SHORT STORY: "Light A Candle and Pray, Boy." - A Fictional tribute to the memory of all who served in the Great War - 1914-1918. Lest We Forget.
Originally written as part of the "10 SHORT OF 31" short story challenge, and based upon the title provided for me by Bo Davies - this story was written just after the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014. Having missed the candle lighting that swept the country - due to work commitments, i wrote this as my candle and tribute. It is among some of my favourite writing.
I am the son, grandson and great-grandson of servicemen, and though it was never something I was never brave or bold enough to do, following them into the forces - I am honoured to remember each of them, and all others who gave their lives so bravely and with such conviction and sacrifice.
Today is the centenary of the armistice, when the guns fell silent, so, it feels right to share this once again in memory of those who fell and never made it home.
“Light a Candle and Pray, Boy”
On top of the hill overlooking the Denby Valley, where the villages of East Frank and West Lothrith met, separated by a thin river that, at its narrowest point, was only three feet wide, Jacob sat.
He was cross legged, with the woollen blanket pulled high over his shoulders, and a warm flask of tea between his crossed legs.
He watched over the valley and the two villages and chewed on his cob of bread, folded with ham and lettuce and a homemade grainy mustard.
He had been watching the stars and the skies, trying to find a moments silence upon the hill, listening to the grasshoppers and sheep and the wind through the back of the Portney Woods, rustling the tree tops and whistling through the narrow brambles, a song for the fields and the hills and the land.
One Jacob enjoyed more than anything else on this Earth.
He watched in wonder as one by one the lights dimmed and died across the valley.
Pinpricks of light blinking and burning out, and a darkness he had never experienced before washed over his home as each house blacked out in silence and stillness.
He wondered what on earth was happening, and wrapping his things in the blanket, he rolled it into a neat parcel, picked up his walking stick, and started the slow trudge down to Lothrith and toward his house.
The closer he got the less light was seen, tiny twinkles of light suddenly extinguished in the night, and a blue inky shadow smeared his vision as he wandered closer to the silent and blackened village.
He looked across the river and saw that East Frank was blinking and dying as well, no lights lasted more than a few seconds before each home was placed in abject darkness.
And then, as he was about to climb the gable fence which separated the Towering field on the hill where the Crimean Monument stood, as he was perched on the gate itself one leg over, straddled to jump off, he was awe struck as tiny, fragile pinpricks of light emerged from each window and each doorstep.
Elegant flames lighting up on candles in windows across the two villages, and for a moment it was like a Fairies council had descended on his beloved home and each fairy was blowing a kiss to each house,
Slithers of wavering, shaking fragile light could be seen burning a deep orange and yellow glow, faint and beautiful in each window.
He could see curtains and nets shiver with movement as they were opened and pulled away, so new candles could be lit.
The valley now alive with these orange flames of light and life.
He carried on over the gate and started to move faster toward the home where his wife and son were, his brother Michael had the house two down from him, a barn that was converted into a farmhouse with a giant cobbled yard, and horses and cows and outhouses that was where their livelihoods were made.
He made it to the door, and his wife was stood in the porch way, sobbing, holding their 18 month old boy, and gently patting his back and bouncing him up and down, in gentle motions, side to side, up and down, he gurgled appreciatively into her shoulder and continued to suck on his thumb, sleeping like babes do.
“Dining Room” is all she said, and Jacob lay a warm and loving kiss on her forehead, and then retreated to the back of the quiet, dark, candle-lit cottage and to the dining room.
A small, stonewalled room, it had a dresser, upon which were crockery and ornaments and kick-knacks, there was a polished mirror with a greening bronze and copper frame, and in the centre of the room a table with three chairs around it.
The fourth chair had been his fathers, and he had since taken it into his shed to keep safe, and sat on it in cool summer evenings when pottering or preparing his fishing lines and his carpentry, no one but himself had sat on it since his father’s passing.
The act of doing so seen as sacrilege.
Sat at the table, cap in hand, and rising as Jacob walked in was the Parish Clerk, Norman Whitehouse, he had a bedraggled look upon his face, sad bags under his eyes, and he squeezed and twisted his cap in forgetful distraction, Jacob offered a hand, and Norman took it and shook briskly and strong, and Jacob beckoned he sit.
He could see tea was already prepared, and he took a cup and poured from his own flask, and gestured silent salute to Norman and the head of the table where his father would have sat, noisily sipping from his cup.
“How can I help thee Norman?”
His Northern roots were dampened by years working on the train lines with Southerners and Midlanders and tempering his accent to a neutrality to be understood by all, seeing himself as something of a statesman for the English, he was older and wiser and bigger than most of the whelps who struggled on the lines and cables, but he had toiled on and made himself his own man.
Every now and then his accent returned and certain mannerisms were impossible to shake and move, he felt that something inside had held them as medals of honour he was not to play with, and that some things – as is the want of life – had to survive and stay.
Norman looked at him and returned a silent gesture of cheers with his tea, and also to the head of the table, saying under his breath “Arthur”, and sipped down a gulp.
Was all he mustered, before he sipped again, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked at his feet and then up at Jacob and the tiredness in his eyes was laid bare, as you could see he had been crying before he arrived.
“War is it?”
“Asquith gave the deadline for midnight, the Commons debated for eight hours about what to do, the chambers were never so full by all accounts, he made it clear that they were to be out of Belgium by Midnight, or War, and they were not.”
Jacob sipped his tea. He looked at the cup, fine china, a wedding gift from the local parish itself, Jacobs’s farm and family had long provided much more and given much to the villages of East Frank and West Lothrith – never asking for anything in return.
Two brothers lost in the Crimea, one to Pneumonia and his Father to the accident two winters past.
Only Michael and Jacob remained, but more decent men you could not hope to meet, still giving milk and crop to the parish whenever asked and often without need to be asked, they held dances in their barns, opened house to village meetings and welcomed the local kids and children to the animals and fields beyond the farm for anyone to use.
They were loved in both villages, and the town beyond, their family had been here six generations and they had never asked for anything in return by the peace of the land and the hello of a neighbour.
So, when anything of this magnitude of importance happened, to Jacob and Michael they went, the voice of the council in the ear of the family that held the attention and love of the land.
Michael the bawdier, louder brother, younger than Jacob by 22 months, bigger, brasher and more in keeping with the locals, drinking as he did in the alehouse in the town, and trading his time gambling when not working the farm or tilling the fields.
Jacob, the elder, the wiser – the spit of his father, held life in more serious and quiet regard, but was a gentle and loving man.
His wife came to the door, and knocked gently on the dining rooms wooden portal.
“Jac. We have more company.”
He nodded at his wife Ann-Marie and he looked at Norman.
“Ann, my love, tell them to meet at Michaels, and then take Harry and yourself and go to the Millard’s, tell Harriet I will come speak to her tomorrow and to send Kevin down here.”
Ann-Marie gave a half smile, and left.
Jacob looked back and just saw the sweet, sleeping face of Harry, his son, as she left the warmth of the orange candles in the dining room.
“Right. Tell me what has happened and what is about to occur.”
And Norman did. In detail, and haste, the news was already 24 hours old and the telegram had not reached them until 8pm, and before anything and anyone else was told, the council had decided, as it often did, that the first to know should be the Langwood’s, as Jacob and Michael Langwood would be the people that the township of East Frank and West Lothrith – separated by a river not three feet wide at its narrowest point, would want to hear this from.
Men of the people, their elders and guides.
Jacob sat and listened and nodded in silence, all the while sipping his cold, milky tea, from his flask. His face an impression of passivity and import.
By the end he asked but one question.
“What are the candles?”
Norman nodded, as if in expectation.
“Across the country, as an act of solidarity, the lights have gone out and the candles have been lit. They have already started to move bodies across the channel, and the army is already being motivated and mobilized.
I tell you Jacob, it is dark, dark days…”
Jacob was not inclined to disagree.
The barn was already throbbing with people, Michael was nowhere to be seen, probably in the town, in which case, he would be well aware of what was happening, probably before Jacob was, and in the excitement and the panic he was more than likely stuck in the town and without mode for home.
Jacob did not worry.
He waited until the final men pushed into the barn, and he looked around at the faces of his neighbours and family, his cousins, and those he was joined to in blood via his union with Ann-Marie, and through the jabbering and muttering and hushed and angry and confused tones of murmurs, he waved a silence over them and he told them what was about to happen.
About the deadline, about Asquith’s ultimatum, about the intercepted news from Berlin about the Kaiser and the war cabinets decree that France was a target, and that there were feet inside Luxembourg and probably Belgium already.
Jacob said that Soldiers were already en route over the Channel to defend the French, and that soon – regardless of whether it was right or wrong – the soldiers would come knocking, and that the conscriptions would soon begin.
At this the wives and daughters and mothers and sons all set about a busy chirrup of voices and fluster, Jacob waved them silent with a single raised palm, and he said
“It will not be the first time. This village, the village next to us. Our township and our community has seen war before. It is true this is looking to be unlike anything we may have encountered, but rest assured, they will come… They will… And when they do, we men, of age, and of health and of honour - for that is what we are - have no doubt, we will leave.”
The room fell silent and still.
His words hung like the sword of Damocles above the heads of every man of age.
They all stood, caps in hand, sleeves rolled up, and faces of ashen stone, marble and granite. For they knew he was right, and they knew that they would go proudly, as Englishmen do.
Michael sat at the bar, sipping at his pint.
He had never married, he had never had children, and he had never settled down.
His life in West Lothrith was one of coasting and distraction, he loved his family but felt torn by duty and his need for freedom.
His eldest surviving brother Jacob was a hard working honourable man, his shoulders bore many burdens and he absorbed the duty like a sponge absorbs water, never floundering, never shaking.
Michael, however, was inclined to fancies and follies and life less ordinary, less routine, he gambled and fought (not that it ever got back to his brother) he womanized in the most gentlemanly fashions and he was popular for being a devilish and devil-may-care young man,
His arms were big and strong, his face rugged and handsome, always showing the strain of a day or twos growth, but never anything more, his hands were calloused and rough, but always gentle in the way with children and woman that mattered.
He laughed and he joked and he bellowed and he belched and he did everything he could to enjoy each day and it’s morning, noon and night to the fullest, well aware that a person’s flame could be extinguished with little to no care or thought.
All of them a testament to this fact.
So it was that on the 4th August 1914, Michael was sat in the Twenty One Hands public house, in the Town of Aberdale, and he and friends were throwing back ales and playing cards when the door flung open and a white faced police officer came in and called for silence, the news was relayed, and the pub had emptied within five minutes as people ran off to families and homes and loved ones.
Michael sat alone at this table, holding his hand of cards, and drank his ale and lay the cards down in fold, and beckoned the policeman over.
The officer sat down, and Michael offered an abandoned pint to the man.
“I’m on duty.” He dutifully said.
“We are at war…no one will begrudge you this.” Michael smiled.
Already the giant joke was in play, and he smiled and laughed throughout, as was his want and way.
The policeman took the pint, with certain trepidation, he paused, looked around and then saluted Michael, who clinked his ale in return, and the two men downed them together, sighed a wet sigh of refreshing enjoyment, and then wiped mouths with back of hands.
The two men stared at each other for a long second or five, and the Officer said
“My name is Gareth Llewellyn Chalfont, it’s nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Michael Tanner Langwood.” And they clapped hands and thus their bond was borne.
Michael was still in the same bar twenty four hours later.
He had played dominos, darts, cards, skittles and shove ha’penny, he had drank and danced and hollered and passed out and he had repeated this twice more.
He took a pouch from his pocket, his wallet, and he paid the barman handsomely, and then he left and he set about on his way to West Lothrith, to face his brother and his life in reality before the world came knocking.
Jacob never asked where he had been, never troubled the man for answers, nor judged him for his foibles, he just loved unconditionally and he gave him that look as if to say
“Never when Father was here, and thank goodness I am not him”
Michael appreciated and approved of the look, as it grounded him and reminded him of his Father, and reinforced his personal joy the man was no longer around, the youngest of five, he was always judged differently, and felt his burden was his father’s displeasure and distaste and dissatisfaction.
Never angry, never violent, never punishing.
But the look alone, especially as he got older cut through Michael like a warm knife through butter, and he struggled daily with the weight and gravity of his name, and yearned for freedom and independence and for his spirit to be set free.
Jacob allowed this, having always had special love for his younger brother.
He was very much his father’s son, but never once his father.
Much to Michael’s admiration.
So it was that when he returned this time, in two-day-old clothes, his stumble longer than usual, and his scent one of beer and smoke, Jacob simply held him in embrace, and Michael, not Jacob, said
“So war then. Nothing will be the same, will it?”
And Jacob shook his head in agreement.
And the brothers hugged again.
* * *
In the middle of September of 1914 the word had spread of the Pals Battalion being called in Aberdale, Michael received a telegram from Gareth that he was taking the call to arms and would be joining the line to sign up for action, that the town was full of men, many of which Michael had drank and fought, played cards and wrestled with, laughed and joked and spent time long into the night talking and sharing and spending his cherished and happiest times with.
Gareth asked the question, and Michael answered yes.
He would join the effort, and he would sign up as well.
Nothing was in his life now but the old farm his brother ran anyway, the farmhouse he could not wait to leave and the river and the hill, the memories of his family dead and forgotten.
Jacob the only reason he stayed in the village, and the main reason he was wanting to leave, forever in the man’s shadow, and forever trying to find his way and lot in life.
Should that be in a bunker or ditch in the mud strewn fields of Flanders, or the Main promenade of Berlin when the English marched in victory, he did not care.
He simply saw the door and opened it and stepped out.
Jacob never said whether he was happy or sad or approving or not, he simply held his brother and told him that he was the bravest man he knew, and that he loved him, and he would always be in their hearts and minds forefront in their thoughts.
On the 19th February, 1915 – Michael was on the ship to France.
Beside him were ten men from West Lothrith, five from East Frank and a dozen from Aberdale. Gareth Llewellyn Chalfont stood by his side, always by his side.
They were named the Aberdale Battalion, and they laughed and joked and played cards, and dominos and they shared tales and stories and truths and lies and histories on train and boat and marching on roads and across fields.
27 men from the town and villages.
A family of strangers.
* * *
The mud had been churned and kicked and ploughed by the hundred men who pushed on into the rain, and the sleet.
The weather now as much a villain and an enemy as the Germans were.
French voices called out from the weary, battle torn hell that was No Man’s Land, as bodies twisted and caught on barbed wire and convulsed and broken by the mortar and shelling, died slow and agonizing deaths.
Gareth had been unwell for several days, truth be told he was unwell for weeks, the hollow wheeze and dry cough from his chest was a constant source of chagrin amongst his battalion and his trench mates.
Nine of the pals from Aberdale battalion had died along the way, and their bodies had seen things no man ought to.
Blood had run on the hands of every man from the villages of West Lothrith, East Frank and town of Aberdale, and Gareth had seen men die in honour and in puddle of their own waste and fluid, wasted and wanton, and lacking the romance and dignity he envisioned upon signing up.
He was cold and he was tired, and he ached and pained all over.
His hand made horrendous noise when he clenched them, like the bones were broken and the skin was dry, sun drenched papyrus, creaking under duress.
That evening they called for men to go over the top and help the stranded French under cover of night, eight or nine men had been seen ensconced in a small trench and foxhole, 1500 metres out into the devastated field, Gareth raised his hand.
He knew if he was to die then he wanted it to be in glory and not of pneumonia in the trench, no further advanced than eight months ago when they arrived in the fields bordering Ypres.
Michael, of course, volunteered.
Always side-by-side through thick and thin.
Through sheer strength of the man’s conviction alone had Gareth survived this long.
And so through the blaze of gunfire as cover, and shells for distraction, six men climbed the wall of the trench and ran for the French encampment, with rifle and grenade and pistol.
No sooner had they got within ten feet of the trench than the air became thick with an evil, sickening fug.
Mortars and shells exploded around, and the dread planes flew over the field and plain of Ypres, and the smoke filled the Land between trenches, gun fire died out in weak and sickening rattles, and the lungs of each man filled with the tang of hatred and bile as the poison gas filled them and choked them one by one.
Gareth tried to run and escape, found his foot entangled in the half submerged barbed wire, and falling, slowly drowned in his own lungs in a slowly sucking pool of mud, and the poison gas that the Germans had unleashed, his last thought being his attempt at heroism to escape choking to death in his own trench…
The irony and the cruel taunt of fate.
His mouth gasping open and close like a fish, his lungs blacked and charred with the chlorine gas, and the liquid mud seeping down his throat toward his lungs.
His last vision Michael, pulling French soldiers from the trench, and pushing them screaming and choking toward the English line.
Michael trying so hard and so valiantly to save the men.
Cut down in his attempts by a hail of German fire.
His hands on his throat as he fell, and his eyes wild with the history of his life.
How much Gareth admired the man.
How strongly he had fought.
How quickly he was snuffed out, bullet strewn and gassed, his eyes a red mess from the gas. The French soldiers escaped and making the line and trench because of him.
The poor farmer’s son died face down in the fields of Ypres.
* * *
Jacob never saw his brother again.
At 39 he was just old enough to be signed up when Conscription came about.
He had run the farm and had been exempt and free from the front until the Somme came calling and the final push after the battle of Verdun, Jacob had seen his choices limited.
One by one the men of the town fell and died in the fire, the seas, the air and the ground. His village, and the village of East Frank – separated as they were by a river, no more than three feet at its narrowest divide – saw the landscape brown and fall to ruin as man after man died upon the soil in Belgium, France and Gallipoli.
Jacob no longer had anywhere to hide when the conscription came calling, and he was hoisted off to war, and in his mind, almost certain death.
By the summer of 1917 he had already seen action in Passchendaele, and though he had never seen his brother again, he saw the field upon which he so bravely died, cut down by machine gun fire, and gas.
He had seen the graves and the memorials, had touched a picture of the Aberdale Battalion of Pals, and his brothers giant wide devil-may-care smile, and he shared a brief smile in return, tears welling in his eyes.
Jacob saw bloodshed and bullet fire at Ypres, saw men cut down and gag and die on poison from the enemy lines, and he had carried dead and dying to the trenches and from the field, he had killed and he had saved in equal measure, and he would sit in the trench at night and dream of his hilltop and his blanket and his flask of tea and his villages, and the narrow river.
Of his wife and his son, and of the future he knew he would never see.
Jacob died from friendly fire, as a young lieutenant fell under shelling and released a single round from his pistol.
The bullet creased Jacobs skull as he scrambled for shelter from the incoming enemy fire, and he fell hard and cold and dead, as if someone had switched off a light and darkness had swathed his body.
This was in Marne.
It was July of 1918, and the end of the war was only four months away.
The fates cut his line short, and he fell as had his brother and his friends, on those fields of battle, under friendly means.
He never saw the bullet coming, nor heard the retort of the pistol and his death was so sudden and so instant, he was long gone before his body slumped on the ground in the mud and the debris.
* * *
Today there are two memorials upon the hill in West Lothrith.
The second is of a farmer, in his hand a gun, and his hand covering his eyes from sunshine he overlooks the two villages of East Frank and West Lothrith, of the narrow river, and into the town of Aberdale, not ten miles away, linked by electricity pylon monoliths standing astride the countryside connecting the world beyond.
The statute is awash every August 4th by town people and villagers alike, silent prayers held and muttered, poems and mantras and amens to the memory of the remembered farmer, of his brothers named on the memorial next to it and of the brave 21 men of the Aberdale Pals.
Every day the farmers great-grandson, and his great-great-grandson, Philip Anthony Longwood and Michael Jacob Llewellyn Langwood make the walk to the statute, and they share a flask of milky tea, and they sit under blanket come rain or shine, leaning against the statute of their kin, and they watch the sun go down over the villages and the town beyond.
They share jokes and memories and stories and secrets, and they light a candle and then they leave to do it all again the next day and the day after that.
The candle burns and burns and burns…
Never ending, flame incandescent and forever.
Even when the wick and the fire is gone, there are two people who can still see and feel the warmth of the tiny flame.
As Philip and his son walk down the hill toward the house and farm they still own, still so important to the whole community, so beautiful and old and perfect, the ghosts of Michael and of Jacob both watch them leave, they sip from the flask that Jacob always has at his side, and they smile and they joke and they share secrets and laughs.
Two brothers united in battle and blood and death and sadness and war.
Realising that no matter the sacrifice and the bloodshed and the terrible deaths they endured, they are remembered and they will always be.
They are remembered and they always will be…
As will they all.
I was in the shower the other day, and when I turned the water on as hot a temperature as was possible to bare, the room - which was cold as all hell - suddenly filled with steam, like a fine and silky mist.
From this single moment a poem appeared inside my mind.
I spoke to my friend Sebastian J Deery, who resides in Canada and is fast becoming one of those faces that will skyrocket into the public consciousness, and asked him to narrate it for me - to which he brilliantly said yes.
You can follow him here:
www.sebastianjdeery.com and his face book here: www.facebook.com/sebastianjdeery
The poem and the narrated version are below, i really hope you enjoy.
Huge thanks to Sebastian for his sterling work.
This one is called...
THE WITCH AND THE LAMB.
Around the cold and musty Gyre
The coven met, warmed through by fire
A damp and ugly mist was rolling
And though the hills were dark and swollen
With sounds of beast and burden weary
The witches council came to meet.
“Fair welcome to thee, this black hued e’en”
Words spat through broken teeth
The air was thick with the stench of berry
White milky eyes
And cackle merry
The witches came for mass.
A whip-crack burst of hellish flame
Popped from the cauldron, dark and eerie
The laughter thick, the air was drained
The light from moon above the council
Dipped silently betwixt cloud quite bashful
The witches all hocked wads Of phlegm
Toward the fire, that burst again.
Here, amongst the Witches
We witness evil, hatred, pain
Mottled skin, dried dead tongues,
Hair that tangled and fell out in clumps.
Eyes half blind and hearts black as pitch
The lonely existence of the witch.
The clouds above parted gently,
The most was thick but crept in silence
The moon shone down, bright and hearty,
The valley lit up like a lighthouse beacon
And the animals paused quick and fearful.
Noses raised toward the sky...
Something, somewhere, was about to die.
“A sacrifice! That’s why we gather!”
The lead witch said through torn lipped slather
“A knife drawn sharply cross the throat!”
The council all replied in croak.
“Blood and gristle! Bone and meat,
Cut the throat and let us feast!”
And the lead ghoul raised a hand quite neatly,
One finger raised and pointed weakly,
Upon the crowd, here bayed and gathered...
“You!” She screamed
Stabbing finger more bone than flesh,
upon a witch now drenched moist in gloom.
“You shall be our goat this e’en,
We’ll cut your throat, and dissect your spleen.
We’ll rip apart your heart and liver...
She laughed and drooled...
“You shall be our gift to the moon”
They lay her down on a slab of granite
Tied her hands with the guts of rabbit
Gagged her mouth with cruel dirty rags
And pulled her taut
As hard as they can.
The knife was raised and glinted merrily
“Farewell sister, you feed the earth,
Your fate was set from the moment of birth.
Your blood and bone will feed us well
You’ll save us all, whilst you rest in hell”
The sacrificial lamb to slaughter,
This wanton slattern, this demons daughter,
Begged with her eyes for the gag to be slackened,
The council complied as well as able,
And the lamb said gently through cracked black lips...
“Thank you sisters, live ye long, steal babes from cots and creatures from stables ,
and when the time comes that ye join,
You’ll find seats saved at the devils table”
I entered this years short story competition for the Stratford Upon Avon Literary festival, to write a story about the idea of "SHARING STORIES." Unfortunately, i didn't win (BOO!) but it does mean i get to now share the story with you all, as it's been a pretty quiet ghost town around here for a while...
So, i hope you all enjoy.
It's called SHARING STORIES - and it is a kind of morality tale about how if we don't talk to one anotehr, and look up from the screen once in a while, we may lose the very ability to communicate.
This is several years after the collapse of language.
A Short Story by Andi James Chamberlain.
Though the teeth chattered inside their mouths, no words escaped their lips. Just a silence lingering upon the chilly air.
Their hands busily worked the bags open, zips whipped, canvas flapped wide and lean, frost bitten hands pulling leather-bound tomes from deep within.
They shared the books amongst the room; the words inside irrelevant.
The contents meaningless. Any power they had in poetry long since lost, any poignancy and purpose in the words lost generations before.
The books now were good for one purpose and one purpose only.
One man took a stick of charred wood from the bag, and scrawled upon the floor a crude pictogram of flame. Two more men nodded, sagely, and calloused rough hands began to rip the pages from the book and drop the littered shreds into a large tin can. A matchstick dropped, and the pages became nothing more than tinder to the flame. The light began to shimmer and shake in licks and lances of heat.
There was a silence.
Nothing but the feint crackle of fire and slow sucked whoosh of paper folding to ash. It was so loud, being so quiet.
Every creak, every breath, every slight movement groaned in agonizing, screaming levels of volume.
The room alive and shaking with the weakest, smallest movement.
Snapping and crackling, the fire burned to embers. Shadows cast weakly on the wallpaper, dancing figures flickered and fluttered as the flames fanned to short licks in the timber.
The darkness was setting in earlier and earlier, and the cold had come tandem alongside it. The wind tap, tap, tapped the weak windows, and the single pane glass groaned and shuddered as the outside came to call. The view was nothing more than an inky blue void of landscape. Nothing stood out. Nothing made itself known save the bleak empty vista of the field and the dilapidated corn fields beyond.
The boy sat in the corner tinkering with the remnants of the broken radio, his back not quite to the rest of the group, but isolated all the same, his small candle providing scant illumination to help in his efforts – he toiled on regardless. Nimble hands working the wires and the screws, the plastic and metal and the components in expert fashion.
Nothing came from the radio, its silence was all but deafening. But he carried on regardless trying to repair the wretched thing.
The first man rose from the bag of books, he reached inside and took a final one out. Chewing on a toothpick; light bites and nibbles, a sweet suckling noise with each rotation of the stick from left of his mouth to right.
He watched the boy in the corner, fidgeting with the relic of the machine they had found on the road, the boy drawing in the snow a box with circles on the left and right, a rectangle in the center, and a handle.
The parts and components picked up and put inside a plastic carrier bag they had found snagged on a tree.
Carried proudly from location to location and slowly but surely remade bit by bit at each stop.
The man idly flipped a coin in between his fingers – the silver disc dancing from knuckle to knuckle, a fluid, warm shimmer of metal that caught the light and shone an echo onto the wall above the boys head.
The boy stopped his tinkering and he looked up at the light fluttering around on the wall, his bright green eyes following the darting jagged shapeless light as it moved at random around the wall, then, spinning his head toward the man, he raised a single finger, bringing it high and placed it on his mouth.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, ever so gently, a subtle – almost invisible gesture.
No noise – but a clear order to hush.
The man stopped his idling. Stopped his tricksy coin play.
He held his hand up in a solemn apologetic “ok.” And put a finger to his lips himself, his young features went a blank passive shape as he closed his eyes and nodded to the boy.
The boy didn’t respond or reply, instead, his hands went to his radio and sleek, tiny fingers continued to toil around on the dial, his other hand continuing to fumble with wires and mechanisms in the back of the pulled apart device.
Attention quite somewhere else entirely.
The man watched the others in the room, gently rubbing their hands together and blowing quietly to warm cold skin, gloveless hands floating above the open flames, rubbing some warmth into the bones beneath, no-one talking, no one making any noise apart from restless shuffle of clothing as they adjusted themselves against walls and corners where they huddled and rested.
The house was quiet, astonishingly, agonizingly so.
The silence so loud it screamed.
A little girl looked up at him as he padded in gentle steps toward the kitchen and the backdoor. She took his gloveless hand in her mittened one, and she smiled up at him. He smiled back, passed her the book, and she eagerly ripped out pages and threw them into the fire can, he smiled and blew her a calm, loving kiss and waved it down to her – he took his charred stick and drew a hand with one thumb raised, and beside it, a crude drawing of puckered lips - the girl looked down at the charcoal scribbles, and held her hands close to her heart. She smiled wide and gummy at the man, nodding her understanding and appreciation.
The front two teeth in her mouth, at the top, missing, her smile a wide gappy grin that provoked a wider smile in return from the man.
He looked back at her as she hugged closer to her mother in the dining room, pulled under a blue shawl being used as a cover. Dropping more pages into the can. The flames growing, the light glowing, the warmth clear and welcome.
The man strode to the back door, still smiling at the girls smile. He pulled the door open and suddenly, the quiet, calm world was roaring with the wind and the growing blizzard outside.
Winds that howled and whistled in bare branched trees and dark, navy skies.
Winds that growled stories into the night air, for mountains and roads, forests and woodland to listen to.
One of the rough handed men came outside and joined him.
He clapped the younger man on the shoulder and he turned and gently smiled a welcome.
The rough handed man offered him a cigarillo – a hand-rolled, ugly cigarette.
Thin and colourless – The younger man appreciatively took it, dragged back and exhaled a tendril of smoke to the sky. Blue-grey, it spiraled and drew stories into the navy canvas above – pictures of Viking ships, mingling with the snow, it painted a fairy tale all of its own creation, before dispersing into nothingness, and leaving only the sky - dark blue and daunting.
The rough handed man took a nearby broken branch and drew in the snowy ground a picture of a boy, then a version of the radio, next to this he drew a face – eyes looking skyward, a hand below the mouth holding the chin quizzically.
The young man gazed back inside, and saw the smiling girl, and he elicited a small, gentle grin once again – beyond her, in the far corner he saw the boy busily pottering away. With his charred stick he knelt down and drew a hand, two fingers raised and crossed, next to this he drew a face with hands pressed together in front of it, eyes closed. Praying.
The older man drew below this a face with wide-open eyes, a line for a mouth – an exasperated, unimpressed expression. Next to this he drew a pair of crossed fingers as well.
The younger man nodded.
He clasped the rough handed man on the shoulder, they smiled at each other and stood in the snow storm, wind blowing their hair, cigarillos burning down to the tip, smoke coming from their mouths as they dragged back deep breaths. The silence between them only interrupted by the howl of the wind. The creak and crunch of the snow as it became heavier and thicker and – then – a burst of static from inside the house.
Both men spun on their heels, cigarillos dropping to the white ground, a fizzle of the burnt end snuffing out in the cold.
They looked at each other, then to the house, before the younger man burst back through the door and paced in wide hurried steps toward the room where the boy was sat.
The people in the house had huddled in terror to corners, grasping each other tight; children hidden behind a line of men, each ready to attack if needed.
The man saw the toothless girl, and she looked terrified, she raised a single finger accusatorily to the boy, who sat silent, his back to the rest of the room – no longer tinkering. No longer toiling on the machine. Now, sat with his head at an angle of satisfied candor regarding the device.
Cross-legged, his hands on his knees, and his head rest slightly upon them.
The young man, and the rugged handed man trudged into the room, and looked down at the boy; his face barely lit now in the waning candle-light.
The boy looked up at them, and smiled.
With his finger into the dusty floor, he drew the radio again. Then, a hand - making the “OK” sign, of a ring between thumb and forefinger and three raised fingers.
From the radio, static burst in shocking stabs of white noise.
The men put their hands over their ears and looked at each other, the people in the other room, and then the boy.
The child smiled up at the men, and then raised a finger to his lips and gestured for them to take their hands away.
They did, and what happened next chilled and excited them to their marrow.
The static gave way, no longer jagged and stabbing, sharp fractured sound.
Instead, a slight, muffled hiss of a steady channel, and, quietly at first – but getting louder, something else.
The boy turned toward the radio, and said in a whisper, his voice a muffled, muted moan, a clear sentence.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”
The words repeated on the radio.
Once, then again, then over and over.
Not that these people knew what words were.
Like the books, the language was alien and dead, futile and lost.
Generations of people who had only pictures and pictograms to talk with, no need for sounds and language, but – here – the radio spoke.
The first words in their lifetime.
Sounds of the past communicating to them, and letting them know that it would be ok… That they were alright.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”
Such delicious, scary, wonderful words…
The boy turned and looked at the men, and a wide smile on his lips, he said clearly – to them and the rest of the world –
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”
And outside, as within, a new dawn bravely broke in the not so distant horizon.
A new day, a new world to go with it, made from lost, yet familiar things – now, rediscovered and repeating over and over and over.
Stories, shared across the static.
Found, again, at last.
Thank you for Jack Prentice for allowing me to reprint.
This is dedicated to him, and was written from his title after he pledged to the ONE MAN AND HIS DOGMA campaign.
Thank you sir!
When inside the blend and the merger of neural pathways - mechanical and organic - takes place, you transcend humanity and exist somewhere so much purer. The drifting amalgamation of electrical impulses with base human emotion creates joy and peace and a feeling of unpolluted tranquility that exists nowhere else on Earth.
You are one with the machine.
Heart rate racing to keep in tune with the processing of information, brain on fire as left and right hemispheres bleed into one and new potential and sensation is created.
Your mind and the mind of the Mecha - experiencing life and reality through totally different eyes, with an analytical process, translating mood and emotion and thrill into zeroes and ones...
The two of you, flesh and steel, when locked in The Blend, are experiencing orgasms that normal humans - regular everyday humans - can never begin to think about experiencing.
I am god.
And this love is my gift to the steel.
Passion and love corrupting the binary ambivalence.
My flesh and blood and lust taming the machine.
I am humanities saviour.
One-man stood sentinel and unique against the robot horde.
The lover of the machine…
* * *
TEN YEARS BEFORE THE BLEND.
There was an idea, an ideal, that humankind was not enough and there was something more. Something better.
A.I had been long assumed as being the next big step in evolutionary advancement. Humanity – Homo sapiens had outlived itself as a species, and were on the way out; a one way door to oblivion.
The oceans had turned into sludge and slurry. Pollution had become our one great skill, unleashed and rampant across the world.
Cities high with garbage and buried in rotten detritus and the discarded shards of yesterday, the day before, and the day before that.
Our skies were darkened by the smog and smoke of the fires that we harnessed deep in the core of the world. Fracking and shale harvesting had meant we had fractured and peeled away the last few layers of the Earths skin and unleashed the weeping pustulous sores; the Earth bled now from open wounds and the weak attempt at first aid we attended did nothing to stem or stifle the worlds pain.
We had become a weak, hungry, greedy species. Putting ourselves at the top of the food-chain, we assumed we were king and damned the consequences.
Soon, we reaped what we sowed, as the Earth attempted to fight back.
Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, weather patterns of unpredictable and violent retribution. The earth was scourged, the world fighting back against the virus “man” with its own violent, unfeeling, blinded methods.
The world scourging its own skin with fire and water and blight and ice.
Soon, the population was ravaged, the surface of the earth moist and free, and the remnants of mankind were left with no illusions as to exactly how in charge they were, by the very land that held them.
We learned a lesson of sorts.
I doubted then, as I do now, that we will remember its power or its poignancy.
Inside the caves and the tunnels and the giant Arks we built to save ourselves from the scourging and giant planetary reset – the time that became known as the Sixth Great Extinction - the best of the best that the world had to offer its scientists and its leaders, its generals and its artists – sat and thought, and plotted and designed and imagined.
The next world would be built upon the tapestry each of these people had been given brush to paint upon.
The previous extinction had been 250 million years before, and 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species died off. It took millions of years to recover… We imagined it would never happen again, even as we pushed and pulled and burned the Earth around us toward the edge.
Here we were.
As a species we had survived number six.
Inside the giant caves we were trapped in, we continually pushed to advance as an idea, and we turned the wheel slowly but surely, trying to find our own souls and step forward to that next rung of what we were as Humans.
And one day… Just like that… We found it.
The next step.
Inside one of the caves, inside the huge Ark we had built in mountains, and below seas and oceans, and inside hilltops and cliff-faces, twenty-eight in total, all around the world connected in intimate ways by a vast network of cable and tethering, a circulatory system bringing twenty-eight vaults of humanity to one network.
Inside one of these vaults, a scientist was dying.
Seeing the seeds of his demise a few years previously, he had taken to dedicating his entire life to building a construct he could save and download his own mind into. Mapping his mind like a cartographer on some voyage of discovery in a world never before touched by human feet – he had assembled a team around him that monitored and experimented and noted and learned everything they possibly could from this great mans mind, even as it died slowly in front of them.
His vast intellect knowledgeable in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Vast in scope and nature – full of eight languages, all spoken fluently, with ideas greater and more unimaginable than those inside the heads of the world greatest novelists – trapped inside his mind, with a timer burning down to zero, before the man died and all of this information and brilliance was lost to entropy and death.
The team and the man decided that Artificial intelligence would always fail and fall short of true sentience, without the experience of death and the bleak, isolated and unique reference humanity lent you when staring mortality directly in the face.
Artificial intelligence was not something you could attain without experiential sacrifice. You could teach a computer to know what water was, to appreciate the random bob and flow of a river, the tumultuous nature of a storm, the beauty of a stream turning into a waterfall. But you could not have it explain the taste of water when you had not drank for five days. Or the feeling of a shower hitting skin after a long hard day of graft and work. The pop of muscles and sinew as the day was washed off of you and you cleansed your soul and body in one.
A machine could not be taught these things, as a machine could not experience it. Robotics had died a death in the later years of our time upon the surface. Ended with an absent gesture – as we realized that our primitive robots were no more than trinkets and toys, and we would no sooner find a soul in a construct such as them as we would in a car or an airplane.
Yes – they had unique flaws and tiny quirks that made them stand out sometimes – but they were shells and wire and electric and programming…
No spark of ingenuity or freedom within them lay.
The spark of life was life.
The burning fuse of A.I, was from the fire of man.
And so, into the caves we went, this man carrying the seedling of death inside, and a burning fire of creation inside his own mind.
And the race for A.I from R.I – Real Intelligence, was born.
For five years, as the world was battered and smashed by waves as big as skyscrapers – one hundred and thirty stories high. As fire fell from the clouds, spat from holes in the earth formed by volcanoes that gagged and hacked fire and lava and rock skyward. As rains and as fast as hard as bullets blistered the ground at hundreds of miles an hour, leaving pelted divots and lines in the annihilated earth and soil.
As this all happened…
This man died with his mind inseparable from the wires and technology of the analytical computers to which he was tied and bound to.
Every aspect of his final days translated into binary and illustrated on neon screens, lines of biometric data flooding onto a thousand petabyte data banks the size and dimension of cargo boats.
Every aspect of the human condition now nothing more than a series of ones and zeros – translated into binary and code – the scientist and his vast mind reduced to an imprinted digital format, devoid of any flesh or weakness.
As the man died, his veins full of cables and leads, his mind on fire with the slow draining vampirism of the download, his final dying thought was of his first wife.
Aged twenty, at university, he had met a woman.
Her green eyes were the colour of the Mediterranean.
He remembered all the fine details that made her his perfect vision of femininity. Lips as red as cherries.
The shape of her breasts.
The contour of her hips.
The curve of her ass.
The sweet tender taste, delicate and intoxicating, of her kisses…
The way her hands were warm and soft, and would smell of vanilla and cocoa.
The way she would slip a hand down his pants, fondling his manhood as he would come home from studying…
Her mouth working on his penis, as he slowly climaxed into her throat, her lips lasciviously lapping him and his juices, swallowing his offering and love.
The gentle way she would paint circles and shapes onto his skin, long nails on tingling flesh.
He remembered it all.
His final thought was his late first wife. Lost many years before to cancer, her body decaying and falling apart, and dead before thirty.
But the eight years of blisteringly happy and intense love they had experienced together.
Her final year one of fast decline and faster death.
Withered fruit on the vine; once beautiful and succulent, now dried and dead.
He breathed his final breath as the machines translated every moment of experience, the biometric brilliance of life and death captured for the machine to decode and use to make the first real, perfectly imperfect A.I.
His final breath unquantifiable.
His final sigh one of an orgasm – a pure climax from the memory of his wife’s sexuality, the promiscuous and brazen act of sex – and then a grunt of anger and hatred, as the fleeting burst of death stole into the memory.
The man dead in a final lingering orgasmic mix of love and hate.
The machines translating as best they could.
But this paradoxical moment of the absolute duality of thought and function, of man and beast, of scientist and lover – this – and this alone, was the spark that created the Blend.
That surged through the machines like wine across a white tablecloth, as the bottle topples and falls and bleeds into the pure emptiness of the white, and bleeds it red with experience.
This final sigh of death was the bursting cry of life that birthed the AI of the blend. An insatiable, sexual machine – hungry for the taste and touch of man or woman, hungry from the flesh and the blood and the warmth of touch – but angry and quick to kill. Cold and lacking in compassion, as it watched the humans and saw them as beings of fluid complexity – able to love and fuck and climax and fill the world, as a man would a woman, with such magnificence and impossible possibility…
And just as quick, just as easily, destroy, burn and scour the earth of goodness and love. Just as a woman would, leaving a man at the height of their love.
The final sighed pangs of a man remembering his wife and their lovemaking, remembering her death and the sadness and rage it brought – now inside a machine that desired constant love and satisfaction, to abate its wanton need to destroy.
The Blend alive.
* * *
THE HERE AND NOW.
The Twenty-eight arks are now only ten.
Eighteen were destroyed by the awakening of the Blend. The interconnected circuitry, the vast worldwide network that linked the vessels that we had created to save us suddenly under attack by a vicious new threat.
Five arks had no way of knowing what to do. The division of labour amongst the arks was hurried and rushed, and though each held a specialist in the different fields that had been decided as being the most important to restart the world when we repopulated whatever was left above the ground when we left the vaults – the skills were variable, and in some cases – weak.
The A.I flickered from nothing to life in incalculable speed.
The numbers and binary a soup of raw data, and vast complexity one second, the next it had form and function and a pulse.
The birth pang wiped out five arks in minutes.
Panicked hands attending every deck and battle station, but the machine that controlled the network suddenly surging and oxygen and fire flooding the vast cave and the soul of every inhabitant went up in vicious quick speed.
Five more were cut off from communications and lost to fend for themselves. Their fate is unknown, assumed dead and gone.
No evidence to the contrary, so assumption the only safety net we have.
Eight more slowly ebbed into darkness over the next five years. Before we could send help, or re-route power, or attend any kind of assistance.
Dead arks, full of dead potential.
Human kind reduced to its knees, and staring oblivion once more.
When we managed to communicate with the Blend, we asked the question that struck us – as a species – as the only one that mattered.
“What do you want from us?”
Through back and forth, limited conversation, we learned to understand that LOVE ME meant, MAKE LOVE TO ME. The scientists final thought the driving desire of the A.I.
Artificial intelligence driven by memories of real love, of the weakest moment a human has, now the strongest compulsion driving the Blend.
The machine wanted to be satisfied, to be satiated.
The burning desires in its core the feeling of utter loss of senses at the moment of climax. Its programming a jumbled and cross-wired sense of love and death being fluid, either the satisfaction of climax, or the release and suddenness of death.
And so… to live…
We had to love the machine.
* * *
When they strap you in the chair, your skin lights up immediately as though a candle is being run across it, occasionally the burn is real, and the feeling is one of intense paradoxical pleasure.
The chair enhances your pleasure centres, sets neurons on fire, brings your brain to the edge of a stroke – the blistering feeling of giddy, sickness where your body feels separate from your mind, and your blood freezes momentarily in your veins.
The body spasms and shakes, the whites of your eyes turn red with strain, your teeth – were they not biting down on the fibre-gel bit – would smash in your mouth as the connection first takes hold.
You are – for an instant – one cell, one unstable, teetering on collapse cell – and every single moment is blinding, a shutter speed of a billion frames a second, all exploding behind your eyes in a single flash.
The sensation of simultaneously falling and flying, your body in transient vacuum, as the Blend hits you the second you are plugged in.
you are thrust screaming in pain/pleasure/pain into the heart of the network and the A.I takes your hand and you and it start the dance.
There are maybe one in five thousand who can tolerate the install. One in ten who can take the load-up, one in twenty who then are worthy of the Blend itself…
At first, we offered the most attractive, the biggest, the most sexually alluring, and the obvious. Soon, we learned that the Blend does not see the surface, merely the inside. It craves the pleasure of the emotion, not the pleasure of the flesh. It is not flesh it is machine.
Wire and cable.
So, we had to find the ones who had loved and lost. The ones who had experienced the feeling of utter loss – both in the moment and in the mind.
Who lost themselves in the fleeting moment of utter love, and then lost it all when a partner died or was torn away with sickness or infirmity.
Only these people.
Only people like me, could tolerate the burden of love, the power of Blending with the mind of this tormented and violent, love-sick machine.
So to the chair, and inside the machines mind, and there, you and it dance, and seduce each other. The bonds of love building with each second inside. Intensity, cascades of feeling and the boiling of lust in your digital veins.
The machine feels it too.
You and it are bound in a dance of seduction and grim, delicious flirtation.
Each step leading to the inevitable, where you and it conjoin in a beautiful coupling of sexual gratification.
How you can have sex with the machine, the science makes no sense in any way that is easily explainable. There is no way of putting into words the way that the process makes you feel. You just exist – in a hanging moment of pure ecstasy… if the machine and the blend and the love doesn’t burn you into a lifeless husk.
You and the machine are love.
Love is the only thing that exists.
You surrender your every single shard of essence to the Blend…
You and the machine surrender to each other.
You know when the machine has opened the door and welcomed you in, and likewise, the machine knows when you have opened yourself entirely and you are made of love and nothing but.
If the sickness of anxiety rears itself and becomes apparent, the Blend will tear you apart, the machine will burn you out, and you have twenty four hours before the death knell tolls and mankind is given its final goodbye.
But I have done this for two years now.
I have loved the machine.
It has loved me.
We are in love…
And humanity survives; it THRIVES because of my love.
For I am god now.
And this love is my gift to the steel.
Passion and love corrupting the binary ambivalence.
My flesh and blood and lust taming the machine.
I am humanities saviour.
One-man stood sentinel and unique against the robot horde.
The lover of the machine…
Reprinted by special permission of the wonderful Vicky Dutton, who I thank graciously for allowing me to share.
Waking up was never usually a problem for Vanessa. Waking was generally a pretty easy, simple process that anyone could do. After all, you just opened your eyes and it was done.
No, waking wasn’t a problem.
But everything before and after was, and the problem was only getting worse.
Last night was a pretty easy night as they went. Bed by 10pm, the street lights outside far enough away on the main road that the warm soda orange glow was only subtle behind the thin cream curtains on her bare magnolia walls.
The sound of the city was always there, of course, but it was a bare whisper this evening. The ambulance and police sirens were still singing their night song on the air, but the city made this as mellifluous as the birds after a few weeks, and Vanessa zoned it out as she always did.
The song inside her bones was dull tonight as well. Its high-pitched banshee cry was muted and only a low murmuring drone.
So, she had gone to bed with a glass of cold water and a soothed head, and slept the majority of the evening.
God knows this is not always the case; not always was this simple process so easy.
She lay down painting the images of dreams on her ceiling, watching passing cars swash colour and trails of light from one corner of her bedroom to the other as they disappeared down her road, headlights blazing, engines revving a goodbye of sorts to the evening.
As she did, the dull drone inside her became a more prominent throb, a fuzzy ache, but still was not anywhere as near as it may have been on previous evenings.
The covers pulled higher, and the slight waft of breeze from the cracked window acted in duality with each other, and Vanessa drifted off to sleep.
Her dreams were colourful flashes of images, and sounds, visions and blurs. No details that startled or lingered.
Just a mash of sensations and warmth.
She slept. Her breathing a pulsing sigh and moan of relief.
Silence. Calm. Gentle relief before the morning was there again and the drone had cascaded into a heavy and angry burst of aching and angry hammer blows throughout her entire body.
The wake-up call of the Fibro.
On unsteady feet, Vanessa forced herself to sitting, and her eyes wet with tears, unexpected and sudden, she rubbed her knees and elbows, stroked gently on her own shoulders and collarbone, and then round her neck and lower back.
The pain was a constant roadmap of throbs, pangs and stabs.
Every inch of her body hurt, even her eyes.
The illness had come in the night with vengeance and fury and now she was awake to its grasp again.
Vanessa slowly, with a meandering puppet-like movement that looked delicate and fragile, raised herself to her feet and then shuffled toward the bathroom, where she looked at herself in the full length, brass framed mirror – taking in the bend of her back, the twist of her hip, the clutch of her hands wrapped around her stomach. And she cried again.
The pan was a constant chatter now. Gone was the whisper in her ear, quiet and calm. Instead, an amplified drill sergeant shouted and screamed at her every step.
And so, to the shower she shuffled further, turning on the hot and cold taps, and slowly, shedding her night shirt to the floor, she stepped inside naked and aching to allow the warm water to pound the flesh and bring slight calmness.
This illness was a silent – but noisy – partner that waked every step with her. Sometimes (though rarer and rarer the times were) it tiptoed behind, holding its mouth, except for the occasional giggle or guffaw.
More often, despite the drugs and the painkillers and the constant referrals to doctors an hospitals and medical Centre’s – the shadow was a angry, loud mouth braggart who spoke often and out of turn, who prodded and poked when ignore and who always had to make its presence felt and known.
Vanessa never considered herself single.
Though she was.
She was in a relationship with her illness. And it was abusive, and uneven, and hectic and violent.
But there were no shelters or helplines she could call.
Instead, she took the pills, took a delicate and soft version of yoga, tried aimlessly to harness the world around to lessen her burden, and lived in constant fear of the partner she never asked for who drove a wedge in her life that pushed her further and further away from her goals and aspirations and more often than not dictated her schedule, life and every waking moment.
The water fell hard and heavy on her skin. Ricocheting off in every direction, as she stood idle, head in hands and cried to herself about the pain.
The pain in turn – ever the gentleman - mocked and laughed and prodded and poked and harassed and did not let up, not once.
Her joints cracked and hurt when she raised her arm to rub the shower lotion in her skin. She ignored it as bad as it was, as best as she could, and lathered down to allow her skin a wonderful moment of clarity amongst the pain, as the lotion basked and soaked in.
Then she rinsed stood still under the waterfall of the shower, and watched the suds swirl and rotate down the outlet hole.
Soapy twirls and flailing patterns that looked like creamy, pearlescent dragons swam and flirted with the plug before disappearing in silent bursts of light and dark.
She stepped out, drips running down her body. Each drip leaving a trail of tingling sensation as it ran on her sensitive and brittle skin.
In a thrall of a sensation overload, she sat gently on the toilet – lid down – using it as a still, wrapped in a warm, thick, fluffy white towel.
At these worst times, she focused beyond the angry throb of her bones and tried to leave her body and exist only in her mind.
Inventing worlds and scenarios. Escape hatches into a new place away from the world; concentrating all her many tingling cells on one place that existed only in her mind and subconscious.
And slowly but surely, in front of her, one such door manifested and became real.
A bright Red door, with a number in bold brass – 1327 – emblazoned upon it. Vanessa was still sat, her eyes closed, her arms wrapped about her clutched in towel, errant strands of water running lines of moisture on her pale skin, made red from the showers heat.
And from the centre and core of her, a new arm grew, and reached out.
Its hand folded on the door handle of the red door, that grew as if from the air itself, and a being of light and of innocent wonder stretched out of Vanessa’s chest, and stepped through the pulled open door.
There was suddenly two Vanessa’s.
The one sat, in pain and silence, gritted teeth harshly biting back sobbed tear, hugging herself and concentrating hard.
The other a luminous being of sparkling quality, an aspect of patience and total calm in her eye.
She wore a thin fizzing veil of electric, upon her feet were square toed dancing shoes, and she had her hair in a tight bun, her face made up as though a swan was hiding behind the woman’s visage.
She pulled the door open, and stepped out of the weaker Vanessa, the vulnerable Vanessa, the pained Vanessa, and stepped through the door into the world the real Vanessa had created in her mind.
Here we were.
A being of the heart and a room from the mind, an escape hatch and a fleeting universe free of pain and full of joy, love, calm and abandon.
The Vanessa built of light smiled as she stepped through, and gentle tip-toed in fancy fashion to the middle of a large white floor, circles by giant stained glass windows, the panes made of light blues and ambers, yellows and pinks – a pastel world of muted tones, and bright effervescence.
On sprung heels and dainty toes, Vanessa-of-light danced and pirouetted and swooped, her arms and legs stretching to fantastic ways.
Long, lithe and beautiful.
Dancing amongst chairs and tables assembled of nothing but fine and solid mist and light.
The room was full of faint, tinkling music, like a music memory box had been opened. And the dancer moved in between the chairs and tables, and flared back into the empty dance floor, and spun kicks and bended knee pranced jumps and tip-toed steps into vast swinging and spinning circles.
Her body was a force of beautiful nature, at one with the vast expanse of the room, her breath a controlled and rhythmic sigh that moved in line with the music, each step and movement a beat of the music box tinkle.
Her body a machine of order – alive and wonderful with beauty and grace.
The seated, real world Vanessa smiled. The pain throbbed back against the memory and the thought she fixated on inside her minds eye.
The red door no more real than the room of light or the dancer version of her self.
But the manifestation of calm and repose.
Her way of hypnotizing beyond the ache inside.
Beyond the pain that lingered and beyond the day-to-day ritual of smiling gritted toothed through the pain and discomfort and torture.
Vanessa lived this life every day.
The pain would come and go, the ache would grow and wane, and the torturous throb in her bones and muscles would linger for hours, days and weeks – but inside her existed a vast continent of a world in which she could tumble and fall, and block out the real world if only for a few minutes a day.
Inside her, a dancer lived, made of light and hope and energy, and which was free of the pain and the noise.
Her world was one of light and dance and the brief and beautiful tinkle of the memory box, as the lid opened, and any one of the small red doors, with brass numbers appeared and came to fleeting existence, the dancer could open the portal and fall into a new world, tumbling into the dance, as long as was needed.
The Vanessa of Light and the Vanessa of the real world two sides of the same coin, both existing because of the other, and each working toward the same brief moment of light and love and calm.
The pain would always be here. But so would these doors and rooms of light, and the pain allowed these moments of breathing and calm, and did not punish or begrudge the momentary tumbles into fantasy.
Pain did not like its job, but was employment of life rather than desire, and though it resented itself for hurting this beautiful woman so, it smiled when the red doors appeared, and it was proud and loving of its host.
It loved Vanessa in its own strange and weird way… both the being of light and its host body.
But those doors, and the world beyond, they gave pain a meaning and purpose and an ache of its own.
The world in strange and wonderful syncopation.
The synchronicity of pain, love, light, darkness – all one and the same.
For one brief and dazzling moment, the being of flesh and the being of light, the calmness and the absence of pain, and the throbbing and aching that lived in her bones – all of them – were one and the same.
And the universe was alive.
Dull, shadowy light.
It made no sense, but it made perfect sense.
So, for the door and the brass numbers and the outstretched arm of the being of light, and the pause of the real for the fantasy beyond the threshold.
Pain smiled for Vanessa.
This was life, after all, neither fair nor unfair. It wasn’t as binary and simple as these two opposites.
Life was a ball of confusing and wonderful possibilities, that coalesced and tumbled in elegant chaos, no one could control it, but sometimes it took shape in the most poignant and wonderful ways.
Vanessa was a being of extreme poles – relaxation and pain bending and kissing, light and dark mixing into new hues of life and colour, fantasy and reality dancing in a wide white hall with darkened corners, adorable kisses planted on slender necks and elegant looks of love and nervous energy.
Such was life.
Vanessa dried herself of the final few droplets from the shower, and the being of light neatly and warmly climbed back inside the doorway of her heart where she lived, and the real Vanessa, the being of pain and life and love, walked naked to the bedroom from the bathroom, and put on her clothes silently and with haste.
Looking out of the window at the sun hanging bright and brazen in the sky, she knew that it was not going to be as bad a day as she feared.
There had been worse.
There would always be better, and for everything else, there was a dancer of light inside her that would spin pirouettes in the ballrooms of her mind, and bring forth the silence.
Those red doors were only a fleeting, simple thought away.
One thought, and the dance could begin again.
But for now, she knew it would be an ok day.
And she smiled.
And she let out a gentle, loving laugh.
And she went on with her day…
The red door and the dance, only a thought away.
For Christopher Booth with love and thanks…
Dragged along the corridor by rough angry hands, I smell the mildewed and ancient paint flecking and peeling from the walls.
Drab and colourless; a dead, dusty grey and off-white.
The floors are a scratched and dirty white, deep rivets in the stone ground and carved by heavy machinery that has been pushed or pulled across this conduit between the cells and the questioning rooms.
This will be the fourth time I have been brought here.
The colour is slightly deader each time I witness this hallway, this monotonous, horrific and tiresome corridor.
The smell thicker and richer, the scent of paint lingering longer in my nostrils; swirling in the cortex of my mind for hours after.
At first, I noticed nothing; no smells no colour’s, no details, I was picked from my slumber in my tiny, darkened room, were I am accompanied by nothing but silence and bleak, empty space, a tepid quality of air, that is neither warm nor cold, but staid and still.
I am lay sleeping weakly in the pitch darkness before I am woken by heavy, careless hands that lift and pull me from the flattened stone bed and pull me backward through the hallway corridor toward the big grey door to the questioning chamber.
I am never questioned.
The door opens, silent and heavy, I smell a deep wash of colours and warmth before I pulled backwards through to a chair that is then spun round and I am blinded by the white, glare of the lamp.
Every time, before I see the light, I see the walls.
My only colour.
Deep, rich, lively blue.
The blue of the Center of the Ocean. Alive and full of nature and love, life and mystery circling in playful swashes of movement under the surface, and the deeper you go the bluer it is, a white speck of light above heralds the surface and the sunshine, but the blue tempers it and the world is vibrant with its azure charm and welcome.
This room is blue.
It is a blue that hurts my eyes, but warms my heart, the only burst of colour, before I am span, cuffed in and bound to this chair by faceless men who do not answer me or my questions, who leave the room as soon as I am turned and face to face with the light.
My eyes are pried open with delicate wire.
A thin tin that hooks my eyelids up, the light burning into my retinas and I am left here, asking question after question. Every one of them unanswered and hanging. I am screaming by the end of the time I spend in there, before the light is switched off.
How long I have been in here I could not tell you, but I am blind by the time I am grabbed, dragged and flung back into my cell where I howl and wail and scream all night long until the embrace of the Sandman takes me and I sleep, my dark, void of a room for the rest of the evening now a prison of blinding white, scorched angry on the back of my eyes.
Tomorrow is another day.
And I wait in quiet apprehension for the door to open and for me to be grabbed once again and follow the routine of the drab colourless corridor.
The white now a sharper shade, with a fuzzy edge, the floor a grey that sparkles and glints like granite and flint in starlight.
The scent of the paint richer in my mind now, swirling like a hurricane of aroma and a memory of a time I was not ever part of, where they mixed this paint, and I can smell each ingredient, a cocktail of chemicals and additives that clogs and penetrates my senses.
Before the door opens I take a final look, and soak in the details and the fug, then I am pulled backward through the big grey door into my blue haven.
My empire of colour and hue.
My Blue Room.
Hands tightly cuffed and strapped to the chairs charcoal leather.
I stare intently and dreamily to the wall of clear, clean blue.
I meditate on the colour, the only colour in my life and world.
Today the blue is lighter, is muted.
Still my blue, but, less defined, the volume reduced by twenty five percent.
I am still lost within its hypnotic allure. Regardless.
This blue heaven I crave.
It soaks over me, my mind creating illusions of ocean waves crashing down upon me and soaking me.
Stealing me away into the deep, folding brilliance of a tumultuous storm, I feel like a piece of drift wood turned and bobbing effortless and brittle upon the crashing turquoise waves that lumber, roll and crash asunder upon each other, leaving foaming, frothing flotsam and jetsam to dissipate and dissolve.
A liquid circle of life and death.
With me alone and alive, my driftwood self turning and bobbing peaceful and serene upon the surface.
The hands spin me round and the white, brilliant, bastard light stares me down as my wide, anchored open eyes are seared and singed inside my weary, screaming head.
Seconds, minutes, hours.
I no longer no what meaning or power time has.
The only power I crave is the power of the Blue wall, the power of the grey floor and the off white walls.
The silent, solemn darkness of my cell in the morning after I wake up… before this horror and torture begins anew.
No demands, no voices, never.
A silent inquisition of the commanding, accusatory light – and me.
My screams and my tears, my anger and my fury the only noise in the room.
The wails falling in deafened blue walls.
I am alone with the light once again.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours.
I no longer know what time is.
I no longer care about time.
Light and darkness, shades of lifeless nothingness…
The blue wall and the dark silence.
These are all I have. These are my mistresses.
These fragile things and the blinding white light that questions me and questions me and questions me, without ever saying a damn word.
I am guided me blind and sobbing backwards through the channel between the blue room and the black room – and I am thrown into the stone cell, onto my stone shelf and I am left alone with my solitary brightness.
The whole world on fire in white flame, the darkness burned away with a sheen and glow of white that will not leave my eyes.
Tomorrow is another day.
Finally the screams fall quiet and tamed, the whiteness drifts away and the blackness creeps back in, and I am soulfully silent and I am calm, awaiting the hands and the hallway and the journey from room to room.
Today the hallways walls seem fuzzier, the white now a mottled, blotchy graphite grey.
The floors are darker and deader, I struggle to see the rivets and canyons of scratched imperfection in the floor.
But I smell them.
The dirt between the scratches sings to me, its scent rich in bacteria and tiny flecks of skin and dust.
The paint peels more around me, and I can smell the adhesive in the chemical cocktail that allows it to stick and dry a shiny gloss.
As it peels from the sandstone wall, I smell the gloss spray new particles into the air with each wilt and curl of dying paint.
The grey door today seems black, shadow and contrast is broken, and I am struggling to make out the shapes of things.
The blue room beckons me in, but the colour now is a military navy blue, darker and more angry.
Less the sea and ocean of before, now a blanket of night, starless and devoid of mystery or life, its less inviting, it’s less mine. I am angry that this isolation of colour I clutch to for salvation is now sullied by darkness.
Have they painted over it?
Have the smeared it?
Do they know how much I need and long for this in my dreams and the gaps between torture and sleep?
The blue room is now cracked, like a fine china plate that you use only at special occasions, chipped and spoiled by a petulant child.
Hands bound, wrists tied, eyes wired, I am turned gently and slowly, the blur of blue, navy and dark, a stale night sky blanketed above – bleeding into the brilliant and furious white light, the millisecond between the wall and the light merging, I see my blue.
My heaven; a fine slither of blue ocean that suddenly is torn and wretched from my grasp and the light is forced white-hot and lustily into my eyes.
Screaming for a living once again.
And yet again I spill my guts and I give up my secrets and my lies and my truths and my desires and my heart breaks once more that I still do not know what I am here for.
The light follows me all the way to the cell as the hands of my captors carry me, I am slumped and defeated.
Silent today, no tears and no screams.
Everywhere I turn my head I paint white upon the contours of the walls I know are to my left and right, I paint perfect bright, burning white onto the rivets and scratches on the floor I know to be below my feet, every imperfection and scored violent chip and chink in the stone now painted with a white and flawless wash.
By my cell I stop the guards by planting my feet by the door, and stand myself up. They let go of my arms as I turn, and walk through the open door, and walk tiptoe toward my bunk shelf, step by step, through the open portal I instinctively know to be there, but which I cannot see.
All there is in my mind is a white hole upon a white vista of nothing, below a white marble looking sheet at the end of which is a white edgeless bed.
And I sit, staring at the perfect white shadows of the perfect white guards in my perfect white corridor, and I say…
“Please close my door. And leave me to my hell.”
That night I do not sleep.
And the blinding white does not leave me.
And I wait for the guards stood, ready for them when the door opens.
My eyes are red raw, I can sense it, tears of pink liquid are streaming from them – or so I picture and imagine.
The guards gasp errantly as they open the door.
They do not grab me as I am already walking out the door as soon as it is opened.
The walls are white, but a darker white that makes shapes and textures disappear and merge into a single fluid contour. I walk, gliding the surface, on a floor of shapeless white. Toward a portal that seeps a faint blue aura through a crack in the blue fluid tunnel.
I am stood before what was previously a giant grey door, and it opens toward a room of sky blue now.
The walls a faint, almost imperceptible sky blue.
I sit down on the chair that I am usually thrown onto.
And I wait for the light to be shone in my eyes, the chair turning, I catching again the thinnest slither of my blue as light meets wall and my eyes are forced into the void once more.
No pain, no hurt, no violent torture.
Just a calming wash of warmth.
As the door is shut, something I hear today for the first time, clearly, and I can hear four sets of footsteps walk away as well – where usually I would be aware of only the two men guiding and grabbing me, there is two more as well.
I smell the difference in air pressure between the corridor outside the blue room, and the room itself.
I can smell the sweat of the two guards, both shocked to find me stood and waiting, calm and no longer needing their assistance.
A sweaty, heady mix of fear and revulsion, of dirt and of machine oil.
The room itself smells of summer, a sun caked warmth that flushes and dances on your skin, the paint in here is fresher, by a fair few years than the paint on the sandstone walls outside the door.
The light is hot today, my skin prickles and I feel the hairs tingle and dance awake and alive on my goose-pimpled skin.
Finally, I can smell my own eyes, baking in the glow of this light.
Saltwater cooking on a soft white orb.
Whether my eyes have adjusted to the light, or am I dying, I do not know.
But though there are still no questions, there are no more tears either.
Except the feint, sweet pink lines that pour from my red eyes.
I cannot stop this if I want too.
It is part of me now.
Soon, the blue line of my heavenly escape is torn away, and only the white survives.
And after an hour and twenty five minutes – I know because today, with no tears, no screams and no terror, I count instead to keep my mind occupied and to help me build my plan of attack… I am freed from my bonds and I step up myself, and turn and walk out the room, down the corridor and toward my cell, stood waiting and quiet, before a guard can stop me.
I move like a ballet dancer, having remembered and borne these routine steps a million times, they are muscle memory now and I am not in control, my body drives itself.
The cell door is opened by a push from a guard to my left who has ran down the corridor and chased me.
I turn to him, and a smile, nodding a curt thank you.
I wonder what I look like after all this time, the light scorching in my face and pouring into my pried open eyes?
As I hear him gasp and swallow hard, and smell the flush of perspiration and horror from his pores. Which I hear open and exude the sweat, a feint pop and shove noise.
I smile wider, eyes open and lips apart to show my teeth.
I know them to be yellow and stained, I can smell the decay setting in the back molar, I can smell and taste each cavity and the sheen of tartar that coats them.
I walk through my door, and turn round, and smile again as the guard shuts the door fast and tight.
And I sit cross-legged in the white blinding beauty of my cell, and I finally see the edges and plan of the room in my blindness.
I do not sleep.
For the morning to come.
When it does the world is still white.
No shades, no shapes.
I am blind.
The door opens of its own power and accord, and I stand, and walk out to the corridor.
There is silence and emptiness and I am caught unprepared for the world of smell, the sounds and the physical feedback of the world at large.
It hits me like a concussive force, and I put my hands over my ears, I hold my breath to allow this sensory tidal wave settle down.
My eyes are burned out and useless, and I see nothing but the perfect glare of the light that has been forced upon me for – I do not know how long now.
I am drowning in emotion and sense and taste and scent and sound.
So I concentrate hard, and I push with all I have to block and grasp these senses, and control them, and with a scream that – to me – sounds like a shrill fire alarm, I force my body to crack and absorb these feelings and senses and then squeeze them to diamond in my belly.
I am in control, my chest pounding and heaving up and down, gasping like a drowning man for air, that now has a feint, bitter iron tang – this is fresh air – not before tasted like this, I feel it on the air stream, and follow it down the corridor, barefooted, padding gently toward the blue room.
The door is not there, instead, it is just an iron sheet blocking the access.
But to my right, I feel a tingle of cold, and realize that the end of the corridor has another concealed door I have never noticed.
The wall is pushed in, and a doorway exists, I feel with my fingers round the cool parting in the stone, and when I conclude the door is there, I push, and I realize I am outside…
I walk tentatively and raise my head to the sky.
I picture perfect blue skies and a warm ball of yellow… But in truth, all I see is white.
I imagine green lush grass under my bare feet, flowers blooming of every colour and scent, an intoxicating, beautiful aroma of life… But all I see is white, and all I can smell is decay, and rot and the stench of dead things.
I instinctively turn toward the door to go back, but already it is closing…
I grab an edge, but it is heavy and automated and my fingers will be shorn straight from the hand if I continue this futile pursuit.
A klaxon goes off.
And I can sense the red or amber light above me swirling round, I see nothing but white, but I can sense the thing spinning as I feel the burst of light upon my skin when it turns toward me, the klaxon shrill is deafening and I fall to my knees, back to the now closed door, and the smell of flesh in my nostrils.
Flesh and iron and rust and debris and bullet casings and sulphur and plastic and death.
And then I hear the voice.
“You have done so well.”
“You have excelled way beyond any of the previous test subjects. We really do applaud and wish you well on this next test… We are all so proud of you.”
The sound of a gentle female clicks over the tannoy killing the klaxon bleat, there is a buzz of static and then a click of the microphone a millisecond before silence, then her voice comes in a crackle of air and radio waves.
It’s quiet, not loud enough to hear beyond the doorway.
I spin round and round trying to get my bearings, but, I am blind and sense alone will not help me in this alien environment.
I push hard against the door and ask why I am here? What I am supposed to do?
I try and relax by thinking of the blue sky and the blue wall, and the ocean that was my haven.
But I instinctively know this world has red scorched skies, and dead brown earth, and oceans that are black and as crude as oil.
“We love you and we thank you for your sacrifice.”
The tannoy says.
And even before I taste the warmth of the breath before me, even before I hear the smack of the tongue and the crack of the teeth, I hear the heartbeat of the fifty or so things before me…
“Just think of the blue room. Think of the blue wall. Think of your ocean.”
The voice says.
“And know that we love you.”
The voice cutting out as the static gives way to the sharp, harsh klaxon bleat again.
Now blind, and deaf, I stand.
My back is against the doorway, the world before me white and dead. The sound of the creatures approaching and the grumble in their throats and bellies at the sight of me roaring as loud as the klaxon does.
I think of my blue room.
My blue wall.
And I scream and charge down whatever is coming for me.
Diving into the unknown as if I was diving into the cool welcoming embrace of the center of the deepest, bluest ocean.
Beckoning it to hold me safe…
Originally written as a short story for Garrett Monroe, one of my dearly appreciated pledger on the ONE MAN AND HIS DOGMA Kickstarter. Garrett provided me the title and the challenge was to write a bespoke short story up to 5000 words.
The Great Wolf was stalking around inside my head for some time... I hope i unleashed him as he deserves.
Dedicated to Garrett Monroe – With eternal thanks for your support.
Every time Daniel opened the door he saw the shadow and he heard the growl, before the same padded, heavy-footed lumber could be heard on creaking floorboards approaching the door.
The rumble and terror of the glottal in the animals throat growing like an approaching motorbike.
But, like, a motorbike with froth dripping from the exhaust that was red with blood and had teeth the size of a candy bar.
A furry motorbike, with legs instead of wheels, and deep green eyes that had a distance awe and horror hiding within them instead of headlights, and was a wolf - and indeed – not a motorbike at all...
Daniel was not very good at metaphors.
He shut the door with a sighed breath of fear.
He rested against it and cradled himself and rested his head back against the dark stained wood.
He could hear the creature beyond striding backwards and forward, and – for a moment – could hear it breathing, snorted breathes under the wooden doors half-inch wide gap between door and floorboards.
He span backwards and rested wearily against the wall opposite the door, reached up and flicked off the light in his hallway.
He was there alone now, in the dark, watching the shadow stood behind the door, the light between the floorboard and soft dark fabric draft excluder painting the shadow of the giant creature into the dark hallway, the shadow moving as the animal strode back and forth.
Occasionally stopping to sniff the floor, snorting steam and smoke under the crack like some demented hell beast.
Daniel whimpered in anxious terror.
He shimmied and slid further down the corridor, holding his potato peeler out in a defensive prod before him.
What damage he thought he could do with this ridiculous weapon, he had no idea, but – it was all he was brave enough to yield against the ghostly horror that stalked his corridor and was stopping him from getting out into the real world.
And – thus – kept him trapped inside this apartment day after day after day.
Clinging to whatever fragile and tenuous threads of reality and sanity he had left.
They were fast running out and he was on an accelerated decline into severe mental health breakdown and a prolonged stay at shady acres.
Daniel knew this. But what could he do to remedy the situation when the Great Wolf stopped him from leaving his home?
And so, potato peeler in hand, he made occasional forays into the hallway to see if there was any escape route yet available, and he smoked.
Twenty or thirty cigarettes a day. Enough his lungs were black charcoal slabs that wheezed and moaned and gasped endlessly.
Daniel liked the heavy breath and shrug of his chest when he was forced to take deep lumbering chugs of air to escape the noise of the animal behind the door.
He had tasted fresh air once and it had damn well made him heave into a bush, puce streams of vomit that cascaded from his mouth and nostrils and made him unable to smell for a few days.
He was happy with being an in-doors time, well – until recently – when cabin fever had set in…
Often, when running away from the growl and stomp of the Great Wolf outside his door, Daniel would lock himself naked in the bathroom, hiding in the tub, under duvets he had dragged in from the bedroom – which he was certain was being monitored by his boss at the insurance call centre, from which he was on an extended leave of absence due to personal reasons.
Daniel would hide under the duvet, the damp porcelain of the bath under his back soaking him and making him cold even as the blanket tried to keep him warm, and he would write journal entries by torch light explaining his quandary.
The wolf is outside the door again today.
He sounds bigger than ever.
I woke this morning to his heavy breathing and the snorted venom of his lungs blowing under the crack, dust and disease blown high into the altitude of my flat, mixing with my oxygen. Polluting my breathing air…
He is trying to flush me out by making my atmosphere unbreathable.
I am onto him.
The four legged bastard.
I am going to try and escape this afternoon – I think I will have the best chance around tea time, when he gets hungry and realizes he cannot break into the flat, he will inevitably go stalking for meat elsewhere…
This is when I will run to the elevators, take the express to the lobby, sprint to the revolving doors (everyone knows wolves cannot operate revolving doors) and then make good my escape by taxi to the grocers…
And there – I will feast like a king.
I am so bored of pasta and water.
And so the entries went.
39 days inside the apartment had sent him stir crazy.
But – really – Daniel was no better outside.
The people made him edgy and twitchy. The city made his skin feel like he had allergies. The traffic scared him in ways the Wolf could never touch.
Daniel was a panophobic mess.
Yet, here he was, master of his own destiny, wanting to get out and breathe the unique city air again and feel granite and concrete under his toes, rather than splintered wood and dusty linoleum.
If only for that bastard Wolf.
He crawled out of the bath, and gripped his potato peeler tight in his hand, edged nervously toward the door in the darkness of his apartments hallway. A short conduit between his lounge - which was a pizza box strewn warzone full of full ashtrays, half drank cups of coffee (in the middle of becoming ecological growth pens, cultivating several different strains of mold and fungus, some of which had names) with journals scribbled on scraps and folds of paper, littered and thrown on every surface and his bathroom, from where he made his exit.
In between was a small open gap, which lead to his kitchenette, a tiny box room with an oven and a fridge and little else, that smelled of damp and garbage.
As he walked down the hallway, he turned off each light, quietly.
When he got to the door, the shard of light crept into the dark passage from the corridor beyond, under the crack by the floorboard.
There was silence.
No breathing or low rumbled growl.
It was quiet and still.
Daniel put his potato peeler down and gently and as calmly as he could he put on his torn and soiled Converse, he reached over to the shoe rack and resting on top was a fur hooded anorak which he put both arms into, and shrugged it on, he reached for his beanie that was resting on a hook by the door.
He pulled up the hood and tentatively he reached out for the handle of the door, turned his key gently as calm and silently as he could.
The click-clack of the door was amplified in his mind by a billion percent – and he felt sure that the entire complex could hear the mechanism turning and unbolt.
But – importantly – there was no reaction from outside.
The Great Wolf seemed to be conspicuous with his absence.
This made Daniel nervous and eager in equal measure and with panicky, sweaty hands, he turned the brass handled doorknob, opened the door the faintest of cracks, the noise of the creaking and sighing door was like cannons going off in the middle of the night, like a million critics tutting at a bad movie.
But the Great Wolf was not there…
He allowed himself a smile, and poked his head out of the door gently and slow and looked up and down the corridor, scanning the hallway for traps or the telltale shadow and huff of the beast.
Daniel removed the key and closed the door as softly as he could and stood flat against his door.
He began to shimmy against the wall edging toward the elevators.
Once opposite, and still with no sign of the Great Wolf anywhere, he bounced from the wall with a push and took up a flat position on the wall opposite the two art deco elevator doors, his index finger angrily and incessantly pushing the CALL button.
The elevator made the BING noise that marked its arrival at each floor.
Daniel looked at the hallway left and right and could not see where the noise came from. He bounced off the wall and faced the two elevators, his potato peeler tight in his right hand, his keys – in case of emergency reversal of this plan – in his left.
The elevators carried on their journey.
Daniel was sweating heavily now.
He looked down the corridor and could see his door, two hundred meters or so away and outside of the door was sat, massive and shaggy, dark furred and foamy mouthed, red eyed and with steam rising from it like some demented Baskerville hellhound that was on the verge of flame – the Great Wolf.
It looked at Daniel with hungry intent, Daniel looked right back – his eyes wide and terrified.
How stupid he was to think he could escape and it to be so easy after 39 days of terror and harassment.
He fumbled for the potato peeler and instead raised his key in a threatening stab motion. His brain and his body were arguing with each other in clumsy handed dread, he looked down at his hand and realized he was holding out his key…
he fumbled to put the key in his pocket and hold out his peeler with threatening intention, but it was too late, the Wolf was already on the move.
Daniel froze to the spot and could feel the first spot of warm urine on his khakis as he pissed himself with fear.
As the Great Wolf was upon him he reflexively threw both key and peeler at the beast and then wondered why on Earth he had done something so stupid.
Both things bounced off the leathery skin under the blood stained matted fur like Daniel had thrown a ball of paper. There was no damage; no sign the monster had even registered the gesture.
As the Great Wolf was ready to pounce, his teeth bared and his glottal growl building to a violent crescendo in his throat, the BING sound went loudly in Daniels left ear, and the elevator door opened, he jumped in and the Great Wolf just missed his right shoulder in the leap. Daniel could feel the displacement of air as he fell in a fumbled jump toward the elevator portal.
Daniel smashed on the floor and threw out his hand onto console and pressed every button he could his fingers on to get the elevator moving.
The doors slowly closed with a jarring stagger, Daniel huddled with his knees tights against him against the back wall below the mirror and he saw the Great Wolf turn and face him snarling as the doors closed.
He had escaped…
As the doors began to shut, and the Great Wolf was unable to make any move to get him Daniel allowed himself a victory gesture, raised a single middle finger to the Great Wolf as the doors finally closed and mouthed a silent:
The Great Wolf saw it.
He would remember it.
Daniel did not care.
The elevator was moving and he was on his way to the ground and daylight.
Finally free… Finally safe… Finally…
The elevator shook, huge clunking noises and the sound of grinding gears and machinery. It gave a violent shake and then stopped moving.
The console lit up, every button illuminated and then suddenly, the whole box went quiet and dark as the electrics were cut.
It shook one last angry time, and then stalled, motionless.
The sound of creaking, groaning and the feint sound if tapping could be heard.
Daniel looked up at the roof of the elevator, and a small red emergency light came on. He stood, nervously and cautiously. Holding onto the rail around the mirrored walls tightly.
He opened the emergency phone panel.
All that was inside was a bare cable with exposed wires at the end.
There was a piece of paper with scrawled black writing it read:
IOU 1 PHONE
He screwed the paper up in his hand and threw it ineffectively against the mirror and slammed the panel shut. He looked up at the small LED camera and waved frantically, but, the light was not on and it was a dead feed.
So he sat back down again and he put his head in his hands.
Sighed and then nervously chuckled to himself.
“At least there was no Great Wolf in here.” – he thought to himself.
“Small mercies.” - He added.
And then the scratching came.
Every panel. Every surface. Every wall.
Chittering noises, and flapping.
A violent swell and shake of something flapping and beating the outside of the elevator - with it - a high pitched screech, the cawing of several hundred, possible a thousand or more, birds of prey.
Daniel threw his arms out to steady himself, he crouched, and stared at the surfaces of the little prison he found himself in and he heard and felt the whole cube was surrounded by the birds of nightmares.
Flapping and pecking and cawing and screeching and screaming for his bones and blood.
Daniel realized then that maybe - just maybe – there were worse things than wolves.
And he closed his eyes, pulled his hood over his head, and lay fetal, hoping that the sound would end, that the lights would come on and he could just live his life in normality again…
But he knew, deep down – even as the birds pecked and clawed and dug their way through panels of thin metal that presented no barrier or problem to their razor sharp beaks and talons. Even as he heard the first beaks chip and break through the faux wood panels and the mirrors surrounding him broke and smashed with the flutter and craw of Ravens and Crows and birds a dozen times bigger – that he would was doomed.
This was his curtain call.
The Great Wolf was always followed by the Carrion birds.
That though he had escaped the tooth, he would never escape the beak.
And as the birds burst through the paneled wood and thin metal and flooded the elevator and dive-bombed the poor broken man inside.
Daniel realized that with birds flying and swooping and taking stabs at his eyes, he would never see normal ever, ever again.
Dedicated To Kate Vassalos – who gave me the title as part of her pledge to help in the creation and publication of the ONE MAN AND HIS DOGMA first print run. This story is dedicated to her with Love and thanks for allowing me reprint on this site...
You could barely see anything out of the window; it was so dark and lifeless outside. Lifeless but for the fast disappearing trees and bushes and estates that hid from view behind the branches as the train zoomed past on the way back to Oxford from London Paddington.
The show had been an amazing experience; the crowd so full of life and love; the venue was regal beyond description and the day was full of wine, laughter and love.
It was a good day.
Goodness knows that there had been plenty of bad ones recently, so this was a long one coming…
Palmer sat back on the hard, barely furnished chair and rested his feet on the one opposite him. He stretched out a deep yawn, trying his best to stifle the noise and keep it contained to his chest, but, the stretch felt good and so he let it all out loudly with a smile and a snorted laugh.
Hayley was sat opposite him fast asleep, she had passed out almost as soon as they departed Paddington, her head rested quietly on her shoulder, her chest rising slowly and calmly, drifting with the sleep people now.
Palmer had rested his foot under himself to keep himself awake; the awkward pose uncomfortable and aching.
He would deal with it whilst they flew at speed through these quiet country back gardens and villages.
Oxford was the end of the line, so should he fall asleep, at least he and Hayley would not wake up in the middle of Shropshire or Buckingham or somewhere equally as horrifying.
He had his book on his lap, open on a dog-eared page that marked his place in the story. His eyes were tired though so he could not focus, and the nagging ache in his knee from his pose distracted him further, but, it was all he could do to keep the sandman at bay.
Outside the window he could just make out the night. Deep blues and rich indigoes; intermittently a burst of yellow from a tall, semi hidden lamplight; the fleeting flash of a bedroom window, window purple or red behind curtains and nets.
The landscape indistinguishable, the world behind the glass furiously leaving as soon as it arrived.
In his mind he tried to play games to stay awake.
Counting the people he saw active in windows just glimpsed through thick branches and thicket. Or choosing two droplets of the light-heavy-light-heavy showers that cascaded onto the window as they travelled ever onwards, and guessing which would win in a race from one corner of the paneled glass to the other.
Losing almost every time.
Somewhere ten miles or so outside of Reading though, something strange happened which woke Palmer up in a cold stupor and shock.
Ice running over his skin and leaving goose flesh stood to attention in his usual smooth skinned norm.
On a wide stretch of rail, where the track suddenly opened up into a five berth gravelly yard, and continued this way for a mile or so, where the windows bright square painted itself bright upon the ground in the pitch dark, and the well lit cabin became a sudden contrast to the darkness outside, Palmer saw approaching a man walking down the tracks, in a blue pyjama suit, unbuttoned to the breast, hair straggly and nutmeg brown, hands as white and alabaster as a bone china set, and barefooted and bedraggled.
The man came into view about twenty yards down the track, but as soon as he caught the first peek of the figure, time slowed down to a crawl as the train went past him.
Palmers hand planted fingers outstretched and flat palmed on the glass, and he shifted off his sleeping leg and awkwardly crooked knee to see better the man who approached on the tracks; thin and tired-looking, the track was stone strewn and wet with dew, and the man so close to the cabin that Palmer could have touched his face had there not been glass.
The figure staggered in a shamble and a stride that made Palmer think of drunkards falling out of alehouses at closing after some wake or other for a departed friend.
Made him think of the students in the local union who would collapse half dead from lock-ins at 2am in the brisk winter mornings - no doubt going to lose marks for the lectures they would inevitably miss the next day.
He held the window pleadingly in both hands, his forehead touched the glass and as he passed by the man in slow, frame by frame emotion, the man turned and looked directly at the Palmer, his eyes were red with tears and his hands were wet with what appeared to be blood, or oil, or some other rich viscous fluid.
A moment passed between the two men. The one on the tracks held a hand high to touch Palmers flat hand, to mimic the gesture and as he did, Palmer watched as agonizing second after agonizing second ticked by – then – mere centimeters from the glass the concept and creature known as “time” – as was its flirtatious, deadly way – snapped back to speed again, with a jolt the train whiplashed the man on the thin service track, span him in a whirl of torn fabric and a flash of white into the murky darkness, or under the track and wheel of the thundering carriage.
A splash of black oil slashed across the window.
Palmer’s eyes opened wide in horror and shock.
He did not know what to do.
He was thrown by instinct from the window at the snap and force of time starting again, catching up with itself, and shuddering him back into life so confusing and terrible it was like a stab to the heart.
He tumbled from the chair to the floor on the centre walkway of the train.
Hayley’s leg under him she sat upright in a shock of pain and looked confused and annoyed at the rude awakening, rubbing her eyes, trying to make sense of the clammy skinned, red eyed, frantic boyfriend who now stood and searched in false hope of an emergency cord or alarm, which he smashed the glass on and pushed as soon as he located it above the doorway of the middle carriage by bike stand and toilet.
The train shook violently and then stopped…
A screech of brakes and the shuddering halt of the weight to a dead stop, Palmer fell again at the physics of the movement, landed at the feet of an angry looking red-faced inspector.
“Just what the bloody hell do you think you are doing?”
She said, spitting a half chewed sandwich at his feet, that she had been chewing on before the alarm had been pulled.
“There is a man… A man on the tracks.”
The inspectors eyes shot to alarming size, a bead of sweat swelled and dripped down her greasy forehead and on her pickled, sunbaked skin.
“Where?” she muttered in anxious shock.
Palmer pointed to the back of the train… his finger shaking.
“Back there. Just now… a minute, maybe less… He was on the tracks.”
The inspector heard this last line as she had spun tail and started already to head to the cabin to radio control and advise of the accident on the line.
“The same stretch of track.” She thought.
“The same damned stretch of track”
What was this?
Four this month?
She opened the door, heavier than it appeared, and entered the cab and touched the drivers shoulder, he was already sobbing.
He said. Turning half toward the woman.
“Again.” She said, and squeezed his shoulder.
* * *
The rain was bursting between heavy and light and somewhere in-between. Never resting on any one pulse for long, then, stopping all together.
The night air was crisp and cool, not cold. June had set its claws into the year, so it was fresh and smelled like approaching summer, even this late, you could smell the cut grass and the berries on the leaves, the faint pop and zing of rape seed and the honey sweet smell of blooming flowers in the fields behind the tree line on the far side of the gravel yard just over the three sets of tracks that shadowed this service track, narrow and long, that nudged the main track eight feet between them.
He had been walking for a while.
His feet had stopped hurting soon after he made the walk from his driveway, down the sloping grassland and into the stations car park.
He climbed the wrought iron gateway that was locked at 9pm every evening.
He pulled himself over the brick wall that stood five or so feet high and had creeping ivy climbing the surface.
Finally he casually dropped down from the platform of the quiet, closed, resting station and walked along the tracks.
Cold, brittle, sharpened stones under his bare naked feet.
Speaking to him in sharp stabs of Braille.
The stones telling him all would be ok, everything was going to be ok.
He walked on.
The cool nights air his mistress.
* * *
Palmer and the driver exited the train, the two dozen or so people in the five carriages were planted on the windows, leaning against them and peering out into the darkness, watching the torchlight waving and flashing over surface and ground, slashing across the side of the train looking for any proof or evidence of a collision or impact.
The night air was damp with a building threat of rain and the smell of a summery electrical storm.
The driver looked scared witless, Palmer had noticed, his hand shook slightly, the torch in his fist wavered and vibrated with reluctance and a preoccupation Palmer could not put his finger on.
Behind the two of them, the inspector walked with her torch lighting the trail behind them, she gently padded backwards, on tip toes, her torch inspecting the parts of the train that may have been missed, flashing the beam under the carriages and onto the roof, her breathing was heavy.
Occasionally she would swing the beam flying to the hedgerow on the far side of the wide track system, Bright eyes would flash and fade in seconds, witnesses from the bushes of this strange pantomime.
The inspector cut a look back to the driver, who shook his head and carried on walking.
Palmer missed this, dedicated to the train alone.
He stopped with a gasp.
A burst of cold mist blew from his mouth.
The night air catching his breathe and reforming it into icy fog before his eyes.
Below his feet was an oily substance; it had been spattered hard and sticky across the side of the carriages. It was all over the stones and gravel and under the carriage it dripped hard and thick, viscous, syrupy globules of it splashed from the wheels and the engines mechanism.
Stuck to the side of the train was a scrap of material, it looked just like the white and blue pinstripe of the man’s pyjamas.
It was ripped and stained heavily, yellow and brown and black from the tar.
It flapped absently in the night air.
Palmer reached for it his hand barely an inch away before the driver’s hand came shooting from the dark and grabbed his wrist gently, but with purpose.
“Don’t do that…” The driver said, staring at Palmer intently.
He lowered Palmers arm to his side, and brushed his shirt into a flat uniform neatness. He adjusted his own tie, and looked at the fabric, and then to Palmer.
“It would be bad for you to touch it… believe me.”
He waved his torch at the side of the carriage and along the next ten meters or so behind. The tar was all over the side and more fabric, ribbons of the material, torn and broken, ripped and sticky with the colour and intensity of the fluid.
The ooze dripped and ran down the side of the train like a treacle, forming pools of the liquid in the gaps between the stones, edging the side of the track itself, colouring the ground a black diesel hue.
Palmer looked at the floor, and caught the shimmer of rainbow in the liquid, he swore he saw it retreat at the flash of torchlight, and swell again as the light was waved elsewhere.
He looked up at the window, and staring out at him was Hayley.
She looked down and held her hand out fingers apart, palm flat, much like Palmer had himself when he saw the man on the track.
He looked up and waved a bleak, half smile.
Hayley smiled tired and confusedly back.
Palmer reach up to place the hand on the glass and mirror her gesture.
The oily tar that had slashed across the window was now wet an dripping, and as he put his hand against the glass he touched it.
there was stabbing pain, a burst of a sting – like a bee or wasp had let loose their stinger, and as he went to move his arm from the window, he felt something reach out and touch him, holding it still. He felt a cool grip take his wrist, he spun to tell the driver to get off him, but the driver was further down the track and speaking in whisper to the inspector.
He looked at his arm in the windows soda light – and he saw the shadow of the man from the track reaching out as well, in mirror of his own arm, the two images, one real, the other some ghost afterimage, looked like an unfocused cinema screen showing a 3D film, then the two arms blended and merged, and it was no longer his arm reaching out, it was the man on the track.
It was no longer Hayley looking down on his, hand splayed out in welcome on the window…
It was his own.
He was seeing what he had witnessed from inside, living the experience outside.
The ghost of the man on the track his suit.
Caught within the moment of the impact.
* * *
Bare feet on stones felt heavy and hard.
Cold and numb.
The man walked on. Each stone or shard of sharp glass or pebble that pierced into his flesh was a message. A unique and alien braille that was as easy to read under his feet as it would be for a blind man under fingertip.
“Walk on” it said.
“Walk on and on and ever onward.”
The message would then sing lyrical to him.
Every step a new stanza in the song edging the man onwards and onwards and ever onwards along the quiet, dark, midnight track.
From the bush greedy eyes were peering and watching and witnessing this mute mans journey down the dark ribbon of metallic track.
Silently, pink lips smacked hungrily against red lips and white teeth glimmered in the darkness.
The midnight shadows had awoken and were on the prowl, dizzy with hunger, they stalked their prey down the track.
The man walked on.
His feet ached, but they relayed the message from the cold stones without question. This sharp braille telling him he was ok, he would be alright, that there was love and escape and an end to the pain and the ache and the questions at the end of the track… That he was going to be ok and this would soon all be over and he would be full of light and happiness and love.
The man believed it all, despite his aching feet, despite the cold biting into his flesh as if he was food for the frost, despite every fibre of his mind screaming that he should turn around and ignore the voices - that this was all a trap and he had to wake up…
He believed the stones and the Braille and the message it sent.
He had no choice.
The stones, the darkness, the hungry eyes from the sidings had him now and he could no sooner end this journey as he could stop the Earth from spinning.
As he walked his skin began to feel tighter on his bones, his muscles were gripped and stretched taut against the skeleton. His skin was turning white like fine rice paper, like a pearlescent shell.
His eyes were wide open, unable to blink, and he could feel the redness and the tears freezing onto his cheeks; his auburn nutmeg coloured hair bedraggled and messy becoming brittle twigs in this midnight freeze,
the rain dripping from his skin like water off oiled glass.
He marched on, toward the lights that were visible up the track.
The approaching juggernaut.
The teeth chattered and chittered in the bushes.
The convergence was about to happen.
And they would finally feast…
And maybe, just maybe, another evening bounty would make itself apparent.
So the hunt could begin anew.
* * *
A burning sense of Déjà vu rippled through his bones and Palmer forced himself to pull away from the window, but he couldn’t.
Instead, he felt himself pulled backward, through a split in the crease of reality, and he tumbled into a milky whiteness as the world shuffled around him like a deck of cards in some gargantuan gods hands.
And the world rearranged and then was shuffled into prominent shape again around him, and he was sat on a different train, wearing a suit of muted navy blue, he was holding in his hands a copy of some broadsheet paper.
Outside of his window he could see there was a moon high in the sky, a slither of crescent hung wearily and sharp in the weak, thinned out clouds.
And on the track, in front of the train, there was a woman walking down the side-track, naked and staggering.
As before, the world slowed down, and the connection of eyes between the man and woman lead to a moment of frozen time, hands reaching toward each other, before the snap of reality pulled the world back to normal speed and the fragile, thin, beautifully white, waxen skinned woman span with such ferocious force, that he was sure he could hear her smash like porcelain against the impact of the train.
Oil splashed and spattered against the glass window, and the man jolted for the emergency stop as the train rattled to a jagged halt, and the man and inspector and driver ran to the tracks, and the same routine played out.
The world turned again to white as the deck was shuffled again, and Palmer was thrown off the window and landed hard onto the gravel, his hand bleeding from a puckered circle of bites on his palm.
Like a limpet or a leech had drawn his blood.
The driver and inspector ran down the track toward him lights flashing.
Palmer was confused and dizzy, he could see Hayley holding her mouth in shock, and she bolted for the door.
“Stay there Hayles!” he screamed to his beautiful, confused, teary eyed girlfriend.
“Don’t come out here, stay right where you are.”
He raised his hand to stop her, and the palm was red with the pucker of the bite, and droplets of oil and tar and blood dripped from his hand.
The inspector and driver stopped in their tracks as he raised the hand to them, and helped himself up with his other free arm.
They held their mouths and backed away slightly, worried, upset and sad looking.
“What the bloody hell is happening? What did we hit?” Palmer demanded.
The driver looked at him sadly, his mouth downturned and quivering for an answer.
“It must have been an animal or something… that’s all.” He stammered.
Palmer lunged a step forward his hand raised the blood more apparent now, his whole hand laced with oil and flecks of the tar.
“An animal?!” he shouted.
“A bloody animal? What kind of animal bites like this, eh?” and he grabbed the driver with his uninjured hand and pulled him close to the wounded palm.
The driver tried to shake free but Palmer was stronger and held him by the scruff of the neck and waved his hand in front of the drivers terrified face.
“You tell me what kind of fucking animal can cause a bite like this… go on? Tell me what the hell is happening here.”
The inspector started to step backwards, her torch slowly dropping and a flicker of convulsive fear on her face.
Both the driver and Palmer noticed her turning in sudden fright and stood mute and confused as she bolted down the track away from the train only to be suddenly ripped and wrenched from the track by darkness and thrown into the bushes.
Violent shakes and growls and flashes of silver eyes peered out as the Inspector screamed horrifyingly and then a crunch and silence.
She flew from the dark track as if catapulted from the gravel itself.
A single scream echoed into the shadows.
The driver gently shook himself from the grip of Palmer, Palmer dropped his hands to his side and pulled a hankie from his pocket and wrapped it quietly and efficiently round his wound, he shone his torch toward the track where the inspector had been thrown to the bushes.
“What the hell is going on…?” was all he could say.
The oil and tar and splashed fabric had oozed together and was now pulsing toward them on the track, from behind them in the bushes they heard the growl of a creature.
Whether one extraordinarily loud and angry creature or the small growls and grumbles of ten thousand tiny ones – it made no difference.
The bushes were alive, the track was alive, and whatever had consumed the man who walked the track, and the woman who had haunted his journey, and the countless other journeys before – had made themselves known and were no longer prowling or hunting - they had decided it was feeding time.
Palmer grabbed the drivers collar and pushed him toward the train.
“Go… Go now… we need to move!”
They turned toward the door of the train to make a run, but blocking their way was a fragmented, shattered shell of the pyjama wearing man, like a twisted marionette, hanging from invisible strings, the parts of his ragged, smashed body held together by the tar-like substance that dripped and leaked thick and wretched from the cracks of his skin and his ragged, ripped clothing.
The figure pointed at Palmer.
Upon its shattered and ugly fractured face a grimace of need, of want, of famishment.
And reached for him jagged and sharp fingered.
Palmer reflexively parried the grab and kicked out with his leg and took the broken shell of a man down, where he shattered into a million tiny pieces, like the thin fragile shell of an egg.
The tar like substance popped like yolk cooking on a griddle, and splashed the Driver and the carriage, the driver gave a scream, and then suddenly was flung high into the treeline, as if the tar had lassoed and trebucheted him.
Palmer jumped over the broken remains of the shell-man, and grabbed onto the rail of the door, in front of him was Hayley, who reached out and grabbed his arm, covered as it was in ooze and tar, there was a sudden convulsion as the bite ran through her flesh and she bounced back as if shocked and crashed into the far door of the carriage.
Palmer ran to her, grabbed hold of her body, the pain in his hand was intense and throbbing now. Hayley was unconscious and her arm swelled as the tiny pock-marks of the limpet bite dotted her arm like needle marks.
The sores spelt out a pattern that read like Braille upon the skin.
Palmer did not know what it meant, but felt the language of the wound speaking to him.
“Time is up.” It said.
And the lights in the carriage went out one by one.
The carriages were full of two or so dozen screaming, anxious, terrified people.
The darkness permeated the air like a thick soup of confused fear; the silence was foreboding and horrendous.
A single approaching light shone in the darkness ahead.
Palmer could see the shadows it created on the track from the open door.
He stepped out, calmly and quietly onto the dark track – aware of the eyes and the teeth glistening in the trees and the slither and trickle of ooze all around him.
He looked up the track and saw the light approaching, fast and angry.
It looked like another train, the speed was awesome and breath-taking, but, there was no train.
It was ghost lights, and below it, teeth, chattering and chittering away.
Palmer closed his eyes.
And below him, even through his socks and shoes, he could feel the braille of the gravel speaking and pulsing through his skin.
“Time is up.” It said.
“Time is up.”
“We feed now.”
And the light smashed into the train and carriages with such force and unrelenting anger that it was ripped to shreds as though made of paper.
Palmer held his hands up to guard himself instinctively, stupidly, as if such a gesture could help in the wave of a million nuclear explosions.
The light seared onto his skin and he felt its expert sharpness cut perfect incisions to his core, every inch of his skin shredding and folding back to muscle and sinew and nerve and bone and marrow and then – to the idea that was once Palmer, the concept of the man, the psychic shadow of what was once a man was all that remained.
A wisp of an idea.
The last thought running through Palmers mind as the track, the treeline and the train were obliterated in light and hunger was simple…
“I wish we had of driven to London now.”
There was nothing.
Just darkness, and silence and cold.
The feast over as soon as it had begun.