When the phone rang Louis came awake with no memory of his dreams and a sinking feeling in his stomach he couldn’t place. He reached over – wide awake, despite the hour and the sudden pull from sleep – and picked up the handset.
The voice on the other end spoke in a harsh whisper and he sat up with a bolt of animal fear. His hand found his sleeping wife, stroked her thigh beneath the blanket.
The voice said, “How long until I fall in love did you ever really care what year was it you lost it all how do you feel now is it dead yet are you alone do you feel it—“
He pulled the phone from his ear, looked at it for a moment, and killed the connection. It beeped and fell silent and he sat still in the quiet dark for an hour with his hand on his wife’s leg.
Then he rose and went downstairs to make breakfast. He was always up earlier and he always made her breakfast, even during the brief time in their late twenties that their marriage had been hanging on by a thread.
Harriet woke to lazy sunlight, the smell of toast and something frying. She dressed quickly in a t-shirt and sweats patterned with cats (a random gift from Louis, one of those he would bring home on occasion for no reason at all) and went downstairs. In the kitchen Louis stood at the stove, frying bacon in a pan. He didn’t turn to look at her and she yawned, frowned at his back. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” he said. His voice seemed flat. She sat at the table and watched him, his stiff posture, shoulders bent slightly as he turned the food over.
“Did you sleep okay?” she asked, feeling silly as the words left her mouth – since when did they make small talk? Louis had always been a somewhat dispassionate man – given more to acts of service than declarations of love – but he was a morning person, it was when his energy was at its’ highest, and this behaviour was out of character.
“Sure I did,” he said, and he turned to her. His face was as flat as his voice. Behind his horn rimmed glasses his eyes seemed to float somewhere: over her shoulder, to the dark expanse of the living room. She turned, expecting to see something there, and when her gaze returned to her husband the sunlight filtering in bursts through the thin blinds above the kitchen sink triggered her. She stiffened and her eyes went wide then squinted shut then went wide again and she started to convulse, falling out of the chair, knocking it aside with a splayed foot, and she was aware of it all and the light was so bright and the pain in her locked dancing limbs was excruciating.
*** *** ***
Louis watched until the bacon began to burn. He turned and slowly shut off the gas, watching the flame recede and go out. Then he walked past Harriet’s flailing body into the living room, through the hall to the parlour and the second downstairs bedroom. Satisfied that their son Jacob was at high school as he should’ve been, he returned to the kitchen. Harriet was flat on her back – her eyes filmed over, glassy, following him as he gingerly picked up the kitchen chair she’d knocked over.
“You really ought to be more careful in taking your medication, sweetheart,” he said, dragging the chair to the centre of the kitchen. He lowered himself onto it and sat with his knees apart, hands dangling, like he was watching a fishing line.
She made a savage noise deep in her throat and he glanced at the iPhone sitting on the table. His face was expressionless, a wad of putty into which flat blue eyes had been stuck. “I’ll call an ambulance after,” he said. “I don’t believe you’ll make it through this one. They’ve been getting worse. I’d say that I’m sorry but I don’t know if I feel things like that anymore.”
Her ankle hit the table, sent a salt shaker to the floor with a clatter.
He said, “I got the oddest phone call this morning.”
JP Townsend is a writer of crime, science fiction and horror. Originally born in Terre Haute, Indiana, he migrated to Australia as a teenager and currently resides in Brisbane, Queensland, with his partner and a very talkative cat from whom he gets most of his ideas. Currently employed as a motor winder, he has previously been a high school English teacher, a line cook, and an intern editor. Townsend completed a bachelor’s of fine arts in creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology in 2013, and has been writing since the age of fifteen.
“The Thrill”, a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic United States, was published by Aurealis – an Australia speculative fiction monthly – in May 2022.
“Arrevedeci, Mentone!” someone blurted out in the crowded hallway of Menton station.
He jumped at those words. His otherwise slightly crooked back straightened with a jolt – his frayed, slightly oversized red coat fell in line. His clunky leather shoes clicked together and the gaping hole between his bent legs disappeared.
No one noticed him. People rushed past, holing up in their sunglasses and their earbuds and their newspapers as a train came to a halt at the platform nearby.
He scratched in between his short messy fat hairs. And started: “Well…”
An electric shock surged through his hand and he stood even straighter. She had taken it, caressing it softly. His eyes went from her black hairs, twinkling brown eyes, bemused smile with thin lips, down to her flowery dress, tanned legs, and her massive white sneakers.
He then looked straight past her. Some fluffy white dog, owner unknown, stared at him from the platform.
“It was fun,” she said in the half English-French concoction they used to speak.
Now she had to get back to university life. He himself had to return home to Cologne to analyze data in spreadsheets.
That dog didn’t let go of his stare from afar. His heart skipped a beat.
She poked his sides to laugh at his shrill shouts of surprise. Then she hugged him. He wriggled a bit. But she held him tight – ever tighter than before.
He wanted to tell her, “So…”
She turned him loose, grabbed her bag and walked to the train, petting that white dog in passing. He followed quickly, eyeing the dog which eyed him, her, and the train she was boarding.
In the train’s doorway she blew a kiss, blurted out another ‘goodbye, Menton’, disappeared into the opposite aisle and that was that.
Mid December – morning
The corded streetlights of Menton boulevard dangle in the winds this early morning before sunrise. As do threads of his frayed red coat as he walks underneath, casting a tall shadow. Despite the long train ride here he had tossed and turned in bed during the night.
“Goodbye, Menton,” her voice resounds with each blow of the wind.
It’s almost Christmas here, making the Mediterranean chilly. He ducks himself in more, absent the heat of day. Wrappings of sweets race past him in spurts until they reach some broken garbage can in between two holed up sidewalk cafes. A blue plastic bag barely covers the contents that spill out over the cobbled street.
He makes fists in his pockets. He freezes – not from the cold.
A white mop of a stray dog rummages through the rubbish. The dog unaware pants in the same rhythm as the flapping threads of his red coat. Its tongue almost rolls right over the floor.
He walks slowly past. His knuckles white from the chill turn red.
At this point of the boulevard, it stretches out for miles back and front. It’s packed with hotels boarded up for this winter’s sleep. Nary anyone else in sight – just a dilapidated palm tree here and there. The waves crash over boulders nearby.
And the wind cries in her voice, “Goodbye, Menton.”
He quickens his pace and sets his eyes on a point far away. A parasol somehow left open through the night by its careless owners. Sweat drenches his skin, pricking everywhere on his body. He resists the urge to scratch as he races on. Just the clicks of his crummy leather shoes resound in the winds.
He pauses and closes his eyes for a deep breath near the parasol. Then freezes.
Mrrrwf. Something bumps his legs.
Last Summer – the third day
“Hi,” she said.
The dog still bumped against his leg – he tried wishing it away, gazing at the sea.
“Hello?” she said again.
He looked in her general direction. Her red summer dress popped in the sun. He had to squint for a while.
He stepped sideways to escape the dog for a moment. “Hi.”
Her index finger pointed up. “I’m here.”
He followed it until he stared right into her big shades.
She removed them and laughed. “He doesn’t bite. Isn’t he sweet?”
He glanced sideways. “Oh, OK.”
She knelt to pet the dog. The wind swept up strands of her black hair.
“Are you scared? Really?”
He laughed back sheepishly.
She stood up again and held her palm high. “There’s nothing to worry about. You see?”
The dog jumped high to reach for her hand, then it turned on him.
He stiffened and hid his shaking hands wet from its snout in his pockets.
She chuckled. “All right, I’ll save you.”
She took that white mop. Held it tight against her. It hummed as she stroked it now and then. They walked to a bench through the masses, hurrying past unfazed by the dizzying sun. They sat down for a while. She asked all kinds of questions about him and he answered as best he could. Her English was as rusty as his French, but they managed. He did something right because she had to laugh more than once.
As they parted, she winked. “If you ever find courage, meet me in front of the casino at eight.”
“Su…” he began.
She freed the mop from her grip, then ran off after it.
Mid December – morning
He tries shaking his leg. To no avail. That white mop still bumps against it. He runs away despite some initial resistance from below. A mrrrwwllf of surprise. After a short while, he glances back anxiously.
He startles, stumbling right on top of a great big Santa, sporting a great big grin which falls backwards under his weight. From behind, he can hear the dog panting heavily. He gets up quickly to run.
Santa’s meant to welcome visitors to a market that serves as this place’s sole reminder of Christmas. The stalls enforce makeshift avenues within. Air rushes through creaks and crevices as if the market’s alive and whistling. He runs past signs of sausages, traditional tableware, dried fruits and some tableau of Jesus Christ born eternally in Maria’s lap, her loving gaze molded in plastic.
The wind doesn’t die down here. With each blow, her giggles reverberate throughout the place.
He cuts some corners. Dilapidated palm trees cast their shadows over the stalls here and there, large enough for a person to hide in them.
Again, her giggles resound.
A bark in the distance responds.
He flits his eyes from side to side. Cuts another corner for something cold to prick his sides.
He sways his arms around. A figure rolls over until it stops underneath a palm tree. Out of the shadows Santa stares at him sideways, sporting his great big grin.
He runs past it out of the market and on to the port, where the boats drift as yet untouched by their owners. The blackened border mountain hovers over them like a big kid picking on someone smaller.
“Just look closer,” the wind whispers from behind in her voice.
Last Summer – a week in
She pointed at a bright white spot in the port he couldn’t discern even after three clarifications.
“Just look closer. It’s there!”
He bent over some more and shielded his eyes from the sun with his hands.
“Never mind,” she said. “Let’s go.”
She slapped him on his bottom. His cheeks tightened. Then she took his hand and walked.
He complied, nervously glancing at some white mop of a dog staring at him from a distance. He tried to make some pun about boats – but it got lost in translation. When he jumped in the boat under the watchful eye of the dog following them, she did crack a smile. The boat rocked violently as he barely kept his posture, flapping his arms around.
“Don’t rock the boat, you silly…” she said.
“I am a bit silly,” he said.
Gliding through the blue-green waters – the motor really plowed in there – the mechanical noise drowned by the breeze. They moored at some rocks. The boat swayed in the waves and he instinctively put his hand on one side of it.
Standing tall, she undressed. Her white bikini over browned flesh almost seared anyone’s eyes who dared to look closely at her. He held his head down as the boat rocked again.
“Why don’t you take it off?” she asked, pulling at his worn out green shirt.
He tried to get up, to get used to the left-to-right rhythm of the boat. Then tried to remove his shirt under her watchful eye.
“I’m so clumsy,” he said when he got stuck.
She laughed. He gave the shirt a stern last pull and removed it.
“Don’t you hurt your eyes,” he said, pointing to his beaming pale skin.
She put on her sunglasses in jest, tossed them away again on her blue tunic folded in a corner, and jumped in.
Her splashes wet his pants, which he quickly removed. He jumped in after her, them splashing each other back and forth in the water.
In the boat they dried, drops sizzling away in the sun, while she leaned her head against him. Her drying hairs kept his shoulder blade moist. He closed his eyes. Waves splashed against the boat. Horns blared in the distance. Seagulls flew right over them, mewing gently. He cracked a smile and put his arm around her. She cuddled up.
Last Summer – the day after
He felt her breathing softly on his neck as they lay down. Species most exotic in the botanic garden aroused his interest more than hers, so at her request they took a break from strolling around. He tried to close his eyes again.
But as soon as he did, she woke up from her slumber. She raised her head and put her sunglasses in her red-white striped shirt such that it got pulled down a bit in the middle. Her long fingers slithered around in his messy hairs, pried away his shades, and tossed them away. The glasses crashed against the cobbled path. One patch fractured into shards.
He pulled himself up and made sure there was some space between him and her. But she pulled him closer again and caressed his face with a wry smile. His pupils flashed frantically from one side to another. Blinks per second, sky high. She pricked his belly. It tightened.
“You know,” she chuckled, “You really have the eyes of a psychopath.”
Mid December – morning
He quickly walks past the botanic garden. Barks, barks, barks resound on the empty street. Dog’s paws rattle all the mansion’s fences. Their spit specks of saliva light up in the early morning air.
Her whispering voice follows him, carried by the wind. “A psychopath’s eyes.”
He tries not to look sideways, at those lush mansions where the rag tag guardians abide.
“A psychopath’s eyes.”
Slender fingers curl around a palm tree on the sidewalk. He stumbles forward to the other side of the road. Peeks again at the tree despite his pounding heart. Despite the incessant barks. The barks. The barks. Paws still rattle the fences.
But nothing’s there. The tree merely casts a long shadow, the size of a human being. Still he turns around, hellbent on leaving this street now. Right now.
The wind still follows him. “A psychopath’s eyes.”
He looks back. Something white in the distance seems on the move. He runs. Past another tree around which fingers slither.
He gets to the end of that street where the iron fences clang and creek when another gust of wind shakes up his hairs without a whisper. A loud sigh. He looks back one more time and rounds the corner.
Screeeeeeech! A car comes to a halt. A blackened window rolls down.
He apologizes to the void.
An expletive leaves the window in return. It rolls up again, and the car continues its path down past those fences which barking dogs still rattle.
Last Summer – two weeks in
Loud rap music faded away, and with it, the car. A white stray dog followed them walking, peeping and mumbling.
He stuck out his hand to take hers. She slapped it.
“What… What were you doing?” she asked.
She kept pricking his sides with one of her long fingers. The dog let out a bark.
“Eeeh…” he said.
She stomped the ground with one of her white shoes. “You left me hanging there!”
She pointed to the dog. “And he barely got away as well with you blocking his way!”
“But, but, but–” he said.
“That car came out of nowhere and suddenly you were gone.”
He stopped. Tried to get a glimpse of her fiery brown eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. He tilted his crooked back forward as he peeked. She put her glasses in her hands and just looked at him.
Finally, she said, “You abandoned me.”
Her otherwise supple hands formed fists. She crushed the feeble black plastic in them. They creaked harshly. The dog let out another bark.
“You abandoned me,” she bit again.
Mid December – morning
With that car gone, he slows down. He goes up some steep trail of sand and pebbles. Away from the asphalt, which smolders already this early in the morning. The barks and rattles of the dogs in the street fade away. Except for one. One still shrieks and peeps and barks from a distance.
His heart races. Up the slope he goes, breathes heavily with each step. Sweat pours. Despite his haste, he has to rest every once in a while, holding a tree for support. He always checks behind it. Stares into the bush. No one’s there hiding.
The barks don’t stop. They edge closer.
So he skips his next rest, straight past some ruin where stones amass under a crumbled wall and caved in roof. He wets his palms against his moist forehead while rushing. The thicket of trees thins past a wreck of some rusty machine, purpose unknown. This high up he eases briefly with no one around. He leans back against a tree. It feels cold to the touch.
“You abandoned me,” carries the wind. “With your psychopath’s eyes.”
Something massages his neck. Fingers. He jolts himself back.
Wrrrooof! It resounds from below, even closer than before.
He looks back at the tree with trembling hands. Yet the only sign of life there is a single white shoe at the base, resting on a bundle of frayed clothes.
He continues. The barks and pants of the dog following him now sound too close for comfort. His knuckles beat as if in spasm when he hoists himself up over an edge. Pebbles tumble down in their hundreds. Something behind him growls. Peeps. Growls. Pants. Step by step, his feet sink into the sand underneath the loose constellation of stones.
Wrrroooof! He turns his head. A white mop of a stray dog stares at him.
“Aaah,” he grimaces and reaches for his lower back. “What do you want? Stop it!”
He goes on. Cries of that white mop. Goes on. Legs stiffen from cramps. He goes on. Sun’s a-scorching. Still he goes on. His left leg drags now. He goes on.
Mrrrrwwllf, the dog peeps.
“What do you want?” he asks again in vain.
Wroof. Wroof. Two paws grab his left leg.
Pebbles race past them.
“Stop it!” he shouts.
He shakes his left leg, stretches it, shakes it again. Kicks. A whimper.
Mrrrrwlf. The white mop rolls down with the rocks.
“Stop it! Go away!”
The wind moves his hairs. With one final hoist, he gets over the last edge. Menton lies down below, the size of a small dot. He wipes the dust from his face, drowned in sweat. A gust of wind cools him down.
“My little knight,” her voice rings within it.
Last Summer – three weeks in
They met up at the entrance of the keep. He waved hello and stared at her massive white shoes.
“Sorry I’m la–”
She took his hand.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Her fresh hands cooled his clammy ones as she dragged him with her to the top.
She laughed. “You really can’t handle the heat, can you?”
He slipped. “Wooooh!”
Their hands clutched in a flurry of black hairs and their arms rubbing the other’s face midst shouts of surprise. Some brick on the stairs must have gotten loose. She held him by the waist to save him, tightened her grip and stared in his eyes. He deftly maneuvered out of her grasp.
At the top of the keep, she hopped to the merlons. She pointed in the distance to the contours of Monaco.
“Yes,” he said.
She turned and winked. “Like you.”
“Y-Yes,” he said.
He scratched his head and turned away from her piercing eyes. The sun sparkled in the sea as he leaned on the hot stones. Down below, a white dog turned around its head to stare at him up above.
He tightened. Two arms – her arms – wrapped around him and left him no escape. She spoke some sweet words in her native Italian.
“My knight,” she said.
His hairs raised. Three tiny little kisses on his neck. He tried to move but with one jerk, she turned him around. She cast a shadow over him save for the one ray of sun that shone on his trembling shoulder. Her brown eyes glistered.
“My knight,” she whispered in his ear.
She winked. He quivered. She put her lips against his, slid her tongue in. He let out a muffled shriek. She pulled him even closer in reply. Then they kissed, and that was that.
Mid December – noon
At the top of the mountain he screams. At the top of his lungs, “Stop it!”
The white dog jumps over the edge. Blood courses past its blazing eyes. Wroof. Wroof.
“Stop it,” he says again, but the dog jumps up against him.
They fall backwards. His head cracks against a pointy rock.
“Ouch, ouch,” he moans.
The blood dries seconds after in the sun. A glittering pink tongue laps him up everywhere.
“Sto…” he says.
The tongue slobbers all over him, goes into his mouth.
A gust of wind carries her voice, “My knight…”
He batters against the white mass. Blood, sweat, tears, dribble, paws, hands; black hairs suddenly. From within the clutter, she stares at him with her bemused smile. The dog pants heavily. He sweats. It drools. Fingers appear from under the stones and scratch him.
He grabs his back in pain. “Ouch.”
Again the dog pants. Her soft hands caress his. He kisses her hands. He kisses everything he can, sticks out his tongue in advance, kisses, hugs the other body tightly and tightly and ever tighter and tighter.
“My knight,” her voice resounds.
“Stop it!” he shouts.
An iron stench fills the air. He scratches and bumps with his fists and barks become whimpers. Blood flows out from everywhere in the huddle until he soaks in it. He tries to get up. His knee kicks the now white-red mop a stone’s throw away. It falls down whimpering. On his knees his ripped clothes sway to and fro in the winds as her black hairs do behind a tree down below.
“Goodbye!” he screams. “Goodbye!”
He runs up to the dog and kicks it again. And again. And again. The beast glances up and peeps, whizzing with every blow in a steady rhythm until silence falls.
“Goodbye,” he whispers.
He rubs his eyes wet from tears, shaking and sweating in the heat of noon. He sits down next to the dog as it lets out its last breaths. And there he will sit until the sun hides and the clouds gather and the blood dries and the rain pours down from heaven.
Sjoerd van Wijk (1988) is a writer, filmmaker and journalist from Nijmegen, the Netherlands. His work frequently deals with themes of loneliness and alienation, with psychological horror being his fiction genre of choice. One day he hopes to turn Mentone into a film as well.