenticity. I’ve seen it before in my portraits, this miraculous mother’s smile, and it never fails to surprise me.

And I see the father at last look down upon his dead baby girl and reach out two fingers, so large against the plump, pale arm, and he lets them linger, a brief time but longer than I would have expected, and I realize this touch is for the first, and last, time.

I again shift my focus to the light, to the shadows and the play of shadows, and ready myself to shoot. The father attempts a dignified smile, but of course goes too broadly with it. The mother holds the child a bit too tightly. And I trigger the camera once, then twice, the baby looking as if she were merely sleeping. The baby looking. Then I take a shot for the photographer, a shot I will never show the parents, an image to add to the growing collection I keep hidden in a file drawer at home, the one in which the baby opens its eyes and fixes its gaze upon me.

* * *

I should explain, I suppose, that I’ve never had much talent for photography. I have the interest, sometimes I’ve had the enthusiasm, but I’ve never had the eye. I got this volunteer position because my next-door neighbor is a nurse, and she used to see me in my back yard with camera and tripod shooting birds, trash, leaves, whatever happened to land in front of me. Inconsequential subjects, but I was afraid I’d screw up a more significant one, which would have broken my heart, maybe even have prevented me from ever taking another photograph. I didn’t want to risk that.

Not that I wanted to risk taking such an important photograph in a family’s life, either. But Liz had talked about how temporary this was, how they just needed someone to man the camera now, and every time I tried to tell her I really wasn’t that good at it, she said I didn’t have to be — the families just wanted the photograph — having it was the idea and they wouldn’t care how good it was, technically.

But I told her no anyway. Even unpaid, I would have felt like an impostor. Not only was I not that good as a photographer, but I wasn’t that good with kids.

Maybe that sounds terrible under the circumstances. It seemed to me at the time that the appropriate person for this kind of sensitive task would be someone with a strong empathy and dedication to and involvement with children. And I didn’t have that. Of course I used to be a child, and my sister Janice and I had pretty good parents, but I don’t remember childhood as being a particularly happy time. I could hardly wait for it to be over so I could be out on my own. And I can’t say that I’ve ever enjoyed children. I’ve never particularly liked spending time with them. My nephews are okay — I’ve taken them to ball-games and movies and such and I think they’re great kids now that they’re older. When they were little I didn’t know what to say to them and, frankly, they scared me a little. They seemed so needy and fragile and that was pretty much the extent of their personalities.

As far as other kids go, I’d have to say I’ve basically ignored them. Their concerns are not my concerns. Most of the time I haven’t even been aware they were there.

That weekend I was in the city park taking bad pictures. I tried shooting couples, failing — everything looked fuzzy and poorly framed. Composition was eccentric at best, whatever I tried. A number of families were barbecuing. I noticed one small group in particular: really young parents, kids themselves, with a huge, dish-shaped barbecue looking hundreds of years old.

Suddenly there was an explosion of shouts, barking, shapes racing through the crowd. Then several large dogs burst from the wall of people to my right, followed by a half-dozen teenage boys, red-faced, barking like hyenas, and all of them converging on that young family.

I shouted a warning, but too late. One of the dogs knocked the unwieldy barbecue over, and several others a few feet away. The little kids started screaming, the mother and father running toward them, but the air was full of thick, white, choking smoke. The mother grabbed up two of their kids and folded them into her. But the little one… “Jose!” the young father screamed. “Jose!”

I could not breathe in the smoke, but I could not close my eyes. And almost as if to protect my eyes I raised my camera in front of my face and started taking pictures of the turmoil and the panic, the father gesturing as if mad, and I’m wondering how could this be, all this over some kids and their pets, but these poor people, their lives changing forever. And then the little boy appears out of the smoke like some apparition from the mists, some ghost back to rejoin his family because the taking of him had been a mistake, arms reaching up for his daddy, crying and sobbing and the father sobbing as well.

It was at that moment I decided to say yes to my neighbor, and became the hospital’s bereavement photographer. Even before I saw the photographs I had taken: the looks on the young couple’s faces on their rapid descent into despair, and that small boy appearing out of the clouds like a tragedy retrieved from the fierce and unforgiving eddies of time.

* * *

“Oh, Johnny, those poor people!” Janice is my older sister, my confessor, and, I’m a little embarrassed to say, my barometer as to what’s normal or abnormal, what’s okay and what’s not okay.

The day after I’d made that decision to volunteer my photographic services she had a barbecue of her own. (Would I have changed my mind if she’d responded negatively? I still don’t know.) I was invited, of course. With no family or even regular girlfriend, I usually ate at her house three, four times a week. Tom didn’t seem to mind, but of course you never really know when you visit married couples. They might have been fighting for hours before you got there, but when they open the front door they’re like a glossy advertisement for the connubial life.

“Sounds like pretty sad work to me,” Tom said morosely.

“Tom!”

“I’m not criticizing him, Janice. It just sounds like it’d be pretty grim stuff, and he’s not even being paid to do it.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be doing it every day,” I said, somewhat off the point. I just wanted them both to believe that, contrary to appearances, I lead a pretty balanced life. Despite the fact that I had no girlfriend, spent most of my spare time at their house, and obsessively took photographs even I didn’t think were very good.

Janice snorted. “Don’t listen to him, Johnny. It’s a noble way to spend your time. We should all do at least one activity like that.”

The subject mercifully disappeared into a conversational salad of new movies, music, old friends recently seen, what my twin nephews were doing (now fifteen, athletic, and a deadly combination with an alarmingly broad age range of females), and, of course, the pregnancy.

“You should have one of your own, sometime,” Janice said, smiling and rubbing her belly as if it were silk.

“Wrong equipment, sis.”

“I meant with a girl.”

“Oh, duh, I didn’t understand.”

“You guys.” Tom, an only child, didn’t get it.

“Actually I think I would, even have it myself, if it made me half as happy as you look every time you’re pregnant.”

“Every time? Two times, little brother.”

“Could be more,” Tom said, and ducked when she tossed the ketchup squeeze-bottle at his head.

I looked around. The angle of the light had changed, deepening some colors, brightening others. There had always been an intensity and vividness about my sister’s life. It was almost unnatural the way the environment shifted its spectrum to suit her. The bright blue stucco house, the grass green as Astroturf, the red-and white-checkered cloth over the redwood table, laden with matching yellow plates and cups and a rainbow of food. A few feet away the tanned blond boys passing the football through the jeweled spray from the sprinkler. Unexpectedly, the sight made me hold my breath. My beautiful nephews. I could have been a better uncle. But perhaps for the first time, their connection to me seemed sharp and undeniable, and it didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t understand them most of the time.

All of it like one of those Kodachrome photographs from the 1960s: colors so intensely unrealistic, so vividly assaultive, they dazzled the eyes.

* * *

The job was meant to be only temporary. That actually increased my stress over the whole affair, because I felt I didn’t have that much time to figure out how to do things right. I’d spend a long time with the camera, framing the shot, then suddenly I’d feel everything was wrong, that I’d be leaving this family with nothing to remember their dead child by. So I’d compulsively start all over again adjusting, readjusting, my fingers shaking and sliding off the controls.

Invariably I’d take too long and the family’s understandable nervousness would increase tenfold. They’d suddenly be anxious to let go of this child or they would slip over some invisible line and would act as if they might hold onto him or her forever. The mothers, mostly. The fathers would usually just be irritated, but most of them started out irritated, angry. They were being asked or pressured into doing something they weren’t really sure they could do.

Liz could see what was happening. She let me struggle a little at first, scoping out the boundaries of my difficulty, and then she finally stepped in, talking to these parents, letting them know what to expect, helping me set up, letting me know what to expect, by example teaching me what to say, what to look out for, how to pace things so the experience wasn’t too much, wasn’t too little.

Despite all my worries, I never took a bad picture for any of these people. Oh, some shots were better than others, certainly, but I don’t think I ever took a really bad shot. As morbid as it sounds, I had found my subject.

And my subject had found me.

Taking pictures of dead children — well, as I’ve said, the work generated the expected tension in both the families and the photographer. I’d spend so much time trying to get a pose that looked natural. Sometimes I’d be working so hard to make everything look just right that I’d forget why these people were looking so sad and I’d catch myself hoping that the baby would wake up and look at the camera.

And when one of them finally did, I went on with what I was doing and took the shot without a thought about what had just occurred.

Then minutes later — I stood up and looked over the camera at the couple and their tiny, tiny baby. Dead baby — I could not have imagined that a creature so small who looked so like a miniature human being could have survived our comparatively brutal, everyday air.

The couple looked at me uneasily. Finally the man said, “Are we done here? Something wrong?”

Everything’s wrong, I wanted to say. Your baby is dead. How much wronger could things possibly get}

“No,” I said. “No.” And I looked closely at this child, hoping to see that it was sleeping, but immediately knew it was not.

Dead children, at least the really small ones, have an unformed, stylized quality even though there may be nothing missing anatomically. Their tiny bodies recall some unusual piece of art, perhaps of an animal that’s never been seen before, some part-human, part-bird thing, or some new breed of feral pig or rodent. They are like remnants of the long, involved dream you just had, mysteriously conveyed to our waking world. They are like hope petrified and now you have no idea where to put the thing.

That was what sat perched against the young mother’s swollen breasts, a sad reminder of her fullness craving release.

Of course I decided almost immediately that what I was sure I had seen hadn’t even happened at all. One of the things that occurs when you spend a great deal of time staring into a camera lens is that stationary things appear to move, moving things freeze, and a variety of other optical illusions may occur. Things appear, disappear, change color and shape. Of course you don’t have to use a camera to see this — stare at almost anything in the real world long enough and these kinds of phenomena occur. That’s true enough, isn’t it? I mean, it isn’t just me, right?

The great photographers are great because they see things differently from the rest of us. So from our perspective they see things that aren’t there. I’ve long had this notion, not quite a theory, that the world changes when a great photographer looks through the lens.

As I said before, I’m not a great photographer. But when I took those first rolls home and developed them I think I got just a glimpse of what the great photographer sees. In three of the shots the baby’s eyes were open, looking at me.

* * *

I admit that upon occasion I do fall prey to a certain suggestibility. I’m wound pretty tightly at times. I get somewhat anxious in the darkroom. I’m interested in shadows in an aesthetic sense, but I’m also uncomfortable with them. Unexpected sounds can make me jump out of my skin. I don’t care for scary movies. And I’ll believe almost anything that comes out of the mouth of a well-spoken man or woman.

So I wasn’t about to let myself believe what the pictures were telling me. Not without a fight.

“Liz, did you ever notice the babies’ eyes? How sometimes they’re… open just a little?”

I don’t know if I expected her to ask me if I’d been drinking, or suggest that I get more sleep, or maybe just stare at me with that evaluating look I’d seen her give some of the patients. But I didn’t expect the calmness, the matter-of-factness. “Sometimes the eyes don’t close all the way. When they get to the embalmer, sometimes he’ll sew the lids down, or glue them maybe. Whatever seems necessary for the viewing. Occasionally I’ll warn the parents, if I think it will upset them. Why, has it been bothering you, or is it just something you noticed?”

Relieved, I almost told her what I’d been thinking, what I’d been imagining, but I didn’t. “I just noticed,” I said.

* * *

So for a while I refocused myself on just taking the pictures, trying to relax the couples (or in some cases, single moms, and in one very complicated case, a single dad, who seemed angry about the whole thing, and frowned during the picture, but still insisted that the picture with his son was something he had to have. Liz was obviously nervous about that one, and hung around outside the room while I hurried the session.) My composition got better; the pictures improved.

Sometimes there would be something different about a baby: a certain slant to the shoulders, a small hand frozen in a gesture, an ambiguous expressiveness in the face that tugged at my imagination, but I withheld any response. I knew that if I brought any of these details to Liz’s attention she would give me some simple, calm, rational answer, and I would feel that I was only making myself suspect in her eyes.

Yet I felt almost guilty not to be paying more notice to these small details, as if I were ignoring the appeals of some damaged or frightened child. And what did I know of these things? I’d never been a parent, never hoped to be a parent. I knew nothing, really, of children. I had learned a little about grieving parents: how they held their dead babies, how they looked at the camera, how they held themselves.

And I could see clearly, now, the way the eyelids sometimes loosened a bit, sliding up to expose crescent-shaped slivers of greyish eyeball. I’d seen this look in people who were napping — there was nothing unusual about it. But I still didn’t like seeing this in the babies. For in the babies it didn’t look like napping at all — it looked like additional evidence of their premature deaths.

I had become more relaxed in my volunteer work. I didn’t expect any surprises and no surprises occurred. And yet still I would occasionally take those special pictures out of their folders and examine them. And it did not escape my notice that the babies in the pictures, the ones who appeared to be staring at me, had eyes which remained wide open, with an aspect of deliberate and unmistakable intention.

* * *

This vocation of bereavement photography is hardly a new one. From the earliest days of photography you will find pictures of dead people staring at the camera, sometimes with the surgeon’s or embalmer’s stitches all too visible around the scalp or chest. The adults are in their best clothing, sometimes slouched in a chair, sometimes propped up in bed, a Bible underneath one hand. Sometimes the women are holding flowers.

Many, of course, appear to be sleeping, caught by the sneaky photographer as they nap the afternoon away. Others look terrified: eyes wide and impossibly white, the enlarged dots of their pupils fixing you in a mean, unforgiving gaze.

These gazes are artificial, of course: the eyes painted onto the closed, dead lids. They look, I think, like stills from some badly animated cartoon.

In those days portraiture was quite a bit more formal, and sittings a special occasion. Few families owned cameras of their own, and you might have only two or three photographs taken of yourself over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes a grieving relative’s only chance for a photographic record of a beloved’s life was after the beloved was dead.

This was particularly true in the case of children. Infant mortality in the days of our great-grandparents was so high that without the photographic proof people might not ever know you’d ever been a parent. You dressed them up as angels and paid the man good money to take their everlasting portraits, money you doubtless could not spare. You put those portraits up on the mantel or in an honored place on the parlor wall, and you showed them to friends and neighbors, even salesmen come to call. And you alternately preened and choked with grief when they commented “How precious,” “How handsome,” and “How terribly, terribly sad.”

* * *

The issue returned with the Wilson child.

Did I mention before that most of the children I photographed were stillborns? Of course that would make sense as there would be no opportunities for school pictures or family portraits or any of the other usual domestic photo opportunities. The need for my services was greater.

But occasionally an older child of one or two years would be signed up for the service, accompanied by parents who were always a bit ashamed for not having engaged in that normal parental obsession of incessant snapshots and home movies.

I have to say I was glad this particular age group didn’t come up too often. It was awful enough to take pictures of parents devastated by the loss of a dream — a child who might have been anything, whose likes and dislikes, the sound of the voice, were completely unknown. Worse was the child who had developed a personality, however roughly formed, who liked toy trucks and hated green beans, who smelled of a dozen different things, whose eyes had focus.

The Wilsons were older than the usual couples I saw. She was in her early forties; he had to be on the far side of fifty. They had a small chicken farm twenty miles outside the city. Mrs Wilson smelled of flour and of make-up carelessly and too thickly applied. In fact I think make-up was a rare accessory for her. She had pupils like little dark peas, washed up in a cup of milk. There was something wrong with her hip; she shuffled and bobbed across the room to the metal chair I’d set up for her. The nice chair was being cleaned, and the appointment had been hastily arranged. I felt bad about that. I knew nothing about her, but I would have liked to have photographed her in the finest hotel in the city.

This reaction was all silliness on my part, of course. She wouldn’t have cared — she was barely aware of her surroundings. Her eyes were focused on another piece of furniture in the room: a gurney bearing a small swaddled bundle, an elderly nurse stationed nearby as if to prevent its theft or escape.

Mr Wilson also came to me in layers. Floating above it all was the stink of chickens, of years of too much labor with too little reward. Under that was a face like sheared-off slabs of rock, and eyes scorched from too little crying, no matter what. Unlike Mrs Wilson, there appeared to be nothing wrong with his body, but he shuffled across the floor just the same, a rising tide of anger impeding forward progress. He stopped dutifully by the rigid metal chair, gripping the back with narrow, grease-stained fingers, a little too tightly because he thought no one would notice. He watched as his wife made her way painfully over to the gurney and stood there patting and stroking — not the sunken little bundle, but the sheets surrounding it.

He didn’t move another step. He knew his place.

The nurse asked if they’d like to “get situated”, and then she’d bring them their son. I couldn’t imagine what she meant — it sounded as if they were moving into a new place, or starting a new job. They appeared to understand her better, however. Mrs Wilson dropped into the chair and held on to her knees. Mr Wilson straightened up as if to verify the height listed on his driver’s license.

The nurse carried the package over, whispering comforting things into its open top. She unwrapped the child and fussed with him in mock-complaint, trying to position him in his mother’s lap so that the large dent in the side of his head wouldn’t show. She almost managed it by laying the dent against his mother’s chest and twisting his pelvis a little. She pretended not to notice the mother’s profound shudder.

Then the nurse quickly backed away from the house of cards she’d just constructed, holding her breath as if even that might trigger collapse. She retreated to the back of the room, with a gesture toward the family as if presenting some magic trick or religious tableau.

The couple stared straight ahead, slightly above me at the dark wall behind. I didn’t bother telling them to look at or reposition the child. They were done with me and what I represented.

All that was left for me to do was to gaze at the child and snap the shutter.

Even slumped inwards like that, he was actually a pretty sturdy kid. Broad-faced with chubby arms and legs. The head a little large, and I wondered briefly if there had been a spreading due to impact and I shook slightly, a bit disgusted with myself. This couple’s beautiful little boy.

But the head wasn’t quite right, and the composition was made worse by the couple’s hunched-forward, intense stares. I moved the camera and tripod a little to the left while gazing through the viewfinder, ready to stop moving when things looked right.

The little boy opened his eyes, the pupils following me.

I looked up from the viewfinder. The eyes remained closed.

Back with my eye to the lens and the boy’s eyes were following me again, as I moved further left, than back right again. It was probably just the position of his head and the slump of the shoulders, but he looked angry. He looked furious.

Finally I stopped. The eyes closed. But as I started to press the button they opened again. Bore down on me. Impatient, waiting.

I took shot after shot that afternoon. Most of them were unusable. What was he so angry about? It was as if he didn’t want his picture taken with these people and he was blaming me for it.

* * *

After that day the children opened their eyes for me now and then, although certainly not during the majority of these sessions. I don’t believe I’d still be doing this work today if it had happened with every child. Most of the time my volunteer work consisted of calming the parents without actually counseling them — I don’t have the temperament or training for it. Positioning them, feeling out what they would be comfortable with, and finally taking the shot. That’s what it’s all about, really: taking the shot.

The children who opened their eyes to me hampered that work, since obviously I couldn’t send those poor couples home with that kind of photograph. Increasingly they seemed angry with me, and increasingly I was irritated with them for the obstacle they had In-come.

* * *

“Okay… uh, could you move her to the left just a bit? There, that’s good. That’s perfect.”

And she is. This child, this Amy, my flesh, my blood, my niece. Tom grips Janice’s shoulders a little too firmly. I can see the small wince of discomfort playing with the corners of my sister’s mouth. I look at Tom, he looks back at me, relaxes his hands. He looks so pale — I think if I don’t take this family portrait soon he might faint. The twin boys stand to each side of him, beautiful and sullen, yet they pull in closer to his body for his support and theirs.

Janice looks up at me, her little brother, not sure what she should do. I offer her a smile; she takes it, attempts to make it her own, and almost succeeds.

Then I look through the lens. I look at Amy, and she’s otherworldly, beautiful as her mother. And then she opens her eyes, giving me that stare I’ve seen a hundred times before, but it’s different this time, because this is Amy, this is one of my own. I see the anger coming slowly into her eyes, but I smile at her anyway. I make a kiss with my mouth, and I hope she understands it is just for her. And I take the shot, this one for me, and she closes her eyes again, and I take the other shot for them.

Gemma Files

Kissing Carrion

Though she recently betrayed her Gothic roots by beginning to wear colours, Gemma Files still often invites all and sundry to, as Susan Musgrave puts it, “bite into [her]/and open [their] mind to blood.”

Previously a freelance film critic, she now teaches Screenwriting and Canadian film history at the Toronto Film School, and has adapted two of her own stories for The Showtime Network’s The Hunger cable TV series. Her short story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Story of 1999.

“Kissing Carrion” is the title story from her first collection of short stories, available from Prime Books. A second collection, The Worm in Every Heart, is currently available from the same publisher.

“I first got the germ for ‘Kissing Carrion’ back in 1993,” Files remembers, “when I’d just quit my job as Vibrator Room floor attendant at Lovecraft, Toronto’s most upscale sex shop. The virulent combination of having an eighty per cent employee discount but no significant other to share the spoils with had already begun to screw with my ideas about ‘healthy’ sexuality. I also spent a fair amount of time listening to early Nine Inch Nails while reading underground comics and ‘zines, simultaneously jealous and admiring of their creators’ capacity to self-publish material which seemed to come straight from the same vein of icky, suppurating, intensely private darkness I was becoming somewhat afraid to tap into myself.

“The turning point came when I discovered an article in one of said ‘zines about those wacky folks down at Survival Research Laboratories (whose self-destructive industrial antics would later inspire NIN’s ‘Happiness in Slavery’ video), which led me to rent their performance tapes from Suspect Video — I was particularly struck by the infamous “rabbot”, a rotting bunny corpse hooked up to a system of rods and pistons and technical what-have-you which puppeted it around, making it parade itself back and forth until it started to fall apart. Mix well with the Pixies, and Pat Calavera’s Bone Machine was born.

“But things soon slid to a halt, as they often do with me, and the story lay fallow for years… I had vague ideas of submitting it for a zombie anthology, like John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Book of the Dead, which is how the whole ‘triangle between a man, a woman and a corpse splits apart when the corpse objects to the arrangement’ theme came into play.

“Still and all, it took until 2000 for me to finally realize that the narrative perspective should come from Mr Stinky, rather than Pat or Ray. A deadline was proffered by Ellen Datlow, for which I’ll be eternally grateful, even though the story itself didn’t turn out to meet her needs for the anthology in question. And the rest is history.”

Q: Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new Gods?

A: Yeah.

— Frankie Goes To Hollywood

I am persecuted by angels, huge and silent — marble-white, rigid-winged, one in every corner. Only their vast eyes speak, staring mildly at me from under their painful halos, arc-weld white crowns of blank. They say: Lie down. They say: Forgive, forget. Sleep.

Forget, lie down. Drift away into death’s dream. Make your… final… peace.

But being dead is nothing peaceful — as they must know, those God-splinter-sized liars. It’s more like a temporal haematoma, time pooling under the skin of reality like sequestered blood. Memory looping inward, turning black, starting to stink.

A lidless eye, still struggling to close. An intense and burning contempt for everything you have, mixed up tight with an absolute — and absolutely justified — terror of losing it all.

Yet here I am, still. Watching the angels hover in the ill-set corners of Pat Calavera’s Annex basement apartment, watching me watch her wash her green-streaked hair under the kitchen sink’s lime-crusted tap. And thinking one more time how funny it is I can see them, when she can’t: They’re far more “here” than I am, one way or another, especially in my current discorporant state — an eddying tide of discontent adding one more vague chill to the mouldy air around her, stirring the fly-strips as I pass. Pat’s roommate hoards trash, breeding a durable sub-race of insects who endure through hot, cold and humid weather alike; he keeps the bathtub full of dirty dishes and the air full of stink, reducing Pat’s supposed bedroom to a mere way-stop between gigs, an (in) convenient place to park her equipment till the next time she needs to use it.

Days, she teaches socks to talk cute as a trainee intern on Ding Dong the Derry-o, the world-famous Hendricks Family Conglomerate’s longest-running preschool puppet-show. Nights, she spins extra cash and underground performance art out of playing with her Bone Machine, getting black-market-fresh cadavers to parade back and forth on strings for the edification of bored ultra-fetishists. “Carrionettes”, that’s what she usually calls them whenever she’s making them dance, play cards or screw some guy named Ray, a volunteer post-mortem porn star whose general necrophiliac bent seems to be fast narrowing to one particular corpse, and one alone… mine, to be exact.

Pat can’t see the angels, though — can’t even sense their presence like an oblique, falling touch, a Seraph’s pinion-feather trailed quick and light along the back of my dead soul. And really, when you think about it, that’s probably just as well.

I mean, they’re not here for her.

Outside, life continues, just like always: Jobs, traffic, weather. It’s February. To the south of Toronto there’s a general occlusion forming, a pale and misty bee-swarm wall vorticing aimlessly back and forth across the city while a pearly, semi-permeable lace of nothingness hangs above. Soft snow to the ankles, and rising. Snow falling all night, muffling the world’s dim lines, half-choking the city’s constant hum.

Inside, Pat turns the tap off, rubs her head hard with a towel and leans forward, frowning at her own reflection in the sink’s chipped back-mirror. Her breath mists the glass. Behind her, I float unseen over her left shoulder, not breathing at all.

But not leaving, either. Not as yet.

And: Sleep, the angels tell me, silently. And: Make me, I reply. Equally silent.

To which they say nothing.

I know a lot about this woman, Pat Calavera — more than she’d want me to, if she only knew I knew. How there are days she hates every person she meets for not being part of her own restless consciousness, for making her feel small and useless, inappropriate and frightened. How, since she makes it a habit to always tell the truth about things that don’t matter, she can lie about the really important things under almost any circumstances — drunk, high, sober, sobbing.

And the puppets, I know about them too: How Pat’s always liked being able to move things around to her own satisfaction, to make things jump — or not — with a flick of her finger, from Barbie and Ken on up. To pull the strings on something, even if it’s just a dead man with bolts screwed into his bones and wires fed along his tendons.

Because she can. Because it’s an art with only one artist. Because she’s an extremist, and there’s nothing more extreme. Because who’s going to stop her, anyway?

Well. Me, I guess. If I can.

(Which I probably can’t.)

A quick glance at the angels, who nod in unison: No, not likely.

Predictable, the same way so much of the rest of this — experience of mine’s been, thus far; pretty much exactly like all the tabloids say, barring some minor deviations here and there. First the tunnel, then the light — you rise up, lift out of your shell, hovering mothlike just at the very teasing edge of its stinging sweetness. After which, at the last, most wrenching possible moment — you finally catch and stutter, take on weight, dip groundwards. Go down.

Further and further, then further still. Down where there’s a Bridge of Sighs, a Bridge of Dread, a fire that burns you to the bone. Down where there’s a crocodile with a human face, ready and waiting to weigh and eat your heart. Down where there’s a room full of dust where blind things sit forever, wings trailing, mouths too full to speak.

I have no name now, not that I can remember, since they take our names first of all — name, then face, then everything else, piece by piece by piece. No matter that you’ve come down so fast and hard, fighting it every step; for all that we like to think we can conquer death through sheer force of personality, our mere descent alone strips away so much of who we were, who we thought we were, that when at last we’ve gotten where we’re going, most of us can’t even remember why we didn’t want to get there in the first place.

The truism’s true: It’s a one-way trip. And giving everything we have away in order to make it, up to and including ourselves, is just the price — the going rate, if you will — of the ticket.

Last stop, everybody off; elevator to… not Hell, no. Not exactly…

… Goin’ down.

Why would I belong in Hell, anyway, even if it did exist? Sifting through what’s left of me, I still know I was average, if that: Not too good, not too bad, like Little Bear’s porridge. I mean, I never killed anybody, except myself. And that-

— that was only the once.

Three years back, and counting: An easy call at the time, with none of the usual hysterics involved. But one day, I simply came home knowing I didn’t ever want to wake up the next morning, to have to go to work, and talk to people, and do my job, and act as though nothing were wrong — to see, or know, or worry about anything, ever again. The mere thought of killing myself had become a pure relief, sleep after exhaustion, a sure cure after a long and disgusting illness.

I even had the pills already — for depression, naturally; thank you, Doctor. So I cooked myself a meal elaborate enough to use up everything in my fridge, finally broke open that dusty bottle of good white wine someone had once given me as a graduation present and washed my last, best hope for oblivion down with it, a handful at a time.

When I woke up I had a tube down my throat, and I was in too much pain to even cry about my failure. Dehydration had shrunk my brain to a screaming point, a shaken bag of poison jellyfish. I knew I’d missed my chance, my precious window of opportunity, and that it would never come again. I felt like I’d been lied to. Like I’d lied to myself.

So, with a heavy heart, I resigned myself once more — reluctantly — to the dirty business of living. I walked out the hospital’s front doors, slipped back into my little slot, served out my time. Until last week, when I keeled over while reaching for my notebook at yet one more Professional Development Retreat lecture on stress management in the post-Millennial workplace: Hit the floor like a sack of salt with a needle in my chest, throat narrowing — everything there, then gone, irised inward like some silent movie’s Vaseline-smeared final dissolve. Dead at twenty-nine of irreparable heart failure, without even enough warning to be afraid of what -

— or who, in my case -

— came next.

Am I the injured party here? I hover, watching, inside and out; I can hear people’s thoughts, but that doesn’t mean I can judge their motives. My only real option, at this point, is just what the angels keep telling me it is: Move on, move on, move on. But I’m not ready to do that, yet.

There were five of us in the morgue, after all, but the body-snatchers only took two for her to choose from. And of those two…

… Pat chose me.

* * *

Lyle turns up at one, punctual as ever, while Pat’s still dripping. She opens the door for him, then drops her towel and stalks nearly naked back to her room, rooting through her bed’s topmost layers in search of some clean underwear; though he’s obviously seen it all before, neither of them shows any interest in extending this bodily intimacy beyond the realm of the purely familial.

Which only makes sense, now I think about it. In Pat’s mind — the only place I’ve ever encountered Lyle, up till now — their relationship rarely goes any further than strictly business. He’s her prime “artistic” pimp, shopping the act she and Ray have been working so hard to perfect to a truly high-class clientele: One time only, supposedly. Though by Lyle’s general demeanour, I get the feeling he may already be developing his own ideas about that part.

Pat discards a Pixies concert T with what looks like mould-stains all over the back in favor of her Reg Hartt’s Sex And Violence Cartoon Festival one, and returns to find Lyle grimacing over a cup of coffee that’s been simmering since at least eight.

“Jesus Corpse, Pats. You could clean cars with this shit.”

“Machine’s on a timer, I’m not.” Then, grabbing a comb, bending over, worrying through those last few knots: “Tonight all set up, or what?”

He shrugs. “Or what.” She shoots him a glance, drawing a grin. “Look, I told you it was gonna be one of two places, right? So on we go to Plan B’s all. The rest’s still pretty much as wrote.”

“‘Pretty much.’’

“Pretty, baby. Just like you.”

And: Is she? I suppose so. Black hair and deep, dark eyes — a certain eccentric symmetry of line and feature, a clever mind, a blind and ruthless will. Any and all of which would’ve certainly been enough to pull me in, back when I was still alive enough to want pulling.

The angels tell me I’m bound for something better now, though. Some form of love precious far beyond the bodily, indescribable to anyone who hasn’t tasted it at least once before. Which means there’s no earthly way I can possibly know if I want to till I’m already there and drinking my fill, already immersed soul-deep in restorative, White Light-infused glory…

Convenient, that. As Saturday Night hive’s Church Lady so often used to say.

Oh — and “earthly”, ha; didn’t even catch that one, first time round. Look, angels! The corpse just made a funny.

(I said, look.)

But they don’t.

Pat tops her shirt with a sweater, and starts in filling the many pockets of army pants with all the various Bone Machine performance necessities: Duct tape, soldering wire, extra batteries. Lyle, meanwhile, drifts away to the video rack, where he amuses himself scanning spines.

“This that first tape he sent you?” he demands suddenly, yanking one.

“Who?”

He waggles it, grinning. “Your boyfriend. RAY-mond.”

A shrug. “Pop it and see.”

“Pass.” Which seems to remind him: “So, Patty — realize you two are sorta tight and this comes sorta late, but exactly how much research you actually do on this freak-o before you signed him up for the program?”

Pat’s bent over now, hauling her semi-expensive boots up with both mittened hands. “Enough to know he’ll fuck dead bodies if I ask him to,” she says, shortly.

“‘Cause he wants to.”

A short, sharp smile, orthodontic-straight except for that one canine her wisdom teeth pushed out of line, coming in. “Best way to get anyone to do anything, baby. As you should know.”

Of course, Pat’s hardly objective. Seeing how she’s in lust with Ray… love, maybe, albeit of a perversely limited sort. Much the same way he is, truth be told-

— With “me”.

But Lyle, obviously, doesn’t feel he can argue the point. So he just returns her smile, talk-show bland and throat-slitting bright, as she reaches for the door handle: Lets them both out, side by side, into a world of gathering cold. All bundled up like Donner Party refugees, and twice as hungry.

And: Don’t follow, the angels advise me, uselessly. Don’t watch. Don’t care.

But the fact is, I… don’t. I really don’t. Don’t feel, or know what I don’t feel. Let alone what I do.

D-E-A-D, but way too much still left of me. I’m DEAD, so let me lie. Let me die.

Please.

Pat and Lyle, struggling up the alley and down to the nearest curb. Ray, his obtrusively unobtrusive car — the Rich Pervert-mobile itself, far too clean and anonymous to be used for anything but life’s dirtiest little detours — already there to meet them, pluming steam.

And somewhere, awaiting its cue, the reluctant third party in this little triangle-cum-foursome: My body, a water-clock full of blood and other fluids, forever counting down to an explosion that’s already happened. A psychic plague-bomb oozing excess pain, a hive for flies, all slick, lily-waxen and faintly bruised in the wake of rigor mortis’s ebb, even before Ray’s hot mouthings gave birth to that starburst of pale lavender hickeys around what used to be my trachea. It’s not me, not in any way that counts — but it’s not NOT me, either. And I just, I just… don’t… want…

… them touching it anymore. Either of them.

* * *

Going back — as far back as he can, at least — Ray tells Pat that he thinks the first time he really began to understand the true nature of his personal… distinction… must have been when his parents insisted he visit his beloved grandfather’s freshly dead body at the local hospital: Washed, laid out, neatly johnny-clad. His parents had already forewarned him it would look like a mannequin, like something made of plaster, an empty husk. But it wasn’t like that, not even vaguely. It looked oddly magnetic, oddly tactile; nothing rotten, or gross, or potentially contagious — soothing, like an old friend. And its only smell was the familiar odor of shed human skin.

Ray wanted to lie down with his head on its sternum, breathe deep and let it cool his fever, this constant ceaseless hammering in his head and heart. To free him, for once and for all, of the febrile hum and spark of his own life.

Since then, Ray’s never been able to decide what arouses him more: The concept itself, or the sheer impossibility of its execution. Because anyone can fuck the dead, if they only try hard enough — but the dead, by their very nature, can never fuck back. Which is why it has to be guys, though he himself is — in every other way than this — “straight”. If that term even applies, under these circumstances.

Their superiority. Their otherness. To him, it’s only natural: The dead know more, and knowledge is power. And power, as that old politician once boasted… is sexy.

So: Fucked in slaughterhouses, under the hanging racks of meat. Fucked with decay smeared all over them both, in graveyards, animal cemeteries; sure, buddy — just gimme my cut, you freak, and bend on over. Fucked in mortuaries, the “other” corpses watching impassively. Corpses taking part in his own taking, silent voyeurs, sad puppets in countless sweaty menages a mort. Fucked by guys wearing corpses’ skins — and wow, was that expensive, mainly because it went against so many kinds of weird sanitation strictures; public health, and all that. Same reason you can’t just drop your Grandad in the garden if he happens to croak at your house — or die at home at all, these days, for that matter.

Fucked by the dying — guys so far gone, so far in the financial hole, that they’d do anything to make their next medical bill. A charge, but not quite the same; not the same, and never enough. And finally, back to the morgue alone with condoms and trocar in hand — here’s an extra hundred to leave the door ajar, I’ll lock up as I leave. No worries.

Money’s no problem; Ray has money. Too much, some might say — too much free time, and a bit too little to do with it except obsess, jerk off, plan. The idle rich are hard to entertain, Vinnie…

Things do keep on escalating, though, often and always. And escalation can bring a bad reputation, especially in some quarters.

Which made it all the more lucky that Ray and Pat happened to find each other, I suppose — for them both.

And for Lyle, of course, albeit from a very different point of view… Lyle, to whom falls the onerous yet lucrative task of facilitating this gender-switched post-Millennial Death And The Maiden tableau they’ve played out every day this week, give or take; same one that would surely rerun itself constantly behind my eyelids if only I still had either eyes to see with, or lids to close on what I didn’t want to see. Same one you might well have seen already, if you’re just hip and sick enough to have paid Lyle’s “finder’s fee” up front — or bought the bootleg DV8 tapes he peddles over the Internet, thus far unbeknownst to either of his silent partners.

Like Lyle, I never saw that original “audition” tape on Pat’s shelf, either. But as the rundown above should prove, I’ve certainly heard its precis often enough: Why I Like To Get Screwed By Dead Bodies For The Amusement Of Total Strangers Even When The Money Involved’s My Own, in fifty thousand words or more. Ray’s confession/manifesto, re-spilled at intervals — after various post-post-mortem Bone Machine-aided orgies, usually — over binges of beer and weed which sometimes culminate in fumbling, gratitude-and guilt-ridden, mutually unsatisfying attempts at “normal” sex. Pat lying slack beneath a sweating, huffing Ray, trying to will her internal temperature down far enough to maintain his shamed half-erection even as her own orgasm builds, inexorably. Cursing the demeaning depths this idiot hunger for him can make her sink to, while simultaneously feeling her fingers literally itch to seize the Machine’s controls again and do the whole damn thing over right.

Part of me wonders exactly how much detail I need — or care — to go into here, vis-a-vis Pat’s “art” and my rather uncomfortable place in its embrace. But then again, close as “I” may get to it in flesh, most of the Bone Machine’s complex structural workings will probably always remain a mystery to me. Bolts screwed directly into bones, wires strung like tendons, electrical impulses jumping from brain to finger to keypad to central animatronic switchboard…

Pat pulls the strings here, as in all else. When my dead body’s making “love” to Ray, it’s her moves, her ideas, her smoothing, gentle touch translated through my flesh, which keeps him coming back time and time again; I’m just the medium for her message, a clammy six-foot dildo powered by rods and pistons. A deadweight sex-aid soaked in scented lube to hide the growing spoiled-meat smell, the inevitable wear and tear of Ray’s increasingly desperate affections.

But Ray, like any true fetishist, ignores whatever doesn’t contribute directly to the fulfillment of his motivating fantasy. He knows our time together’s on a (necessarily) tight schedule, so he tries to wring every extra ounce of pleasure he can out of the experience while Pat watches and fumes, trapped behind her rows of switches. He loves the mask, not the face; the made, not the maker. Decay’s his groom, and he doesn’t want even the shadow of anything else getting in the way of this so-devoutly-desired consummation, this last great graveyard gasp.

It’d be sort of tragic, if it wasn’t so — mordantly — funny. Together, Pat and Ray have all the requisite common interests and obsessions, plus a heaping helping of that brain-to-groin combustive spark which so many other relationships are made from; if she was dead (or had the right equipment required to rock his world), they’d be perfect for each other. But her hole just doesn’t fit his socket, or vice versa. So the only way she can touch him… and make him want her to, at least…

… is with my hands.

And more and more, that very fact is already making her dream happy dreams of someday taking a bone-saw to “my” wrists. Of burning them in some Haz-Mat crematorium’s fire, like plague-infected monster grasshoppers.

Ray told Pat that he was literally up for her ultimate piece of performance art, to bravely go where none of her other coconspirators were ever willing to, not even with three condoms’ worth of protection. She told Lyle, who instantly cheered her on, visions of Ben Franklin dancing in his money-colored eyes; he paged his pals down at the ME’s office, and the deal was struck — cash for flesh, tickets at the door and a fresh new co-star every week, after the old one finally started to rot.

And so it went, a neat little cycle, a perverse new rhythm method. Pat called the shots, Ray did the dance, Lyle racked up the take; they soon got into the habit of partying later, while Lyle was on his way to the bank. Pat, using Ray’s addiction to feed her own, like any pusher trading “free” product for not-so-free favors, while Ray replays his own earlier performance for both their benefits.

It was, and is, a match made in Gomorrah, or maybe Gehenna: Pimp meets girl meets boy meets corpse(s). And everybody’s happy.

Everybody alive enough to count, that is.

All that changed once Pat and Lyle fixed Ray up with my mortal coil, though, and he “fell for” it… telling her, feverishly, and repeatedly, how this hunk of otherwise nondescript white male meat which just happened to come with my restless spirit attached was the end of his search, the literal embodiment of all his most cadaver-centric daydreams. Suddenly, his fetish had narrowed and shifted to allow for only this one particular corpse or nothing at all.

And: “You know tomorrow night’s gonna have to be curtains for Mr Stinky, right?” She asked him, briskly, after yesterday’s post-show pas de deux.

Ray, frowning: “How so?”

Pat reclipped her bra, sponged sweat from her cleavage; I saw the angels’ halos reflected in her throat’s shiny hollow, a wet white crackle of phantom jewelry. “‘Cause he’s starting to fall apart, same as the others. Already had to rewire his joints twice just to get him limber enough to limbo — and his scalp’s starting to peel, too. Now it’s just a matter of time.”

“But if you’re keeping him refrigerated…”

“Yeah, sure. But there’s only so far that goes, Ray. No freezer in the world’s totally fly-tight; nature of the beast, man.”

A pause. Ray stood silent as Pat wriggled back into her jeans, then shot him the raised eyebrow: You comin’, or what? Shook his head. And replied, finally-

“Then I guess we’re looking at goodbye for me too, Pat.”

At that, Pat turned fully, both eyebrows up. “You’re kidding.”

“No.”

Because… this is the one. Remember? The one and only. No substitutes need apply, not even-

(Well, you, sweetheart)

Ahhhh, true love.

He feels like he’s having a dialogue with it, that’s what he’s always told her. Like he’s finally being privileged, through this nightly series of gag-makingly contortionate sex-show antics, to vicariously experience the ecstatic transformation that my corpse is already undergoing — the transition from flesh to fleshlessness, an all-expenses-paid tour through time’s metaphorical flensing chamber. To share in the experience as it sloughs the residue of its own mortality off like a scab, revealing some clean, invisible new form lurking beneath.

My body, my husk. My shucked, slimy former skin.

It’s not pure, though, for fuck’s sweet sake. It’s not perfected. It has no “secret wisdom” to impart. And as for powerful, well…

If it really was powerful — if I was — then we wouldn’t be here, would we?

Any of us.

The argument went on for some time, back and forth: Pat’s voice soaring snappishly while Ray stayed quiet but firm, unshakable. There was an element of betrayal to her mounting disbelief, as both of them well knew. Suffice to say, Lyle probably wouldn’t have been too happy to find out that his star attraction had decided to retire either. Not that Pat even seemed to be thinking of things from that particular angle.

“It’s just a fucking corpse, Ray. You’ve done fifty of ‘em already, most of ‘em long before you ever met me-”

Ray nodded. “Because I was looking for the right one.”

“And this is it?”

“In my opinion.”

She stared, snorted.

“Lyle won’t like it.”

“Fuck Lyle.”

A sigh: “Been there.”

The unsaid implication — goodbye to it, to this, the nightly grind. To Lyle’s meal ticket. And, by extension, goodbye…

(To me?)

Me meaning her. As well as me meaning “me”.

Before, whenever Ray’s beaux got too pooped to preserve, the routine took over. Lyle got on the pager again, handing out more of Ray’s money; the bodies made their exit, stage wherever. Parts in a dump, an acid-soaked tub-ring, concrete at the bottom of a lake, with all trace of Ray’s touch, or Pat’s — or Lyle’s, for that matter, not that Lyle ever touches the Bone Machine’s prey — salved away in disposal.

Which should be enough, surely: Enough to wash this lingering wisp of me clean and let me rise. Sponge the fingerprints from my soul, and all that good, metaphorical stuff. But-

(but)

At first I just hovered above, horrified, longing for the angels to cover my see-through face with their equally see-through wings. So grotesquely helpless to do anything but watch, and wait, and watch some more. Wait some more. Watch some more. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

But then, slowly… through sheer, profane will alone, one assumes, while my constant companions loomed ever closer in (literally) holier-than-thou disapproval…

Don’t look.

But I have to.

Move on.

But — I CAN’T.

(Not yet.)

… I found myself starting to be able to feel it once more, from the inside out. The ghost of a ghost of a ghost of a sensation. Ray’s mouth on “mine”, sucking at my cold tongue like a formaldehyde-flavored lollipop. “My” muscles on his, bunching like poisoned tapeworms.

Taking shaky repossession part by part; hacking back into my own former nervous system synapse by painful synapse, my shot neural net fizzing at cross purposes like that eviscerated eight-track we used to have in the student lounge back at my old high school — the one you could only make change tapes by reaching inside and touching two stripped wires together, teeth gritted against the inevitable shock.

Pat sends her commands and I… resist, just a fraction of a micro-inch; she’s offput, suspects that her calibrations aren’t quite as exact as she’d thought. But even as she reworks them, Ray strains towards me and I… strain back. Rise to meet him, halfway. I know he sees what I’m doing, if only on a subconscious level. Her too.

Because: It’s like cheating, isn’t it? Always is, when love’s involved. And lovers always know.

“I want to do it,” he told her in the car, on the way home. “I want to be the one, this time.”

“The one to do what?”

“You know. Finish it.”

Pat narrowed her dark, dark eyes. “Finish it,” she repeated. “Like — get rid of it? Destroy it yourself?”

Rip it apart, tear it limb from limb, eat it (un) alive. If he couldn’t have it…

Dark eyes, with green sliding to meet them: Money-colored too, in a far more vivid way. Because it’s not that Ray’s unattractive, that he couldn’t possibly indulge himself any other way. In fact, if you look at it too closely — closer than he probably wants you to, or wants to himself — you’d have to conclude that the indulgence is doing things the way he’s chosen to.

“You’re worried about what Lyle’d think?”

She shrugged. “His customers, maybe.”

“Should be a hell of a show, though.”

… Should be.

Another cool look, another pause — silence between them, smooth as a stone. All that frustrated longing, that self-bemused ache; enough to power a city, to set both their carefully constructed internal worlds on fire.

The angels ruffle their pinions, disapprovingly. But I was human once, just flawed and impermanent enough to understand.

I mean, we all want what we want, don’t we? Even when it’s impossible, perverse, ridiculous, we want just what WE want. And nothing else will do.

Move ON.

Be at PEACE.

But: I can’t, can’t. Won’t. Because I want… what I want. Nothing else.

(Nothing.)

“You’re the last of the red-hot Romantics, Ray,” Pat told him, eventually, knowing what she was agreeing to, but not caring. Or thinking she knew, at least. But knowing only the half of it.

She’s had her dance, after all, like Ray’s had his: Now I’ll have mine, and be done with it. Change partners mid-song; no harm in that. And if there is…

… If there is, well — it’s not like anyone’ll be complaining.

* * *

And now it’s past midnight, the zero hour. Showtime. Lyle’s customers file in as he sets up the cameras, trance-silent with anticipation: Stoned suburbanites, jaded superfan ultra-scenesters, unsocialized Western otaku with bad BO and worse fashion sense. Teens who followed the wrong set of memes and ended up somewhere way too cool for school, let alone anywhere else. Many seem breathless, barely able to sit still. Some — few, thankfully — have actually brought dates, rummaging absently between each other’s thighs as they lick their lips, eyes firmly on the prize: The Bone Machine itself, a slumped mantis of hooks and cords; Pat, strapping “my” body in for its final run around Ray’s block, suturing it fast with duct tape. Slipping the requisite genital prosthetic mini-bladder tube up the corpse’s urethral tract and pumping it erect before condoming the whole package shut once more…

The Machine — model number five, rebuilt on site by Pat herself, due to be broken down to component parts and blueprints when the spectacle’s dollar-value finally wears itself thin — occupies a discontinued butchering lab somewhere in the Hospitality area of a shut-down community college campus: Ray’s coin bought a deal with security guards who let them in at night after the campus manager goes home, as well as access to a walk-in fridge/freezer just big enough to keep their mutual “carrionette” pliant. It’s a vast, slick cave of a place whose dark-toned walls are hung with 1960s charts of cartoon pigs and cows tattooed with dotted “cut here” lines, whose sloping concrete floor still sports drains and runnels to catch blood already congealed into forty years’ worth of collective grease-stink. Under the heat of Lyle’s lights the air is hot and close, smell thick enough to cut: Meat, sweat, anticipation.

Transgression a-comin’. That all-purpose po/mo word poseurs of every description love so well. But there are all kinds of transgressions, aren’t there? Transgression against society’s standards, the laws of God and man, against others, against yourself…

Here’s Pat, gearing up — eyes intent, face studiously deadpan. Here’s Lyle, all sleaze and charm, spinning his strip-club barker’s spiel. Here’s “me”, slug-pale and seeping slightly, yet already beginning to stir as the connections flare, the cables pull, the hip-pistons give a tentative little preliminary thrust and grind. And-

— Here’s Ray, nude, gleaming with antibacterial gel. Right on cue.

See the man, see the corpse. See the man see the corpse. See the man? See the corpse}

Okay, then.

… Let’s get this party started, shall we?

Jolt forward, pixilate, zoom in — not much foreplay, at this stage of the game. Just wind and wipe into Ray bent 1-shaped and hooking his heels in the small of my jouncing avatar’s back, clawing passion-sharp down its slack sides. Pat puppets the Machine’s load forward, digging deep, straining for that magic buried trigger; Ray scissors himself and “me” together even harder, so hard I hear something crack. And blood comes welling: Fluid, anyway, tinged darker with decay. Blood already starburst-ing the cillia of “my” upturned eyes, broken vessels knit in a pinky-red wash of old petecchial haemorrhaging—

Ray groaning, teeth bared. Lyle leaning in for the all-important ECU. Pat, bent to the board, her hair lank and damp across her frowning forehead.

Ray, grabbing at “my” hair, feeling its mooring slip and slide like rotten chicken-skin. Taking a big, biting tug at “my” bile-soaked lower lip, swapping far more than spit, before rearing back again for a genuine chomp. Starting to — chew.

Pat gags: Ewwww, rubbery. You kiss your girlfriend with that mouth?

(Not any more, I guess.)

First the bottom lip, then the upper. A bit of “my” cheek. Sticky cuspids and canines like stars in a gum-pink evening sky. Ray’s tearing at “my” sides, “my” chest, “my” throat, as the audience coos and gasps; Lyle’s still filming. And Pat’s twisting knobs like a maniac, trying to match Ray’s growing frenzy, fighting with all her might to keep the show’s regularly scheduled action on track: Destruction, ingestion, transgression with a capital “T”. Fighting Ray, really, as he guides “my” exposed jaws to his own neck again and again, like he’s daring “me” to — somehow — bite in, bite down, pop his jugular and give all his fans the ultimate perverted thrill of their collective lives.

Because: Ray feels himself going now, in the Japanese sense. Knows just how late it’s getting, how soon the high from this last wrench and spurt will fade. Knows that no possible climax to this drama will ever seem good enough, climactic enough, no matter WHAT he does to “me”. I can see it in his eyes. I can-

(see it)

See it. “I” can. And “I”, I, I…

I feel myself. Feel myself. Coming, too.

Feel myself there. At last.

Feel Ray hug me to him and hug him back, arms contracting floppily — feel that pin Pat put in my shoulder last time snap as the joint finally pulls free, and tighten my grip with the other before Ray can start to slip. Feel my clotty lashes bat, a wet cough in my dry throat; the sudden gasp of breath comes out like a sneeze, spraying his face with reddish-brown gunk. See Ray goggle up at me, as Lyle gives a girly little scream: Cry to God and Pat’s full name, reduced to panicked consonants. HolyshitPahtriSHA-FUCKl

Pat’s head comes up fast, hair flipping. Eyes so wide they seem square.

My tongue creaks and Ray hasn’t left me much lip to shape words with, but I know we understand each other. Like I said, I can SEE it.

Gotta go, Ray. You want to come with?

Well, do you?

And Ray… nods.

And I…

… I give him. What he wants.

And oh, but the angels are screaming at me now like a Balkan choir massacre, all at once — glorious, polyphonic, chanting chains of scream: Sing No, sing stop, sing thou shalt thou shalt thou shalt NOT. Their halos flare like sunspots, making the whole room pulse — hiss and pop, paparazzi flashbulb storm, a million-sparkler overdrip curtain of angry white light.

(Sorry, guys. Looks like revenge comes before redemption, this time round.)

Ray pulls me close, spasming, as my front teeth find his Adam’s apple. Blood jets up. The audience shrieks, almost in unison.

I look over Ray’s shoulder at Pat, frozen, her board so hot that it’s starting to smoke. And I smile, with Ray’s blood all over my mouth.

So hook him up to the Bone Machine now, Pats — make a movie, while you’re at it. Take a picture, it’ll last longer. Take your turn. Take your time.

But this is how it breaks down: He’s gone, long gone, like I’m gone, too. Like we’re gone, together. Gone.

Gone to lie down.

Gone to forgive, to forget.

Gone, gone, finally-

— To sleep.

* * *

Aaaaaah, yes.

The sheep look up, the angels down. And I’m done, at long, long last — blown far, far away, the last of my shredded self trailing behind like skin, like wings, a plastic bag blowing.

Done, and I’m out: Forgiven, forgotten, sleeping. Loving nothing. Being nothing. Feeling none of your pain, fearing none of your anger, craving none of your — anything. Anymore.

Down here where things settle, down below the bridge, the weighing-room, the House of Dust itself — down here, where our faces fall away, where we lose our names, where we no longer care what brought us here, or why… I don’t care, finally, because (finally) I don’t have to. And in this way, I’m just the same as every other dead person — thank that God I’ve never met, and probably never will: No longer mere trembling meaty prey for the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; no longer cursed to live with death breathing down my neck, metaphoric or literal.

Which only makes the predicament of people like Ray — or like Pat, for that matter — seem all the crueller, in context. Since the weakness of the living is their enduring need to still love us, and to feel we still love them in return; to believe that we are still the same people who were once capable of loving them back. Even though we’re, simply…

… Not.

Down here, down here: The psychic sponge-bed, the hole at the world’s heart, that well of poison loneliness every cemetery elm knows with its great tap-root. Here’s where we float, my fellow dead and I — one of whom might be Ray, not that he or I would recognize each other now.

The keenest irony of all being that I suppose Ray killed himself for me, in a way — killed himself, by letting me kill him. Even though… until that very last moment we shared together… we’d never really even met.

Come with me, I said. Not caring if he could, but suspecting-

(rightly, it turns out)

— I’d probably never know, in the final analysis, if he actually did.

Down here, where we float in a comforting soup of nondescription — charred and eyeless, Creation’s joke. Big Bang detritus bought with Jesus’ blood.

Ash, drifting free, from an eternally burning heaven.

Mark Samuels

The White Hands

Mark Samuels is the author of two short-story collections, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales from Tartarus Press, and Black Altars, published by Rainfall Books. New stories were recently published in A Walk on the Darkside edited by John Pelan, and Strange Attractor Journal #2, edited by Mark Pilkington.

When not writing weird fiction, the author often spends his time wandering the London streets in search of scenes of glamorous decay with his wife, the acclaimed Mexican writer Adriana Diaz-Enciso.

About “The White Hands”, Samuels explains: “For editorial reasons it was not possible to include the complete text of this story in my Tartarus book, so I’m therefore delighted to see it finally appear here in the form which I consider most satisfactory.”

* * *

You may remember Alfred Muswell, whom devotees of the weird tale will know as the author of numerous articles on the subject of literary ghost stories. He died in obscurity just over a year ago.

Muswell had been an Oxford don for a time, but left the cloisters of the University after an academic scandal. A former student (now a journalist) wrote of him in a privately published memoir:

Muswell attempted single-handedly to alter the academic criteria of excellence in literature. He sought to eradicate what he termed the “tyranny of materialism and realism” from his teaching. He would loom over us in his black robes at lectures and tutorials, tearing prescribed and classic books to shreds with his gloved hands, urging us to read instead work by the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, M.R. James and Lilith Blake. Muswell was a familiar sight amongst the squares and courtyards of the colleges at night and would stalk abroad like some bookish revenant. He had a very plump face and a pair of circular spectacles. His eyes peered into the darkness with an indefinable expression that could be somewhat disturbing.

You will recall that Muswell’s eccentric theories about literature enjoyed a brief but notorious vogue in the 1950s. In a series of essays in the short-lived American fantasy magazine The Necrophile, he championed the supernatural tale. This was at a time when other academics and critics were turning away from the genre in disgust, following the illiterate excesses of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. Muswell argued that the anthropocentric concerns of realism had the effect of stifling the much more profound study of infinity. Contemplation of the infinite, he contended, was the faculty that separated man from beast. Realism, in his view, was the literature of the prosaic. It was the quest for the hidden mysteries, he contended, which formed the proper subject of all great literature. Muswell also believed that literature, in its highest form, should unravel the secrets of life and death. This latter concept was never fully explained by him but he hinted that its attainment would involve some actual alteration in the structure of reality itself. This, perhaps inevitably, led to him being dismissed in academic circles as a foolish mystic.

After his quiet expulsion from Oxford, Muswell retreated to the lofty heights of Highgate. From here, the London village that had harboured Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the final phase of his struggle against opium addiction, Muswell continued his literary crusade. A series of photographs reproduced in the fourth issue of The Necrophile show Muswell wandering through the leafy streets of Highgate clad in his black three-piece suit, cigarette jammed between lips, plump and bespectacled. In one of his gloved hands is a book of ghost stories by the writer he most admired, Lilith Blake. This Victorian author is perhaps best known for her collection of short stories, The Reunion and Others. Then, as now, fabulously rare, this book was printed in an edition of only one hundred copies. Amongst the cognoscenti, it has acquired legendary status. Muswell was undoubtedly the greatest authority on her life and works. He alone possessed the little that remained of her extant correspondence, as well as diaries, photographs and other personal effects.

In moving to Highgate, Muswell was perhaps most influenced by the fact that Blake had been resident in the village for all of the twenty-two years of her brief life. Her mortal remains were interred in the old West Cemetery in Swain’s Lane.

I first met Alfred Muswell after writing a letter to him requesting information about Lilith Blake for an article I was planning on supernatural writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After an exchange of correspondence he suggested that we should meet one afternoon in the reading room of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution. From there he would escort me to his rooms, which, apparently, were difficult to find without help, being hidden in the maze of narrow brick passageways beyond Pond Square.

It was a very cold, clear winter afternoon when I alighted at Highgate Underground station and made my way up Southwood Lane. Snow had fallen since the night before and the lane was almost deserted. Only the sound of my footsteps crunching in the brittle snow broke the silence. When I reached Highgate Village I paused for a while to take in my surroundings. The Georgian houses were cloaked in white and glittered in the freezing sunshine. A sharp wind blew chilly gusts across the sagging roofs and chimney pots. One or two residents, clad in greatcoats and well muffled, plodded warily along.

I accosted one of these pedestrians and was directed by him towards the Institute. This was a whitewashed structure, two floors high, facing the square on the corner of Swain’s Lane. Through one of the ground-floor windows I could see the glow of a coal fire within and a plump man reading in an easy chair. It wasAlfred Muswell.

After dusting the snowflakes from my clothes, I made my way inside and introduced myself to him. He struggled out of his chair, stood upright like a hermit crab quitting its shell, and threw out a gloved hand for me to grasp. He was dressed in his habitual black suit, a cigarette drooping from his bottom lip. His eyes peered at me intensely from behind those round glasses. His hair had thinned and grown white since the photographs in The Necrophile. The loss of hair was mainly around the crown, giving him a somewhat monkish appearance.

I hung up my duffel coat and scarf and sat down in the chair facing him.

“We can sit here undisturbed for a few more minutes at least,” he said. “The other members are in the library attending some lecture about that charlatan James Joyce.”

I nodded as if in agreement, but my attention was fixed on Muswell’s leather gloves. He seemed always to wear them. He had worn a similar pair in The Necrophile photographs. I noticed the apparent emaciation of the hands and long fingers that the gloves concealed. His right hand fidgeted constantly with his cigarette while the fingers of his left coiled and uncoiled repeatedly. It was almost as if he were uncomfortable with the appendages.

“I’m very pleased to talk with a fellow devotee of Lilith Blake’s tales,” he said, in his odd, strained voice.

“Oh, I wouldn’t describe myself as a devotee. Her work is striking, of course, but my own preferences are for Blackwood and Machen. Blake seems to me to lack balance. Her world is one of unremitting gloom and decay.”

Muswell snorted at my comment. He exhaled a great breath of cigarette smoke in my direction and said:

“Unremitting gloom and decay? Rather say that she makes desolation glorious! I believe that De Quincey once wrote: ‘Holy was the grave. Saintly its darkness. Pure its corruption.’ Words that describe Lilith Blake’s work perfectly. Machen indeed! That red-faced old coot with his deluded Anglo-Catholic rubbish! The man was a drunken clown obsessed by sin. And Blackwood? Pantheistic rot that belongs to the Stone Age. The man wrote mainly for money and he wrote too much. No, no. Believe me, if you want the truth beyond the frontier of appearances it is to Lilith Blake that you must turn. She never compromises. Her stories are infinitely more than mere accounts of supernatural phenomena…”

His voice had reached a peak of shrillness and it was all I could do not to squirm in my chair. Then he seemed to regain his composure and drew a handkerchief across his brow.

“You must excuse me. I have allowed my convictions to ruin my manners. I so seldom engage in debate these days that when I do I become overexcited.” He allowed himself to calm down and was about to speak again when a side door opened and a group of people bustled into the room. They were chatting about the Joyce lecture that had evidently just finished. Muswell got to his feet and made for his hat and overcoat. I followed him.

Outside, in the cold afternoon air, he looked back over his shoulder and crumpled up his face in a gesture of disgust.

“How I detest those fools,” he intoned.

We trudged through the snow, across the square and into a series of passageways. Tall buildings with dusty windows pressed upon us from both sides and, after a number of twists and turns, we reached the building that contained Muswell’s rooms. They were in the basement and we walked down some well-worn steps outside, leaving the daylight above us.

He opened the front door and I followed him inside.

Muswell flicked on the light switch and a single bulb suspended from the ceiling and reaching halfway towards the bare floor revealed the meagre room. On each of the walls were long bookcases stuffed with volumes. There was an armchair and footstool in one corner along with a small, circular table on which a pile of books teetered precariously. A dangerous-looking Calor gas fire stood in the opposite corner. Muswell brought another chair (with a canvas back and seat) from an adjoining room and invited me to sit down. Soon afterwards he hauled a large trunk from the same room. It was extremely old and bore the monogram “L.B.” on its side. He unlocked the trunk with some ceremony, and then sat down, lighting yet another cigarette, his stare fixed on my face.

I took a notebook from my pocket and, drawing sheaves of manuscripts from the trunk, began to scan them. It seemed dark stuff, and rather strange, but just what I needed for the article. And there was a mountain of it to get through. Muswell, meanwhile, made a melancholy remark, apropos of nothing, the significance of which I did not appreciate until much later.

“Loneliness,” he said, “can drive a man into mental regions of extreme strangeness.”

I nodded absently. I had found a small box and, on opening it, my excitement mounted. It contained a sepia-coloured photographic portrait of Lilith Blake, dated 1890. It was the first I had seen of her, and must have been taken just before her death. Her beauty was quite astonishing.

Muswell leaned forward. He seemed to be watching my reaction with redoubled interest.

Lilith Blake’s raven-black and luxuriant hair curled down to her shoulders. Her face was oval, finished with a small pointed chin. The eyes, wide apart and piercing, seemed to gaze across the vastness of the time that separated us. Her neck was long and pale, her forehead rounded and stray curls of hair framed the temples. The fleshy lips were slightly parted and her small, sharp teeth gleamed whitely. Around her neck hung a string of pearls and she wore a jet-black velvet dress. The most delicate and lovely white hands that I had ever seen were folded across her bosom. Although the alabaster skin of her face and neck was extremely pale, her hands were paler. They were whiter than the purest snow. It was as if daylight had never touched them. The length of her graceful fingers astonished me.

I must have sat there for some time in silent contemplation of that intoxicating image. Muswell, becoming impatient, finally broke my reverie in a most violent and unnecessary manner. He snatched the photograph from me and held it in the air while he spoke, his voice rising to a feverish pitch:

“Here is the hopeless despair of one haunted by the night. One who had gone down willingly into the grave with a black ecstasy in her heart instead of fear!”

I could only sit there in stunned silence. To me, Muswell seemed close to a complete nervous breakdown.

* * *

Later, Muswell must have helped me to sort through the various papers in the trunk. I remember little of the detail. I do know that by the time I finally left his rooms and found my way back to the square through the snow, I had realized that my research into Blake’s work would be of the utmost importance to my academic career. Muswell had treasure in his keeping, a literary gold mine, and, given the right handling, it could make my name.

After that, my days were not my own. Try as I might, I could not expunge the vision of Blake from my mind. Her face haunted my thoughts, beckoning me onwards in my quest to discover the true meaning of her work. The correspondence between Muswell and myself grew voluminous as I sought to arrange a time when I would be enabled to draw further on his collection. For a while he seemed to distrust my mounting interest, but at last he accepted my enthusiasm as genuine. He welcomed me as a kindred spirit. By a happy chance, I even managed to rent a room in his building.

And so, during the course of the winter months, I shut myself away with Muswell, poring over Blake’s letters and personal effects. I cannot deny that the handling of those things began to feel almost sacrilegious. But as I read the letters, diaries and notebooks I could see that Muswell had spoken only the truth when he described Blake as supreme in the field of supernatural literature.

He would scuttle around his library like a spider, climbing stepladders and hauling out volumes from the shelves, passing them down through the gloomy space to me. He would mark certain passages that he believed furthered a greater understanding of Blake’s life and work. Outside, the frequent snow showers filled the gap between his basement window and the pavement above with icy whiteness. My research was progressing well, my notebook filling up with useful quotations and annotations, but somehow I felt that I was failing to reach the essence of Lilith; the most potent aspect of her vision was eluding my understanding. It was becoming agonizing to be so close to her, and yet to feel that her most secret and beautiful mysteries were buried from my view.

“I believe,” Muswell once said, “that mental isolation is the essence of weird fiction. Isolation when confronted with disease, with madness, with horror and with death. These are the reverberations of the infinity that torments us. It is Blake who delineates these echoes of doom for us. She alone exposes our inescapable blind stumbling towards eternal annihilation. She alone shows our souls screaming in the darkness with none to heed our cries. Ironic, isn’t it, that such a beautiful young woman should possess an imagination so dark and riddled with nightmare?”

Muswell took a deep drag on his cigarette and, in contemplating his own words, seemed to gaze through everything into a limitless void.

Sometimes, when Muswell was away, I would have the collection to myself. Blake’s personal letters became as sacred relics to me. Her framed photograph attained a special significance, and I was often unable to prevent myself from running my fingers around the outline of her lovely face.

As time passed, and my research into Lilith Blake’s oeuvre began to yield ever more fascinating results, I felt that I was now ready to afford her the posthumous attention that she so richly deserved. Whereas previously I had planned to merely include references to her work in my lengthy article on supernatural fiction during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I now realized that she had to be accorded a complete critical book of her own, such was the importance of the literary legacy I had stumbled across through my association with Muswell. It seemed obvious to me that the man had little real idea of the prime importance of the materials in his possession and that his reclusive lifestyle had led him to regard anything relating to this dead and beautiful creature as his own personal property. His understanding was hopelessly confused by the unsubstantiated assertion that he made of the importance of the “work behind the works”, which I took to mean some obscure mystical interpretation he had formulated in his own muddled, ageing brain.

One afternoon he came across me working on my proposed book and took an apparent polite interest in my writing, but mingled in with that interest was an infuriating sarcasm. I voiced my contention that Blake deserved a much higher place in the literary pantheon. The only reasonable explanation for the failure of her work to achieve this was, I had discovered, the almost total lack of contemporary interest in it. I could trace no extant reviews of The Reunion and Others in any of the literary journals of the time nor any mention of her in the society columns of the period. At this statement Muswell actually laughed out loud. Holding one of his cigarettes between those thin, gloved fingers he waved it in the air dismissively, and said:

“I should have thought that you would have found the silence surrounding her person and work suggestive, as I did. Do not mistake silence for indifference. Any imbecile might make that erroneous conclusion and indeed many have done so in the past. Lilith Blake was no Count Stenbock, merely awaiting rediscovery. She was deliberately not mentioned; her work was specifically excluded from consideration. How much do you think was paid simply to ensure that she had a fitting tomb in Highgate Cemetery? But pray continue, tell me more of your article and I shall try to take into consideration your youthful naivety.”

As I continued to expand on my theories I saw clearly that Muswell began to smirk in a most offensive fashion. Why, it was as if he were humouring me! My face flushed and I stood up, my back rigid with tension. I was close to breaking point and could not tolerate this old fool’s patronizing attitude any longer. He took a step backwards and bowed, rather affectedly, in some idiotic gentlemanly gesture. But as he did so, he almost lost his footing, as if a bout of dizziness had overcome him. I was momentarily startled by the action and he took the opportunity to make his exit. But before he did so he uttered some departing words:

“If you knew what I know, my friend, and perhaps you soon will, then you would find this literary criticism as horribly amusing as I do. But I am extremely tired and will leave you to your work.”

It seemed obvious to me at that point that Muswell was simply not fit to act as the trustee for Lilith Blake’s estate. Moreover, his theatrics and lack of appreciation for my insights indicated progressive mental deterioration. I would somehow have to wrest control over the estate from his enfeebled grasp, for the sake of Blake’s reputation.

The opportunity came more quickly than I could have dared hope.

One evening in February Muswell returned from one of his infrequent appointments looking particularly exhausted. I had noticed the creeping fatigue in his movements for a number of weeks. In addition to an almost constant sense of distraction he had also lost a considerable amount of weight. His subsequent confession did not, in any case, come as a shock.

“The game is up for me,” he said. “I am wasting away. The doctor says I will not last much longer. I am glad that the moment of my assignation with Blake draws near. You must ensure that I am buried with her.”

Muswell contemplated me from across the room, the light of the dim electric bulb reflecting off the lenses of his spectacles and veiling the eyes behind. He continued:

“There are secrets that I have hidden from you, but I will reveal them now. I have come to learn that there are those who, though dead, lie in their coffins beyond the grip of decay. The power of eternal visions preserves them: there they lie, softly dead and dreaming. Lilith Blake is one of these and I shall be another. You will be our guardian in this world. You will ensure that our bodies are not disturbed. Once dead, we must not be awakened from the eternal dream. It is for the protection of Lilith and myself that I have allowed you to share in my thoughts and her literary legacy. Everything will make sense once you have read her final works.”

He climbed up the steepest stepladder to the twilight of the room’s ceiling and took a metal box from the top of one of the bookcases. He unlocked it and drew from within an old writing book bound in crumpled black leather. The title page was written in Lilith Blake’s distinctive longhand style. I could see that it bore the title The White Hands and Other Tales.

“This volume,” he said, handing it to me, “contains the final stories. They establish the truth of all that I have told you. The book must now be published. I want to be vindicated after I die. This book will prove, in the most shocking way, the supremacy of the horror tale over all other forms of literature. As I intimated to you once before, these stories are not accounts of supernatural phenomena but are supernatural phenomena in themselves.

“Understand this: Blake was dead when these stories were conceived. But she still dreams and transmitted these images from her tomb to me so that I might transcribe them for her. When you read them you will know that I am not insane. All will become clear to you. You will understand how, at the point of death, the eternal dream is begun. It allows dissolution of the body to be held at bay for as long as one continues the dreaming.”

I realized that Muswell’s illness had deeply affected his mind. In order to bring him back to some awareness of reality I said: “You say that Blake telepathically dictated the stories and you transcribed them? Then how is it that the handwriting is hers and not your own?”

Muswell smiled painfully, paused, and then, for the first and last time, took off his gloves. The hands were Lilith Blake’s, the same pale, attenuated forms I recognized from her photograph.

“I asked for a sign that I was not mad,” said Muswell, “and it was given to me.”

* * *

Four weeks later Muswell died.

The doctor’s certificate listed the cause of death as heart failure. I had been careful, and as he was already ill, there was little reason for the authorities to suspect anything.

Frankly, I had never countenanced the idea of fulfilling any of Muswell’s requests and I arranged for his body to be cremated and interred at Marylebone and St Pancras Cemetery, amongst a plain of small, anonymous graves and headstones. He would not rest at Highgate Cemetery alongside Lilith Blake.

The ceremony was a simple one and beside myself there were no other mourners in attendance. Muswell’s expulsion from Oxford had ensured that his old colleagues were wary of keeping in touch with him and there were no surviving members of his family who chose to pay their last respects. The urn containing his ashes was interred in an unmarked plot and the priest who presided over the affair muttered his way through the rites in a mechanical, indifferent fashion. As the ceremony concluded and I made my way across that dull sepulchral plain, under a grey and miserable sky, I had a sense of finality. Muswell was gone for ever and had found that oblivion he seemed so anxious to avoid.

It was a few days later that I made my first visit to Lilith Blake’s vault. She had been interred in the old west section of Highgate Cemetery and I was unable to gain access alone. There were only official tours of the place available and I attended one, but afterwards I paid the guide to conduct me privately to Blake’s vault. We had to negotiate our way through a tangle of overgrown pathways and crumbling gravestones. The vault was located in a near-inaccessible portion of the hillside cemetery and as we proceeded through the undergrowth, with thick brambles catching on our trousers, the guide told me that he had only once before visited this vault. This had been in the company of another man whose description led me to conclude that it had been Muswell himself. The guide mentioned that this particular area was a source of some curiosity to the various guides, volunteers and conservationists who worked here. Although wildlife flourished in other parts of the cemetery, here it was conspicuous by its absence. Even the birds seemed to avoid the place.

I remember distinctly that the sun had just set and that we reached the tomb in the twilight. The sycamores around us only added to the gloom. Then I caught sight of an arched roof covered with ivy just ahead, and the guide told me that we had reached our destination. As we approached it and the structure came fully into view I felt a mounting sense of anticipation. Some of the masonry had crumbled away but it was still an impressive example of High Victorian Gothic architecture. The corners of its square exterior were adorned with towers and each side boasted a miniature portico. On one of the sides, almost obliterated by neglect and decay, was a memorial stone, bearing the epitaph: LILITH BLAKE. BORN 25 DECEMBER 1874. DIED 1 NOVEMBER 1896.

“It is getting late,” the guide whispered to me. “We must get back.”

I saw his face in the gloom and he had a restless expression. His words had broken in on the strange silence that enveloped the area. I nodded absently, but made my way around to the front of the vault and the rusty trellis gates blocking the entrance to a stairway that led down to Lilith’s coffin. Peering through the gates I could see the flight of stairs, covered by lichen, but darkness obscured its lower depths. The guide was at my elbow now and tugging my jacket sleeve.

“Come on, come on,” he moaned. “I could get in real trouble for doing this.”

There was something down there. I had the unnerving sensation that I was, in turn, being scrutinized by some presence in that perpetual darkness. It was almost as if it were trying to communicate with me, and images began to form in my mind, flashes of distorted scenes, of corpses that did not rot, of dreams that things no longer human might dream.

Then the guide got a grip of my arm and began forcibly dragging me away. I stumbled along with him as if in a trance, but the hallucinations seemed to fade the further away we got from the vault and by the time we reached the main gate I had regained my mental faculties. Thereafter the guide refused any request that I made for him to again take me to the vault and my attempts to persuade his colleagues were met with the same response. In the end I was no longer even granted access to the cemetery on official tours. I later learned that my connection with Muswell had been discovered and that he had caused much trouble to the cemetery authorities in the past with his demands for unsupervised access. On one occasion there had even been threats of legal action for trespassing.

As indicated, Muswell had informed me that I was to be his literary executor and thus his collection of Blakeiana was left in my control. I also gained possession of his rooms. So I turned again to the study of Blake’s work, hoping therein to further my understanding of the enigma that had taken control of my life. I had still to read The White Hands and Other Tales and had been put off doing so by Muswell’s insistence that this would enlighten me. I still held to the view that his mystical interpretation was fallacious and the thought that this book might be what he actually claimed it to be was almost detestable to me. I wanted desperately to believe that Muswell had written the book himself, rather than as a conduit for Blake. And yet, even if I dismissed the fact of his peculiar hands, so like Blake’s own, even if I put that down to some self-inflicted mutilation due to his long-disordered mental state, not to mention the book’s comparatively recent age, still there remained the experience at the vault to undermine my certainty. And so it was to The White Hands and Other Tales that I turned, hoping there to determine matters once and for all.

I had only managed to read the title story. Frankly, the book was too hideous for anyone but a lunatic to read in its entirety. The tale was like an incantation. The further one progressed the more incomprehensible and sinister the words became. They were sometimes reversed and increasingly obscene. The words in that book conjured visions of eternal desolation. The little that I had read had already damaged my own mind. I became obsessed with the idea of Blake lying in her coffin, dreaming and waiting for me to liberate her.

During the nights of sleeplessness her voice would call across the dark. When I was able to sleep strange dreams came to me. I would be walking among pale shades in an overgrown and crumbling necropolis. The moonlight seemed abnormally bright and even filtered down to the catacombs where I would follow the shrouded form of Lilith Blake. The world of the dead seemed to be replacing my own.

For weeks, I drew down the blinds in Muswell’s library, shutting out the daylight, lost in my speculations.

As time passed I began to wonder just why Muswell had been so insistent that he must be interred with Blake at all costs? My experiences at her vault and the strange hallucinations that I had suffered: might they not have been authentic after all? Could it be that Muswell had actually divined some other mode of existence beyond death, which I too had gleaned only dimly? I did not reach this conclusion lightly. I had explored many avenues of philosophical enquiry before coming back again and again to the conclusion that I might have to rely on Muswell’s own interpretation. The critical book on Blake that I proposed to write floundered, lost in its own limitations. For, incredible as it seemed, the only explanation that lay before me was that the corpse itself did harbour some form of unnatural sentience, and that close contact with it brought final understanding of the mystery.

I sought to solve a riddle beyond life and death yet feared the answer. The image that held the solution to the enigma which tormented me was the corpse of Lilith Blake. I had to see it in the flesh.

I decided that I would arrange for the body to be exhumed and brought to me here in Muswell’s — my — rooms. It took me weeks to make the necessary contacts and raise the money required. How difficult it can be to get something done, even something so seemingly simple! How tedious the search for the sordid haunts of the necessary types, the hints dropped in endless conversations with untrustworthy strangers in dirty public houses. How venal, how mercenary is the world at large. During the nights of sleeplessness Lilith Blake’s voice would sometimes seem to call to me across the darkness. When I was able to sleep I encountered beautiful dreams, where I would be walking among pale shades in an overgrown and crumbling necropolis. The moonlight seemed abnormally bright and even filtered down to the catacombs where I would find Lilith’s shrouded form.

At last terms were agreed. Two labourers were hired to undertake the job, and on the appointed night I waited in my rooms. Outside, the rain was falling heavily and in my mind’s eye, as I sat anxiously in the armchair smoking cigarette after cigarette, I saw the deed done: the two simpletons, clad in their raincoats and with crowbars and pickaxes, climbing over the high wall which ran along Swain’s Lane, stumbling through the storm and the overgrown grounds past stone angels and ruined monuments, down worn steps to the circular avenue, deep in the earth, but open to the mottled grey-and-black sky. Wet leaves must have choked the passageways. I could see the rain sweeping over the hillside cemetery as they levered open the door to her vault, their coats flapping in the wind. The memory of Lilith Blake’s face rose before me through the hours that passed. I seemed to see it in every object that caught my gaze. I had left the blind up and watched the rain beating at the window above me, the water streaming down the small Georgian panes. I began to feel like an outcast of the universe.

As I waited, the eyes in the clock on the mantelpiece stared back at me. I thought I saw two huge and thin white spiders crawling across the books on the shelves.

At last there were three loud knocks on the door and I came to in my chair, my heart pounding in my chest. I opened the door to the still-pouring rain, and there at last, shadowy in the night, were my two grave-robbers. They were smiling unpleasantly, their hair plastered down over their worm-white faces. I pulled the wad of banknotes from my pocket and stuffed them into the nearest one’s grasp.

They lugged the coffin inside and set it down in the middle of the room.

And then they left me alone with the thing. For a while, the sodden coffin dripped silently onto the rug, the dark pools forming at its foot spreading slowly outwards, sinking gradually into the worn and faded pile. Although its wooden boards were decrepit and disfigured with dank patches of greenish mould, the lid remained securely battened down by a phalanx of rusty nails. I had prepared for this moment carefully; I had all the tools I needed ready in the adjoining room, but something, a sudden sense of foreboding, made me hesitate foolishly. At last, with a massive effort of will, I fetched the claw hammer and chisel, and knelt beside the coffin. Once I had prised the lid upwards and then down again, leaving the rusted nail-tops proud, I drew them out one by one. It seemed to take for ever — levering each one up and out and dropping it onto the slowly growing pile at my feet. My lips were dry and I could barely grip the tools in my slippery hands. The shadows of the rain still trickling down the window were thrown over the room and across the coffin by the orange glow of the street lamp outside.

Very slowly, I lifted the lid.

Resting in the coffin was a figure clothed in a muslin shroud that was discoloured with age. Those long hands and attenuated fingers were folded across its bosom. Lilith Blake’s raven-black hair seemed to have grown whilst she had slept in the vault and it reached down to her waist. Her head was lost in shadow, so I bent closer to examine it. There was no trace of decay in the features, which were those in the photograph, and yet they now had a horrible aspect, quite unlike that decomposition I might have anticipated. The skin was puffy and white, resembling paint applied on a tailor’s dummy. Those fleshy lips that had so attracted me in the photograph were now repulsive. They were lustreless and drew back from her yellowed, sharp little teeth. The eyes were closed and even the lashes seemed longer, as if they too had grown, and they reminded me of the limbs of a spider. As I gazed at the face and fought back my repulsion, I had again the sensation that I had experienced at the vault.

Consciousness seemed to mingle with dreams. The two states were becoming one and I saw visions of some hellish ecstasy. At first I again glimpsed corpses that did not rot, as if a million graves had been opened, illuminated by the phosphoric radiance of suspended decay. But these gave way to wilder nightmares that I could glimpse only dimly, as if through a billowing vapour; nightmares that to see clearly would result in my mind being destroyed. And I could not help being reminded of the notion that what we term sanity is only a measure of success in concealing underlying madness.

Then I came back to myself and saw Lilith Blake appearing to awaken. As she slowly opened her eyes, the spell was broken, and I looked into them with mounting horror. They were blank and repugnant, no longer belonging in a human face: the eyes of a thing that had seen sights no living creature could see. Then one of her hands reached up and her long fingers clutched feebly against my throat as if trying to scratch, or perhaps caress, me.

With the touch of those clammy hands I managed to summon up enough self-control to close the lid and begin replacing the coffin nails, fighting against the impulses that were driving me to gaze again upon the awakened apparition. Then, during a lull in the rain, I burned the coffin and its deathly contents in the back yard. As I watched the fire build I thought that I heard a shrieking, like a curse being invoked in the sinister and incomprehensible language of Blake’s tale. But the noise was soon lost in the roar of the flames.

It was only after many days that I discovered that the touch of Lilith Blake’s long white fingers had produced marks that, once visible, remained permanently impressed upon my throat.

* * *

I travelled abroad for some months afterwards, seeking southern climes bathed in warm sunshine and blessed with short nights. But my thoughts gradually returned to The White Hands and Other Tales. I wondered if it might be possible to achieve control over it, to read it in its entirety and use it to attain my goal. Finally, its lure proved decisive. I convinced myself that I had already borne the darkest horrors, that this would have proved a meet preparation for its mysteries, however obscenely they were clothed. And so, returning once more to Highgate, I began the task of transcribing and interpreting the occult language of the book, delving far into its deep mysteries. Surely I could mould the dreams to my own will and overcome the nightmare. Once I had achieved this, I would dwell for ever in Paradise…

* * *

Text of a letter written by John Harrington whilst under confinement in Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital:

My dearest wife Lilith,

I do not know why you have not written or come to see me.

The gentlemen looking after me here are very kind but will not allow any mirrors. I know there is something awful about my face. Everyone is scared to look at it.

They have taken your book away. They say it is gibberish. But I know all the secrets now.

Sometimes I laugh and laugh.

But I like the white hands that crawl around my bed at night like two spiders. They laugh with me.

Please write or come.

With all my heart,

— John

Caitlin R. Kiernan

Waycross

Caitlin R. Kiernan was born in Ireland and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She has published five novels: Silk, Threshold, The Five of Cups, Low Red Moon and, most recently, Murder of Angels, and her short fiction has been collected in Tales of Pain and Wonder, From Weird and Distant Shores, Wrong Things (with Poppy Z. Brite) and To Charles Fort, With Love. She is currently writing her sixth novel, Daughter of Hounds.

“Dancy Flammarion, the protagonist (or, depending on your point of view, antagonist) of ‘ Waycross ’, first appeared in my novel Threshold,” reveals the author. “But she’s one of those characters I keep coming back to because I want to know more, and the only way of learning more about her is to write more about her.”

“Waycross” was originally published by Subterranean Press as a chapbook, illustrated by Ted Naifeh. Dancy also appears in Kiernan’s stories “In the Garden of Poisonous Flowers”, “The Well of Stars and Shadow” and “Alabaster”.

* * *

RISE AND SHINE, SNOW WHITE,” the Gynander growls, and so the albino girl slowly opens her pink eyes, the dream of her dead mother and sunlight and the sheltering sky dissolving to the bare earth and meat-rot stink of the cellar.

Go back to sleep, and I’ll be home again, she thinks. Close my eyes, and none of this has ever happened. Not the truth, nothing like the truth, but cold comfort better than no comfort at all in this hole behind the place where the monster sleeps during the day. Dancy blinks at the darkness, licks her dry, chapped lips, and tries hard to remember the story her mother was telling her in the dream. Lion’s den, whale belly, fiery-furnace Bible story, but all the words and names running together in her head, the pain and numbness in her wrists and ankles more real and the dream growing smaller and farther away with every beat of her heart.

The red thing crouching somewhere at the other side of the cellar makes a soft, wet sound and strikes a match to light the hurricane lamp gripped in the long, raw fingers of its left hand. Dancy closes her eyes, because the angel has warned her never to look at its face until after it puts on one of the skins hanging from the rusted steel hooks set into the ceiling of the cellar. All those blind and shriveled hides like deflated people, deflated animals, and it has promised Dancy that some day very soon she’ll hang there, too, one more hollow face, one more mask for it to wear.

“What day… what day is it?” Dancy whispers, hard to talk because her throat’s so dry, hard even to swallow, and her tongue feels swollen. “How long have I been down here?”

“Why?” the Gynander asks her. “What difference does it make?”

“No difference,” Dancy croaks. “I just wanted to know.”

“You got some place to be? You got someone else to kill?”

“I just wanted to know what day it is.”

“It isn’t any day. It’s night.”

Yellow-orange lantern light getting in through Dancy’s eyelids, warm light and cold shadows, and she squeezes them shut tighter, turns her head to one side so her face is pressed against the hard dirt floor. Not taking any chances because she promised she wouldn’t ever look, and if she starts lying to the angel he might stop coming to her.

“Sooner or later, you’re gonna have to take a look at me, Dancy Flammarion,” the Gynander says and laughs its bone-shard, thistle laugh. “You’re gonna have to open them rabbity little eyes of yours and have a good, long look, before we’re done.”

“I was having a dream. You woke me up. Go away so I can go back to sleep. Kill me, or go away.”

“You’re already dead, child. Ain’t you figured that out yet? You been dead since the day you came looking for me.”

Footsteps, then, the heavy, stumbling sounds its splayed feet make against the hard-packed floor, and the clank and clatter of the hooks as it riffles through the hides, deciding what to wear.

“Kill me, or go away,” Dancy says again, gets dirt in her mouth and spits it back out.

“Dead as a doornail,” it purrs. “Dead as a dodo. Dead as I want you to be,” and Dancy tries not to hear what comes next, the dry, stretching noises it makes stuffing itself into the skin suit it’s chosen from one of the hooks. If her hands were free she could cover her ears; if they weren’t tied together behind her back with nylon rope she could shove her fingers deep into her ears and maybe block it out.

“You can open your eyes now,” the Gynander says. “I’m decent.”

“Kill me,” Dancy says, not opening her eyes.

“Why do you keep saying that? You don’t want to die. When people want to die, when they really want to die, they get a certain smell about them, a certain brittle incense. You, you smell like someone who wants to live.”

“I failed, and now I want this all to end.”

“See, now that’s the truth,” the Gynander says, and there’s a ragged, zipping-up sort of sound as it seals the skin closed around itself. “You done let that angel of yours down, and you’re ashamed, and you’re scared, and you sure as hell don’t want what you got coming to you. But you still don’t want to die.”

Dancy turns her head and opens her eyes, and now the thing is squatting there in front of her, holding the kerosene lamp close to its face. Borrowed skin stitched together from dead men and dogs, strips of diamond-backed snake hide, and it pokes at her right shoulder with one long black claw.

“This angel, he got hisself a name?”

“I don’t know,” Dancy says, though she knows well enough that all angels have names. “He’s never told me his name.”

“Must be one bad motherfucker, he gotta send little albino bitches out to do his dirty work. Must be one mean-ass son-of-a-whore.”

When it talks, the Gynander’s lips don’t move, but its chin jiggles loosely, and its blue-grey cheeks bulge a little. Where its eyes should be there’s nothing at all, blackness to put midnight at the bottom of the sea to shame. And Dancy knows about eyes, windows to the soul, so looks at the lamp instead.

“Maybe he ain’t no angel. You ever stop and let yourself think about that, Dancy? Maybe he’s a monster, too.”

When she doesn’t answer it pokes her again, harder than before, drawing blood with its ebony claw: warm, crimson trickle across her white shoulder, precious drops of her life wasted on the cellar floor, and she stares deep into the flame trapped inside the glass chimney. Her mother’s face hidden in there somewhere, and a thousand summer-bright days, and the sword her angel carries to divide the truth from lies.

“Maybe you got it turned round backwards,” the Gynander says and sets the lamp down on the floor. “Maybe what you think you know, you don’t know at all.”

“I knew right where to find you, didn’t I?” Dancy asks it, speaking very quietly and not taking her eyes off the lamp.

“Well, yeah, now that’s a fact. But someone like me, you know how it is. Someone like me always has enemies. Besides the angels, I mean. And word gets around, no matter how careful-”

“Are you afraid to kill me? Is that it?”

And there’s a loud and sudden flutter from the Gynander’s chest, then, like a dozen mockingbirds sewn up in there and wanting out, frantic wings beating against that leather husk. It leans closer, scalding carrion breath and the fainter smell of alcohol, the eager snik snik snik of its sharp white teeth, but Dancy keeps staring into the flickering heart of the hurricane lamp.

“Someone like you,” she says, “needs to know who its enemies are. Besides the angels, I mean.”

The Gynander hisses through its teeth and slips a hand around her throat, its palm rough as sandpaper, its needle claws spilling more of her blood.

“Patience, Snow White,” it sneers. “You’ll be dead a long, long time. I’ll wear your pretty alabaster skin to a thousand slaughters, and your soul will watch from Hell.”

“Yeah,” Dancy says. “I’m starting to think you’re gonna talk me to death,” and she smiles for the beast, shuts her eyes and the afterimage of the lamp flame bobs and swirls orange in the dark behind her lids.

“You’re still alive ‘cause I still got things to show you, girl,” the Gynander growls. “Things those fuckers, those angels, ain’t ever bothered with, ‘cause they don’t want you to know how it is. But if you’re gonna fight with monsters, if you’re gonna play saint and martyr for cowards that send children to do their killing, you’re gonna have to see it all.”

Its grip on her throat tightens, only a little more pressure to crush her windpipe, a careless flick of those claws to slice her throat, and for a moment Dancy thinks maybe she’s won after all.

“This whole goddamn world is my enemy,” the thing says. “Mine and yours both, Dancy Flammarion.”

And then it releases her, takes the lamp and leaves her alive, alone, not even capable of taunting a king of butchers into taking her life. Dancy keeps her eyes closed until she hears the trapdoor slam shut and latch, until she’s sure she’s alone again, and then she rolls over onto her back and stares up at the blackness that may as well go on forever.

* * *

After the things that happened in Bainbridge, Dancy hitched the long asphalt ribbon of US 84 to Thomasville and Valdosta, following the highway on to Waycross. Through the swampy, cypress-haunted south Georgia nights, hiding her skin and her pink eyes from the blazing June sun when she could, hiding herself from sunburn and melanoma and blindness. Catching rides with truckers and college students, farmers and salesmen, rides whenever she was lucky and found a driver who didn’t think she looked too strange to pick up, maybe even strange enough to be dangerous or contagious. And when she was unlucky, Dancy walked.

The last few miles, gravel and sandy, red-dirt back roads between Waycross and the vast Okefenokee wilderness, all of those unlucky, all of those on foot. She left the concrete and steel shade of the viaduct almost two hours before sunset, because the angel said she should. This time it wouldn’t be like Bainbridge. This time there would be sentries, and this time she was expected. Walking right down the middle of the road because the weedy ditches on either side made her nervous; anything could be hiding in those thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry briars, anything hungry, anything terrible, anything at all. Waiting patiently for her beneath the deepening slash-pine and magnolia shadows, and Dancy carried the old carving knife she usually kept tucked way down at the bottom of her duffel bag, held it gripped in her right hand and watched the close and darkening woods.

When the blackbird flapped noisily out of the twilight sky and landed on the dusty road in front of her, Dancy stopped and stared at it apprehensively. Scarlet splotches on its wings like fresh blood or poisonous berries, and the bird looked warily back at her.

“Oh Jesus, you gotta be pullin’ my leg,” the blackbird said and frowned at her.

“What’s your problem, bird?” Dancy asked, gripping the knife a little tighter than before.

“I mean, we wasn’t expecting no goddamn St George on his big white horse or nothin’, but for crying out loud.”

“You knew I was coming here tonight?” she asked the bird and glanced anxiously at the trees, the sky, wondering who else might know.

“Look, girly, do you have any idea what’s waitin’ for you at the end of this here road? Do you even have the foggiest-”

“This is where he sent me. I go where my angel sends me.”

The blackbird cocked its head to one side and blinked at her.

“Oh Lord and butter,” the bird said.

“I go where my angel tells me. He shows me what I need to know.”

The blackbird glanced back over the red patch on its shoulder at the place where the dirt road turned sharply, disappearing into a towering cathedral of kudzu vines. It ruffled its feathers and shook its head.

“Yeah, well, this time I think somebody up there musta goofed. So you just turn yourself right around and get a wiggle on before anyone notices.”

“Are you testing me? Is this a temptation? Did the monsters send you?”

“What?” the bird squawked indignantly and hopped a few inches closer to Dancy; she raised her carving knife and took one step backwards.

“Are you trying to stop me, bird? Is that what you’re doing?”

“No. I’m trying to save your dumb ass, you simple twit.”

“Nobody can save me,” Dancy said and looked down at her knife. In the half-light, the rust on the blade looked like old, dried blood. “Maybe once, a long, long time ago, but no one can save me now. That’s not the way this story ends.”

“Go home, little girl,” the bird said and hopped closer. “Run away home before it smells you and comes lookin’ for its supper.”

“I don’t have a home. I go where the angel tells me to go, and he told me to come here. He said there was something terrible hiding out here, something even the birds of the air and the beasts of the field are scared of, something I have to stop.”

“With what? That old knife there?”

“Did you call me here, blackbird?”

“Hell, no,” the bird cawed at her, angry, and glanced over its shoulder again. “Sure, we been prayin’ for someone, but not a crazy albino kid with a butcher knife.”

“I have to hurry now,” Dancy said. “I don’t have time to talk anymore. It’s getting dark.”

The bird stared up at her for a moment, and Dancy stared back at it, waiting for whatever was coming next, whatever she was meant to do or say, whatever the bird was there for.

“Jesus, you’re really goin’ through with this,” it said finally, and she nodded. The blackbird sighed a very small, exasperated sigh and pecked once at the thick dust between its feet.

“Follow the road, past that kudzu patch there, and the old well, all the way to down to-”

“I know where I’m going, bird,” Dancy said and shifted the weight of her duffel bag on her shoulder.

“Of course you do. Your angel told you.”

“The old blue trailer at the end of the road,” Dancy whispered. “The blue house trailer with three old refrigerators in the front yard.” In the trees, fireflies had begun to wink on and off, off and on, a thousand yellow-green beacons against the gathering night. “Three refrigerators and a broken-down truck.”

“Then you best shove in your clutch, girl. And don’t think for a minute that they don’t know you’re comin’. They know everything. They know the number of stars in the heavens and how many days left till the end of time.”

“This is what I do,” she told the bird and stepped past him, following the road that led to the blackness coiled like a jealous, ancient serpent beneath the summer sky.

* * *

Sometime later, when the Gynander finally comes back to her, it’s carrying a small wooden box that it holds out for Dancy to see. Wood like sweet, polished chocolate and an intricate design worked into the lid — a perfect circle filled in with a riot of intersecting lines to form a dozen or more triangles, and on either side of the circle a waning or waxing half-moon sickle. She blinks at the box in the unsteady lantern light, wondering if the design is supposed to mean something to her, if the monster thinks that it will.

“Pretty,” Dancy says without enthusiasm. “It’s a pretty box.”

The Gynander makes a hollow, grumbling sound in its throat, and the dead skin hiding its true face twitches slightly.

“You never saw that before?” it asks her and taps at the very center of the circular design with the tip of one claw. “You never saw that anywhere else?”

“No. Can I please have a drink of water?”

“Your angel never showed it to you?”

“No,” Dancy says again, giving up on the water, and she goes back to staring at the rootsy ceiling of the cellar. “I never saw anything like that before. Is it some sort of hex sign or something? My grandma knew a few of those. She’s dead-”

“But you’ve never seen it before?”

“That’s what I said.”

The Gynander sits down in the dirt beside her, sets the lamp nearby, and she can feel the black holes where its eyes should be watching her, wary nothingness peering suspiciously out from the slits in its mask.

“This box belonged to Sinethella.”

“Who?”

“The woman that you killed last night,” the Gynander growls, beginning to sound angry again.

“I didn’t kill a woman,” Dancy says confidently. “I don’t kill people.”

“It’s carved from a type of African cedar tree that’s been extinct for two thousand years,” the Gynander says, ignoring Dancy, and its crackling voice makes her think of dry autumn leaves and fire. “And she carried this box for eleven millennia. You got any idea what that means, child?”

“That she was a lot older than she looked,” Dancy replies, and the Gynander grunts and puts the box down roughly on her chest. Heavy for its size, and cold, like a small block of ice, and suddenly the musty cellar air smells like spices — cinnamon, basil, sage, a few others that Dancy doesn’t immediately recognize or has never smelled before.

“Get that thing off me,” she tells the monster. “Whatever it is, I don’t want it touching me. It isn’t clean.”

“Next to Sinethella,” the Gynander says, “I’m nothing, nothing at all. Next to her, I’m just a carny freak. So why did you come for me instead of her?”

“I go where my angel leads me. He shows me-”

“In a moment, Dancy Flammarion, I’m going to open up this box here and show you what’s inside.”

“Get it off me. It stinks.”

The Gynander grunts, then leans very close to Dancy and sniffs at her; something almost like a tongue, the dark, un-healthy color of indigo or polk-salad berries, darts out from between its shriveled lips and tastes the cellar air.

“That’s sorta the stew pot callin’ the kettle black, don’t you think? When’s the last time you had a bath, Snow White?”

And Dancy shuts her eyes, praying that her angel will come, after all, that he’ll appear in a whirling storm of white, white feathers and hurricane wind and take her away from this awful place. She imagines herself in his arms, flying high above the swamps and pine barrens, safe in the velvet and starlight spaces between the moon and Earth. I’ve done my best, she thinks, trying not to imagine what’s waiting for her inside the freezing wooden box pressing painfully down on her chest. I’ve done my best, and none of these things can ever touch my immortal soul.

“When men still huddled in their own filth and worshipped the sun because they were too afraid to face the night, she walked the wide world, and nobody and nothin’ stood against her. She was a goddess, almost.”

“I saw her with my own eyes,” Dancy whispers. “I saw exactly what she was.”

“You saw what you were told to see.”

Sailing with her angel high above the winding black waters of the Okefenokee, above the booming voices of bull alligators and the nervous ears of marsh rabbits, safe in his arms because she’s done the best that she can do. And he would tell her that, and that she doesn’t have to be strong anymore. Time now to lay down and die, finally, time to be with her grandmother and mother in Paradise, no more lonely roads, no more taunts for her pink eyes and alabaster skin, and no more monsters. The angel’s wings would sound like redemption, and she might glance down between her feet to see the Gynander’s blue house trailer blazing in the night. “It’ll be nothing but ashes by morning,” she’d say and the angel would smile and nod his head.

“The first time Sinethella brought this box to me, first time she opened it and let me have a peek inside, I thought that I would surely die. I thought my heart would burst.”

There are no more monsters left in the world, the angel would say to her as they flew across the land, east towards the sea. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. You can rest now, Dancy.

“She read me a poem, before she let me look inside,” the Gynander says. “I never was much for poetry, but I still remember this one. Hell, I’ll remember this one till the day I die.”

She would ask her angel about the box, and he would tell her not to worry. The box was destroyed. Or lost in the swamp in some pool so deep only the catfish will ever see it. Or locked away forever in the inviolable vaults of Heaven.

“But from my grave across my brow,” the Gynander whispers, “plays no wind of healing now, and fire and ice within me fight, beneath the suffocating night.”

Open your eyes, Dancy, the angel says, and she does, not afraid of falling anymore, and the Gynander opens the box sitting on her chest. Far, far away, there’s a sound like women crying, and the ebony and scarlet light that spills from the cedar box wraps Dancy tight in its searing, squirming tendrils, and slowly, bit by bit, drags her away.

* * *

Dancy walked through the long, dark tunnel formed by the strangling kudzu vines, the broad green leaves muffling her footsteps, the heavy lavender flowers turning the air to sugar. She moved as quickly as she dared, wishing now that the blackbird had come with her, wishing she’d gotten an earlier start and then there would still be a few bright shafts of late-afternoon sunlight to pierce the tunnel of vines. Surrounded by the droning scream of cicadas, the songs of crickets and small, peeping frogs hidden in amongst the rotten branches and trunks of the oaks that the kudzu had taken long ago for its skeleton, she counted her paces, like rosary beads, something to mark distance and occupy her mind, something to keep her focused and moving. No more than a hundred feet from one end to the next, a hundred feet at the most, but it might as well have been a mile. And halfway through, a spot where the air was as cold as a January morning, air so cold that her breath fogged, and Dancy jumped backwards, hugging herself and shivering.

Too late, she thought. It knows I’m coming now, realizing that the forest around her had gone completely quiet, not one insect or amphibian voice, no twilight birdsongs left to break the sudden silence.

Reluctantly, she held a hand out, penetrating the frigid curtain of air again, a cold that could burn, that could freeze living flesh to stone; she drew a deep breath and stepped quickly through it.

Beyond the vines, the blue house trailer was sitting there alone in a small, weedy clearing, just like she’d seen it in her dreams, just exactly the way the angel had shown it to her. Light spilled from the windows and the door standing wide open like a welcome sign — Come on in, I’ve been waiting for you, Dancy Flammarion.

She set her duffel bag down in the sand and looked first at her knife and then back to the blue trailer. Even the shimmering, mewling things she’d killed back in Bainbridge, even they were afraid of this haunted place, something so terrible inside those aluminum walls that even boogeymen and goblins were afraid to whisper its name. Dancy glanced up at the summer sky, hoping the angel might be there, watching over her, but there were only a few dim and disinterested stars.

Well, what are you waiting on} the trailer seemed to whisper.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m not waiting on anything.”

She walked past the three refrigerators, the burned-out carcass of the old Ford pickup, and climbed the cinder-block steps to stand in the open doorway. For a moment, the light was so bright that she thought it might blind her, might shine straight into her head and burn her brain away, and Dancy squinted through the tears streaming from the corners of her eyes. Then the light seemed to ebb, dimming enough that she could make out the shoddy confusion of furniture crammed into the trailer: a sofa missing all its cushions, a recliner the color of Spanish moss, and a coffee table buried beneath dirty plates, magazines, chicken bones, beer cans, and overflowing ashtrays. A woman in a yellow raincoat was sitting in the recliner, watching Dancy and smiling. Her eyes were very green and pupilless, a statue’s jade-carved eyes, and her shaggy black hair fell about her round face in tangled curls.

“Hello there, Dancy,” she said. “We were beginning to think that you wouldn’t make it.”

“Who are you?” Dancy asked, confused, and raised her knife so she was sure the woman could see it. “You’re not supposed to be here. No one’s supposed to be here but-”

“I’m not? Well, someone should have told me.”

The woman stood up, slipping gracefully, slowly, from the grey recliner, her bare feet on the linoleum floor, and Dancy could see that she wasn’t wearing anything under the coat.

“Not exactly what you were expecting, am I?” she asked and took a single step towards Dancy. Beneath the bright trailer lights, her bare olive skin glinted wetly, skin as smooth and perfect as oil on deep, still water, and “Stop,” Dancy warned her and jabbed the knife at the air between herself and the woman.

“No one here wants to hurt you,” she said and smiled wider so that Dancy could see her long, sharp teeth.

“I didn’t come for you,” Dancy said, trying hard to hide the tremble in her voice, because she knew the woman wanted her to be afraid. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“But I know who you are, Dancy. News travels fast these days. I know all about what you did in Bainbridge, and I know what you came here to do tonight.”

“Don’t make me hurt you, too.”

“No one has to get hurt. Put the knife down and we can talk.”

“You’re just here to distract me, so it can run, so it can escape, and then I’ll have to find it all over again.”

The woman nodded and looked up at the low ceiling of the trailer, her green eyes staring directly into the flood of white light pouring down into the tiny room.

“You have a hole inside you,” she said, her smile beginning to fade. “Where your heart should be, there’s a hole so awfully deep and wide, an abyss in your soul.”

“That’s not true,” Dancy whispered.

“Yes, it is. You’ve lost everything, haven’t you? There’s nothing left in the world that you love and nothing that loves you.”

And Dancy almost turned and ran then, back down the cinder-block steps into the arms of the night, not prepared for this strange woman and her strange, sad voice, the secret things she had no right to know or ever say out loud. Not fair, the angel leaving this part out, not fair, when she’s always done everything he asked of her.

“You think that he loves you?” the woman asked. “He doesn’t. Angels love no one but themselves. They’re bitter, selfish things, every one of them.”

“Shut up.”

“But it’s the truth, dear. Cross my heart. Angels are nothing but spiteful-”

“I said to shut up”

The woman narrowed her eyes, still staring up at the ceiling, peering into the light reflecting off her glossy skin.

“You’ve become their willing puppet, their doll,” she said. “And, like the man said, they have made your life no more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nothing whatsoever.”

Dancy gripped the carving knife and took a hesitant step towards the woman.

“You’re a liar,” she said. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, but I do” the woman replied, lowering her head and turning to gaze at Dancy with those startling, unreal eyes. “I know so very many things. I can show you, if you want to see. I can show you the faces of God, the moment you will die, the dark places behind the stars,” and she shrugged off the yellow raincoat, and it slipped to the linoleum floor.

Where her breasts should have been there were wriggling, tentacled masses instead, like the fiery heads of sea anemones, surrounding hungry, toothless mouths.

“There is almost no end to the things I can show you,” the woman said. “Unless you’re too afraid to see.”

Dancy screamed and lunged towards the naked woman, all of her confusion and anger and disgust, all of her fear, flashing like steam to blind, forward momentum, and she swung the rusty knife, slashing the woman’s throat open a couple of inches above her collarbones. The sudden, bright spray of blood across Dan-cy’s face was as cold as water drawn from a deep well, and she gasped and retreated to the door of the trailer. The knife slid from her hand and clattered against the aluminum threshold.

“You cut me,” the woman croaked, dismayed, and now there was blood trickling from her lips, too, blood to stain those sharp teeth pink and scarlet. Her green eyes had gone wide, swollen with surprise and pain, and she put one hand over the gash in her throat, as if to try and hide the wound hemorrhaging in time to her heart.

“You did it,” she said. “You really fucking did it,” and then the tentacles on her chest stopped wriggling, and she crumpled to the floor beside the recliner.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Dancy asked the angel, as if she expected an answer. “Why didn’t you tell me she would be here too?”

The woman’s body shuddered violently and then grew still, lying on top of the discarded raincoat, her blood spreading out across the floor like a living stain. The white light from the ceiling began to dim and, a moment later, winked out altogether, so that Dancy was left standing in the dark, alone in the doorway of the trailer.

“What have you done to her?” the Gynander growled from somewhere close, somewhere in the yard behind Dancy, its heavy, plodding footsteps coming closer, and she murmured a silent, doubtful prayer and turned to face it.

* * *

Unafraid of falling, but falling nonetheless, as the living light from the wooden box ebbs and flows beneath her skin, between the convolutions of her brain. Collapsing into herself, that hole where her heart should be, that abyss in her soul, and all the things she’s clung to for so long, the handholds clawed into the dry walls of her mind, melt beneath the corrosive, soothing voices of the light.

Where am I going? she asks, and the red and black tendrils squeezing her smaller and smaller, squeezing her away, reply in a hundred brilliant voices — Inside, they say, and Down, and Back, and finally, Where the monsters come from.

I don’t have my knife, she says.

You won’t need it, the light reassures her.

And Dancy watches herself, a white streak across a star-dappled sky, watches her long fall from the rolling deck of a sailing ship that burned and sank and rotted five hundred years ago. A sailor standing beside her curses, crosses himself, and points at Heaven.

“Did ye see it?” he asks in a terrified whisper, and Dancy can’t tell him that she did and that it was only the husk of her body burning itself away, because now she’s somewhere else, high above the masts and stays, and the boat is only a speck in the darkness below, stranded forever in a place where no wind blows and the sea is as still and flat as glass. As idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.

Falling, not up or down, but falling farther in, and Is there a bottom, or a top? Is there ever an end? she wonders and Yes, the voices reply, Yes and no, maybe and that depends.

Depends on what?

On you, my dear. That depends on you.

And she stands on a rocky, windswept ledge, grey stone ground smooth and steep by eons of frost and rain, and the mountains rise up around her until their jagged peaks scrape at the low-slung belly of the clouds. Below her is a long, narrow lake, black as pitch, and in the center of the lake the ruins of a vast, shattered temple rise from its depths. There are things stranded out there among the ruins, nervous orange eyes watching the waters from broken spires and the safety of crumbling archways. Dancy can hear their small and timorous thoughts, no one desire among them but to reach the shore, to escape this cold, forgotten place — and they would swim, the shore an easy swim for even the weakest among them, but, from time to time, the black waters of the lake ripple, or a stream of bubbles rises suddenly to the surface, and there’s no knowing what might be waiting down there. What might be hungry. What might have lain starving since time began.

“I want to go back now,” Dancy says, shouting to be heard above the howling wind.

There’s only one way back, the wind moans, speaking now for the light from the Gynander’s box. And that’s straight on to the center.

“The center of what?” Dancy shouts, and in a moment her voice has crossed the lake and echoed back to her, changed, mocking. The center of when? Center of where? Of who?

On the island of ruins, the orange-eyed things mutter ancient, half-remembered supplications and scuttle away into deeper shadows. Dancy’s voice has become the confirmation of their every waking nightmare, reverberating God-voice to rain the incalculable weight of truth and sentence. And the wind sweeps her away like ash…

“What about her bush?” the orderly asks the nurse as the needle slips into Dancy’s arm, and then he laughs.

“You’re a sick fuck, Parker, you know that?” the nurse tells him, pulling the needle out again and quickly covering the tiny hole she’s left with a cotton ball. “She’s just a kid, for Christ’s sake.”

“Hey, it seems like a perfectly natural question to me. You don’t see something like her every day of the week. Guys are curious about shit like that.”

“Is that a fact?” the nurse asks the orderly, and she removes the cotton ball from Dancy’s arm, stares for a moment at the single drop of crimson staining it.

“Yeah. Something like that.”

“If you tell anyone, I swear to fucking-”

“Babe, this shit’s between me and you. Not a peep, I swear.”

“Jesus, I oughta have my head examined,” the nurse whispers and drops the cotton ball and the syringe into a red plastic container labeled infectious waste, then checks Dancy’s restraints one by one until she’s sure they’re all secure.

“Is that me?” Dancy asks the lights, but they seem to have deserted her, left her alone with the nurse and the orderly in this haze of antiseptic stink and Thorazine.

“Is that me?”

The nurse lifts the hem of Dancy’s hospital gown and, “There,” she says and licks her lips. “Are you satisfied? Does that answer your question?” She sounds nervous and excited at the same time, and Dancy can see that she’s smiling.

“Goddam,” the orderly mumbles, rubs at his chin and shakes his head. “Goddam, that’s a sight to see.”

“Poor kid,” the nurse says and lowers Dancy’s gown again.

“Hey, wait a minute, I was gonna get some pictures,” the orderly protests and laughs again.

“Fuck you, Parker,” the nurse says.

“Anytime you’re ready, baby.”

“Go to hell.”

And Dancy shuts her eyes, shuts out the white tile walls and fluorescent glare, pretends that she can’t smell the nurse’s flowery perfume or the orderly’s sweat, that her arm doesn’t ache from the needle and her head isn’t swimming from the drugs.

Closing her eyes. Shutting one door and opening another.

The night air is very cold and smells like pine sap and dirt, night in the forest, and Dancy runs breathless and barefoot over sticks and stones and pine straw, has been running so long now that her feet are raw and bleeding. But she can hear the men on their horses getting closer, shouting to one another, the men and their hounds, and if she dares stop running they’ll be on top of her in a heartbeat.

She stumbles and almost falls, cracks her left shoulder hard against the trunk of a tree and the force of the blow spins her completely around so that she’s facing her pursuers, the few dark boughs left between them and her, and one of the dogs howls. The eager sound of something that knows it’s almost won, that can taste her even before its jaws close around her throat.

The light from the box swirls about her like a nagging swarm of nocturnal insects, whirring black wings and shiny, scarlet shells to get her moving again. Each step fresh agony now, but the pain in her feet and legs and chest is nothing next to her terror, the hammer of hooves and the barking hounds, the men with their guns and knives. Dancy cannot remember why they want her dead, what she might have done, if this is only some game or if it’s justice; she can’t remember when this night began or how long she’s been running. But she knows that none of it will matter in the end, when they catch her, and then the earth drops suddenly away beneath her, and she’s falling, really falling, the simple, helpless plummet of gravity. She crashes headlong through the branches of a deadfall and lands in a shallow, freezing stream.

The electric shock of cold water to rip the world around her open once again, the slow burn before it numbs her senseless, the fire before sleep and death to part the seams; she looks back to see the indistinct, frantic tumble of dog bodies already coming down the steep bank after her. Above them, the traitorous pines seem to part for the beautiful man on his tall black horse, his antique clothes, the torch in his hand as bright as the sun rising at midnight. His pale face is bruised with the anger and horror of everything he’s seen and done, and everything he will see and do before the dawn.

“Je l’ai trouve!” he shouts to the others. “Depechez-vous!”

Words Dancy doesn’t know, but she understands them perfectly well, just the same.

“La bete! Je l’ai trouve!”

And then she looks down at the reflection of the torch-light dancing in the icy, gurgling water, and her reflection there, as well, her albino’s face melting in the flowing mirror, becoming the long snout and frightened, iridescent eyes of a wolf, melting again and now the dead woman from the Gynander’s trailer stares back at her. She tries to stand, but she can’t feel her legs anymore, and the dogs are almost on top of her, anyway.

“Is this me?” she asks the faces swirling in the stream. “Is this my face, too?” But this when and where slides smoothly out from beneath her before the light can reply, before snapping dog teeth tear her apart; caught up in the implosion again, swallowed whole by her own disintegration.

“They’re all dead,” the nurse says, and her white shoes squeak loud against the white floor. “Cops up in Milligan think maybe she had something to do with it.”

“No shit?” the orderly says. He’s standing by the window, looking out at the rain, drawing circles in the condensation with his index finger. Circles and circles inside circles. “Where the hell’s Milligan?”

“If you don’t know already, trust me, you don’t want to know.”

Far away, the beautiful man on his black horse fires a rifle into the night.

“How old were you then?” the psychiatrist asks Dancy, and she doesn’t answer him right away, stares instead at the clock on the wall, wishing she could wait him out. Wishing there was that much time in the universe, but he has more time than she does. He keeps it nailed like Jesus to his office wall and doles it out in tiny paper cups, a mouthful at a time.

“Dancy, how old were you that night your mother took you to the fair?”

“Does it matter?” she asks him, and the psychiatrist raises his eyebrows and shrugs his bony, old-man shoulders.

“It might,” he says.

And the fair unfurls around her, giddy violence of colored lights and calliope wails, cotton-candy taffy air, sawdust air, barkers howling like drunken wolves, and the mechanical thunk and clank and wheeze of the rides. Her mother has an arm around her, holding her close as the sea of human bodies ebbs and surges about them, and Dancy thinks this must be Hell. Or Heaven. Too much of everything good or everything bad all shoved together into this tiny field, a deafening, swirling storm of laughter and screams; she wants to go home, but this is a birthday present, so she smiles and pretends that she isn’t afraid.

“You didn’t want to hurt your mother’s feelings,” the psychiatrist says and chews on the end of a yellow pencil. “You didn’t want her to think you weren’t having fun.”

“Look, Dancy,” her mother says. “Have you ever seen anything like that in your whole life?”

And the clown on stilts, tall as a tree, strides past them, wading stiffly through the crowd. He looks down as Dancy looks up and the clown smiles at her, real smile behind his painted smile, but she doesn’t smile back. She can see his shadow, the thing hiding in his shadow, its stilt-long legs and half-moon smile, its eyes like specks of molten lava burning their way out of its skull.

Dancy looks quickly down at the ground, trampled sawdust and mud, cigarette butts and a half-eaten candy apple, and “Get a load of her, will you?” a man says and laughs.

“Hey, girly. You part of the freak show or what?”

“Oh, you know she is. She’s one of the albinos. I saw a poster. They got a whole albino family. They got a boy that’s half-alligator and a stuffed cow with two heads. They got a Chinese hermaphrodite-”

“They ain’t got no cow with two heads. That’s a damn fake.”

“Well, she ain’t no fake, now is she?”

And then Dancy’s mother is shoving a path roughly through the crowd, towing Dancy behind her, trying to get away from the two men, but they follow close behind.

“Slow up, lady,” one of them shouts. “We just want to get a good look at her. We’ll pay you.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the other one shouts, and now everyone is staring and pointing. “We’ll pay. How much just to look? We ain’t gonna touch.”

The psychiatrist taps his pencil against his chin and helps Dancy watch the clock. “Were you mad at her afterwards, for taking you to the fair?” he asks.

“That was a long time ago,” Dancy replies. “It was my birthday present.”

He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, makes a whistling sound between his front teeth.

“We never went anywhere, so she took me to the fair for my birthday.”

“Did you know about freak shows, Dancy? Did your mother tell you about them before you went to the fair?”

“What’s the difference between freaks and monsters?” she asks the psychiatrist.

“Monsters aren’t real,” he says. “That’s the difference. Why? Do you think you’re a monster? Has anyone ever told you that you’re a monster?”

She doesn’t answer him. In only five more minutes she can go back to her room and think about anything she wants, anything but fairs and grinning clowns on stilts and the way the two men chased them through the crowd, anything but freaks and monsters. In the forest, the man fires his rifle again, and this time the shot tears a hole in the psychiatrist’s face, so Dancy can see shattered bone and torn muscle, his sparkling silver teeth and the little metal gears and springs that move his tongue up and down. He drops the pencil, and it rolls underneath his desk; she wants to ask him if it hurts, being shot, having half your face blown off like that, but he hasn’t stopped talking, too busy asking her questions to care if he’s hurt.

“Have you ever been afraid that she took you there to get rid of you, to leave you with the freaks?”

And all the world goes white, a suffocating white where there is no sky and no earth, nothing to divide the one from the other, and the Arctic wind shrieks in her ears, and snow stings her bare skin. Not the top of the world, but somewhere very near it, a rocky scrap of land spanning a freezing sea, connecting continents in a far-off time of glaciers. Dancy wants to shut her eyes; then, at least, it would only be black, not this appalling, endless white, and she thinks about going to sleep, drifting down to someplace farther inside herself, the final still-point in this implosion, down beyond the cold. But she knows that would mean death, in this place, this when, some mute instinct to keep her moving, answering to her empty belly when she only wants to be still.

“Ce n’est pas un loup!” the man on his horse shouts to the others in his company, and Dancy peers over her shoulder, but she can’t see him anywhere. Nothing at all back there but the wind-blown snow, and she wonders how he could have possibly followed her, when he won’t even be born for another thirteen thousand years. The storm picks his voice apart and scatters it across the plains.

With the impatient wind at her back, hurrying her along, Dancy stumbles on ahead, helpless to do otherwise.

She finds the camp just past a line of high granite boulders, men and women huddled together in the lee of the stones, a ragged, starving bunch wrapped in bear hides. She smells them before she sees them — the soot of their small, smoky fires, the oily stink of their bodies, the faint death smell from the skins they wear. She slips between the boulders, sure-footed, moving as quietly as she can, though, over the wind, they could never hear her coming. The wind that blows her own scent away, and she crouches above them and listens. The men clutching their long spears, the women clutching their children, and all eyes nervously watching the white-out blur beyond the safety of the fires.

Dancy doesn’t need to understand their language to read their minds, the red and ebony light coiled tight inside her head to translate their hushed words, their every fearful thought, to show her the hazy nightmares they’ve fashioned from the shadows and the wailing blizzard. They whisper about the strange white creature that has been trailing them for days, tracking them across the ice, the red-eyed demon like a young girl carved from the snow itself. Their shaman mumbles warnings that they must have trespassed into some unholy place protected by this spirit of the storms, but most of the men ignore him. They’ve never come across any beast so dangerous that it doesn’t bleed.

Crouched there among the boulders, her teeth chattering, Dancy gazes up into the swirling snow. The light leaks out of her nostrils and twines itself in the air above her head like a dozen softly glowing serpents.

They will come for you soon, it says. If you stay here, they’ll find you and kill you.

“Will they?” Dancy asks, too cold and hungry and tired to really care, one way or the other, and Yes, the light replies.

“Why? I can’t hurt them. I couldn’t hurt them if I wanted to.”

The light breaks apart into a sudden shower of sparks, bright drops of fire that splash against each other and bounce off the edges of the boulders. In a moment, they come together again and the woman from the Gynander’s trailer, the woman in the yellow raincoat that she knows isn’t a woman at all, steps out of the gloom and stands nearby, watching Dancy with her green eyes.

“It only matters that they are afraid of you,” she says. “Maybe you could hurt them, and maybe you could not, but it only matters that they are afraid.”

“I killed you,” Dancy says. “You’re dead. Go away.”

“I only wanted you to see,” the woman says and glances down at the camp below the boulders. “Sometimes we forget what we are and why we do the things we do. Sometimes we never learn.”

“It won’t make any difference,” Dancy growls at her, and the woman smiles and nods her head. Her raincoat flutters and flaps loudly in the wind, and Dancy tries hard not to look at the things writhing on her bare chest.

“It might,” the woman says. “Someday, when you can’t kill the thing that frightens you. When there’s nowhere left to run. Think of it as a gift-”

“Why would you give me a gift?”

“Because you gave me one, Dancy Flammarion,” and then the woman blows apart in the wind, and Dancy shivers and watches as the glittering pieces of her sail high into the winter sky and vanish.

“Is it over now?” Dancy asks the light, and in a moment it answers her. That depends, it says, and Is it ever over? it asks, but Dancy is already tumbling back the way she’s come. Head over heels, ass over tits, and when she opens her eyes, an instant later, an eternity later, she’s staring through the darkness at the ceiling of the Gynander’s root cellar.

* * *

Dancy coughs and rolls over onto her left side, breathing against the stabbing, sharp pain in her chest, and there’s the box sitting alone in the dust, its lid closed now. The dark, varnished wood glints dull in the orange light from the hurricane lantern hanging nearby, and whatever might have come out of the box has been locked away again. She looks up from the floor, past the drooping, empty husks on their hooks and the Gynander’s workbenches, and the creature is watching her from the other side of the cellar.

“What did you see?” it asks her, and she catches a guarded hint of apprehension in its rough voice.

“What was I supposed to see?” Dancy asks back, and she coughs again. “What did you think I’d see?”

“That’s not how it works. It’s different for everyone.”

“You wanted me to see things that would make me doubt what the angel tells me.”

“It’s different for everyone,” the Gynander says again and draws the blade of a straight razor slowly across a long leather strap.

“But that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? That’s what you hoped I’d see, because that’s what you saw when she showed you the box.”

“I never talked to no angels. I made a point of that.”

And Dancy realizes that the nylon ropes around her ankles and wrists are gone, and her own knife is lying on the floor beside the box. She reaches for it, and the Gynander stops sharpening its razor and looks at her.

“Sinethella wanted to die, you know. She’d been wanting to die for ages,” it says. “She’d heard what you did to them folks over in Bainbridge, and down there in Florida. I swear, child, you’re like something come riding out of a Wild West movie, like goddamn Clint Eastwood, you are.”

Dancy sits up, a little dizzy from lying down so long, and wipes the rusty blade of her carving knife on her jeans.

“Like in that one picture, High Plains Drifter, where that nameless stranger fella shows up acting all holier than thou. The whole town thinks they’re using him, but turns out it’s really the other way round. Turns out, maybe he’s the most terrible thing there is, and maybe good’s a whole lot worse thing to have after your ass than evil. Course, you have a name-”

“I haven’t seen too many movies,” Dancy says, though, in truth, she’s never seen a single one. She glances from the Gynander to the wooden box to the lantern and back to the Gynander.

“I just want you to understand that she wasn’t no two-bit backwoods haint,” it says and starts sharpening the straight razor again. “Not like me. I just want you to know ain’t nothing happened here she didn’t want to happen.”

“Why did you untie me?”

“Why don’t you trying asking that angel of yours? I thought it had all the answers. Hell, I thought that angel of yours was all over the truth like flies on dog shit.”

“She told you to let me go?”

The Gynander makes a sound like sighing and lays the leather strap aside, holds the silver razor up so that it catches a little of the stray lantern light. Its stolen face sags and twitches slightly.

“Not exactly,” it says. “Ain’t nothing that easy, Snow White.”

Dancy stands up, her legs stiff and aching, and she lifts the hurricane lantern off its nail.

“Then you want to die, too,” she says.

“Not by a long sight, little girl. But I do like me some sport now and then. And Sinethella said you must be a goddam force of nature, a regular shatterer of worlds, to do the things you been getting away with.”

“What I saw in there,” Dancy says, and she cautiously prods at the box with the toe of one shoe. “It doesn’t make any difference. I know it was just a trick.”

“Well, then what’re you waiting for?” the thing whispers from the lips of its shabby, patchwork skin. “Show me what you got.”

* * *

The fire crackles and roars at the night sky lightening slowly towards dawn. Dancy sits on a fallen log at the side of the red-dirt road leading back to Waycross and watches as the spreading flames begin to devour the leafy walls of the kudzu tunnel.

“Well, I guess you showed me what for,” the blackbird says. It’s perched on the log next to her, the fire reflected in its beady eyes. “Maybe next time I’ll keep my big mouth shut.”

“You think there’s ever gonna be a next time?” Dancy asks without looking away from the fire.

“Lord, I hope not,” the bird squawks. “That was just, you know, a figure of speech.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Where you headed next?” the bird asks.

“I’m not sure.”

“I thought maybe the angels-”

“They’ll show me,” Dancy says, and she slips the carving knife back into her duffel bag and pulls the drawstrings tight again. “When it’s time, they’ll show me.”

And then neither of them says anything else for a while, just sit there together on the fallen pine log, as the fire she started in the cellar behind the trailer burns and bleeds black smoke into the hyacinth sky.

Charles Coleman Finlay

Lucy, In Her Splendor

Charles Coleman Finlay lives in Columbus, Ohio, and he is the administrator for the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

His first story, “Footnotes”, a series of footnotes to an article about a future disaster, appeared in the August 2001 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he has since become a regular contributor.

In 2003, he was a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. His fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 20 (a.k.a. The Mammoth Book of Best New SF #16) edited by Gardner Dozois, and Year’s Best Fantasy #4, edited by David Hartwell.

“‘Lucy, In Her Splendor’ was inspired by my vacations on Kelleys Island in Lake Erie,” Finlay reveals. “When I wrote it, I didn’t realize that one of my friends, who owns a bed-and-breakfast there, was nicknamed ‘Lucy’. Fortunately, she enjoyed the story and took the ribbing she got in good spirit.”

* * *

When they were done, they sat in the plastic lawn chairs by the lake and listened in the dark to waves lapping the sharp white boulders mounded along the shore.

The first moth came fluttering from the direction of the pumphouse. It slapped into Lucy’s cheek almost accidentally and startled them both. She raised her hand against it and the moth settled on one white-tipped nail. As she flicked her fingertip, it lifted into the air and hurtled back at her face.

A second and a third moth followed seconds later, followed in time by others until a tiny halo of insects swirled around her short platinum-blonde hair.

“Could be worse,” Martin said, trying to wave them off. “Could be mosquitoes.”

She smiled at him, shifted her chair closer, and leaned against his shoulder.

“God, Lucy, you’re hot,” he said.

She laughed, a little sadly, making a warm vibration that resonated in his chest. “I’m glad you still think so.”

“No,” he said. “Are you sure you haven’t turned into a bug lamp? I swear you’re hot enough to zap those bugs to ashes.”

“You-”

She lifted her hand to slap him, but he caught it and folded her fingers within his own. Her skin was dry, caked with grit. He gave it a little squeeze and looked around, but rows of trees blocked the view of their neighbors. More bugs flew at Lucy’s head.

Her voice trembled. “I’m really sick, aren’t I?”

“It’s just a fever. That’s all it is.” He placed her hand in his lap, and tried to wave the bugs away. One of the moth’s wings buzzed harshly while the stones tapped against each other in the susurration of the waves. “Let’s go inside.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she whispered.

Without saying anything to reassure her, he helped her to her feet, propping her up as they strolled back to the house. When they passed the hand-carved sign that read crow’s nest bed & breakfast, little limestone island, he flipped the board.

SORRY, NO VACANCY.

Lucy’s fever burned all night. Martin sat on the edge of the bed, feeding her tablets of aspirin and ice chips.

A single moth had followed them inside the house, tickling Lucy out of her rest until Martin turned on the lamp and the tiny creature flew to rest, panting, on the white shade. He smashed it, leaving a smear of grey dust and wings.

Walking over to the gable window, he gazed out of their attic apartment at the lake. All their life’s savings were encompassed by these few acres of land, bounded on one end by the stone jetty covered with zebra-mussel shells and on the other by the apple tree with the bench swing. When insects began collecting at the screen, he stepped away.

Lucy shuddered in her sleep, sucking air through her mouth. Martin bent over and slipped his tongue — briefly — between her teeth. He expected the sour-sweet taste of sickness, but it wasn’t there.

That only made it worse.

* * *

In the morning, Martin puttered in the kitchen even though they had no guests, making himself a cappuccino and sitting at the dining-room table beside the double-hung windows facing the lake. An ore carrier moved sluggishly away from the island, heading past Put-in Bay for the Ohio shore.

A tall, silver-haired man in gold pants and shirt — their neighbor, Bill — walked along the shore with a little girl about four or five years old. Martin’s heart began to skip. He set his cup down so fast that it splashed, and ran through the screened-in porch, the door clapping shut behind him.

Sunrise glinted off the water. Martin shielded his eyes with his hand as he walked barefoot over the dew-damp grass. “Hey, neighbor!”

“Good morning, Marty,” Bill replied. He gestured at the little girl. “This here’s our granddaughter, Kelsey. Say hi, darling.”

The little girl looked up at Martin. Panic flashed across her eyes, and she spun away from him to look at the lake.

“Hi, Kelsey,” Martin said. He noticed the cappuccino running down his arm, and absent-mindedly lifted his wrist to his mouth to lick it off.

Bill shrugged. “Kids, huh. Folks don’t teach ‘em any manners these days.” He pointed to the pumphouse, a squat slab of concrete that sat on the edge of the lake. “When did you block that up?”

“Oh.” The farmhouse was over a hundred years old. Before the island built its water supply, the farmers pumped it in directly from the lake. “A couple days ago.”

“I thought you were going to turn it into a sauna.”

“That’s still the plan. But one of our guests was poking around in it after he came back from the winery. Fell and cut his head. Pretty big gash. He didn’t need stitches, but we figured-”

“Liability?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a shame, people not being responsible.” Bill looked up to the porch. “Say, where are your guests? Isn’t it about breakfast time?”

“We had to cancel all our reservations,” Martin said. He watched Kelsey closely. She poked around the rocks, searching for a way into the pumphouse. “Lucy’s been sick.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s wrong?”

“She came down with this fever-”

“Hey, there she is.”

Martin turned. Lucy stood outlined in the attic window. The glass caught the sun, casting it in such a way that she was surrounded by a corona of jagged, golden light.

Bill waved to the attic window and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Get well soon, Lucy!”