“Thin Skin” Horror by Kilmo

The tall figure in the drab olive parka grimaced as another gust of freezing drizzle slapped into his face. Five hundred miles from the Scottish Highlands and the weather had followed him like an old friend. Ben gave the whistle he’d borrowed from the P.E. department a blast mildly surprised it still worked with all the water in it.

“You, Jaxon, isn’t it?” he scraped wet hair out of his eyes. “Play by the rules, or I’ll send you off.”

The youth who’d just thrown a punch at his opponent gave the teacher a surly look and went back to chasing the ball.

“Sir?”

Ben felt a tug on his arm.

“Wait son. Not everyone can be on at the same time. You’ll get your turn.”

“No, sir. That’s not what I meant. Whose dog is that? Is it one of those fighting breeds?”

“What dog? Where?”

Ben peered through the rain. Sat at the edge of the sodden playing fields was a dog, a very big black dog, staring at the pitch and Ben got the feeling it wasn’t the ball it was interested in. He strode toward the mutt making flapping motions as he tried to imitate something large and dangerous.

The stray didn’t budge.

“Go on shoo. Get out of it.” For a moment Ben’s feet slowed. “I said shoo. Go find your owner.”

A growl began deep in the animal’s chest and Ben glanced back. The teams on the pitch had come to a halt. He supposed even footie paled in comparison to watching the new teacher get ripped to shreds.

“Right,” muttered Ben under his breath. “Think a wee jessie like you’se going to scare me? Where I come from, you’re nothing but a poodle.”

He was close enough by then to make a grab for the hound’s neck and he was just debating his next move when it made it for him.

“Agh, gerroff,” screamed Ben as what felt like a beartrap closed around his knee. “Help! Call the police!”

The dog was really getting stuck into its work now worrying at his leg like it was trying to snap it in half.

“Teacher, teacher, you Ok?”

The sound of stampeding feet reached Ben’s ears and with a last snarl the dog let go. As Ben finally toppled over, he saw his attacker’s eyes. They were the green of jade in an emperor’s tomb, and they did not belong in a dog like that’s face.

Sprawled on the sodden grass Ben gingerly peeled up his trousers.

‘You little . . ..’

Ben finished with a few choice words that weren’t intended for underage ears and was surprised to hear no answering giggles. For a rare moment, his group of inner-city hoodlums had been struck dumb. As his fingers traced the ragged edges of the wound the dog had left, Ben realized he was clutching something. He flung the broken collar to one side. There was going to be hell to pay when he caught up with the hound’s owner.

Something electronic was being tortured next to Ben’s ear. He groaned as the sound resolved into the rattle of his telephone and flung out an arm.

“Hallo?”

Memories of yesterday’s events began to crowd through Ben’s mind – the hospital, the concerned face of the principal telling him to go home and rest. He groaned louder, there’d been a policeman too, and last but not least, the bloody wound he’d hidden under a blanket when he’d collapsed on the couch.

“It’s me laddie, you Ok? You don’t sound very good.”

Ben snapped back to the present. It was Gran, ever the early riser she’d phoned to check up on his big move to live with the sassenach’s.

“Gran . . .? I’m fine.”

Ben blinked the last of the sleep away momentarily surprised. He really was fine; he even felt quite good as he realized a glorious day was beaming in through the flat’s windows.

“That’s a relief. How are you settling in? Been mugged yet?”

Ben grinned. As far as Gran was concerned anyone from the city was a dangerous criminal, or worse.

“Not yet Gran.”

“Well don’t you go doing anything stupid. You’re my favourite grandson.”

“I’m your only grandson.”

The sound of laughter echoed down the line.

“Ah, but I’d liked to have had more. Much more.”

When Ben had finished placating the woman who’d raised him from infancy, he replaced the phone. He’d carefully avoided telling her anything about the attack. The last thing he wanted was the old dear bouncing around her cottage pulling her hair out over tetanus and rabies.

Ben stared at the end of the couch and the lump where his leg was hidden under the blanket.

“One, two, three.”

He whipped it back half expecting to see a stump, but after all the fuss and bother the bandage looked embarrassingly small. There wasn’t even a hint of blood.

“Plenty yesterday though.”

Ben reached gingerly for the gauze. A stern looking nurse had told him to leave well alone, but Ben was an inveterate fiddler. He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the damage.

“Oh.”

Ben stared at the spot where the dog had dug its teeth in in a neat row of nearly identical puncture marks.

“That was quick.”

Where there should have been scabs, or puss, or anything that showed evidence of how much it had hurt, there was just a row of silver scars. Carefully Ben put his foot on the floor and raised himself off the couch. He had a bit of a limp, but that was all. He hobbled to the window. Below him the city’s rooftops spread into the distance. The principal had said a week off, and there was a whole city to explore.

It was getting dark by the time Ben returned from browsing the record shops and second-hand stalls and the lights on the tower block’s walkways had just clicked on when he stepped inside.

“Lift’s out again bud,” said a Rasta with grey dreadlocks jammed underneath his woolly hat. “Third time this week.”

Ben finished stabbing at the lift’s buttons and looked around despairingly.

“Stairs are that way. Hope you haven’t got far to go.”

The man disappeared outside as Ben hobbled toward a fire door marked “stairs” pushing it open to find a nearly lightless shaft decorated in industrial grey paint. He waved his hand in front of the motion sensor and cursed when nothing happened.

Halfway up his wound finally decided it had had enough.

“Damnit,” Ben wiped his brow as he struggled past another landing. Maybe he should sit down for a moment? He hadn’t seen anyone during the whole climb although occasionally voices reached him from below. He’d just let his eyelids close as he tried to ignore the dull thud of pain when he was stepped on.

“Oh my God!” said a woman’s voice before Ben’s hand shot out and grabbed the figure about to continue her journey downwards at a much faster pace.

“Get off me. What the hell are you doing sitting there in the dark? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”

“I’m really really sorry,” said Ben clambering to his feet. “I had an accident yesterday and I’m having a bit of trouble climbing these stairs.”

There was a pause and the sound of panicked breathing calmed.

“I nearly went down the lot, all at once.”

“I know, like I say I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

“Trainers,” said the woman absently. “I’m going for a jog. You’re the new guy, aren’t you? The teacher that’s just moved in?”

“That’s right.”

“Do all people from Scotland like lurking around in unlit stairwells then?”

“Only the troglodytes like me.”

There was a small chuckle that quickly stopped.

“Well . . . no harm no foul, I suppose. Hope you get better quick.”

She was already moving off, but before Ben could stop himself his mouth had opened, and words were coming out.

“Let me make it up to you. Come round for a brew. I don’t know anyone yet in town.”

He still couldn’t see her face, but her back had stopped a few steps down.

“How do I know you’re not a weirdo? There’s plenty of them round here.”

“Ermmm, we could leave the front door open?”

There was another chuckle, longer this time.

“Ok new boy.”

“I’m in flat . . ..”

“Don’t worry. I already know.”

“Great,” Ben’s mouth flapped as he tried to think of something to say. “Give me a shout this evening?”

“Bye Ben.”

He felt his cheeks grow hot.

“Bye . . . wait. What’s your name?”

“Eden.”

It had been a success Ben decided as he finished clearing away the last of the plates. Ok, they hadn’t fallen into bed, although that had been exactly what was on his mind when he’d opened the door and seen the woman standing outside. Eden was beautiful, from the tips of her fingers to her clear blue eyes. She was everything her name implied. She was also nobody’s fool, and it looked like she wanted to know what she was dealing with before she decided where she wanted it to go. Besides, decided Ben, it was nice just to know someone on the block.

He flicked out the kitchen light, drying his hands on his jeans as he crossed the front room and stopped. It was nearly midnight and the place should have been in darkness, but outside the moon sailed fat and silent and so huge it seemed to fill the window from side to side. Even the walls were painted silver. Ben felt a vein in his temple begin to throb. What was up with him? He could barely tear his eyes away from the sight.

He looked at his foot. It had begun to throb too.

A second later he was doubled over as pain seared up his back. A second after that and Ben began to scream.

Ben was starting to get used to waking up confused, but it soon became obvious something was badly amiss this time. He was lying curled up in the middle of the room, and there was no sign of his clothes. His eyes travelled round his devastated flat as he stood up trying to avoid broken glass. It looked like every stick of furniture had been smashed and there were gouges in the walls big enough to lose your finger in.

A knocking began to fill the air that quickly turned into pounding. Ben grabbed his dressing gown before his front door could fly off its hinges half expecting armed police to come bursting in.

“What was it then? A party?”

He squinted blearily at the short gray-haired man vibrating with rage in the hall.

“Kept me up half the night you did. Howling and moaning and carrying on. Who’d you think you are?”

“I . . . I . . .,” stammered Ben.

The man stuck his finger under Ben’s nose and leaned in.

“One more night like that and I’m coming down here mob handed.”

Before Ben could say anything else his neighbour was striding down the corridor leaving him to retreat into what had been the safety of his flat. It felt like returning to a war zone.

By the time Ben had managed to deal with the worst of the mess he needed to talk. He eyed the phone and sat on the one unshattered stick of furniture he still possessed.

“Eden?”

“Ben, I was wondering if you’d call.”

“Do you fancy going for a drink? I could do with a friend right now.”

There was a pause and then Eden’s voice returned.

“Sure.”

They’d walked into the city centre at dusk, or in Ben’s case limped, with him growing increasingly worried he was losing it. He’d never been a paranoid person but every time he looked over his shoulder, he got the feeling something had ducked out of sight, and beyond the street lights the shadows were full of movement.

“What’s wrong Ben? You seem jumpy.”

For a moment he was at a loss for words.

“You’ve lived round here a long time, haven’t you?”

“Since I was a kid, yeah.’

“So, you’d know if anything bad had happened locally?”

Ben had kept the TV on all day, but there’d been nothing he could find on the news.

Eden gave him a look.

“Like what?”

“An attack? A mugging maybe?”

“Well, all sorts of things go down round here. It used to be much worse, but it’s still a rough neighbourhood. Not everything gets reported. What’s happened Ben? I like you, but I need to know. I don’t want to have to point out we’ve only just met . . . but . . . well . . . we’ve only just met. You know?”

She looked away and Ben felt a twinge of guilt. He’d no right to get her mixed up in whatever was happening to him, but he was far away from home in a strange city, and he had nowhere else to turn.

“The bite.”

“The dog bite?”

“Yeah, I think it might be infected.”

“Then go to the hospital.”

“I’ve been. This . . . this . . . is something different.”

Now it was him having trouble looking Eden in the eye and for a moment he was distracted by movement on the street’s far side. A dog was sitting on the kerb watching him. Soon it was joined by another.

“We have to go.”

“But we’re nearly there. What’s wrong Ben?”

“I don’t know. Something’s up.”

For a moment Eden didn’t move, and then she shook her head and raised her eyes to heaven.

“Why is it always the loonies? Why?”

Ben might have laughed, but where there’d been two dogs now there were three.

“Come on I’ll tell you what I mean back at the flat.”

He talked a mile a minute on the return journey. Ben couldn’t help himself as the words poured out. He’d covered everything from politics to religion before even coming within sight of home. Anything to avoid the thought that was growing at the back of his mind. When they reached the underpass, he paused. The lights were out.

“What’s the matter Ben? Scared of the dark?”

Eden’s eyes flashed in the streetlights before they stuttered and died, a minute later and they were back.

“No,” he shuffled in the tunnel’s direction with a feeling like something had walked over his grave and glanced at the sky. But there were only clouds overhead, no moon, and the sight made him feel happier than he wanted to admit.

They were halfway down when the first silhouette appeared.

“Eden. . .”

“It’s just a stray. There’s loads of them round here these days.”

The dog growled and filled the air with frantic yapping.

“Don’t go near it,” Ben sounded like he was looking at an unexploded bomb. “It might have something nasty.”

But Eden was already bending down with her hand outstretched.

“Hush now,” said his neighbour. “Who’s a good boy?”

They were still waiting to see what Eden’s new friend would do when more dogs began to stream down the grass. Before long there were so many they’d blocked the footpath completely.

“Erm, Ben?”

“I see them. Let’s go a different way.”

The pack began to run, but as Ben pushed Eden behind him the lead dog’s ears flattened.

There was a pop, and the underpass lights flickered on.

“What the hell’s it doing?” said Eden peering over his shoulder.

“It’s submitting,” answered Ben watching the dog lying on its back with its paws in the air. It was looking at him and whining. The others had stopped too, and at the pack’s edges the first were slipping into the night.

“That was because of you, wasn’t it? They were going to attack. You stopped them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

The next day Ben was looking at a squat concrete building on the edge of an industrial estate. A river curled round its side and across the black water stood the sort of forest whose trees looked like they’d be better suited for hangings than the tiresome business of growing and putting forth leaves. Ben checked the ID tag on the collar again as litter swirled past his feet.

“City pound.”

Next to the title was a number and a barcode. If the dog had had a name, they hadn’t known it. Ben let himself through the security door as distant howling reached his ears. Inside cheerful pictures of puppies and smiling children were everywhere. There was even a poster made from multicoloured handprints intermixed with paws. Only the security glass in front of reception let you in on the lie. Ben supposed some dog owners must get pretty upset when they learned their pet’s fate.

“Hallo?” said Ben leaning toward the grill.

There was silence and then the sound of muffled barking grew louder for a moment. A woman with the pale skin of a Russian princess and jet-black hair framing a face with barely any wrinkles had appeared from the murky interior. She gave Ben the sort of predatory smile that made him think of crocodiles.

“Can I help you?”

“Well, yes. Is this one of yours?”

Ben deposited the torn collar in the security draw and watched her slide it over.

“Ah.”

“That’s right hen, ah. That dog took a chunk out of me the other day. What’s it doing loose?”

The woman behind the glass had taken a step back to examine the evidence and when she looked up her eyes stayed in the shadows.

“I’m sorry you were troubled. That particular dog managed to escape. But it’s recently returned. I’m afraid she has a mind of her own.”

“Are you in charge here?”

“I run this place now, yes. My name’s Lykania Holyhead.”

“Well Miss Holyhead I want her put down. She’s dangerous.”

“Of course, it’s natural you should feel that way.”

The woman must have taken another step back, thought Ben although he hadn’t seen her do it, and for a moment he felt like he was talking to something in an aquarium. Only her face floated in the darkness lapping at the window’s far side.

“If you’d wait there a moment. I’d like you to identify the miscreant. We wouldn’t want to destroy the wrong animal, would we?”

Ben nodded and propped himself against the counter as he surveyed the room. Before long, a frown grew on his face. The tracks he could see must have been there weeks, and as he looked other things began to leap out at him. Why was the date on the calendar from the month before? Even the plants were in the last stages of their death throes. Ben took a step forward. The marks on the floor . . . he peered closer. At first, he’d taken them for mud but there was something else he knew of that dried to that colour. He followed them round a corner where they ended at an office marked: “Manager”.

The hairs on the back of Ben’s neck rose, and when he pushed the door wide, he knew why as the smell hit him like he’d been punched in the gut. A corpse was examining a spot on the ceiling from its position tied to a chair.

“Jesus.”

“No Ben. Not here.”

Slowly Ben turned around. Lykania Holyhead had appeared behind him and up close he could see what he hadn’t noticed before. It hadn’t been the feeble lighting that had meant he couldn’t see her eyes. They were black, not a shred of colour existed in those sockets. By her side was the dog from the sports fields.

“Who are you? I mean who are you really?” said Ben searching the room for a weapon and finding none.

“An agent of change. A catalyst for a return to the natural order. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it, Ben. What was it like for you when you saw the moon was full?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Denial’s not good for you. You should know that. How about I help you remember?”

The woman had brought the darkness with her and it began to leak through the doorway like mist with Lykania Holyhead following after. When her fingers brushed his it was like an explosion had gone off in his head and in its wake came images. Images Ben knew had been lurking at the bottom of his mind since that night at the flat, only now they’d been stirred up.

The first was of the moon, big, and fat, and somehow nearer than it had ever been before. The next was a confused welter of views from the high rise, stairs, and concrete, badly lit corridors, and doors that only yielded to his paws when he jumped up. Ben frowned . . . paws? But then he was outside and the homeless tramp clutching his bottle of cheap rot gut in a shop doorway took any conscious thought away. Ben knew what he’d been trying so hard to forget then: blood, so much blood he thought he could swim in it and never be clean again.

A lightbulb popped showering him with glass and Ben was back in the room with Lykania Holyhead’s eyes an inch from his own.

“I’ve got a friend who wants to talk to you.”

She clamped a phone to his ear and although Ben’s mind was screaming, he knew the wolves he could hear were real.

“Ben?”

It was his grandma and Ben thought of the lochs beneath the louring Scottish hills, how dark it got up there in winter, and how the pine forests looked like they could swallow you alive.

“Yes.”

Howling surged in the background.

“I haven’t got long sweetheart. This time I’m not coming back. My job’s done. You’re a grown man now. You don’t need me.”

“Gran . . ..”

“Hush bairn. You should listen to her.” Ben watched his face swim in Lykania’s black marble stare. “She wants what you want. What we want. Listen to your heart Ben. You were always happiest running free.”

Then the rest of the memories burst through Ben’s head like a tsunami, and he could see it all. The moon riding high amongst the clouds as he and the pack called to it and down below the huddled yellow light of towns glimmering in the night.

“You’re . . . you’re not my real Gran, are you?”

“No lad. But you are my blood.”

For a moment, the howling grew louder and the wet snap of bones breaking reached his ears. Then the phone went dead.

“Well Ben?” said Lykania Holyhead and as more of the bulbs fused the air rippled like the surface of a pond and he was left looking at not one woman, but three, with a beautiful green eyed brunette crouched panting at their feet.

It was a week before Eden went looking for her neighbour. Not that she hadn’t been worried. Her days at work had been spent with her only half in the room and when Friday had finally drawn to a close, she’d nearly run out the door. Eden stared at the dog pound. There was a sign tacked over its entrance.

“Closed for necessary repairs.”

“Must be pretty serious with you loose,” said Eden taking in the dogs watching from their spots amongst the parked cars and empty warehouses. It felt like they were waiting for something, and Eden had a feeling she knew what as she pushed the door open half wishing it didn’t swing back so easily through the dust.

“Anyone here?”

Eden’s lip curled with distaste. The place smelt foul. Dog food and excrement were all mixed together in the stale air, and the spot behind reception was empty. She headed for a corridor where the light was marginally brighter, and a draught stirred the dead leaves of a plant.

“Hallo?”

Soon Eden found herself in a large room lit by grimy skylights that shone on rows of cages. As the animals inside caught sight of her, baying erupted from every direction and they began to thrash against their prisons – one was by far the loudest. Metal sang as it slammed against the wire mesh.

“A temporary measure, trust me,” said a woman’s voice from the shadows of a doorway. “I want to make sure when I release them there’ll be no going back.”

The barking was so loud it was making Eden’s headache, but the stranger didn’t sound even slightly bothered.

“Where is he? I know he came here.”

Eden threw the note Ben had slid under her door in the woman’s face. After the incident in the underpass, he’d left her on her doorstep with hardly a word. The next morning she’d noticed the message.

“You’re looking at him Eden. Looking at him in all his glory.”

The huge dog . . . Eden stared. The beast slamming against the cage was no dog, she’d seen enough nature programs to know the difference between a wolf and man’s best friend. Eden’s eyes narrowed, but somewhere deep inside an unfamiliar voice was starting up.

“What are you saying?”

“He warned you, Eden, or he tried to, at least.”

“Ben? BENNNNN? Where are you?”

Eden’s attention was on the building’s depths, and with the dogs going wild, at first, she missed what was happening to the woman. But when she looked again, determined to get the real truth out of her, she was having some sort of fit. Her head was between her knees with her arms twisted up behind her spine like someone was trying to hang her from a meat hook and as she jerked and thrashed Eden heard the pop of dislocating joints and tearing gristle. At last, she tumbled out of sight still caught in the seizure’s throws and Eden stared at the space she’d left behind with her ears full of howls and barking. The wolf was watching her. It scraped one paw against the cage’s lock and whined softly in the back of its throat.

From somewhere far above Eden watched herself slide the cage’s deadbolt back before a roar that silenced every animal in the room split the air.

Slowly, Eden turned to the spot where she’d last seen the woman. A shadow was unfolding on the wall back there, an impossible inky stain stretching jaws so wide they looked like they could swallow worlds. She was still watching it when the wolf flew past at shoulder height. As it disappeared from view Eden snapped into movement and her fingers tore at its companions latches until the floor was awash with snarling canine backs. Not one of them headed toward the sound of the battle painting the smooth enamel tiles with contorted snarling demons.

Eden risked one more glance as the noise of a woman’s agony filled the room. The wolf had something by the throat that snapped and slid between forms like oil. Then she was running, and it was only when she was outside that she dared look behind.

“Ben.”

The sweet fresh air she gulped down helped but it still didn’t stop the sight of the pound beginning to collapse like an origami trick seen in reverse. It was still shedding dogs as its walls came down and when she eventually saw the hulking shape of the wolf appear amongst the collapsing brick, she took a half step forward.

“That you?”

Eden felt ridiculous although she knew she shouldn’t after what she’d seen, and the animal had fought to protect her, hadn’t it?

As the last masonry sucked into the void that had opened like a hole punched through the night the wolf’s eyes travelled over her. But although she could see the traces of blood round its mouth Eden felt no fear. When it turned to watch the shapes swimming in the river before disappearing among the gnarled trees, Eden felt a shudder run through her. What was climbing the bank on the other side were its twins, ragged, and starved, but wolves nonetheless. Eden turned to her protector, but he’d gone. A moment later a splash reached her ears as another black shadow followed the pack.

Eden raised her middle finger at the taxi that had just sent a wall of water sluicing over her legs and ducked into a short cut. It was night-time and winter had turned the city into an assault course of snow and freezing ice that matched her mood ever since the night on the industrial estate. She’d picked up a local newspaper the next day to find the words “Gas Explosion Levels City Pound – Dogs Freed” plastered across the front page and when the cops had inevitably appeared at her door, she’d kept her mouth firmly shut.

“Must think I’m stupid,” muttered Eden as a rent in the clouds revealed a fleeting glimpse of the moon riding full in the sky. She hadn’t realized so much time had passed.

The shape waiting for her at the alley’s end far end stayed invisible until far too late.

“What do you want?” said Eden as she finally caught sight of the huge dog with startling green eyes. “If you’re looking for him, I’d imagine you have a much better idea of where he’s gone than me.”

The dog got up, stretched, and yawned, for all the world like it had been taking a nap in the sun not on a freezing British street. As Eden watched the creature pad toward her, she knew there was nowhere to go. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape what it intended and as it opened its jaws wide, she realized she didn’t care.

“You win, take me to him then.”


Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.


“The Year Unknown” Fiction by Tim Goldstone

The Chamber Magazine
thechambermagazine.com

There was civil war here once, although official records are careful not to give it that name. If you look through the government-backed newspapers of the time you will find the language they preferred: subversives, agitators, extremists, disturbances, and then: Necessary Measures.

Location: England, the southern seaboard.

You should still stay out of this city.

Post civil-war life. Late November. Pre storm.

Jake stepped out of the warm fug created by the single portable gas heater in Eddie’s Café, its silver-coloured metal guard scorched brown, and down the three breeze blocks acting as steps, into the foul night. He’d felt better sitting up at the counter in Eddie’s, where Tajana had made his fried-egg sandwich just how he liked. Outside again, the filthy, wet night struck him hard in the face. A storm had been building for days, but this was not it.

Jake’s boots were provided by the flour mill but he wore them all the time – being the first perfectly waterproof footwear he’d ever had. He stared up into the oncoming rain to wash the flour dust from his eyes. If he went to sleep with that gunk in them they’d be stuck together when he woke, and still blurry for the early-morning shortcut to the mill, through the marshalling yards, then along the side of the rail tracks in the winter dark.

Frank, flush with prize money from fighting at the docks, had noticed Tajana clearing a small hole in the condensation on the café window with the back of her hand, and had watched her peer into the blackness after Jake. Frank had seen him before in Eddie’s. Smelt him. That flour dust.

The wind pushed Jake in the back, buffeted the café’s flimsy sides and juddered the padlocked metal cage containing the gas bottles, a ragged map of rust rising up around each of their bases; in the summer, kids regularly try to set fire to them. Jake hoicked up the collar on his long, thick overcoat, old army issue. A few, insignia removed, still turn up in the second-hand shops. When troops were deployed at the height of the Measures the city was nicknamed Khaki-on-Sea. But that was the past – as politicians on all sides insist – although not yet a past so far away it could safely be taught in schools. Jake hunched his head back down. There was salt in the rain.

Tajana squinted at him through the café window.

Several knuckles on Frank’s hands were newly broken. It made no difference to Frank. It was because he would keep punching long after his opponent was unconscious on the ground. But that was the part he enjoyed the most. There were fatalities at those dock fights. Frank enjoyed that too.

Tajana hadn’t known that Frank considered her to be his girl. She’d seen him looking at her, but other than telling her what he wanted to eat he’d never said a word to her, and she preferred it that way. Sometimes though, she would say something to a customer and immediately hear Frank’s laugh. Another thing she didn’t know was that Frank had been noting the extra care she always took making Jake’s sandwich.

A split second before Frank began his attack, he would tilt his head rapidly from one side to the other as though he was comparing two annoyingly similar weights inside his head.

Then, just before he unleashed, he would suddenly ask, “What’s your name?” A trick his sergeant had taught him – “Confuses them, Frank me old mate. And punch the vein in their neck.” The sergeant was the only friend he’d ever had, the only person who’d ever helped him. The first time Frank’s laugh had ever been genuine was in a foreign land watching the sergeant feed bits of his peeling sunburnt skin to abandoned half-starved dogs. An hour later Frank had to wipe what was left of the sergeant off his uniform. He couldn’t do it. He’d needed to ask someone help. “Pull yourself together, soldier,” he’d been told, “or you’re

no damn use.” From that day he showed no weakness. He didn’t care that on his return the promise “Jobs for our boys” was an empty slogan. He didn’t need any help, and later, the neat, wiry army chaplain at the homeless-veterans’ hostel who offered it to him, quickly agreed. He’d read Frank’s eyes and wasn’t prepared to risk his life contradicting him. So Frank had walked out of there leaving the chaplain shuddering at the only words Frank had spoken to him in an hour and a half: “I’ve killed for my country with weapons, and I’ve killed for money with my hands. It feels the same. Just one’s quicker.” Frank didn’t need friends now. And he would take what he wanted.

The city was on the coast, but there were no sands, golden or otherwise, here. No shops selling postcards and buckets and spades, although there was sometimes an ice-cream van.

No excited shouting and screaming of holidaymakers running eagerly into surf, no colourful holiday illuminations. This was not that kind of city. People did scream here though, and run.

It was a port, but in a storm you’d be better off staying out at sea. Tajana couldn’t forget the time Jake didn’t want his change and handed it back to her without the owner seeing. It had been enough for her to get an onion to go with her rice after work. It had made all the difference. Before she ate she’d attached a cheap earring she’d found onto a piece of cotton and hung it over her single candle. Her room had no electricity. She cooked in the tiny

fireplace with any fuel she could find – scraps of wood, bits of plastic. She’d used up the Warning Unsafe Structure sign the first night she’d spent there. She had a roof tile as a plate. Tiles fell off regularly in gusts of wind. She’d found one unsmashed in the street. Her idea had worked; the earring moved in the warm candle air and glittered. “I am lucky,” she’d said out loud in her tentative English, and curled up on the floor to sleep before anything could go wrong.

The city hadn’t built a new Memorial in the end, just added names to the old one. No need any more, though, for even a token guard against the Scrapers – those people who’d lost civilian loved ones and bitterly resented that only soldiers’ names had been added. But eventually a concession was made, and the names of the children who took messages through the city, and were killed for it, were officially engraved onto the bronze plaque. Such delicate compromises hold the taut peace that a succession of political leaders have pointed to as success.

The first child that died had been lifted onto the floor of the only vehicle that passed, an ice-cream van, but hadn’t lived to reach help. It had been hot. Blue sky. No clouds at all. Under the full glare of the sun the van went as fast as it could along a road dug up in parts so rubble could be used as missiles. And with every jolt, blood flowed silently out of a crack in a skull not yet fully grown, to the looped shrill desperate warbling of Greensleeves. In the panic no one had thought to turn it off. An hour later the driver had hosed the blood away and was plying his trade on one of the estates. Life went on.

The ignition buttons for the gas rings at Eddie’s Café no longer worked and Tajana had to use matches. She knew how Jake liked his fried-egg sandwich – the yolk runny – so she

scored the bread to help soak the yolk up; she didn’t want any of it wasted by dribbling out. All that protein – he needed it. She knew what job he did. And he liked pepper on the yolk but nowhere else. Tajana had burns from the spitting fat. She’d got used to the ones on her hands, but it was the sudden searing on the insides of her thin wrists that never ceased to shock her and made her want to cry. She didn’t, though.

When the gas bottles were getting low, cooking was the priority at Eddie’s so the washing up, even of greasy plates and frying pans, was done in cold water, leaving her up to her elbows in a film of scum. They’d had soup like that in the camp, until the whooping cough epidemic had brought the Red Cross and proper rations. In front of the sink, Tajana would dream about being a dancer at the Nelson. A lot of those girls used Eddie’s Café. They weren’t pestered there – nobody was. When a long haired fork-lift driver had said loudly about Tajana, “Oi, look, someone’s splashed skin on that skeleton,” Frank had followed him out, and that fork-lift driver wasn’t seen again until what was left of him washed up further along the coast, entangled in neglected sea defences.

The redundant dockers still used pilfered metal hooks to fight with, but now only amongst themselves, divided loyalties still raw and untreated. The old docks, with their dark corners and labyrinthine warehouse quarter where dissension first fermented, had gone, their leading part in The Unrest stamped on with concrete and steel, powerful floodlights, high nests of swivelling CCTV cameras. The myriad small yards where on bitter mornings lorry drivers had lit fires on the ground directly under their engines to unfreeze the diesel were replaced with a single massive, numbered and gridded, micromanaged lorry park. No vehicle, no load, no driver moved unobserved any more.

Unlike the other prefabs hurriedly built post civil war to feed the bused-in demolition crews and then the construction workers of the much-heralded, grandiosely named “Regeneration Era”, Eddie’s Café, caught in a blind spot between overlapping administrative areas, had never been removed. Its original name had been Feeding Station 874. It was a shell by the time Eddie acquired it for a few favours and a brown envelope full of notes, but it hadn’t taken him long to re-equip it from the dumps. Since Eddie there had been many owners, but the café always kept the name, Eddie’s Café. It was cheaper than repainting the signs, and Eddie’s was already well-known in that area, one of the first where the momentum of new development had eventually ground to a halt with the phasing out of government incentives, both financial and personal. There were no longer fortunes to be made, no more honours to be bought, no more committees with “Renewal and Revitalisation” proudly in their title and the words “urgent” and “dynamic” in their reports. No more money could be made from the city, and it was abandoned to its own devices, area by area. The same mistakes were being made again, and parts of the city were not as punch-drunk as they seemed.

At night the glaring white from the dock’s new floodlights fell just short of Eddie’s, from where a dim nicotine colour managed to break out through the bare, grimy windows and spill across the uneven tarmac where huge puddles formed, sheened with petrol, oil, diesel. They rippled with the cold wind from the industrial-grey sea that slopped and slapped and gobbed against the dockside. Tajana had watched Jake disappear, swallowed up into the night, and then let the space she’d cleared on the window fill with condensation again. Frank had watched her.

As Jake walked away he heard the rain clattering on the parts of the café patched with tin.  The rain blurred the intermittent lights of the chugging freight trains in the distance; they still moved cautiously out of the place. Some habits clung on, ingrained, just in case.

In unreconstructed backstreets, if you knew the right people, you could still obtain the motley and illegal memorabilia of The Uprising, from leaflets to tattoos, the police no longer having the manpower for periodic crackdowns. The selling of more deadly items was dealt with instantly, by a different force, from outside the city, with all the money and muscle it needed.

Post civil-war life. Early December. Post storm.

It is half past ten in the morning. Inside the shut pub, along the windowsills, there are still flies from the summer, mummified in dust. Tixe sits at the bar, wrapped in the Nelson’s  faded surroundings, the parcel tape holding together the rip in the bar stool crackling slightly every time she shifts her weight.

She and Paul the barman are the only people there. Paul opens up every morning, and Tixe slips in behind him as he goes through the door. She knows he can’t say no to her. She is nineteen. There are still the faintest traces of puppy fat in her face. Her fingernails are bitten down a little and her red nail varnish is flaking, but her red lipstick has been newly applied. Once when she’d had to describe herself in a few words, another dancer with more experience had told her to write “petite”.

Paul hasn’t turned the lights on in the bar yet and it is duller than the December morning Tixe has just walked through, arms folded, quick little steps in high heels, short, tight, faded denim skirt, the cold strong wind off the sea reaching even further into the city than usual today, biting at her bare legs. Most of the debris left by the storm has been cleared now. Or scavenged. Her hair hangs down over her shoulders and strands constantly fall across the sides of her face or over her eyes and eventually, not straightaway, she will remove these by a toss of her head, or a perfunctory brush of her hand if nobody is there to see.

Last night Tixe washed her collection of soft toys in the sink in her one-room bedsit after she’d noticed they had mould on their backs from where she had leant them up against her window. It was unusual for her to spend that long in her room any more. She dried them as much as she could in her only towel, then pegged them up on her makeshift indoor washing line, making it droop. Then she lay under her blankets and listened to the vehicles swishing by on the wet road below, and to the rain’s muffled hissing. Tixe could see her breath, but she wasn’t going to spend money turning on the electric fire. She slept until morning, when outside, directly above her window with the rotten wooden ledge that soaks up rain like a sponge, a seagull called raucously as it pecked at something in the blocked guttering, the overflowing water escaping down the wall.

Paul, wiping down the bar and anxious to be part of things, wanting to appear “in the know”, says, “No one’s seen Tajana since the storm, or Jake. That’s over a week now. They reckon, down at Eddie’s, Frank got them. No one’s seen him either, but that’s not unusual – the stuff he does. I liked Tajana. She shouldn’t have danced here, though. And that Jake seemed OK. Sort of polite. But I don’t know what they’ve got to do with Frank.”

Tixe knew.

Paul puts another shot in Tixe’s glass from the huge Bell’s whisky optic. He is pleased he remembered not to say “Taj” this time. It has become the trend in this city to call New Permanents by their full first name.

Paul says, “Eddie’s is open again now – they fixed that quick.”

“Can’t I have some vodka?” Tixe says.

“No, Warren notices if I take anything from the others. This is the only optic big enough.”

Tixe says, “All right then cheers then.” Her bangles slide down her forearm towards her elbow, clinking as she takes a swig.

Paul wants to ask her out, but he doesn’t know how it works with girls like that. He glances again at the two scar lines on her left wrist, one heavier than the other. A third might have done it but the pain had been too much. Everything else now was extra; her form of optimism. She notices where Jake’s looking and moves her arm so her bangles fall back down. He doesn’t know where these girls get their strength from. He thinks, “There should be medals,” and then, “Or at least a good meal.”

Tixe grimaces at the whisky taste. She says, “I think Jake read too many books,” and drinks again.

Paul still floundered at times. He was used to holiday-season bar work in the resorts strung like tawdry decorations along the coastline of the English Channel. But this was a seaport brooding through winter, freezing sea mists moving in at speed inches above the massive expanse of dark water, swarming ashore at night to lay the first imperceptible corrosions in the buildings of the unfinished Reconstruction Areas. He watches the gulp in Tixe’s throat as she drains her glass.

She says, “Aww that’s disgusting.”

Paul says, “Why do you drink it then?” and immediately regrets it. There is that sudden silence he noticed you got sometimes with Tixe. He can hear her breathing.

Then Tixe says, “Be quiet now little barman.” She says it softly because she doesn’t mind Paul. She thinks anyone who hasn’t hurt her yet might be nice. A hope endlessly deferred.

Paul shoots some vodka in her empty glass, puts his own money in the till and leaves the bar to find the song on the jukebox that he’s heard her ask men to put on for her. Away from Tixe he notices for the first time that morning the familiar mustiness of the carpeting and the stink of stale tobacco.

With her back to him Tixe says sympathetically, “Tajana said chimneys instead of funnels.”

Frank had liked it when Tajana used the wrong words. He had laughed at her and not told her why. It was the first time he’d laughed since the army. Then he had started to leave presents for her at Eddie’s. He called her Taj.

Paul hides Tixe’s drink under the bar as Warren comes in talking to another man. Warren casually snaps a stray piece of chalk left on the bar. He has fat fingers. One day his signet ring would have to be cut off. You have to be careful who you call wharf trash.

“Lovely yeah,” Warren continues. “Powerful car. Only problem is soon as I get drunk the tyres start to squeal.” The man chuckles. Warren nods towards Tixe and says, “Oh well, back to the daily grind – and there she is now. Either too much lipstick or someone’s just shot her in the mouth,” and he laughs loudly and then the man does too. Warren’s experienced eyes check Tixe’s skin for the slightest hue of telltale yellow. There were always rumours it was back.

“Any ferry jobs yet?” Tixe risks.

Warren says, “There might be something coming up,” and adds, “if you’re good.”

The man nods towards Tixe and says, “Is it any good?”

Warren nudges him and says, “I’ll show you in a minute.”

From outside comes the noise of a young child who has just learnt to whistle. But the thin uncertain sounds are snatched away by the wind whipping through the streets before the chilled lips can form a recognisable tune.

Warren warns, “Tixe, get yourself changed now. Paul boy, wipe those tables.”

Paul under his breath: “No rest for the wicked.”

Tixe whispers back, “We get a lot done, though,” and remembers the first time she’d got drunk before stepping up onto the Nelson’s stage – the twelve-foot-square wooden platform, ten inches high – and how she hadn’t felt the usual humiliation scrambling around the stage afterwards picking up her clothes. Now she can’t sleep without a drink.

As Warren and the man move through into the back there is more laughter as Warren says loudly, “She knows what to do with the drunken sailor all right.”

Paul sees Tixe looking into her lap.

They hear the man ask Warren, “You still with that wife of yours?”

Warren laughs contentedly. “Nah, I chucked her out. Silly cow got herself cancered up.”

Holding out that he could get jobs on the ferries for the girls was Warren’s way of having power over them. Most of the girls saw a job on the ferries as a step up. Warren knew people, and his connections went back to The Unrest. There was always a high turnaround of ferry girls; the shift hours and their cramped cabins, with the bunk beds, near the engines, wrecked them. He could arrange a job on one if he chose, and then the girl would “owe him big time” – a phrase he loved to use. Tixe stayed working at the Nelson because she thought it was her best chance of a ferry job. It excited her to see them leaving for France at night, all lit up, and she shuddered with the glamour of it all. Tixe was one of Warren’s best girls – and by best he meant most explicit – and he’d noticed the rise in takings when she was on. She was an asset, a word he also liked to use. Tixe was going nowhere. He didn’t mind her getting free drinks from Paul. It was something he had over his barman, a little bit of power in his back pocket for casual use later, like some people would swing a sag – the local improvised cosh: you took off a sock, dropped any coins you had into the bottom of it, tied a tight knot just above them. No doorman was going to take both your socks and all your change off you before you entered a club.

Warren hadn’t needed a weapon since he’d left school, where he’d unscrewed the blades from pencil sharpeners. He had other ways now of getting what he wanted. “Got anything to eat?” Tixe asks Paul.

Paul chucks her a packet of salt-and-vinegar-flavoured crisps, the ones they couldn’t get rid of. Warren always warned him not to feed the girls for free. Tixe fishes in her little purse for coins, handing them to Paul on her open palm, looking up from under her fringe, her big brown eyes presented to him in black mascara.

“That’s OK,” Paul says.

She knew the effect that look had on men, and once, before she’d got work dancing at the Nelson, a woman: Molly. Tixe had told herself, “A girl needs to eat.”

Tixe had waited until Molly’s eyes closed before releasing a yawn. In the morning, Molly brought Tixe breakfast in bed. Tixe hung around in the woman’s flat as long as she could bear it, but in the end she had to ask bluntly for money. When Molly became tearful, Tixe pretended she’d just meant a loan for a taxi. Molly gave her a handful of change from the bottom of her handbag, some loose cigarettes she’d forgotten she had, and a quarter-full box of England’s Glory matches.

Tixe’s look hadn’t worked on Frank, though, alone in that place with him, in between the coils of gigantic black chain and the piles of girders waiting to support a structure that had been paid for but was never going to arrive.

Tucking into her salt-and-vinegar crisps Tixe consoles herself yet again that anyone would have told Frank what he wanted to know, about Tajana setting her sights on Jake, about Tajana dancing and the men who shouted at her – no she didn’t know their names and yes she would find out. She would. Yes. Yes. Yes. She’d known she was in trouble when she’d seen Frank’s wide intense smile with the gums showing above the teeth. Frank’s threats were never veiled. If Frank asked you something it wasn’t a question, it was a test with a right or wrong answer. Even Warren was afraid of Frank, however much he called him wharf trash behind his back. Tixe told Frank about that too. Frank had needed to bend down to place his knuckles under Tixe’s chin, using them to turn her head towards a grubby discarded holdall with a broken zip, twenty yards away. “You’d look good in a rucksack,” he’d said. “You’re little enough to fit in that,” and walked off. Tixe could have cried with relief. She knew Frank didn’t make jokes – that she’d just heard a direct threat. But she remained physically unharmed. She needed her looks. She knew what they all said: cheap but pretty.

Tixe finishes her crisps, rubs her fingers around the inside of the empty packet, then sucks them. Jake had once told her, grinning, “Human beings have nine thousand taste buds. You have two. One for salt and one for sugar.” She starts to drum along to the song Paul has put on the jukebox, using the rings on her fingers to bang against a green glass ashtray that is heavy enough to kill someone. Paul puts another whisky shot into her glass. She doesn’t grimace at all this time.

Tixe had chosen her own dancing name to look good on the blackboard – the shorter the name the larger it could be chalked. It didn’t take long before some girls became known even outside the Nelson by just their blackboard name. Tixe didn’t mind, though. She liked her dancing name. If the blackboard wasn’t moved into the porch in time the rain made a mess of even the shortest name.

Tixe had got her name in an alleyway down the side of the derelict cinema where she’d seen the word “Exit” reflected in her compact mirror, litter blowing against her ankles. The corner of a torn poster on the opposite wall had flapped manically, the only band names still distinguishable: Empty Vessels, Bulkhead.

Paul hears the loud footsteps of Warren and the man on the narrow wooden stairs in the back.

Tixe says, “One more and I’ll go and get changed . . . Please?”

Paul wants to keep her with him downstairs. He pours her another whisky before he passes her the duffle bag she keeps behind the bar. She knocks the drink back in one.

Paul remembers something Jake had told him and says, “Did you know they put Nelson’s body in brandy?”

Tixe shrugs and says, “Why the hell not?”

Outside a child is whistling again. An older child this time, whistling unmistakably one of the old Resistance songs. It sounds ghostly in the cold air and only a few hear it in between

The deep slow barks of a reclamation yard guard dog before both sounds are drowned out by a rumbling convoy of lorries. Only a few people recognise the tune, but one of them begins to mouth the words under his breath.

“I better go up then,” Tixe says matter-of-factly, wiping her crisp-greased fingers on a bar towel.

Paul sees Tixe wince as she gets off the stool. The stage isn’t sprung. Warren doesn’t let the girls use liniment on their pulls and sprains because of the smell, and Tixe daren’t mix painkillers with alcohol again. Warren had advised her, “Ignore your pain, girl. I am.” She walks into the back and Paul listens for her light tread on the stairs as outside the heavy sky lowers itself down possessively over this city. It’s quarter to eleven in the morning. Time to turn the lights on. He still doesn’t know why they call themselves dancers. He wonders again what’s happened to Jake and Tajana.

Post civil-war life. Late November. Storm.

When Tajana had arrived at the Nelson, Tixe showed her to the toilets. They’d walked along a narrow corridor amongst the peeling paint, the damp, the dirt. The thin raggedly cut lino laid directly onto uneven flagstones was mapped with the marks of stiletto heels. The ceiling was low and when they reached the toilet door they were standing directly under a botched repair in the flat roof. The repair was made of corrugated Perspex that trapped rainwater until it turned to a sludge of algae. It had bathed Tixe and Tajana in its dark-green light. While they talked, heavy raindrops had begun to plop and splatter above their heads, like plump insects hitting a windscreen.

Tajana had whispered, “I have no water at room, I must wash face at café in washing up before plates. Can use water here?”

“Yes,” said Tixe. “Help yourself.”

Then Tajana confided, “Frank gives me prizes. I’m worry.” She mistook Tixe’s puzzled look and said, “You know, Frank? Big.”

“Yes, I know Frank,” Tixe said, and then realised. “Oh, presents. Not prizes, Tajana. Presents.”

“Thank you,” Tajana said. “Presents,” and she had placed her hand for a second on Tixe’s shoulder. Tixe was shocked at how light it was – she hardly felt it – and how cold.

Tajana said, “You lucky with Jake. Is kind.”

“Oh, no,” Tixe said, surprised. “We’re not . . . together.”

“Oh, I’m mistake. Sorry,” and for the first time Tixe saw Tajana smile, just a little bit. “I make his egg,” Tajana had added, then disappeared into the toilets, and just before the door shut she’d said, “Thank you.” At first Tixe wasn’t sure what for, but then she’d had an uneasy feeling in the part of her stomach where she sometimes felt hunger. Nothing that another drink couldn’t get rid of, though. Alcohol worked when she was hungry too.

Tixe had assumed someone else would have told Tajana to change her name for the blackboard – Tajana wasn’t her responsibility anyway. All Tixe had done was tell her where the Nelson was and what to say to Warren to get what he called an “audition”. Another word he liked to use. Tixe couldn’t imagine what you’d have to do to fail, but that was before she’d seen Tajana on the stage.

One of the men next to the stage had bellowed at Tajana, “Oi! Put ’em away for the lads!” and his friends had laughed. Then they booed her. She hadn’t known you should choose a different name, so her real name had been chalked up outside for everyone to see, on top of the smear where another girl’s name had been rubbed out by the palm of a hand.

Afterwards, Tixe had watched Tajana through the Nelson’s water-blurred window. The rain had become torrential. She saw her run outside. Then she’d seen her bump into Jake, and at that Tixe felt better and turned away. A man had come over with a vodka for her. There’d been a piece of lemon in it.

“Where’s your coat?” Jake said loudly to Tajana through the torrents of rain.

After a long pause Tajana said, “I have not got one.” Jake had offered her his.

“No,” she’d said. Her bare arms were mottled with cold, and her teeth were beginning to chatter.

Even though he disliked the place, Jake had been about to go into the Nelson to give Tixe the Maritime Employment leaflet he’d spent weeks trying to get hold of for her. He’d been shocked to see Tajana coming out of there. He’d realised he hadn’t seen her anywhere else but in Eddie’s. In the cold, the constellation of burn scars over her hands and wrists were a vivid purple.

Tajana spoke as though remembering each syllable just in time. “They did not like my dance. But I cannot do cooking more. It hurts me. Too much. But your egg – I am sorry. But I’m go home now,” she’d explained.

It shocked Jake that he’d never thought of her as living anywhere. Tajana’s clenched jaw and the determined look in her eyes – as though fixed on something way in the distance – reminded Jake of a propaganda poster he’d seen in a book in the library; another showpiece project, another concession.

After a second refusal of his coat he decided he’d have to walk her to Eddie’s. The flow of water in a roadside gutter had started to carry away pieces of broken glass, and litter was piling up over the drains. He opened his coat and moved Tajana – already bedraggled – in close so that some of the heavy material would be covering her. Their faces touched for a second – he could smell on her skin a mixture of pub smoke and fresh new chilled wet air brought into the city on an increasingly powerful wind, from far out at sea.

Behind them the deluge had extinguished Tajana’s name on the blackboard, and all over the city a cascade of roof tiles was falling and smashing.

As they rounded a corner, storm rain, sweeping in all along the shoreline, appearing in the distance as drifting smoke, had driven straight at them. A cat with a wound on the side of its face had flattened itself, anchoring its bony body to the ground against the gusts of wind. Tajana had stumbled, shivering violently all over him, clinging on as they passed the old wharf with its tang of sodden rusting iron and its abandoned military watchtower. Children still played the old game – daring each other to lick the railings. They tasted like salt, blood and iron: the history of the port on the tip of their tongues. They spat it out, but the taste stayed with them.

Jake and Tajana were now nearing the former front line of the city’s indelible near past, horrifying, or glorious, depending on your allegiances, where after two sweltering, breathless days and nights one late June, the long-smouldering Insurgency had finally ignited.

By the time a CCTV camera picked up the two bedraggled figures crossing the old battleground – now a vast exposed span of cracked and stained concrete that in summer was criss-crossed with the shadows of cranes, elongating and contracting with the movement of the sun – Tajana’s arms were wrapped so tightly around Jake’s waist that she was walking sideways with the front of her body moulded to the left side of his, making them constantly veer off course through pools of quickly gathering water. Jake had felt the wetness seeping through his boots.

Certain historians will tell you there are bodies under all that hastily laid concrete. Locals know that’s a lie; that’s not where the bodies are.

The CCTV cameras had picked out Frank, fists clenched, teeth bared, now a hundred yards behind Jake and Tajana, his rapid marching stride making no allowances for the full-frontal assault of the accelerating storm.

Staggering along now in weather pounding the coast and smashing sea defences, all Jake had wanted was to find somewhere safe. For them both. He’d thought of the abandoned shacks further inland along the estuary. But he knew in this storm they’d be grateful just to make it to Eddie’s.

Out to sea a distress flare had shot up through the grey air. Tajana had begun to weep. Not for herself, for others. Always for others. Then, in the middle of it all, instinctively, they had stopped, and clung on to each other. It was all they could think of to do.


Tim Goldstone is a published and broadcast writer. ‘The Year Unknown’ first appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology 15, in 2018. He has roamed widely, including throughout the UK, Western and Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and currently lives in Wales. Loiters in twitter @muddygold 


Interview with Author Rie Sheridan Rose

Bio:

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Things happened along the way, like school and I gave up the dream for awhile. But when I was laid off a couple of weeks before my wedding in 2003, my fiance said I could stay at home and write. So, I have. I actually had my first published story in 1998, but it was still juggling to get writing in around work and stuff. I consider 2003 my real birth as a writer even though I had two novels published by then.

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

I think my story in Startling Stories feels like the biggest accomplishment, though having a five book series is a close second. Since that is self-published, it doesn’t have the same feeling of “Wow” that Startling Stories gives me.

Why do you write?

I write because the words in my head want to come out and play. 🙂 Because I have these cool stories that other people might enjoy as well, and I am happy to share them.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

I am very definitely a “pantser.” I never outline. Most of the time I sit down and start typing and see where the story goes. Revisions are very subjective. I used to never revise because I hated the editing stage–and then one day I realized that the first draft is just the bones of a story, and the revisions are where you get to add the muscles and flesh. Now, it can be one of my favorite parts. And, this year, I’ve noticed that most of the stories I’ve placed are ones that I looked at again and tweaked a bit. Including “Cheap Sunglasses.”

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

I have a group of beta readers that I use most of the time. They are a mix of friends, family, and writing professionals, because you want different types of feedback from different people.

Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

Well, several of my novels were left homeless when a publisher closed their novel line, so most of those are re-releasing sometime this year. I have a fairy tale romance with a beta reader (who is also a publisher, cross fingers), and I am working on a spin-off novel for my series that may need to be completely rewritten. I also have a poetry book I’m about to start and a couple of WIPs that may or may not go anywhere. Plus I have a goal of submitting at least one piece of work everyday this year to make up for my dismal laziness last year. I am up to 177 so far.

Do you have any writing events coming up? For example: something being published/released? A reading of one of your works? Interviews? Any speeches or talks?

Everything is still pretty much shut down, though I hope maybe to be back at conventions by the fall. I have a story in Good Southern Witches that debuts in April.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

I would like to be known. Not necessarily recognized, but if people hear my name they might say, “Yeah, I read something by her somewhere…”

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

It depends on the review. I got a review once on Amazon that purported to be from a specific user. I knew it wasn’t from that specific user, because it was my husband’s user name, and he hadn’t written it. We tried to get them to take it down, but I don’t think we ever succeeded. Mostly, I look at reviews as opinions, and if they seem to have a valid objection to something, I consider it going forward.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Keep writing. Don’t let a few rejections get you down. I did that when I was in college, and didn’t write for years. What a lot of time wasted! My husband made me a challenge one year to get 300 rejections. It was a kind of aversion therapy. By the end of that year, they didn’t bother me as much. Sure, every now and then, a rejection still really hurts, but I’ve got 80 so far this year… The other piece of advice is keep good records. Make a spreadsheet so you know where things have gone and whether or not they were accepted so you don’t accidentally send something out twice and have the awkward duty of pulling one. And carry some form of notetaking device–notebook, app on your phone, file cards…–wherever you go.

What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?

I think the free version of Grammarly is useful. Autocrit is nice, but costs. The Merriam Webster online dictionary. https://www.rhymezone.com/ for poetry. And for submissions, https://www.ralan.com/ and https://trishhopkinson.com/category/call-for-submissions/ are two of my go-tos, as well as the Open Call groups on Facebook. There are several of those.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? (websites, social media, etc.)

My main social media links are: Twitter: https://twitter.com/RieSheridanRose; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rie-Sheridan-Rose/38814481714; and my main website: https://riewriter.com/. I am also on Patreon as Rie Sheridan Rose and on Pixabay as RieFlections.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

Always follow your dreams. Write what you want to read. And remember, write what you know doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new and write about it.


“Cheap Sunglasses” Fiction by Rie Sheridan Rose

Gillian studied her reflection in the mirror with a worried frown. She looked tired—lines and wrinkles she had never seen before marring the smoothness of her skin. Her eyes looked a bit funny as well…there was an almost golden tint to them, and they used to be sapphire blue. Even the pupils appeared dodgy—more oval than circular. What the hell was going on?

            The most maddening thing, of course, was her hair. She reached up to brush it from her face, and a big clump of it came off in her hand. She felt tears welling up. Her red curls had always been her best feature. Blinking back the tears, she covered her head with a scarf—shades of Grandma Cora for the gods sake—and shrugged into her coat.

            Hopefully the new doctor she was seeing could tell her what was wrong. She glanced at her watch. If she didn’t hurry, she’d be late for the appointment.

            She programmed the address into her GPS and followed the directions on auto-pilot, still worrying about the changes to her appearance. And it wasn’t just that. If it were just superficial changes to the outside, she might be able to live with it…but the constant hissing sound inside her head was driving her mad.

            Thank the gods for Marc. When she’d confided to him on a night of dedicated drinking, he’d clucked his tongue and pulled out a pen.

            “You go see my friend Doctor Asclepius. Here’s his address. If anyone knows anything about all this mad shite you are going through, it will be him.”

            “But how expensive is it? You know I’m between positions at the moment.”

            Marc waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Tell ’im to put it on my tab. Least I can do for you, gorgeous.”

            She tried to protest, but when Marc Urie got something into his head, it was impossible to change his mind.

            “Maybe I can give him my headache,” Gillian growled aloud to the empty car as the streets outside it got more and more rundown, and the scent of decay and debris penetrated even with the windows closed. “Sent me off on some fool’s errand, I bet. Laughing up his sleeve at how easy I am to punk.”

            YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION chirped the happy little voice on the GPS, and she pulled into the parking lot of a Greek revival office building. She looked at the scribbled address Marc had written on a soggy cocktail napkin, and then up at the facade of the building. This was the place, all right. “Let’s hope this guy is as good as Marc says.”

            She bent for her purse, and the hissing in her head surged. She rubbed her temples, feeling a bit of roughness under her fingertips. Her skin was so dry lately…

            Forcing herself to walk into the building without a stagger, she spoke to the woman at the reception desk. “I have an appointment with Dr. Asclepius at ten.”

            “Do you have your insurance card?”

            Gillian could feel her face heating. “It’s to be charged to Mr. Marc Urie.”

            “Oh…so you’re Marc’s friend. Of course. Through that door, and first right.”

            She followed the directions, feeling a bit dirty for the way the receptionist had spoken to her. As if she couldn’t pay her own way, but had to rely on the kindness of strangers, as it were…and the worst part was that it was true.

            She found the room the receptionist had indicated and sat in the patient’s chair, taking off her scarf and scratching her itchy scalp. More hair came off in her hand. She bit her lip to keep from crying.

            After twenty minutes, she had just about decided to leave in frustration when there was a rap on the door and a man breezed in without waiting for an answer. He was muscular, with a bushy graying beard and twinkling blue eyes. Gillian felt marginally better.

            “Miss Gorgon, is it?”

            “Gordon. Gillian Gordon.”

            “Forgive me. My nurse has horrible handwriting.” He plopped down in the other chair. “What seems to be the problem then?”

            “It seems so silly, now. It’s just…well…my eyes seem to be changing, and I’ve got terribly dry skin, and new wrinkles, and—my hair is falling out.”

            “I see,”

            “Plus, there’s this hissing…”

       “Hissing?”

       “Yes. It’s like it’s inside my head.”

       “Is it like white noise hissing, or a tea kettle, or what?”

       “None of those. It’s…organic. Like an angry cat…or maybe a…snake?”

       “Interesting.” He made a note on her chart. “How old are you, Miss Gordon?”

       The question startled her. “I turned twenty-one in February.”

       He nodded thoughtfully and made another mark on his chart.

       “And these changes started when?”

       “I noticed the first symptoms about six weeks ago.”

            “I thought as much.” He made a note on her chart, sighed, capped his pen, and then leaned forward confidentially, his hands laced in his lap. “I’m afraid I wasn’t so wrong about your name, my dear.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I could send you for a battery of tests, but I don’t think they would do any good. This isn’t a normal ailment.” He sighed again. “Have you read much mythology?”

            She blinked at the apparent non sequitur. “Some. What you get in school, of course.”

            “What is your heritage? Bloodline-wise.”

            “Is that important? Largely English, a bit Irish, some Italian on my father’s side, I believe.”

            “Any Greek, perhaps?”

            “Not to my knowledge.”

            “I think you should invest in one of the DNA tests to be sure, but I believe your knowledge is incomplete, my dear.”

            He reached over and patted her knee. “Don’t be alarmed. This is a perfectly natural occurrence. You’re just coming into your birthright, that’s all.”

            “What do you mean, Doctor?”

            He stood and reached into a cabinet hanging over the desk. He rummaged through it for a moment, and pulled out a pair of dark sunglasses. He handed them to her with a solemn expression.

            “I’m afraid you must wear these at all times from now on, Miss Gordon. Unless you’re home alone, it’s imperative. And, I would suggest removing all your mirrors to prevent…accidents. Marc was quite right to send you to me. No one else would be able to diagnose this condition…but I’ve seen it before.”

            She glanced down at the sunglasses, wondering what he was going on about.

            “You’ll also wish to invest in a collection of kerchiefs. Perhaps a hoodie or two. Believe me, you won’t want to go about with your head uncovered.”

            “I don’t understand!”

            He hunkered down beside her, taking her cold hands in his. “The snakes will be coming next.”

            “Snakes?” She tried to pull away, but his hold was deceptively loose.

            “Do you know the story of Medusa?”

            “Of course…”

            “Wear the sunglasses.”

            “W-why?”

            “My dear, you’re evolving. Somewhere in your ancestry, there was a gorgon. You’ve inherited the gene. It’s recessive, but there are triggers that will awaken it. Stress can be a factor, for example. Marc mentioned you were between jobs. That could be a factor. The bottom line is…you’re turning into one of those creatures.”

            She felt the tears running down her face, and shook her head. “No. That’s impossible. You must be wrong!”

            “I’ve been doing this job for a very long time. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.” He released her hands with a pat of sympathy.

            Gillian sobbed into her hands. And felt flickering tongues licking away her tears.

       He let her cry herself out, moving back behind his desk and pointedly working on papers stacked there.

       When she could pull herself together, she reached up and ran her fingers through the wriggling mass of creatures that had sprouted on her scalp.

       “What’s the cure?” she asked, tying her scarf about her head and squaring her shoulders.

       “Cure?”

       “There’s a cure for everything these days, isn’t there? I’ll pay for it. No matter what the cost. I’ll rob a bank if I have to!”

       “My dear, I am afraid it doesn’t work that way.”

       She surged to her feet. “I refuse to accept that.”

       “Feel free to search, but I have never heard of any way to reverse genetics.”

       “If there is a way, I’ll find it.”

       “I believe you will.” He rose to his feet and stuck out his hand. “Best of luck.”

       Gillian ignored the outstretched hand, walked to the door and turned. “One more thing, Doctor…”

       “Yes?”

       She lowered the sunglasses and stared at him over the top of them.

       He gasped—and froze into stone.

       “I had to know for sure.”             Pushing the sunglasses back into place, she smiled grimly. She couldn’t wait to show Marc…


Bio:

Rie Sheridan Rose multitasks. A lot. Her short stories appear in numerous anthologies, including Killing It Softly Vol. 1 & 2, Hides the Dark Tower, Dark Divinations, and On Fire. She has authored twelve novels, six poetry chapbooks, and lyrics for dozens of songs. She tweets as @RieSheridanRose.

Publisher’s Note: Check back frequently for The Chamber’s written interview with Rie Sheridan Rose. Date of publication to be announced later.

“Ashes” Fiction by Ethan Maiden

There you go, daddy. There you go to the next place where mummy is waiting.

I was there when he stopped breathing. Just like I had been there with mum. I had become some kind of grim reaper watching over as they passed over. Did I feel fear? Of course. But did I feel sorrow – unashamedly not.

It hadn’t been a secret that I didn’t get on with my parents. I was an only child and their special little daughter. In my younger years I had been spoilt rotten, getting anything I wanted. Dad (Patrick) had been a partner in a successful architectural firm and we had a significant amount of wealth. It paid for my first car, my education and eventual marriage to Stephen. But behind everything, there comes a price and as they say; ‘you reap what you sow.’

*

 Dad’s funeral took place on a blustery morning in March at 11:00 to be precise. It was a small affair with distant family relatives and his old work associates. Dad had ensured he had a life plan and the whole thing had been paid off in advance. All I had to do was arrange the thing and show up.

            I nodded to the, ‘Sarah, we’re sorry for your loss,’ condolences.

            I hate to admit it, but I resented both my parents. I was told to get out and get a job, to fend for myself. I remember the arguing. I could still see mum collapsing to the floor grabbing her chest. She couldn’t breathe. I reached for the phone to call an ambulance but…

I’d tried to be the rock to get dad through the grief. 

            ‘Sarah, I miss her every day,’ dad would say.

            ‘Me too dad.’

            Little white lies don’t hurt … not sometimes.

*

            Dad had insisted on being cremated instead of a burial like mum.

            The ashes were placed in a grey ceramic urn which found its way onto my fire mantelpiece. Stephen said he enjoyed having it there, like dad was still here with us. They had had a special relationship. They went fishing and had a beer watching the game. When mum died Stephen had been the rock to pull dad through the grief.

            ‘Are you scattering them like he asked?’ Stephen asked.

            I nodded, ‘in the sea.’

            ‘When?’

            ‘He said he wanted to go after a week.’

            ‘Huh?’

            ‘He said to me that when he died he wanted to stay just one more week with me, before he is left to rest forever.’

            ‘Well, you have one more week with him, so enjoy,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following day we met with dad’s solicitor. Marcus Hind was a smart chap wearing a navy pinstripe suit, wavy grey hair and thick glasses that showcased his bright hazel eyes. Marcus’ office was on the top floor of the building which housed other small businesses in the centre of town. Stephen and I arrived at just past noon for our appointment.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Dad had been wealthy, that was common knowledge. However how much was still in question. He took early retirement and amongst his assets were a healthy bank balance, a property in Spain and the manor residence where he had passed away.

            ‘You’ll be wondering what details were in your father’s will?’ Marcus asked staring down at the paper.

Oh, you betcha!

            ‘I’d prefer to have him here, Mr. Hind,’ I said, gripping Stephen’s hand.

            Marcus mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out before staring up at us. ‘So, Patrick left the house and the residence in Spain to you.’ Marcus pulled from below his desk a leather black briefcase. ‘Inside this case is the property paperwork as well as the remains of his entire bank balance in cash. I believe it’s in the region of two hundred and forty thousand pounds.’

            ‘All that money can fit in there?’ Stephen asked, pointing with a gaping mouth.

            ‘You’d be surprised,’ Marcus said.

            I went to take it and Marcus quickly slid it back from my grasp.

            ‘There is one more thing Patrick requested.’ Marcus said. ‘The case is locked and will remain locked for the week. In seven days, I will provide the combination code.’

            ‘What?’ I asked, bemused. ‘Is this a joke?’

            ‘Afraid not,’ Marcus said. ‘That’s the conditions Patrick requested.’

            Marcus slid the case back to us. I picked it up, the weight made me almost drop the damn thing. A scent rushed up to me – burnt paper or smoke from a fire. I took hold of the steel handle and left.

            So much money in my grasp … a week will fly by … no problem.

*

            There is a powerful aura around the thing(s) you want the most. The wealth alone in this case was enough to see me through the rest of my life without struggle. Stephen and I had agreed early on in the relationship that we wouldn’t have children. We or more I was selfish. We enjoyed our extravagant holidays and lived the lifestyle we wanted – a life with freedom and without restrictions.

            I set the case on the kitchen table and went to the lounge. The urn stood tall on the mantelpiece.

            ‘This is your last joke, huh?’ I asked. ‘One more week?’

            The urn stared at me and I felt tingles spread across the entirety of my skin.

            That night – it started.

            I woke at just past midnight. Stephen snored next to me as per usual. For some reason I felt wide awake at such a nocturnal hour. Ice filled the room; it felt more like December than early spring. I sat up and rubbed my arms to remind my body of warmth. When I exhaled I saw my breath float and then evaporate before my eyes.

            My surroundings felt off. I could swear I was being watched. I glanced around the shadow filled room. For some reason our eyes like to play mean tricks on us and I’m sure I saw a silhouette run across the landing. Nothing was there obviously, but I couldn’t shake the unease festering in my gut. I laid on my side and held my eyes closed hoping for the sleep to take me. Eventually it did.

*

            The following day I stood staring at the briefcase on the kitchen table. I stroked and smelt the leather. The combination was set to 0-0-0. I thought about rolling the numbers to see if I’d drop lucky. Maybe there’d be a click and the fortune would be mine.

Jokes on you, papa.

My hands moved closer but before I could make contact there was a small bang from the lounge.

            I headed in and saw that the urn had moved across the mantelpiece to the right by at least a foot. Stephen was at work so there was no way he could have moved it.

            ‘Hello, someone there?’

            My spine arched, just like a cat when you give it a stroke. I had to get out of this place. I threw on my jacket and headed out. I wanted to stay out as long as possible; being alone in this house had my nerves jingling.

            I walked to town to buy a few groceries, that passed a little time and hopefully Stephen would be home by the time I got back. I bought the essentials – milk, bread, eggs and a bottle of white wine.

            On the way back, I saw a homeless man sat on the street. He wore a red beanie hat, green jacket and had facial hair to his chest. He sat sorrowfully with a steel cup that held the change he had been given throughout the day. I ransacked my pockets to see if I had anything to give. My hand waddled out a measly £1.34 but as Tesco say – ‘every little helps.’ I bent down to throw it in the pot when the homeless man stared up at me.

            Have we met?

            ‘I have no need for your blood money,’ he said.

            I stopped before dropping it in, startled by what I’d just heard, ‘what?’

            ‘That money is no good to me.’

            ‘I … I don’t know what you mean,’ I said shaking my head in disbelief.

            ‘You know exactly what I mean,’ he replied, toneless.

            I put the coins back in my pocket and hurried back up the street not daring to look back.

*

            I was pacing the kitchen when Stephen arrived home.

            ‘Sarah, what’s wrong?’ he asked, dropping his work bag down.

            My arms were folded and I bit my nails.

            ‘Something’s not right Steve,’ I said.

            ‘What do you mean?’

            I pointed to the briefcase. ‘Ever since we brought that thing back I’ve been feeling … strange.’

            ‘Strange?’

            ‘I … I can’t explain.’

            He moved closer placing his warm hands on my shoulders. ‘You’ve been through a lot,’ he said. ‘First your mum and now your dad in a short space of time. The grief has no doubt taken its toll on you.’

            ‘That’s not it Steve … I know something is wrong.’

            He grimaced and assured me nothing would happen whilst he was here. He would protect me.

*

            Stephen could say what he wanted but when night came that’s when the shadows played their devious tricks.

Again I woke in the middle of the night. For once Stephen wasn’t snoring. I think it was worse that I was engulfed in silence, it somehow made the atmosphere eerier. At least Stephen’s heavy breathing brought a realism to everything.

            The cold fell over me the same as before. I sat upright and stared at the open bedroom door which led to the landing. The staircase creaked. My heart thundered. Thud … thud … thud.

            Mum?

            I struggled to breathe.

            My throat felt as though it was closing with a barricade of ice.

            I gasped trying hard to suck in the air.

            Stephen woke and started shaking me by the shoulders.

            ‘Jesus Christ Sarah, what’s wrong?’

            ‘Mu … mu …,’ I mumbled pointing to my throat.

            My whole body started to shake.

            Stephen laid me down and held me tight.

            ‘I need to call an ambulance.’

            And then the ice in my throat melted. The beating in my chest relaxed and the air returned to normal.

            ‘I … I don’t know what happened,’ I said finding my voice a few moments later.

            ‘You looked like you were having a heart attack,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following two days and nights went without incident. I put the episode down to a panic attack with everything that had happened lately. Still the briefcase sat on the kitchen table. I had to fight the urge to keep my thumbs from scrolling down the numbers. I wanted what was inside … I needed it.

            My hands reached down and I started on the numbers one through nine on all three dials. After an hour or so I flicked them all back to 0 with a huff and sigh.

            A few more days … that’s all.

            It was that night when my fears were suddenly turned up a notch. My eyes popped open to the cold air. This time I felt no struggle to breathe, well not initially. The cold air puffed out of me and I swamped the quilt to keep warm.

            The stairs creaked and not in the way we expect in the midnight hour. They creaked as if someone was climbing them. Something was coming up the stairs.

            I rolled onto my back staring so hard I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets.

            Time stood still; I was frozen in time.

            Next to me Stephen slept silently. No snores; no heavy breathing and I actually thought he could be dead.

            I glanced up and saw … it.

            The face.

            The right side of a pale white face peeked at me from behind the doorframe. Its hand crawled round spidery and gripped hold of the frame.

            I wanted to scream. My heart wasn’t beating, it felt like it had stopped altogether.

            Then real fear struck me. It was my dad.

            His black eye on show had sunken into his skull and his pale face matched the moon which crept through the curtains.

            A sinister smile crept on the corner of his lip. Crooked teeth fell from his mouth. Dad was mocking me. Even from the grave he was still making my life hell.

            I rolled Stephen over.

            His face had changed.

            Lying next to me now was dad’s frozen corpse.

            This time the screaming did come and I was shaken out of my fit of fear by Stephen.

*

            I tried to explain everything. Stephen looked understanding but I knew deep down he doubted my every word.

            ‘It was just a nightmare,’ he said.

            I walked to the lounge and stared at the urn. That thing was fucking cursed. Could it really be that dad was still here in some way? I pushed his face out of my head.

            I went to speak with Marcus.

            After explaining everything he sat in silence gathering his thoughts.

            ‘I want that code,’ I said. ‘I want to get the money, take the keys and get the hell away from here.’

            Marcus tapped his fingers in a praying pose against his lips. ‘You have twenty-four hours before you get the code, Sarah.’

            ‘No; I want that damn code now!’

            ‘Twenty … four … hours.’ 

            ‘Well I’ll just take that urn and scatter his ashes in the sea if I have to. Good riddance to him.’

            ‘That’s up to you,’ Marcus said.

            He wasn’t budging his stance.

            I got up and stormed out of the office.

            If twenty-four hours was all I had to wait to get my hands on all that money then so bloody be it. One last push of patience.

That night I got in bed early.

Stephen had stayed downstairs to watch the game with a beer.

When I woke this time, Stephen still wasn’t beside me.

Stood above me was my mother.

Her decaying corpse stared down at me.

Her once tanned face was now rotted flesh and bone.

The stench made me want to vomit.

Mum was almost bald but a few loose strands of frizzled hair.

‘M … mum?’ I muttered.

She wore the white gown she had been buried in, it was dirty with stains of mud and earth flowing from knees to her chest.

Then I heard the distant sound of thud … thud … thud.

That horrific noise.

Was it my heart or hers? I couldn’t be sure.

‘Mum … please.’

She pointed at me and her mouth gaped open as though yelling at me, the way she had done all those years ago.

My dad again peeked from the doorframe smiling with that mocking dead expression.

Thud … thud … thud.

The beating of my heart grew.

Thud … thud … THUD.

I couldn’t breathe.

‘Mum … dad … please,’ I strained.

I fell to the bed and started to panic. My hands and toes tensed so hard I thought they’d snap like chicken bone. The muscles and veins in my neck bulged from the thinning skin. This was it; I was dying and my parents were embracing every second.

Stephen came running up the stairs; dad retreated out of view and mum crumbled to the floor vanishing in an instant.          

‘Sarah … Sarah!’ he yelled shaking me.

I managed to take in some much needed oxygen and filled my lungs to capacity.

‘That’s it baby, long hard breaths,’ Stephen reassured me.

My hands relaxed. My muscles started to unclench.

Stephen grabbed hold of me and hugged me tight.

‘Where were you?’ I asked still catching breath.

‘I fell asleep on the sofa.’

‘You were supposed to be here … to keep me safe.’

*

The day I’d been waiting for had finally come. After a long and otherworldly week I’d get what was due to me. But first I had business to attend to.

I grabbed the urn and threw it in the car. Stephen was working so I had all day to carry out the task in hand.

The seafront was an hour’s drive away.  It was a gusty day which suited me. On the way I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror.

Jesus Christ Sarah, you’ve aged. Your eyes have bags dropping near your chin. The creases in your face crater like the Grand Canyon and that hair is in dying need of a colour.

Don’t worry we’ll have plenty of cash to sort these things out. All in due time.

It was my mother’s voice that spoke the words.

‘So, you think you can still dictate my life, huh?’ I asked the urn sat innocently beside me. ‘Coming to me in the night … and using mum!’ I said shaking my head. ‘How dare you use mum to get at me. No … no sir; it will all be over today daddy.’

Sarah, you sound hysterical.

I parked at the pay and display next to the beach. £1.30 for an hour’s stay was fine by me. I used the change which should have gone to that homeless chap that freaked me out. Grabbing the urn and my umbrella I headed out down the stone steps. The beach was quiet, a few dog and casual walkers here and there. The sea – wild with a strong scent of salt infiltrating my nostrils.

Surfers would embrace these high waves.

I reached the sea and put down my umbrella. My feet paddled in the ice-cold water and I took the urn holding it out in front of me.

‘Dad. I want to say something. What I put you and mum through was wrong, and I apologise. Thing is, you being in my home is a constant reminder, and I don’t want reminding of the last time I saw you alive. The night terrors are obviously my mind playing the guilt card. I hope you understand. Farewell daddy; be at peace.’

I unlocked the urn and emptied the contents into the sea.

Rolls of money fell into the water.

Bundles of £50 notes held by elastic bands washed out to the sea. There must have been a dozen or so.

What the hell?

I checked the urn and it was empty. Just an empty ceramic container. No ashes and now – no cash. The sea carried the money out and into the waves. I stood speechless as they disappeared under the water.

*

I ran back to the car as fast as my legs would take me. I yanked out my phone out and dialled Marcus’ office.

‘Hello, Marcus H-’

‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ I asked.

‘Sorry?’

‘The urn … it was filled with cash, not my fucking dad.’

‘I see. You scattered it then?’ Marcus asked, irritatingly calm.

‘Yes I scattered them. What’s going on?’

‘Come by the office and we can sort this whole thing out.’

‘Give me the code,’ I said.

‘Pardon me.’

‘The code … give me the fucking code to the case.’

And then Marcus gave it me. I questioned whether he was joking.

He wasn’t.

*

When I arrived home, I ran to the front door with excitement. My hands rushed the key in the lock and I shot through to the kitchen. The briefcase stood on top of the table as I’d left it. I pumped in the code and pulled back the lid.

My hands clasped my mouth like I’d been hit with an arrow in the chest.

Thud … thud … thud …

I took a double take to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me.

Ashes.

The entire case was filled with ashes.

*

Marcus sat behind his desk. I stormed in and smacked the table.

‘What is happening?’

‘Oh Sarah. You have been a naughty girl.’

‘What does that mean you fucking weasel?’

Marcus slipped his computer screen around to face me. On the monitor was the image of a hidden camera. It was staring at my father’s bed. My dad was in it.

‘Where did you get this?’ I asked.

‘Well, you see that your father had become quite suspicious following your mother’s untimely death. So, he set this camera up for proof if he ever needed it, which he certainly did. Didn’t he Sarah?’

‘No … this isn’t happening …’ I muttered, unable to steady myself.

I fell into the chair.

‘Let’s have a watch, shall we?’ Marcus said and pushed play.

I remembered. I didn’t need to see it, but I couldn’t take my eyes away. I entered the bedroom whilst dad was asleep. I remembered his face. I took the pillow and held it tight against his face. I pressed down harder and harder. Dad’s hands gripped as he fought, damn he tried to fight. Yet he was frail, all too frail. I pushed harder until he fell limp …

‘Oh dear Sarah,’ Marcus said. ‘First your mother and then your father.’

Thud … thud … thud.

‘Dad … had suspicions?’

‘The constant discussions over money? The arguing? He heard you say that you’d kill her?’

Mum needed an ambulance. I could have saved her but I didn’t make the call. I watched her die in front of me. Thud … thud …

‘He set me up?’

‘Of course,’ Marcus said ‘He was a dying man but you couldn’t be patient could you, Sarah? You had to have his fortune didn’t you?’

I was close to tears. Marcus had the incriminating evidence and my life was over.

‘The money in the urn was all that was left,’ Marcus continued. ‘Patrick had sold the property in Spain and donated his fortune to charity. The only possession he had was the manor house, which he has kindly left … to me.’

‘You?’ I asked.

Marcus chuckled. ‘He came to me with his suspicions a while ago and we made a deal. And when you make a deal with me, the agreement is final.’

‘Who are you?’

Marcus just smiled. There was a burning behind those eyes – a blackness.

Suddenly fear had substituted the rage in me. This … thing in front of me made my stomach churn.

‘What are you? Is that what the combination to the case was – a clue?’ I asked.

‘I take great pleasure in seeing a sinner’s world fall apart.’

‘The night terrors … the homeless man, it was you, wasn’t it?’

Marcus again smiled with his crooked teeth and burning eyes. ‘I like to have my fun now and again.’

I rushed to my feet almost stumbling to the floor. The blue carpet had changed to bare floorboards. The nice paint of the office had started to peel away. Marcus just sat watching my disbelief as the surroundings fell to desolation.

I ran out of the door which fell from its hinges to the floor. I headed down the stairs. The other small businesses in the building were vacant. Not a soul in sight. I fell through the door and turned to see the entire building boarded up and worthy of demolition.

I had to get home. I had to see Stephen.

*

I flew over the speed limit the whole way. I wasn’t thinking straight and who could blame me?

When I arrived home, a police car was parked outside the house. What had happened now? Had that Marcus thing got to Stephen?

I ran in the house and found two officers with Stephen huddled around his laptop. My face fell. They turned. I saw behind them the footage of me suffocating my father playing on the screen.

Tears fell down Stephen’s cheeks.

‘Sarah … how could you?’ he asked.

‘I … I’m sorry.’

The police officers moved toward me.

The briefcase of ashes remained on the kitchen table; the code still read 6-6-6.

Copyright © Ethan Maiden


Bio:

Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire.
Writing fiction has become a hobby over the past couple of years and he hopes to one day publish a novel.
Ethan notes Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft as influences behind his work.


“The Abomination” Fiction by John Ormsby

Father Marc assumed his usual seat in the front pew of St Jude Church and unfastened his collar. Each evening after mass the old Jesuit liked to collect his thoughts for several minutes before extinguishing the candles and clearing the altar. His church had a cheery interior by day but sunset draped a grey cowl over the building which he didn’t like, entombing everyone and everything inside. Now peering into the shadowy recesses around him, he decided he’d turn on more lights for evening mass, even in summer.

In a grotto to the left of the altar stood a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, illuminated by several rows of red offertory candles. Earlier in the day an elderly parishioner had brought in a dozen crimson roses from her garden and asked if she might lay them at the statue’s feet. In the flickering candlelight the carefully arranged blossoms created a dramatic effect against the white linen which he now believed merited closer inspection. Genuflecting before the altar, he followed the raised marble railing which led to the grotto.

Father Marc gingerly lowered himself onto the wooden prayer kneeler before the Virgin. He could remain thus only briefly before his knees locked and he leaned forward to transfer some of his body weight onto the wooden book rest. The solitary figure studied the statue’s expression and thought she looked more melancholy than he last remembered, while the Virgin’s gaze never wavered from the front entrance to the church. Reaching over the rows of offertory candles, Father Marc selected one of the roses to enjoy its scent but discovered it had none. Disappointed, he replaced it and began counting the number of offertory candles lit that day by the hopeful.

Nineteen, no… twenty. Good, but will there be $20 in the donations box, I wonder? I doubt those three lads threw in anything, the little monkeys.

A deep, sinister chuckle rose from within the shadows behind him at this last remark. Father Marc tensed and the hair stood up on his arms; he was not alone. For a moment he thought he’d unknowingly locked in a straggler but dismissed the idea just as quickly. Every instinct told him this was not a believer. The laugh was not human.

“Let me blow those out for you, Father,” came the low, menacing snarl. “You know me… I prefer to work in the dark.”

This time the guttural growl came from much closer yet he’d heard no footsteps. His blood froze and his knees were now on fire as he tried to stand without success. Bracing his arms against the book rest he looked to the Virgin for guidance but her gaze was fixed on what was approaching while her expression had changed from melancholy to pity.

Help me, Blessed Virgin. What has come into my church?

“She can’t hear you, you fool!” the voice snapped angrily. “But I’m listening to your every thought.” It then softened in tone but couldn’t conceal an underlying rage. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve journeyed a long way to find you.”

In one final effort Father Marc managed to get to his feet and turned around but saw no one. The church appeared empty but he knew this was not the case because every nerve in his body  

screamed he was in mortal danger. Whatever was hiding was playing a game. Waiting. Watching.

“I need to make a confession,” the voice whined mockingly. “I’m about to revert to my old ways and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Won’t you come in and join me? I really don’t want to have to come out there and get you,” it hissed.

At that moment the light above the confessional door lit up, giving the cleric a start. It was in there waiting for him. Father Marc took a tentative step towards the confessional then stopped. As a Jesuit he’d been trained not to fear evil and although every instinct was telling him to flee this was not an option. Whatever had entered his church had no right being there and he grew angry, not only at the defilement but the sheer audacity of the act. And as his anger grew, so did his resolve. His training taking over, he advanced slowly forward.

Blessed Mother, stay with your poor servant.

“It’s only you I want for now, Father,” the voice threatened. “I’ll deal with her later…”

Father Marc was no longer listening to the demon behind the door. Whispering the Act of Contrition, he was imagining what God looked like. He hoped his creator would be forgiving and reward him for what he was about to face in his name. The priest also wondered where God was at this very moment. Was he watching events here on Earth? Was this a test? Was the plan to intercede at the last moment and then reward him for his faith? His mind now racing, Father Marc hadn’t noticed that the sun had now set, plunging the church into total darkness except for the candlelit grotto and the ominous light above the confessional door.

His knees no longer hurt and he’d regained control over his breathing. The only sound was the loose change in his pocket which rattled with every step. He tried to visualise the demon that lay in wait for him and how best to fight it, fully aware the odds did not favour an old man. Martyrdom seemed inevitable and Father Marc accepted his fate with the same grace as previous Jesuits while his mind continued to release thousands of memories, one of which was a prayer his grandfather had taught him as a child:

Aronhiate, onne aonstaniouas taitenr

“You don’t know which gods to call upon, do you?” the fiend tormented him. “How pleased do you think they’ll be to learn you’ve been playing them off against each other all these years? If you’re afraid now wait until they get hold of you…”

When Father Marc arrived at the confessional the light above the door went out. Maintaining his composure, he pulled a plastic lighter from his shirt pocket and flicked it. He listened for any type of sound coming from inside the confessional but the church was shrouded in silence as if every living thing was hiding and holding its breath. His left temple ached and his stomach started turning somersaults.

God have mercy on my soul.

He reached for the door handle but his right hand stopped short and hovered above it, shaking, while the small flame from his lighter continually rose and fell, threatening to abandon him at any given moment. Now scarcely breathing, he silently closed his grip on the door handle and was about to turn it when he had a revelation.

It’s behind me.

Before he could turn around Father Marc was set upon. The old cleric was seized from behind and hurled across the church, landing in a broken heap beside the grotto. Disoriented and bleeding badly, he was again raised off the ground and slammed face-first into the prayer kneeler before the statue of Our Lady. He clung onto the book rest with the last of his strength, realising this was where his enemy wanted him. Daring to open his eyes, he tried to focus but all he could make out was a pool of blood at the feet of the Virgin where the roses had once been.

“We need to talk, old man,” rasped the voice, its breathing now heavy and laboured. “It’s coming and I know you feel it too, which explains that ancient prayer.”

Father Marc couldn’t speak but he knew his thoughts were no longer his own. He also knew these were to be his last moments on Earth, a prospect which now filled him with joy because he was ready to meet his god.

You thought it was me, that’s why you came here.

“Yes, I now know you were only a diversion; a fatal mistake on your part.”

We all have roles to play and I’ve played mine.

“And I’m getting closer each time.”

Time is against you. It’s started and you can’t stop it. No one can.

“I can make one night last a thousand years,” the demon reminded the Jesuit, “or have you forgotten that?”

Raging it had wasted time pursuing the wrong quarry, the fiend had nonetheless gleaned vital information in its race to find answers, but it didn’t like being mocked and Father Marc would pay dearly for his defiance. All promises of mercy were now forgotten as the demon snapped the priest’s head back, breaking his neck, before bearing down for the final, frenzied attack upon Mary’s poor servant.


Bioography

Mr. Ormsby states: “I grew up in Toronto and now live in Lancashire, England where I teach high school. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved dark humour and thrillers, especially those which end in a cliffhanger because they force a panicked reader like me to take over the story from that point, otherwise I don’t sleep.”