As a child, they were the most powerful beings in the world. They were omnipotent and omniscient. There was nothing they could not do, nothing they could not achieve.
Their word was law. Should they form a negative opinion of a thing, it disappeared from the face of the earth. If something found their favour, it was transcended to the echelon reserved for the divine.
I lived in awe of them and believed they would forever guide my life.
Now I am a man with the foolishness of childhood long gone. Life has pierced me, battered me, taken my innocence. I have been affronted by a score of sins committed against me, and poisoned by the hundreds more I have committed.
The guardians of my youth protect me no more. In truth, I now see that they never had the ability to shield me from this dreaded world. Their power was imaginary, their influence paltry.
I regard them now with disdain, scornful of the time I spent with them in aimless play, time that could have been spent preparing for these incessant battles which make up what we call life.
Yesterday, my parents passed.
I look to my children and see how, in trying to be different from my parents, I have disappointed and scarred them. Have I been too harsh? Did I quell their imagination in my desire to make them ready for the world?
I do not have the answer, I cannot see the future. Perhaps my children will teach my grandchildren in manner neither I nor my parents could find. Perhaps there is no right way to raise a child, only myriad wrong ways. Is parenthood nothing but a guideless route from birth to adulthood which all are destined to fail in some way?
With this new insight comes a new appreciation of the strength, the power, the tenacity my parents displayed when raising me. Though they knew not the answers, their positive approach and keenness to chase those answers has reignited the unquestioning love I once held for them.
Sam had moved into the house six months ago but had not gotten around to checking the loft until today. To her surprise, it wasn’t as dirty and frightening as she had feared. Sure, it was gloomy and there was a half-inch of dust everywhere, but the previous owners had cleared out their belonging and laid down floorboards.
She assumed they were also the ones who had also chalked the circle on the floor and left the seven puddles of black wax at even points around the circumference.
Ignoring the Wheatley-esque artwork, she set to work transporting boxes into the loft. On her third trip, she began to notice the burning smell which was coming from the centre of the circle. In front of her eyes, a shape materialised. Though it was too dark to see any details, she received the impression of horns and hide and hooves.
The thing spoke to her, a grating parody of English:
‘Mortal wench, you called me here, and now you shall submit in fear. Human and demon, we play our role, and I will now devour your soul.’
Sam was not sure what she was witnessing, was not entirely sure she was awake, so she did the only thing that seemed to make sense to her.
‘Say what?’ she asked.
A hacking sound answered her, as if the creature was clearing its throat.
‘Mortal wench,’ it repeated, raising the volume of its voice while lowering it an octave. ‘You called me here-’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Sam said impatiently. ‘Submitting to fear, devouring souls. I heard all that. What I meant was…’ She paused as she tried to find the right words. ‘Say what?’
Silence claimed the attic. Sam could not see the beast, but she guessed its expression of confusion matched hers.
‘Um… Mortal wench…’ There was doubt in the demonic tone now.
Sam cut it off again.
‘Look, I don’t know who you are, but I did not summon you. I just don’t have the time. Speaking of, I have to crack on, so can you please just…’ She made a shooing motion with her hands, hoping the thing could see in the darkness.
‘To bid your summons, I have risen, to brief escape my hellish prison. And yet you now would try deny? I snare you, girl, within your lie.’
‘I don’t know what you think happened,’ she said as she made her way to the hole in the floor, ‘but you’re wrong. I don’t want you here so please just go back to… wherever.’
The room grew darker still. When it next spoke, the thing’s voice was but a whisper yet it filled Sam’s world.
‘When one is called, the bargain is set. To take your leave I will not let. From me there is no place to hide, especially when I come inside.’
Sam sensed movement in the attic as the thing rushed her. The stench of brimstone enveloped her and she felt a leathery touch on her back. With no warning, she was pitched headfirst through the loft opening.
The distance between the loft and the landing floor was less than three metres. Gravity pulls objects at 300,000,000 metres per second. This meant Sam should have hit the ground in less than a second, certainly less time than it took for her to make this calculation.
Her stomach lurched. She recognised the feeling from being in an elevator and the car comes to a stop, when her insides had gotten used to traveling in one direction and were slow to react as her outsides came to a rest.
She was no longer falling. Instead she just hung in mid-air upside down. Blood was filling her head. With a serene slowness, she began to turn, her legs dropping as he head rose. She was lowered gently to the floor, her feet landing softly on the carpet.
Okay, that just happened, she thought as she clutched at the wall for support.
Perplexed you are, confused you be.
Recognising the voice from the attic, she looked up but could not see anything in the dark recess.
Yet while you host that which is me, I cast on you a demon charm, to ensure you will not come to harm.
‘Host what which is who?’ Sam said aloud. Although she had not fallen and banged her head she still felt as if she were concussed.
I will protect that which I fill, and bend your laws to fit my will. Until the price – a soul – is done, we two remain together, one.
It dawned on Sam that she was not actually hearing the words, that they were just arriving in her mind. Is this like reading someone’s mind? she wondered. I wonder if it can read my mind. Hello?
No mind have I to read or see, there is only you which is also me. I feel your thoughts, both ill and nice, but must demand you pay the price.
‘Is this really happening?’ she asked. ‘Are you really in my head?’
Body, mind, soul or head, there is no place I dare not tread. Is all this true, you want to know, yet deep inside you know ’tis so.
Sam groaned, a long sound of frustration. She was already stressed by the list of tasks she had to do today and demonic possession had not been on the itinerary. This was just another example of how a woman’s work was never done. She guessed she would have to add getting an exorcism to her To Do list.
gliTch in tHe mAtRix
It started with the commas, so we did not notice at first.
After getting out of bed I showered and dressed and made my way to the kitchen. I switched on the radio turning it down so as not to wake Tony and smiled to the sound of The Wonderstuff’s “Don’t Let Me Down Gently.”
Quietly singing along I began making breakfast. Grilled bacon toast tomatoes poached eggs and of course a large pot of tea. The aroma of bacon filled the flat and I knew Tony would soon come swanning in his mouth watering.
I was not wrong. He wrapped his big arms around me and nuzzled my neck.
“Good morning sexy” he said.
There was something wrong with the way he spoke. I couldn’t say what it was but I could see in Tony’s face he’d heard it too. It wasn’t that his voice was croaky nor that his words were harsh – there was just something off about his speech.
He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Good morning sexy.”
“That’s better” I said but my smile faded as soon as I realised the words I’d spoken were not quite right.
On the radio the DJ introduced the next track: “Everything I Do I Do It For You.”
I knew the song well – didn’t we all know the song? – but there was something odd about the way the DJ had announced it.
“What’s happening Tony?” I asked my voice normal again.
“I don’t know” he answered wincing at the strangeness of his reply.
Hoping that food would put things right I pulled the tray from under the grill and placed three bacon rashers on Tonys plate. That felt weird. Scooping some tomatoes on the plate was fine as was adding two eggs. But when I poured tea into Tonys favourite mug I again felt odd.
“I dont like this Tony” I said. “What is wrong?”
Tony shrugged. “I dont know. Its like er like somethings disappearing but I dont know what.”
That was the best way to describe it. Something or some things were vanishing from our lives. The troubling thing was we could not identify what was gone we could only feel their absence.
What should we do? I asked. At least I tried to. My lips moved and I felt the air exhale from my mouth but I made no sound.
Tony mouthed something to me. I saw fear in Tonys eyes as his voice refused to come out.
Make it stop Tony I demanded silently.
The pain was clear on Tonys face He pulled me to him and held me close Whatever was happening to us was beyond words
Why? I cried Why is this happening
My heart froze as I realised I could no longer ask a question And I realised what was disappearing
It started with the commas But where would it end I thought Would we soon lose letters
as well as punctuation
‘Well I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday.’
As soon as the playlist shuffled up Meatloaf, Marvin jumped from the sofa and started rocking around the lounge. It didn’t matter how old he got (54 two months ago) or how sore his limbs were, the best song in the world demanded his full performance.
‘Parking by the dah and there was dah dah-dah-dah car in sight.’
It had been so long since he’s heard this track, he had forgotten some of the words. Not that it mattered; there was no-one in the house to shame him for his forgetfulness. Only the large mirror over the mantle place bear witness to his childish behaviour and he had great practise at steering his gaze away from his own reflection.
He danced over to the sideboard where his phone was charging and cranked up the volume.
‘…wishing they were me that night,’ he sang, catching up with the singer.
This song was not just a powerful rock ballad. It was not just a deliciously wry commentary on the souring of love, from teenage lust to matrimonial hell. This was also one of the best duets ever recorded.
Marvin closed his eyes as he bopped his head to the music, swinging his arms wildly and singing along with Meatloaf at the top of his voice:
‘C’mon. Hold on tight. Well c’mon. Hold on tight.’
The first line of the chorus was sung by the female vocalist. In all his years of loving this record – four decades, he winced as he calculated it – he had never sung Ellen Foley’s part, always leaving that for whichever girlfriend he was with at the time. And there had been many during his lifetime’s search for someone to fill the void within him.
‘Though it’s cold and lonely-’
Marvin wondered if the thrashing was playing tricks on his hearing. He heard Ellen’s voice coming from the phone speakers, as he’d expected, but he thought he had also heard another voice. Closer and quieter, but off-key and unassured.
He had no time to ponder further on this as he was back with the next lyric.
‘I can see paradise by the dashboard light.’
The next voice should only have been Ellen’s. This time Marvin was certain someone else was joining in.
‘Ain’t no doubt about it we were doubly blessed.’
He opened his eyes and cast a quick look around, still maintaining his out-of-rhythm dancing as he did. There was no-one in the room but him. Yet the unknown singer continued.
‘’Cause we were barely seventeen and we were barely dressed.’
The sound was coming from behind him.
‘Ain’t no doubt about it,’ he screeched, joining Meatloaf and Ellen Foley and the new voice.
Though he was spooked, he did not stop prancing and jumping about. He manoeuvred himself around to face the mirror.
‘Baby, got to go out and shout it.’
There wasn’t anything wrong with the mirror. It cast a perfect reflection of the room – the leather sofa, the framed picture of Judy Garland, the bookcase, the nest of tables. The only thing it didn’t reveal was him.
In his place, awkwardly moving and throwing her head about, was a woman.
‘Ain’t no doubt about it,’ they sang in unison.
Marvin didn't recognise the woman. It was no-one her had ever seen before, either in his life, on TV or in his dreams. But she was matching his every move.
Despite this bizarre turn of events, Marvin did not stop his off-time swaying to the music. His feet stepped with the beat, his shoulders rocked, his arms flew about. In fact, when he tried to approach the mirror, he found he was unable to stop dancing.
The reflection followed him perfectly, even down to the confusion in her eyes. The only part of their bodies which didn’t work together were their mouths. While Marvin continued butchering Meatloaf’s lyrics, the reflection stayed silent. When the chorus came around again and Marvin stopped, so his female counterpart began:
‘Though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night.’
Marvin’s mind was swimming, and not just from rocking his head around. He had no idea what was happening, who this mystery woman was or why he could no longer control his own movements. He seemed to be caught in the song, unable to do anything but sing along in this uncanny duet.
Together, Marvin and his reflection danced through the ballgame and performed the ‘Will you love me forever / Let me sleep on it,’ argument perfectly. It was as if they had practised together their whole lives.
‘I couldn’t take it anymore,’ Marvin screamed, starting the final section of the song. The end was approaching and he started to feel melancholy. Would this woman disappear once the final note had been played? Would he ever get a chance to sing with her again?
As the song faded to Ellen Foley’s ‘It never felt so good, it never felt so right,’ the reflection in the mirror returned to normal. Everything was represented correctly: the sofa, the Judy picture, the bookcase, the tables.
Now that the frantic dancing was over, even the person’s image had returned.
Looking deep into the reflected eyes, Leslie let out a happy sigh. She was finally out, and the void Marvin had felt his whole life was now gone.
An internet horror story coming to life? Isn’t that what Slenderman is? Did he not start life as some spooky Italian-food internet meme and now he’s in his own movie?
Maybe I could do something similar and get a film franchise. Move to Hollywood and rub shoulders with the stars. I’d have to give credit to TheDreamer of course.
Wouldn’t be a slender man though, not with my waistline. More like Fatman. Dinner dinner dinner dinner, dinner dinner dinner dinner: FAT MAN!
Thought I heard something. Must be imagining things.
Think I’m going cuckoo staring at this monitor screen, trying to think of something scary to write.
That’s always worth pursuing though, writing about the decline of one’s sanity. Describing, from the viewpoint of the afflicted, the progression from level-headed normality to stark-raving, chips-up-the nose, underpants-on-head madness.
It’s probably been done before though. And better.
Yes, it has.
Okay, that time I’m sure I heard something. Who’s that? Who’s there?
No answer, huh? But I’m not going mad.
At least… I don’t think I am. I wonder if I would know.
No, I’m not mad. Maybe I’m just tired. It has been a cray-busy week at work, what with meddling bosses and moaning customers. That’s what I should write about, the horrors of working in a call centre. No – too scary. Plus, I want to get away from that place, not include it in my hobby.
So what internet story can I create and then make come alive?
Look, it’s not funny anymore. If you want to talk to me, then just come out and talk. If not, just shut up and go away.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Perhaps I should take an existing internet horror story and work on that? Would that be plagiarism? I don’t know, but it’s not like I worry about copyright – I’ve just posted a story with a boat load of song lyrics and didn’t ask permission. I wonder if it will get removed because of that. Time will tell.
But I’m procrastinating.
You’re good at that.
I’m getting proper cheesed off now. Who are you and what do you want?
It’s not a matter of what I want. As for who I am, I am what you want.
Do you have to talk in riddles? I’m having a hard-enough time convincing myself I’m not crazy without trying to decipher your lunatic ravings. Are you gonna speak clearly?
What do you want?
You mean apart from world peace and money and love?
World peace? Ha! You only thought that in case anyone reads this. Don’t want them thinking you’re completely self-centred, do you.
But I will ask again: what do you want right now?
I want you to get out of my head.
There is something specific you are looking for. You’ve mentioned it at least two times in the past few minutes.
An internet horror story?
But you’re not one. You’re just the runaway imagination of deluded Brit who’s desperately trying to avoid real like for a while by escaping in fiction of his own making.
And who creates internet horror stories?
Not me. I just write silly little things for fun. I’ve never created anything that be classed as an internet horror story.
You searched for me, and so I came. You wished for me, and so I live.
But you’re not coming to life. You’re still just a story.
The full moon was still two nights away, yet Clyde already felt its pull deep in his bones. He knew he had to get away, go somewhere remote. If his family knew the beast he would become, there was bound to be blood.
He left at sundown, silently finding his way to forest edge. Deep within the woods was a cave system, one he had chanced upon years before while out hunting. For the past three months he had used the shelter it offered to protect him – and to protect his family from the thing he would become.
As he stalked quietly through the trees, Clyde wondered again at the creature he had encountered those month past. He had been prowling the low hills and had picked up the trail of something different, something he had never before come across. Though his hackles raised, curiosity got the better of him and he followed the trail. It wasn’t long before they found one another. Clyde was still not certain who had been hunting who.
It had been too dark for Clyde to see anything in detail, but he knew his opponent had snapping fangs and piercing claws.
The creature sank its teeth into Clyde’s shoulder, causing Clyde to howl in pain. He managed to injure the beast and make his escape, yelping and whining as he fled as quickly as his legs would carry him.
The following morning, Clyde felt a change within him and he knew the monster had infected him with some poison. He could not have guessed just how deeply affected he would become.
Now, as he neared his sanctuary, he felt the ache in his legs he had come to recognise as the beginning of the change. He picked up his pace, wanting to be underground before his body began convulsing.
It was cold in the cave. Clyde tried to sleep through the following day but the pain in his body kept him awake. His stomach jumped and lurched and his head began to pound. His whole body trembled violently, causing him to pant uncontrollably.
Though he could not see the sky from his self-imposed prison, he knew when the full moon reigned the night.
Fire leapt through his limbs and his torso, danced along his spine and up his neck. Above his growl of agony, he heard the cracking and snapping of his bones as they twisted into new shapes. His skin peeled away in wet clumps, revealing a foreign body underneath. His ears folded into a different design, his eyesight altered and his sense of smell changed.
Everything about him was different. He was not the Clyde his had been all his life – now he was a dreadful monster that would plough death and destruction wherever it trod.
He struggled to retain his mind, fighting the beast’s base instincts to leave the cave and search for food, for warmth, for companionship. Whether it was his strong will or the fear that he may hurt his own kin, he won the battle and kept the raging animal underground for the night and the next day.
At some point, Clyde had passed out
He awoke now, thankful he was still in the darkness of the cave and back in his own body. Weak and hungry, he crawled out into the daylight. It took him longer to get home than it had to reach the cave but soon enough he was back. The sight of his family warmed his heart.
Happy again, at least for another month, Clyde was reunited with the wolfpack.
The Biggest Action Movie Never Made
It was the last beating that broke him. For as long has he could remember, he’d been abused and pushed around, kicked and thumped. Now he decided it was payback time. Now he would get his vengeance.
Glaring at the people around him, Necta Rondo promised himself there would be blood before nightfall.
The glass windows in Captain Rooney’s office vibrated at his scream. Michelle McDavid cringed at the sound, her ears ringing for some time afterward. Everyone in the bullpen had turned to watch, mouths open in fright. Only Jack remained unmoved by his superior’s ire.
Jack Strong, the best detective on the force. The only thing longer than his arrest list was the number of bad guys he’d shot down in the final throes of their evil plans, and the only thing longer than that were the numerous complaints stacked against him. Complaints that hailed from the city authorities – the police commissioner, the mayor’s office, the DA, the state governor – and Mrs Esther Thistlewaite, an octogenarian who had taken umbrage when Jack had refused to accept her granddaughter as his partner.
‘YOU’RE OUT, STRONG!’ the captain shouted. At least he had taken time to separate each word. ‘BADGE AND GUN! NOW!’
Jack stood silently, fished his wallet from his pocket and placed his badge on the captain’s desk. Sliding his service pistol from the holster, he rested it beside the gold shield. His face showed no concern because he knew this was just the captain gesturing. They had danced this waltz a hundred times in the past. Rooney would calm down in an hour or so, begrudgingly admit Jack had been right and give him back his tools of the trade.
Hands shaking with indignation, Rooney scooped up Jack’s gun. His fingers were trembling so much it took him three attempts to release the safety. Once he was successful, he pointed the weapon at Jack’s badge, squeezed the trigger and continued to do so until there were no rounds left.
Beneath the cloud of gun smoke, Jack saw there was nothing left of his shield. No pieces, no fragments, not even smithereens. That was new, he thought, a little taken aback. But he could only think of one thing to say:
‘Guess I’m fired.’
McDavid hurried after Jack as he entered the elevator. Throwing herself forward, she managed to squeeze inside before the doors shut. She peered inside the cardboard box Jack was holding; a gift voucher for Dunkin Doughnuts, a coffee mug that bore the legend World’s Best Big Brother and a black-framed picture of a woman in a wedding veil.
‘Is that Abigail?’ she asked.
Jack only grunted in reply, which was enough to let McDavid know she was right.
Although they had been divorced longer than they had been married, the whole station knew that Jack was still in love with the woman. She was his soulmate. She was the reason he worked so hard to make the world a better place.
And he was the reason she was dead.
When a terrorist had threatened to blow up a ballgame and had taken Abi as leverage, Jack had done the only thing he was capable of; he had single-handed evacuated the stadium, located and defused the nuclear bomb, raced across town in a commandeered sports car (often driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalk), smashed through the perp’s bay windows, engaged in a lengthy hand-to-hand fight which left the two of them on a balcony (‘I think I’ll let you go,’ Jack had said as he released the bad guy and let gravity pull him to an early grave), untied the bonds which tied Abi to a second number bomb, which Jack also defused, and carried her out to the lawn.
What Jack hadn’t expected was that the terrorist had already injected Abi with a slow acting poison. With the soft morning rain hiding his tears, Abi had died in his arms.
‘What will you do now?’ McDavid asked.
Jack sighed and said, ‘Think I’m gonna go get something to eat.’
‘I didn’t mean right now, I mean-’
‘I know what you meant, Shell. I guess I’m gonna…’ he paused while he gave it some thought. ‘I don’t know,’ he finished quietly.
McDavid’s breath caught in her chest. In all the years she’d known him she had never heard Jack sound so unsure or confused. Gulping down her tears, she said, ‘I’ve got an idea.’
The Golden Winter of Content Retirement Home and Assisted Living Facility for Senior Citizens was the longest named nursing home in the state. It had also been voted the second-worst name in the country, beaten by a place in Arizona which combined elderly healthcare with a water park and a creche: From Womb to Tomb (Now With Added Splash Fountain).
Jack scanned the lobby as he and McDavid entered. Three vending machines to the left beside a door marked ‘Private’. A haggard-looking woman sat behind the long reception desk directly ahead. To the right lay one elevator, a door to the stairwell and an open double-door to the rest of the nursing home. An overpowering stench filled the area; boiled cabbage, urine and fried fish.
They approached the desk and McDavid smiled at the woman. Before she could speak, a cry came from the open doors.
Jack’s hand instinctively reached for his gun – but found only an empty holster.
‘Relax, it’s okay,’ the receptionist said. Her name tag introduced her as Pauline. ‘It’s just Daphne. She tends to overreact to Diagnosis Murder.’
Daphne’s voice came again, proving Pauline’s assertion.
‘Be careful, Bert,’ the old woman’s voice cried, obviously confusing Dick Van Dyke’s characters.
‘I’m Michelle McDavid, this is de-’ McDavid stopped herself quickly. That was a habit she would have to get out of. ‘This is Jack Strong. We’re here to see Esther Thistlewaite,’
‘Of course,’ Pauline smiled. ‘She’s in the gardens at the back. Please sign in,’ she added, pushing forward a visitor’s register.
‘You sign us in,’ Jack said. ‘I’m gonna get snacks.’
He approached the vending machines to inspect his options. Unlike most buildings he visited, each machine was a different make and model. He guessed the nursing home relied more on donations than entering a contract with a vendor. The one on the left was empty but for one pack of gum. The one on the right contained candy bars and soda. The chips he wanted sat in the middle machine.
Jack made his selection and pressed his debit card to the reader. The metal spiral which held the chips began to rotate, stuttered then stopped. Jack glowered through the glass, his teeth gritted.
‘Drop to the ground,’ he ordered but, like most of the suspects he’d said that to, the packet refused to obey.
A spark of electricity flashed behind the machine, followed quickly by a loud crack. The internal lights faded to the whining drone of machinery winding down.
Scowling, Jack strode away to join McDavid.
Necta Rondo watched Jack leave the lobby. There was an intimidating air about the man.
He was the one, Necta Rondo thought, he was to be the first victim. If anyone were able to defeat Necta Rondo, it would be Jack.
Therefore, he would have to fall first and, once Jack had been bested by Necta Rondo, the rest of the human race would suffer Necta Rondo’s rage.
They found Esther at the bridge table with three other residents. As soon as she saw the two of them approaching, she excused herself from the game and began to hobble in their direction.
‘Michelle,’ she said softly.
‘Hi, Grams.’ McDavid wrapped her arms around the woman, careful not to squeeze her too tightly.
Esther looked up at Jack, her lips pressed together and ice in her eyes.
Jack’s cell pinged, informing him he’d received a text message.
‘Grams, we’ve come to ask for your help,’ McDavid said.
‘You know I would do anything for you, sweetie.’ Esther’s words were full of love until she looked back at Jack. ‘But why is he here?’
‘Mrs Thistlewaite,’ Jack began. He paused as his phone beeped again. ‘I’d like to discuss with you the complai-’
‘What is there to discuss?’ Esther spat. ‘You disregarded my granddaughter without even meeting her.’
‘No, Grams,’ McDavid said. ‘He was looking out for me. Jack has a… history with partners.’
Esther placed one hand on her granddaughter’s cheek. McDavid flashed Jack a look which said Give us some space.
Jack walked away, taking the opportunity to check his phone. Accessing the messaging app, he saw two texts from his bank. The first nearly stopped his heart:
Your bank account is close to $0.00. Please deposit funds to prevent using your overdraft.
The second shocked him enough to restart his heart:
You are now using your overdraft and will be charged as per the terms and conditions of your account.
McDavid explained to Esther the reasons Jack had initially been reluctant to accept her as his partner, words she had said before. She hadn’t expected her Grams to change her mind on her argument alone, but thought that Jack would be able to convince her. The man who had once talked a bank robber into not just releasing hostages but also to use his prison wages to pay for their counselling could surely make Esther see the error of her thinking.
‘…that just because you’re a woman…’
Looking over at Jack for support, McDavid saw his pale expression, his knotted brow, and instantly knew something was wrong. She tuned out her grandmother’s voice as she tried to catch Jack’s attention.
‘Person,’ Jack grunted into his phone. ‘Let me talk to a person.’
‘…with babies and cannot provide a worthwhile…’
‘Just a minute, Grams,’ McDavid said. She stepped closer to Jack.
With a frustrated groan, Jack ended the call and shoved the cell into his pocket.
‘Damn automated system,’ he cursed. To McDavid, he said, ‘I gotta get to the bank.’
‘Grams, we have to go,’ McDavid said, ‘but we’ll come later.’
‘Yes, Mrs Thistlewaite,’ Jack said earnestly. ‘I’ll be back.’
(McDavid pulled Jack close, into a whispered huddle.
‘I don’t think you should have said that,’ she said.
‘Why? Too threatening?’
‘No. I’m worried there may have been an infringement of copyright.’
Jack nodded. ‘What should I say instead? “I shall return”?’
‘I think I’ve heard that before.’
They both thought for a moment.
‘Yes,’ Jack confirmed. ‘General MacArthur. “Be back soon”?’ he suggested.
McDavid shook her head. ‘Oliver! 1968 Carol Reed movie.’
‘Then there’s only one thing for it,’ Jack said. McDavid saw the pain in his eyes as he contemplated his words:
‘Mrs Thistlewaite. Laters.’)
As they marched back inside, Jack told McDavid how money had been taken from his bank account. She asked how much he’d had at the beginning of the day.
‘Forty-six thousand dollars,’ he answered.
‘On a cop’s wage?’ she wanted to ask, but her disbelief vanished as she realised Jack lived in a one-room apartment and never took vacation days. He lived and breathed the job, so he had nothing to spend his earnings on.
‘Where did you last use your card?’ she asked instead.
‘On that,’ he said as they entered the lobby, pointing at the broken vending machine. He stopped suddenly. His instincts were telling him something was wrong, instincts that had saved his life countless times before.
McDavid marched past Jack, heading straight for the door.
Jack glanced around, looking for the danger he knew was there. The two doors, ‘Private’ and ‘Stairs’, were closed, as was the elevator door. Pauline was still behind the reception counter, smiling up from the computer screen she had been focusing on. The vending machines were–
Now! Necta Rondo commanded.
–vibrating wildly. The one on the left, the empty one, pitched forward. Jack could have sworn it leapt from the floor and did not simply fall over.
Jack lurched for McDavid, grabbed her jacket, yanked her backwards. McDavid yelled in surprise.
Thunder and glass exploded in the lobby as the vending machine crashed down on very spot she had been standing. Pauline shrieked and crouched behind the counter.
Jack noticed the manufacturer’s plate on the back of the machine, announcing the model: Azkoyen Mistral+.
‘What the fox?’ shouted McDavid, having the presence of mind to watch her language despite having nearly being crushed to death.
The prickle on Jack’s nape did not disappear with the falling vendor. They were not out of the woods yet.
A whirring sound came from the middle machine. Its lights flickered twice, then stayed on. The bar holding the chips Jack had previously chosen sprang to life and deposited his snack in the tray at the bottom. Another spiral revolved and dropped a soda can. A third, a fourth. Soon the room was filled with the sound of the falling cans.
The dispensing tray dropped open. A blur shot out.
McDavid cried out as a soda can smashed into her shoulder.
‘Get down,’ Jack yelled, pushing her to the ground behind the fallen Azkoyen Mistral+. ‘Give me your gun.’
‘Who ya gonna plug?’ McDavid asked. ‘Who’s attacking us?’
‘It’s not who, it’s what.’
With the pistol held out before him, Jack popped up from the cover. The middle vending machine had tilted backwards against the wall, altering the trajectory of the cans it was spewing forth and increasing their range. He ducked down again as a cola drink narrowly missed his head.
‘I always knew sugary drinks were bad for my health,’ he muttered.
In one fluid motion, Jack rose and aimed. He squeezed off five shots in rapid succession. The front of the machine collapsed in a shower of broken glass and electric sparks. As if in slow motion, the machine leaned forward, teetered, then boomed to the floor.
‘It seems I’ve dispensed with your trouble.’
Necta Rondo seethed.
Jack was proving harder to crush than Necta Rondo had first considered. But Necta Rondo was not done yet.
Stepping over the fallen machine, Jack’s trained eye caught the model name, Maas DLS844, though he paid it no heed. He had McDavid’s gun trained on the final vendor. Although it had yet to show signs of aggression, Jack’s instincts told him this was where the next assault would come from.
He was not wrong.
In jerking movements, the machine’s left side scraped forward, then the right side. In this stuttering manner it walked toward him.
Jack fired off a round. The bullet hit the coin slot and ricocheted away. Afraid any further shots may end up bouncing around and wounding McDavid or Pauline, Jack searched for another way to stop the machine.
It loomed closer. A can dropped to the dispensing tray. The drawer flew open.
Jack threw himself through the air. He sailed past the vending machine, hit the floor and slid into the wall against which all three machines had been standing.
‘If I can’t plug you,’ he said, waving the useless gun around with one hand while the other reached for the thick electric cable. Spotting the manufacturer’s plate on the back of this machine, he finished, ‘I’ll unplug you, Necta Rondo.’
Christmas at the House of Monsters
Exactly at the stroke of midnight, the ghost drifted silently through the bedroom door. Snuggled under his Scooby Doo duvet, the boy mumbled in his sleep. The ghost drew closer to the bed and looked down at the sleeping child. Dead eyes widened, translucent lips pulled back, chest expanded in the mockery of taking a breath and a hellish, piercing scream-
-stopped in the ghost’s throat as something clutched her ankle.
Stepping back, Alisha looked down in time to see a hairy, six-fingered hand disappear under the bed.
‘Matty,’ she hissed at the thing under the bed, ‘whyfor did thou grasp at me so?’
From under the bed, a grating, scratchy voice spoke.
‘Poor sweet, Alisha,’ it croaked before descending into a series of rasping coughs. When it came again, the voice was steady and clearly enunciated; a normal voice.
‘Your scream would have woken up the kid,’ Matty said. ‘Then he would have woken his parents, they’d have come in and I’d have lights and sobbing to contend with all night. Who needs that kind of hassle?’
‘But he scared me,’ Alisha explained. ‘He’s not supposed to be here.’
In the corner of the room, the closet door unlatched and creaked open. Slowly. During the day, the door opened smoothly and soundlessly in a second; now it groaned for the full minute it took to open wide.
‘Will you two get in here? You’re talking loud enough to wake the dead.’
‘Hey, I find that offensive,’ Alisha complained, but shuffled toward the closet nonetheless. When she was inside, Matty crept from under the bed in a slither of fur and fangs and shadow. The door closed behind him.
‘So this is your place?’ Matty said, looking around. Beyond the shelves and the boxes and games that were strewn across the floor, a grey landscape unfolded, a rocky tundra stretching for miles toward snow-capped mountains in the distance. ‘Not as cramped as I expected.’
‘Nor as colourful or, ahem, gay as I expected,’ Alisha added.
‘I’m in the closet because I’m a closet monster. I was made this way, it’s not a choice.’
‘Relax, Kevin,’ Alisha soothed. ‘I was joking.’
‘Will you two stop bickering?’ Matty said. ‘We have a problem. They’re here.’
Alisha giggled. When she saw the confusion on her friends’ faces, she muttered under her breath, ‘You two don’t watch enough movies.’
‘The family always goes away for Christmas,’ Matty continued. ‘Why are they still here?’
‘It’s the state of world this year,’ Kevin explained. ‘This stupid coronavirus has scuppered everybody’s plans.’
‘What’s that?’ Alisha and Matty chimed in unison.
Kevin tutted in exasperation. ‘Don’t you watch the news?’
‘I find it deathly boring,’ Alisha said and giggled again.
Kevin groaned. It was not a good groan. Alisha was the best at that; it was part and parcel of the whole ghost thing.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, with a roll of his eyes, ‘the family are not allowed to visit her parents this year, so they’re staying here.’
Though it seemed impossible that she could, Alisha paled.
‘But we always have the house to ourselves over Christmas. What we will do?’
Kevin’s face set with grim determination. ‘We will just have to make do.’
‘This is going to be…’ Alisha stopped unable to find the right word to express her angst.
Matty completed the sentence for her, choosing a word they all found apt:
After agreeing to meet up once the family were awake and downstairs, Matty and Alisha returned to their respective lairs. The night seemed to drag on for decades but, as each of the monsters had been around for far longer, they had practise of whiling away the time. Eventually, excited voices could be heard.
‘It’s morning. Marilyn, it’s morning.’
‘Let’s go down and see if he’s been.’
‘Soon. Go see if Mum and Dad are up.’
‘Mum! Dad! Are you up?’
‘I said go and see if they’re up.’
As the family traipsed down to the living room, Kevin left the closet and called out for Matty. Together, they crept out to the landing and loitered near the hatch to the attic.
Alisha stuck her head through the ceiling.
‘How do we get up there?’ Kevin asked.
Alisha shrugged, a difficult manoeuvre to execute whilst upside down.
‘I don’t know. Can’t you just pass through the walls and floors like I can?’
‘We’re corporeal beings,’ Matty reminded her, ‘not ethereal like you.’
‘Interesting,’ Alisha said with not a trace of sarcasm. ‘So how are you going to get up here?’
‘That’s what I just asked,’ Kevin said, his voice dripping with frustration.
Footsteps sounded at the bottom on the stairs, getting closer. Someone was coming.
Kevin grabbed Matty and dragged him through the nearest door. The bathroom was large and, as the blinds were still closed, thankfully dark. Matty crawled into the space beneath the bathtub while Kevin hid behind the shower door.
The father entered but, much the Kevin’s relief, did not switch on the light. Once he’d relieved himself and pressed the flush, he washed his hands and returned to his family. The roar from the cistern reverberated in the tiled room, causing goosebumps to pop out of Kevin’s skin.
‘They’re still here?’ cried a voice from behind the toilet.
Matty slunk out from his hiding space. ‘Good morning, Chaney,’ he said.
‘What’s so good about it?’ replied the flush monster, stepping into view. Water dripped from his hair, sliding down his face like tears. Chaney always looked sad and Kevin appreciated that if he were to spend his entire existence damp and cold, he too would not be in the cheeriest of moods.
‘Look, today we’re going to face some… challenges,’ Kevin said. ‘But we’re still going to enjoy Christmas. We’re just going to have to be creative with our fun.’
‘I’m not going to get the watch the TV, am I?’ Chaney sulked.
‘You only watch the soaps anyway,’ Matty said. ‘and they’re always depressing. They kill more people off on Christmas day than an undercooked turkey.’
‘I know,’ Chaney replied with a gleeful smile. ‘It makes me feel better about my life.’
From above them, Alisha announced her entrance.
‘I’m coming down now. Avert your eyes.’
The monsters turned to the carpet as Alisha descended from the attic. She always demanded they look away when she entered from the ceiling, afraid they would try to peek up her skirts. Kevin had tried to explain that, because they were all different species of nightmare, none of them were interested in her in that way but his words fell on deaf ears. Or dead ears.
‘Is this where we’re spending the day?’ Alisha asked. Spotting the mirror over the sink, she added, ‘I dare someone to play Bloody Mary.’
‘No!’ Chaney yelled, trembling with fear.
‘Aw, is the water monster afraid of the vengeful ghost?’ Alisha mocked in a singsong voice.
‘No, she’s just a pain. All she does is whine about her hangover then spends her time ransacking the place for tomato juice.’
Matty nodded in agreement.
‘We can’t stay in here anyway,’ Kevin said. ‘Once the drinks start flowing, the father will be in here every two minutes. We’ll probably get more privacy in the daughter’s room.’
‘Can I come too?’
Confused, the closet monster looked around for the source of the tiny voice.
‘Down here, Kevins. In the bath.’
Kevin peered into the tub. A small spider was furiously crawling up the sleek side, only to be beaten by the nonporous material and tumble back down.
‘Of course, Petey,’ Kevin answered. He reached out a hand and let the spider run up his arm. ‘Where is the rest of you?’
‘We’ll meet you there.’
As Alisha took the direct route, Matty, Chaney and Kevin snuck into the hall and tiptoed to the girl’s bedroom. The floorboards creaked under their feet – more than six, thanks to Matty’s countless limbs. Kevin held his breath, praying the family would not hear and come to investigate. Luckily, the noise was masked beneath the sounds of joy and surprise coming from downstairs.
Once inside the daughter’s room, Kevin relaxed. This was his favourite room in the house, the one which felt most like home. Blackout curtains prevented any chink of daylight entering, though Kevin’s innate night vision allowed him to take in the scene perfectly. The walls were hidden behind a collage of fantasy and heavy metal posters, an eclectic mix of dragons and Black Veil Brides and unicorns and Slipknot. On shelves which once homed Barbies and stuffed toys sat figurines of wizards and skulls and Pegasusses (or is it Pegasi? Kevin pondered) and more dragons.
There was no doubt in Kevin’s mind that the occupant of this room was a kindred spirit and, should they ever come face to face, he believed they could become good friends.
On the duvet bearing a – no surprise – fearsome-looking black dragon, two dozen spiders scurried over one another. Kevin gently placed his charge beside them and it quickly joined the throng. More arachnids appeared, climbing up the sheets or dropping from the ceiling, and soon a foot-high conglomeration was created. Furry legs extended, chelicerae flexed and eight eyes peered up, each part comprised of individual spiders.
‘Hi, guys,’ the creature said, myriad voices joining in one cacophonous whisper.
‘And lady,’ Petey added hurriedly.
You’re not pretty enough.
The thought suddenly popped into Kevin’s mind. He mentally shrugged; body image was not a concern for a monster who had the ability to shapeshift at will. Looking at the annoyed expressions on his friend’s faces, he knew they had thought the same thing.
Nobody wants to be your friend.
‘Stop it, Debbie,’ Alisha said to the room.
You’ll never get a boyfriend.
‘This doesn’t work with us,’ Chaney said. ‘We’re not teenage girls.’
In the dressing table mirror, a wan reflection appeared. It was the spitting image of the family’s daughter but with sunken cheeks and insipid eyes. The straight, black-as-night hair, dark smudges circling the eyes and raven-coloured lips were echoes of the original girl. Much to her chagrin, Debbie even had more colour in her cheeks than the emo daughter.
I can’t help it, Debbie thought in everyone’s head. I’m a Doubt Demon. It’s what I do.
‘We know,’ Kevin said patiently. ‘Are you joining us for Christmas?’
Yes, sure. Debbie smiled, despite herself. What have you got planned?
‘Hiding from the family,’ Chaney moaned.
‘We’re not hiding,’ Matty said. ‘We’re just… well, it’s Christmas day. We deserve a day off.’
The rest of the monsters nodded and murmured their agreement.
‘What about Borises?’ Petey asked.
‘He’s right,’ Alisha said. ‘We can’t let Boris out of the basement with the family here. They’re bound to see him.’
Kevin’s forehead creased in thought.
You’re not clever enough to work this out.
Matty glared at Debbie in the mirror.
Sorry, she thought. Force of habit.
‘If we can’t get Boris to the party,’ Kevin announced, ‘we’ll have to get the party to Boris.’
‘You mean spend the day in the basement?’ Alisha asked. ‘Where it’s cold and damp?’
‘Home away from home,’ Chaney complained, but couldn’t help a small smile.
‘Come on, guys,’ Kevin said. After a sharp glance from Alisha, he added, ‘And ladies. It’s not going to be a Christmas we’re used to, I know, but we should still spend it all together and try to enjoy it the best we can. Yes?’
Matty nodded, though it was hard to tell due to his lack of a neck. ‘Kevin’s right,’ he said. ‘Christmas is what you make, so I say let’s get down to the cellar and make this one great.’
‘And how are we going to get there?’ Chaney asked. ‘It’s okay for Alisha and Petey. Even Debbie. They can all slip past the family unseen, but us three-’ his wet finger pointed out Kevin, Matty and himself ‘-are not so easily hidden.’
‘That’s a good point,’ Kevin admitted. ‘But where there’s a will…’
‘…there are relatives squabbling over the heirlooms?’ Alisha suggested.
‘No,’ Kevin answered. He opened his mouth to correct her, but decided against it. Instead, he said, ‘Alisha, I need you to go and scope out the downstairs. Petey, go and tell Boris we’re coming.’
‘Yes, Kevins,’ the spiders chorused. The giant creature disintegrated into its scores of component parts and scattered throughout the house.
A moment later, Alisha reappeared through the bedroom floor.
‘The whole family is in the,’ she paused to steel herself before finishing: ‘l-l-living room.’
‘Don’t like that word at all, do you?’ Matty commented.
‘No,’ Alisha shuddered. ‘It makes me feel as though someone has walked over my grave.’
‘Then let’s go,’ Kevin said.
As one, the monsters left the daughter’s bedroom and moved to the top of the stairs. The sound of the family reached them, the mother howling with laughter as the father barked commands to the family.
‘Open this one now, Eddie. Marilyn, pass this the present to your mum. Happy Christmas, Lily, I love you.’
Creeping slowly, Kevin led Matty and Chaney down the stairway. He stopped at the bottom and peered around the corner. The door to the lounge was ajar. They would have to pass it to get to the kitchen. Luckily, the family appeared so wrapped up in their own excitement Kevin guessed their chances were high.
‘Ready,’ he whispered. ‘One. Two.’
The mother turned to look through the open doorway.
Kevin pulled Matty and Chaney back.
‘What’s wrong, honey?’ the father asked.
‘Thought I heard something, Herman. Must be my imagination.’ The mother turned back to her family.
‘Unless this house is haunted,’ Kevin heard the daughter say, which sent the whole family into fits of giggles.
‘Now,’ Kevin ordered, realising that giving a countdown would only waste time. He lurched forward, dragging his friends behind him and in three long strides he had safely gotten them all in the kitchen.
The delicious aroma of cooking filled the air. Pots simmered on the stove. Kevin’s stomach grumbled. So did Chaney.
‘Oh, this is fantastic,’ he said sarcastically. ‘All this wonderful food and warmth and we have to pass it by to spend the day in the dank basement.’
‘It’ll be better when we’re all together,’ Kevin said, unconvincingly. The smell was just too nice. Moist turkey. Cranberry sauce. Roast potatoes. Pigs-in-blankets. Swede. Sprouts. Everything was mouth-watering.
Matty had wandered over to the fridge. He slammed the door shut and rushed to Kevin’s side.
‘It’s horrible,’ he cried.
Kevin and Chaney stared at him with wide eyes.
‘There’s batter in there,’ Matty explained.
‘DearGodno,’ Chaney gasped. ‘You mean…?’
‘Yes,’ Matty whispered. ‘The family is having… Yorkshire puddings with their Christmas dinner.’
Kevin shuddered. Suddenly the food did not seem as inviting. He shuffled the trio over to the basement door. As expected, it was locked.
‘Where do they keep the key?’ he hissed.
Alisha materialised and poked her head into a cupboard. ‘Not here,’ her muffled voice replied.
As the ghost moved to the next cupboard, Chaney leapt onto the sink and rummaged around on the windowsill. Kevin could hear Boris through the door.
‘But I’m not ready to receive visitors,’ he was explaining to Petey. ‘Why, this place is simply thick with dust. It has not seen a mop and bucket for far too many a-year.’
‘Found it,’ Chaney said, and tossed the key to Kevin.
Kevin quickly unlocked the cellar door but before he could open it the door to the living room crashed open. Making a vrooming sound, the son ran in flying a toy spaceship in his hand.
Alisha disappeared with a squeal. Chaney hunkered down in the sink. Unable to find a hiding spot, Matty froze in the middle of the floor while Kevin wished himself invisible. (It didn’t work; invisibility was not one of his talents.)
‘Careful in there,’ the mother shouted, but the son ignored her and bounded through to the hallway, completely oblivious to the monsters.
Kevin breathed a sigh of relief, pushing aside the disappointment that his presence had not frightened the child.
‘That was too close,’ he said as he opened the door to the basement.
‘I’ll say,’ Matty agreed as he scurried to the dark opening. ‘I thought for sure we were-’
A shrill scream cut him off.
In the lounge doorway, the daughter stood clasping one hand to her mouth while the other pointed directly at Matty.
When Kevin recounted the next events in future stories, he was often tempted to begin with, ‘All hell broke loose.’ He never succumbed though; having seen hell in person, he knew it was a pale comparison to what actually occurred.
Caught out in the open, Matty pressed himself to the ground trying desperately to become a shapeless shadow. Alisha, shocked at daughter’s cry, let loose a blood-curdling wail which would have been the envy of any banshee within earshot. Chaney, attempting to deflect attention from the-thing-under-the-bed-which-was-no-longer-under-the-bed, flicked on the cold tap and jumped headfirst at the plughole.
Brought by the sound of his daughter’s fear, the father rushed into the kitchen. He eyes danced from Shadow Matty to Chaney’s butt wriggling itself into the plughole to Kevin. Disbelief painted his face.
‘What the devil is that ruckus?’ Boris shouted and rushed from the cellar. He stepped into the light, the whole six-legged, eight-foot reptilian length of him. Iridescent scales shimmered, onyx-coloured eyes blinked, fork-tongue flickered.
‘Oh,’ he whispered.
For long moments there was only the sound of running water.
The father’s eyes continued to move from one monster to another, now taking in Alisha and Boris. Chaney, having realised his hiding place had not been large enough, was now peeking over the side of the sink.
The mother appeared behind the father, a strange growling sound coming from her.
Worst Christmas ever, Kevin thought.
Then the daughter broke the quiet.
Pointing at Boris, she yelped with joy and said, ‘A dragon! You got me a dragon!’ In the next moment she was beside Boris, wrapping her arms around his neck.
‘Um, young lady,’ Boris tried but his protest was lost beneath the shower of kisses.
‘I knew it, Herman,’ the mother said. Kevin found her cool tone unnerving. ‘This house is full of monsters.’
‘You’re right,’ the father agreed. He sighed, and in that sound Kevin heard the resignation of years of denial. ‘You always said it was, Lily. I should have believed you.’
The son burst into the kitchen, still playing with his spaceship. He stopped and took in the scene.
‘Monsters?’ he screamed, his toy instantly forgotten.
‘Yes, Eddie,’ the father said. ‘Even though we can’t be with Grams and Gramps his year, it looks like we’ll still have to deal with monsters.’
‘Hey,’ the mother said, playfully hitting the father’s arm. ‘My parents are not monsters. Werewolves, yes, but not monsters.’
She stepped into the kitchen and rolled up the sleeves of her dressing gown. Looking at each of Kevin’s friends one by one, her gaze finally came to rest on the closet monster. Though she spoke to Kevin, her words were addressed to the room.
‘Looks like we’re going to need more sprouts if you lot are staying for dinner.’
Smiling, Kevin said the one thing there were all thinking:
‘God bless us, every one!’
Another late-night tale: A different promise
I stand at the end of the pier and look down at water. This far from the beach, the sea rises and falls in undulating waves, the peaks crested with silver light borrowed from the moon; only nearer shore do the waves break, a susurrant whisper in the quiet night.
Will he come tonight? I wonder, as I have on this night every year since my lover said goodnight. Though I promised to come back, he has never since returned.
I think of his life since my departure. Does he live in solitude, afraid of the emotions love can bring forth? Has he distanced himself from those around him, existing alone in his world? Or has he found another to love? Perhaps he is with her now, laughing and caring, loving and living.
That thought fills me with rage. I am his true love, his first. I am the one he is destined to spend eternity with. No-one but me will ever see the core of his soul and love him with such passion.
A sound along the pier swells my heart but, as the waters beneath me ever ebb, my hope is dashed when I realise it is nothing but the wind caressing the tired bunting hanging between the stalls.
Yet further still, my keen eyes pick out movement. A great shadow is slowly making its way in my direction. Surely this is him – at last my love is coming back to me.
Unable to breath, I watch as the figure struggles forward. He seems burdened by a weight. At first, I believe it to be a metaphorical heaviness, a physical manifestation of the years since our parting stooping his back. I soon realise though the reason for his bent posture. Across his shoulders, he carries another. His other love.
Salt-filled water escape my eyes. Though my love has returned to our spot, he had not done so that we may reunite. Anger lashes through me as a storm whips at the sea. I am tossed and blown, ravaged by the cruel winds of rejection.
He draws nearer and I shuffle forward, leaving wet footprints on the boardwalk. Focused on his task, he does not see me and continues to lead his new love to the wooden railings. Sitting her on the edge, he takes her head in his hand and gently kisses her lips.
‘Goodnight, my sweet Una,’ he whispers.
She does not stir, does not answer – not as I had all those years past. I had screamed my love for him, I had begged and beseeched he return my feelings. But to no avail.
I see now that he had not truly cared for me, that the love and affection he pretended was nothing but a ruse to bring me alone to the pier. Just as he now has Una.
But they are not alone. Not this time. Now, I am here and I am drowning in a fearsome fury.
Brushing wet hair from my face, I stumble forward and let out a bubbling cry.
He turns to me, startled. His eyes widen. His mouth opens in a circle of dread.
And though I am not quick enough to prevent him pitching Una to her own watery grave, I pounce at that mouth and pour in the same brine and water that had choked the life from me all those years before.
Today is the day I find out my life is a lie.
Of course, I had no idea of this to begin with. For me, it was just another day at the office; filing claims, processing cheques, replying to emails. Eight hours of tedium, made bearable only by the presence of Cynthia.
As far as I was concerned, Cynthia was the reason I existed. The sole purpose I had arrived on this planet was to make her smile, which I did with surprising ease. Whether it was the clown tie I occasionally wore, the silly quips I often made or my unique impression of Elvis, she was always quick to laugh along. Her eyes sparkled when she did and the sweet giggle she released melted my heart.
Yes, there was no doubt in my mind that Cynthia was the centre of my life. If only I could summon the courage to tell her. And perhaps tonight I would.
Today was Cynthia’s birthday. I won’t say which, for a gentleman never reveals a lady’s age, but it was one that demanded a bigger celebration than most. The whole office had been invited and, at five o’clock, we downed tools en masse and made our way to the elevator. The thirty of us crammed into the small cab and I was lucky enough to be next to Cynthia. She pressed against me, the scent of her coconut hair oil making my head swim.
After a short ride up, the lift doors opened onto Tito’s. Cynthia’s favourite club was packed with people, music thrumming through the floor. A young Tom Cruise lookalike stepped forward and guided us to a private bar where two other men, both also surprisingly Cruise-esque, spun and flipped bottles as they mixed drinks. All the while they flashed that charming Hollywood smile.
The DJ changed the music and Blondie’s Dreaming blared through the speakers.
‘I love this song,’ Cynthia shouted. Forgetting the drinks, she grabbed my hand and led me to the dancefloor. Lost in the crowd of moving figures, she placed her arms around my neck and gyrated to the music. She threw her hand back and sang along.
Cynthia did not have a good singing voice, but I did not care. As we moved together, I knew I was as happy as I could ever be. And I was determined to let her know how she made me feel.
‘I need to talk to you,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she answered with a smile. ‘Come with me.’
Pushing past even more Tom Cruise wannabes, we made our way to the fire exit, opened the door and climbed the metal steps to the rooftop. Moonlight washed her face with silver, glinted from the sheen of her nails. She ran to the edge of the roof and looked down at the ocean below. In the distance, liners cut through the sea as they carried passengers to destinations of their dreams.
I took her hand in mine and willed my racing heart to slow.
‘Cynthia,’ I mumbled. ‘You need to know…’
‘I do know,’ she shouted. ‘And I have to tell you-’
Her next words were lost under the blare of a liner’s horn. Unlike other foghorns I had heard, this was not one long dull tone but series of beats that sounded more like an alarm.
‘What did you say?’ I asked.
Leaning close, she pressed her mouth to my ear. I delighted at the touch of her warm breath on my cheek, but her voice raised the hairs on the back of my neck. No longer did she sound like the exuberant woman I had fallen for; instead, she spoke with the stilted voice of a robot.
‘It’s seven forty-five a.m. Time to rise and shine.’
The ocean liner continued its strange siren call, but the sea had disappeared in a whirling darkness which drew ever close. Soon nothing but the rooftop existed. I felt Cynthia being pulled away, lifted from the ground as the black vortex advanced toward us.
‘No,’ I cried. ‘Don’t leave me.’
I reached out my hands but Cynthia was swallowed by the maelstrom and
Cynthia grabbed her phone and silenced the alarm. Yawning, she rubbed sleep from her eyes.
‘Dancing on a rooftop with Tom Cruise?’ she slurred, only half-awake. ‘What a weird dream.’