Yellow Mama Archives

Chris Castle
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cloth.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2010

Cloth

 

Chris Castle

 

 

Jimmy and Jake had been best friends since they were born. Cot to cot, door to door, desk to desk. They started “dare’s up” when Jimmy turned eight. It was his birthday party and he dared Jake to blow out his birthday candles while everyone waited for Jimmy to do it. And when Jake did, the two of them caught each other’s eyes and smiled and the deal was made.

 

It went on; in school classes, at parties, with drinks and with girls. And now they found themselves on Jim’s twentieth birthday, walking their local park, each with a rucksack on their backs, the skies holding at grey, a bottle passed, back and forth, between them.

 

“Explain it to me again. One last time,” Jim said, coughing on the last few drips of the whiskey bottle.

 

“Jesus! One last time. Three times and out, okay?” Jake took the empty bottle, dumped it in the bin. “Okay, there’s a rumor of a man who lives in the woods. Patrick Narthy.”

 

“He was bought up real nice and came back from the war bad, got it.” Jim watched as his friend opened another bottle.

 

“Killed his family and went to live in the woods.” Jake looked around, sipped at the bottle, and handed it over. “Post- traumatic stress. Made a bad call and burnt his own squad to the ground.”

 

They broke hard left, unto the entrance of the park.

 

“He lived here,” Jim said, handing the bottle back. “It’s going to start pissing down at any second, Jake.”

 

Lives here. And I dare you to spend an hour in the square where Narthy lives. It being your birthday, and all!” Jake started to clap and whoop. “One hour and then we’re gone. I’ll be sitting on the bench by the brook. Then it’s pub till we puke, right?”

 

Jim nodded.

 

He wondered why they still did this. Sure, it was funny, but he was getting a little tired of it, now. He was off to college; it was time to run it down.

 

Truth was, Jim wanted it to stop. Last week, he’d broken up with Gail over it. It even upset his parents.

 

 It was time to grow up, Jim realized. He walked away from Jake, leaving him on the bench. Jake gave him the finger.

 

But Jake didn’t seem to care. About anything.

 

No, that wasn’t quite right. Jake cared for his mum, but she was fucked up by his sob father. It was kind of a mercy when she got put away.

 

And Jim. Jake loved him and Jim loved Jake, like a little brother, or something. For all his bluster, Jake wasn’t all that popular anyplace: school, the hangouts. Christ, everyone pretty much rolled their eyes every time Jake turned up at a party.

 

Jim stopped. He was being unfair. Jake had stepped up for him numerous times in fights. And cheating in classes. Jake covered him with all types of cheating. But then, Jake never had much luck with girls. 

Jim sank his last beer. He looked at his watch and saw he was twenty minutes down. Forty minutes, one day, one party, then pack, plan, and get out of town.

 

He remembered Jake’s face when he told him he was going. Jake patted his arm, shook his hand, but Jake was pale too. A dead man walking as everyone else was doing cartwheels and high-fiving.

 

“Just don’t forget me, Jim,” Jake had said, about as serious as Jim had ever heard him.

 

Jim nodded, and they shook on it. But even then, deep down, Jim was glad to be getting away. And Jake knew it, too; he saw it in Jim’s eyes.

 

 “Shit!” Jim said, reaching for the envelope. Thirty minutes into the trip, he’d forgotten to open his birthday card from Jake.

 

Jim pulled the card out of his pocket and ripped it open.  He thought about Gail: her green eyes and how much he missed her laugh. How she’d left without a word and wouldn’t return his calls all this last week.

 

He opened the card without thinking, almost forgetting it was in his hands. Rain began to fall.

 

Something fell out of the card and he stooped to catch it. An old newspaper article: the case of Patrick Narthy, with an artist’s sketch of a hooded figure. It was true.

 

Jim took a deep breath. The nut job had done all the things Jake had said; he was last seen in the woods wearing a sackcloth hood with ripped holes for eyes.

 

Jim looked into the woods. Then he went back to the card, picked up the article.

 

He screwed it up without thinking, felt his face growing red. For a while, he just marched without thinking, unnerved. It felt just like after Gail left, walking without breathing. He turned round, not knowing where he was. He pulled the map out of his pocket.

 

He walked back down, the heavy rain getting in his eyes. He stood under a swell of trees, hiding from the rain. He shook himself, laughing at how ridiculous it was.

 

Sometimes he wondered what would happen if Jake found his journal, and knew what Jim really thought of him, sometimes. Some summer nights, Jim swore he woke up and saw Jake at the corner of his window.

 

Jim heard a branch crack, and he spun, slipping and falling on his ass in the mud.

 

He swore and grabbed the bag. He’d get back to the bench and tell Jake. Tell him what he’d been meaning to say for the longest time. Jake would move on, meet new people. Friendships end with distance, which was natural.

 

Jim raised his face to the rain and wished this was all over, already.  He stretched and heard another branch snap. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain rake into his skin, burning his cheek.

 

Stumbling forward, he called out in pain. He brought his hand up to his face, saw it was covered in blood.

 

His eyes watered as he looked up: a long, ugly rose bush, covered in thorns. He looked down; it was hanging suspended from the tree. He saw indents, carvings. The branch had been catapulted into him.

He shook his head, walked out into the clearing, ready to run, slide and fall, to settle this stupid—

 

He saw someone sitting on the bench. It had to be Jake.

 

Suddenly Jim shivered. He made to call out, but his voice failed him. His cheek prickled with marks. He pulled something out of his calf: a sharpened branch made into a dart?

 

He felt his knees pop and he stumbled onto the mud. It was Jake. He staggered on, trying to tell the rain from the blood.

 

Jim touched his cheek, tried to stem the blood. He jogged quicker down the path, veering down the mud.

 

He felt the wounds open in his legs, realizing the darts were spiked. He winced, rolling recklessly, his body striking ridges he didn’t remember seeing on the way up, sharpened footholds that had been blunt before.

 

A few feet from the bench, Jim halted. From an elevated spot, he looked down to his friend, called out to him. Jim’s ribs ached, his face throbbed, and he called out, weakly. He just wanted this to stop, please stop.

 

Feet wavering, he pulled himself up. He walked in short, hunched steps over to the bench, and then stopped.

 

Jake’s clothes, his rucksack. A sackcloth over the head.

 

Jim edged forward, no longer looking around. He moved closer, closer. But the shoes . . . the shoes were not Jake’s. The trainers were ladylike, almost dainty. Gail had a pair—

 

There was a noise. Jim fell forward, onto the body on the bench. He reached and pulled off the sackcloth to reveal Gail’s face.

Her eyes were closed, her skin white. Dead.

 

Jim’s head throbbed; his eyes blurred with black dots till he felt himself fall under the bench. He tried to crawl away, one foot, then two, before there was a grip on his ankle, warm fingers crawling up his back. Heavy fingers that rolled him onto his back, as pages from his journal fluttered by on the wet grass.

 

Then a final, sudden snap of vision as his friend, his best friend, pulled the sackcloth over his face.

 

Jim briefly looked to the dead girl, then back to the mask just as the hammer lurched down towards his face.

 

 

 

 

bedofbones.jpg
Art by Gordon Purkis © 2010

Bed of Bones

 

Chris Castle

 

 

Murray posed for the picture, heard the pop of the bulb explode, making him blink. The mayor gripped his hand, good and tight, smiling all the way. Murray was surprised he wasn’t wearing gloves. The mayor and the gravedigger: what a scene. But the mayor was perfect in front of all the press. Murray squeezed back, tightening his grip on the other man’s hand, making the mayor wince, ever so slightly. It almost made Murray grin, just like the photographer had been asking him to, to see the chief get scared for a second.

 

It had all unravelled the weekend before. Murray had been out digging graves, same as always. It was raining: so what? He wore his slicker and his sturdy old, steel-capped boots. The frogs could have rained down from heaven like the Bible promised and he still would have kept on digging. He had his pitch, the ground was nice and easy; he was happy. The body was an old lady he’d seen around town. She used to work in the library, then the dog pound. She was a nice lady. He wanted to set it right.

 

People think that a graveyard is all stillness but that’s not always the case. There’s the traffic coming in from the main road, the kids who break in at night. It’s very rarely still. But then, that time of day, it was perfect. All there was for him was the sound of his shovel, the stabbing into the earth and the lift of the overturned soil. Like music, Murray had always thought. That was how it was, had been for an hour or so, when he heard the scream.

 

Murray knew he was considered the town boogie-man. Part of it was because of what he did, but there were other things, too; his eyes were a too-perfect blue, his voice was like trodden on gravel, his hair was black and almost wild. He had creases in his brow and scars on his cheeks that made him look like a big top announcer, or even one of the freaks. They didn’t know about his late wife, the war, or any of the other bits and pieces that made up his life and that was fine. So, because of all this, he was used to kids hollering.

 

Most of it was harmless enough; they catcalled him, threw tins down on his cabin. Some of the stuff they wrote was pretty funny; some of it was damn cruel. What they called out was mostly stupid, but then what else are dumb kids going to say? But this scream was different, Murray realized. It wasn’t mean enough to be a taunt, not sly enough to be a trap. Instead it was something else: a call for help.

 

He made his way over to the far end of the boneyard, trying to follow the sound of the voice in amongst the rain. He was good at tracking, on account of the war and all and soon enough he found the source: the sluice gates where the waterworks ran through the town. Sometimes the kids used it as a cave to get high, or to climb through the grates as a dare. He hoisted the manhole cover and slipped down into the darkness.

 

He had heard stories about the tunnels, the killers, and the cannibals. It was hard to get rattled when you saw death each day, Murray reasoned. Instead it just became something else; sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, mostly unpredictable. So he marched straight through the knee-deep water that rose with the rain and followed the sound. He edged forward in the darkness until he found the boy.

 

Murray didn’t know if the boy stopped screaming because he saw help, or because he saw Murray and thought he was done for. Either way, he clammed up as soon as Murray appeared and simply waited, tied up in the metal grids, to either be saved or killed.

 

Murray edged forward, pulling tools from his belt, making his decisions and looking up to the boy only when he had to, nodding to him like they were passing in a bar. When the kid got edgy or started whimpering, Murray muttered a few words, then went on with it. “All right now,” he mumbled, or “Holding steady.”

 

As soon as they were back on the even pitch of the yard, the kid went running. Murray watched him disappear over the hill. That was that, then, he thought. Well, all right.

 

For the rest of the evening, he went back to the pitch he’d started. He was happy the storm was settling some, as the summer night would give him a few more hours to finish up. By the time the grave was open and the body was packed and done, Murray had almost forgotten the kid entirely, thinking instead of the day’s next schedule.

 

He slipped the bone into his work bag and fished the keys to his truck out of his pocket.

 

The reporters had come the next morning, just as Murray was smoothing the folded paper out on his desk to organize his day. He tried to brush them off as best he could, but they wouldn’t give him the space. Eventually he opened the cabin door and let them in, let them ask their questions.

 

They asked him foolish stuff, trying to make him out to be a ghoul or something, and when they went down that route, he simply lowered his coffee and asked them their intentions. When they asked him about the case in point, he lifted his cup again and went right on answering.    

 

The parents came that same afternoon.  Murray tried to be courteous to them, shushed away their offer of tea at their house, though they seemed sincere enough. The woman held his arm as she spoke; the husband kept his distance. They told him the boy was fine, that he was in the hospital for observation.

 

Murray nodded, said the things he thought they wanted to hear. When they left, they mentioned how nice the yard looked, how well kept the grasses were, how the stones gleamed. He thanked them and stood in the car park until the van had gone from the site.

 

The yard was a thing of beauty, he thought. He worked hard on its upkeep, determined the presentation of each slab was the best it could be. They all came to walk the grass and lay the flowers, after all. All that was above kept them distracted from what lay below, Murray reasoned. The children, the rich businessmen’s shoes, the dogs, they all walked over the dead the moment they stepped foot inside his yard; that was the only truth they had. Whether the bodies were in heaven or simply ten feet below them, those were questions that none of them could answer.

 

He liked the mechanics of it; he knew each site by name, kept them written in a little black book other people would use for numbers. He knew where each one lay on any given day, which needed to be treated that day, which the next. He could close his eyes and stand by the cabin door and reel off the names of each soul, point to where they rested without once opening his eyes. He knew the dead and gave water to their bones, kept their names clear and polished and in the world each day.

 

 And he never took from what was not dead already.

 

Even the kids he didn’t mind so much, the ones who came in to party at the weekends. They brought in their music, they laid down their blankets and made love over the sea of bones; to him it was a simple equation: death and life, life and death. It was a single beach ball suspended in the breezes, going back and forth, back and forth. The dead didn’t judge and the living didn’t care. Sometimes he watched them, sometimes he watched the moon. The yard always gave him something to see and that was the truth.

 

The mayor unclasped Murray’s hand, patted him on the shoulder. The small crowd dispersed and the reporter informed Murray that his picture would be in the paper the next day.

 

People shook his hands; the mother gripped him by the elbow and spoke to him again with tears in her eyes. He touched her shoulder—the first time he had touched another woman since his late wife—and smiled back, easing her tears away.

 

Then it was over, the yard emptying, the place his once more. He closed the yard a little early, the day disrupted by the commotion. He set his bag down in the boot and drove back into town.

 

On the way he noticed how clean the streets seemed, how quiet the town appeared to be. For some reason, he felt light, as if the woman’s hand was still on his elbow, her tears somehow inside of him.

 

Murray pulled into a diner that he used on his way to work. He had not visited it any other time but at dawn and was braced for the rush of everyday life. He stepped inside and found it near empty, the waitress blinking in surprise as he stepped inside.

 

He ate his meal and watched the people go by as he sipped his coffee. When he reached into his back pocket to pay, the waitress held her hand up and smiled, explaining she had heard the news, that from now on, his money was no good here. She winked as she said that and brushed her hand against his shoulder. When he rose to leave, the few people in the place nodded directly to him, raised their hands. By the door a man stopped him and shook his hand and called him “a goddamned hero”.

 

Murray drove back, his head spinning. A car flashed its lights, another honked its horn. By the time he pulled onto the curb, his hands were shaking. The idea of the paper circulating tomorrow morning filled him with terror and something else, too: pride maybe.

He popped the trunk and collected his bag out of the boot. He looked around but saw no one, his neighbors paying him no heed.

 

Would that change now? He would have to consider that. He walked up to his house in the dark.

 

Having eaten, Murray turned on the radio and unwrapped one of his precious cigars. As he smoked, he let his head fog; he smiled, idly imagining his name cropping up on the late night news.

 

Outside, a few cars passed by his windows, but otherwise the world was still. There was just the plume of smoke, the smell of coffee, the sound of the little black book as he turned the pages. Then finally, his voice, gently saying each name, his eyes closed, the book gripped between his hands.

 

It was late when he decided to go to sleep. He washed his things, pitched the cigar stub out of the window onto the dirt. The book went onto the shelf where it rested until morning. After he was done brushing his teeth, relieving himself, he changed into his night clothes. He stifled a yawn as he turned out the lights, scooped up his work bag and unlocked the cellar door. He took one look around and saw his house was still and in order.

 

He pulled the cord and walked the steps in the weak light, setting the bag down on the floor.

 

The bed of bones was laid out before him, polished and gleaming.

 

 He reached into the bag, slipped the shinbone into place. When it was secured, Murray took a step back and admired the bed; it was perfect. Each bone was knitted together perfectly; every ridge and curve was true.

 

 He smiled and reached for the cord, turning the world dark. Then he undressed and climbed onto the bed, feeling the coolness of each bone press itself against his body as he closed his eyes.

 

Tomorrow, it could all change, he knew that. He could be discovered, he could be left in peace. But in that moment, he thought of nothing else than the pressure of the bones against him and let himself rest, knowing tonight would be a perfect night of sleep.

 

 

pigguy.jpg
Art by Mr. Byron © 2010

Spider Web

 

Chris Castle

 

“My name is Liam,” the boy said as he looked into the pool of water. He ran his hands over his face and quietly repeated his name over and over into his palms. Even after the water dried into his skin, he held his hands over his eyes, staring into the darkness. The forest was quiet, but he knew it would not stay that way. Eventually he brought his hands back down to his sides and they curled into fists without him thinking. He pulled on his clothes, his ragged shoes, collected up the book and began to walk. He stepped into the trees and the grass, saying his own name over and over like a prayer and then like a curse.

 

By the time he reached the clearing, the sounds of the town began to carry to him. There was the sound of things burning, the delicate crisp tumble of barns finally collapsing under the weight of flames. There were scuffling noises of fights, people being thrown to the dirt, stones being pitched towards faces, as a last line of defence. Abrupt, brutal sounds of sex without meaning. Everything sound-tracked to a constant stream of firecrackers. Sometimes they launched into the sky, other times into buildings or bodies.  

 

Liam stepped out of the clearing and onto the edges of the town. He tied a handkerchief around the lower part of his face. In amongst the fire he started to see the outline of the other boys and girls, careering in and out the split streams of smoke. Every one of them now wearing a mask and changed into something not quite human. He tried to recognise one boy by his ragged shoes and thought it might have been the Dorsey boy he used to stack hay with. A friend with an easy laugh who giggled at the clouds. The last time he had seen Jimmy Dorsey he had been holding a pitchfork, each spike half gleaming in blood. The mask he wore was a fox.

 

Liam walked in amongst the others as they careered about him and he noticed they all clutched something; firecracker funnels, rocks and dust. Everything was a weapon at hand, prepared for havoc. Liam became keenly aware of his own hands, almost light with nothing but the book he clutched to his chest. A firecracker launched into a barrel and careered into the sky. He followed it as it crackled into life over him and he remembered how he used to watch the stars bloom most nights, when the skies were still free of smoke. It was the happiest time of his life.

 

A masked face drew up to him as he reached the square; it was a pig, its jowls ruddy with dirt and dried milk. Without saying a word, the boy, for it was a boy, under there, Liam still knew this, even if the boy himself had forgotten, lunged for him. Before he could speak, or even raise his hands, Liam fell onto the dirt and rolled under the force of the fat body, the rotten creases of the mask scratching his cheeks. The boy was not throwing punches, or even trying to hurt him, Liam realised. Instead, he simply lurched over him, lunging and lunging, forcing the milk-sweat onto Liam, trying to make him understand without speaking.

 

Liam edged away from him and felt the boy grab for the book; his fingers were heavy and greedy, as if the book itself was simply another source of food or something to burn. Hurriedly, Liam jammed the thin book into the waistband of his trousers, freeing both his arms. He pushed the boy away and watched as he fell sourly onto the ground, like a baby. Liam looked at him, he wanted to think ‘it’, but it was a boy, he knew it was a boy. He started to back away and then suddenly, without thinking Liam lunged forward, gripping the mask by the jaws. He pulled at it…and the boy dragged along with it. The boy did not offer any resistance, but instead just let himself be dragged along, like a doll. Liam let go and the boy slumped forward and lay in to the dust, like an old, tired drunk. Liam staggered off, turning away from the sight, looking down at his fingers, still coiled and stiff, almost frozen with the truth he had discovered: The mask did not come away.

 

He walked through the smoked streets, more boys and girls careering past, their clothes torn, ripped open or simply left to ruin, their shoelaces flapping, or sometimes barefoot. Even though his handkerchief was torn and he was exposed, it did not seem to matter. One or two of them stopped for a second to observe him, but then ran on, either not understanding or not caring. The ones that did stop unnerved Liam in a way that almost made him scream; the way the lifeless masks tilted as they stared at him. The bodies alive and moving, but in another way palsied and sloppy, like ugly, cheap puppets. All of them fuelled with energy and chaos when they were given the chance for destruction, but limp when forced into thinking.

 

Liam stopped before he reached the town hall and drew breath. He found a water pump and drank deeply from it. The handkerchief fell and he did not reach down for it. One last breath before he faced them. The town was swamped in the firecracker smog now; a mist and a cover for the animals as they ran in and out of his sight. Liam noticed sadly how all the benches had been defiled; the dedication plaques removed, the panels burnt or muddied with junk from their bodies. The town itself was lost, he knew that and he was not going to be able to save it. But he at least wanted them to listen. He still carried books and not weapons; he still remembered his name. Liam stepped from the water pump and walked to the looming doors of the town hall building, the only untouched site left in the town.

 

As he forced the doors open, the first thing he noticed was how sweet the smell of normal air could be. Unaffected by the smoke and the violence that hung with it, Liam almost lost his footing as he drew in the freshness that lingered around him. He looked into the large open area, immaculate and clean and almost smiled at the beauty of it. Liam remembered all the times he had been here for one thing or another and how plain and glum it had all looked; not now. Now it looked like a work of art. For a moment Liam stared at the plain white walls, no graffiti spread across them, no sprays of blood or human filth smothering them and it looked as if it almost glowed like a work of art.

 

 “Hello,” came a voice from the far end of the room. A boy stepped out, flanked by another three. More seemed to spill from the rafters and the shadows, but there was only one who spoke. They all wore black robes, their faces partly obscured by their hoods. Liam could not see their faces.

 

“I lived in this town,” Liam said, his voice holding, even as inside, his heart raced.

 

“I’m-”

 

“I know who you are. You still keep your name. The last boy left in the town.” The leader drew closer to him, even as the other stayed perfectly still. He came within a few feet of Liam and then stopped. The folds of his robe still obscured his face and by the tone of his voice, Liam was no longer sure if it was a boy or a man that stood before him. 

 

“You’ve taken their plaques off the benches; you’ve burned down their houses. But they were still…” Liam lost his words, feeling suffocated by the darkness of the people who surrounded him. He drew out the book and thrust it into the leader’s body. When no hand took it, he jammed it deeper into the cloak, losing it in the folds, dimly aware that if he kept pushing, the whole file would be swallowed up in the darkness somehow.

 

“Those are pictures, you understand? Pictures of the people who lived here before all of…this. People who had faces and names. People who-” The leader moved, just a touch, but enough to make Liam stop talking. The photo album was gone now and Liam was aware that the leader who stood before him was not a boy but not a man either.

 

“Change,” the voice said. “Change is natural. Nothing stays the same.” The voice was smooth but not mechanical; it had one part chaos and two parts order inside of it.

 

“But outside, there…it’s…ugly.” Liam felt his voice crumble and he knew that was the truth of it; the town, as it had been, had been so simple and so beautiful. There had been nothing remarkable about it, not really, but he had loved it so; fiercely almost. And it was not even the chaos that troubled him, or the deaths, but just how ugly it had all become and how it had left him-

 

“Heartbroken.” The leader said, seemingly reading Liam’s mind. “You came out here not because of justice or anger, but because you are heartbroken. And the guilt you feel has driven you here.” The voice stopped and immediately Liam fell to his knees, broken. Outside firecrackers roared higher into the skies. Some bounced against the doors and Liam thought somewhere, he could hear the faint sound of giggling; coarse, hateful laughter; the sound of a gang laughing at the unfortunate. Liam knew, somehow, that the sound, the terrible sound, would only swell from this moment on.

 

“But those things outside,” Liam said weakly, unable to get up from the floor. He wanted to say the last, final things. “They’re all…wraiths, skin-eaters. How can you bear all those ugly things?” The giggling began to drum against the door, as more firecrackers bounced against the wooden frame.

 

“What is your name, boy?” the leader said, crouching by his side.

 

“My name is-” before he could finish, the leader moved closer and something silver slipped from his robe. It pressed against his skin and moved somewhere above the roof of his mouth. Liam felt himself lifted, even as his body grew weaker. He was aware of the others moving close by. Converging on the spot he was being lowered into.

 

Liam was aware of the leader jamming himself inside the roof of his mouth, speaking without words, filling him with a nightmare in pictures. There was a woman, a beautiful woman, and all she knew was beauty. She clutched flowers close to her heart and walked peacefully each day on the grasses. Then one day men came and saw this beauty, followed her and one day set upon her.

 

Liam felt the silver pour from the robes in waves, like a curd, filling his mouth, choking him even as he breathed. The men set upon the woman and did terrible things to her. They took all her beauty and their actions made it ugly. When they were done with her, they cast her aside and continued their march. The woman, who was beautiful but also torn and terrible and ugly in a way only her and the men would understand, lay in the long grasses that she cherished so much and waited to die. But instead of death she lay prone, as the spiders from the tips of the grass crawled inside her and filled the empty, broken cavities of her body with dark and rheumy things until her body, full of pulp and scars, rose up.

 

The silver continued to thicken, pushing Liam into the ground; the photos burned all around him, faces of men and women that he loved dearly turned to ash. He felt as the embers drifted onto his skin, scorching his face. The men sat in a tavern and drank in silence. The woman walked into the place and their eyes turned onto her; they did not know her, much changed now, but their actions were the same. They took her to a clearing, and acted again. When it was over they tried to leave but could not; they were weighed down by what they did not know. Their feet were heavy and they sunk into the grasses. The woman, struck down, rose up, not as a woman, or a person, but a force, an entity, and poured over the men. She smeared what was inside her, what they had given her, all the blackness and hate and violence and cocooned the men inside of it. The men, stricken, lay wrapped in the web, cradled in their own filth. The woman lay inside it too, immersed in the same web, what was once soul heart feeding off the terror the men felt, the pain they had created. She lay with them forever in the clearing, her dark heart happy now to live off the pain of the other; a spider’s web, thickly chained, one beautiful eye turned ugly peeking out and winking from time to time, bloated with agony.

 

The picture story finished and filled the boy with a terror he could not bear; the silver poured deeper and thicker, filling his throat. He tried to scream but nothing came out, so clogged was he with thickness of it all. All around him was the sound of the vicious laughter, pulsing at the door, making the bolt bulge.

 

The leader pulled the boy’s head up from the floor; it was covered in the silver curd now; another black robe stepped forward, clutching the mask and seared it onto the forgotten boy’s face; there was a scream but the howl was drowned out by the door bursting open and the town’s youth roaring into the hall. The men in black robes looked over the children for a moment, proud parents almost, a flicker of a smile on their mostly shrouded faces, before slipping back into the folds and covers of the high beams and rafters. The leader was gone before that, so all that was left was the forgotten boy in the middle of the empty room, clutching the sides of his face in agony.

 

The others crashed through the hall, smearing it, breaking it, destroying it. There was a light dust where the photograph ashes still held in the air. The masked bodies writhed on the floor and dirtied themselves on the clear surfaces. One or two gathered round the fallen body in the centre of the room, edging towards it, nudging it out of curiosity. The body rose, turning to face the others; the noises it made were gummy and mumbled, a silver drool puddling around its chest. Firecrackers whistled close by and he lunged forward, taking one of the funnels. He saw a stoat-headed girl pulling a mirror from the wall and he saw his reflection; a boar’s face seared onto his neck, thick, dried silver all over him, like afterbirth, a weapon in his hand.

 

Somewhere, just before his mind broke for a final time, he saw a beautiful woman’s hand running her fingertip over blades of grass. Then, a steely flash of the same beauty corrupted; a mass of fat webs and a thousand swollen eggs. A single eye blinking, ugly and beyond repair. Then the boar twitched, before joining the chorus of giggles and laughter, aiming the firecracker at the mirror and watching the world explode in a cascade of jagged, ugly light.
 
 

eclipse.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2011

Eclipse

 

Chris Castle

 

 

How much time does it take for a friend to become a stranger? When he arrived on my doorstep it had been twelve years. We did not hug or shake hands, but I did not close the door. I let him walk inside and closed the door behind me, looking out to the sand and the plains of the desert, thinking there was no one around for miles.

 

He talked and when he finished his story, he sat back and lit a cigarette. One of the last times I had seen him, he had quit. I accepted one of the cigarettes and took the flame of the match. It felt odd having another person in the house, stranger still to be someone I had once been so close to. We sat and smoked, his story still in the air between us, lingering between the shafts of smoke.

 

Once I had a nightmare and when I came to, he had held my hand and told me everything was going to be okay. In the dream I was living at my family home, but strangers lived there. The door to every room led to a staircase and these strangers kept climbing the steps, as if to claim me. This went on, in the timeless way dreams do and eventually I found my brother, who calmly told me that these strangers were now our guests. I didn’t accept this as the truth, but I was powerless to dent it and the last few frames of the dream were of the strangers all standing in a line to greet me, each of them pulling their hair from their scalp in one clean movement, one by one. I woke up screaming.

 

He was a stranger but so much more. After a while, we finished our cigarettes and I offered him food and beer. He agreed and as I went about setting it up, he stood in the archway of the door, like in old times, riffing on different things, rolling and lighting a joint which he handed to me as he went on. My head began to fog, his voice taking on shapes, his breath colours.

 

“Remember Joe, Horseshoe Joe?” He said. I remembered. He was a friend we shared, who had been kicked in the head by a horse when he was five. He was slow in some ways because of it, but talked a hundred words a minute. We loved him for years and then his family had him taken away.

 

“I saw him on the street begging for cash. He didn’t even recognise me when I spoke to him. I just gave him some cash and walked away.” He shrugged and handed me the joint. I didn’t know if I believed him, or if he was simply ruining the idea of our friend, to be cruel. He could be that way, mean and smiling, pointlessly vicious, even as he charmed the hell out of all and sundry.

 

“Are you ready for the eclipse?” he went on, seeing I wasn’t going to rise to the bait. It had been all I had thought about and since he had stepped through the door, I hadn’t given it a second thought. I nodded, looking at the clock on the wall, feverishly trying to remember when it was due to happen. We had time.

 

“They say it’s all part of it, don’t they? It all heralds the start of the end, doesn’t it? They’re all signals. The butterflies disappearing, this. We’re on borrowed time, if you believe them.” He smiled as he took the joint back off me and I smiled back at him. I was suddenly aware of how dangerous he was and what he could do. We collected up the food and went out to the porch, taking two beers from the fridge as we went.

We ate in near silence, both of us counting down for the big moment. After we finished our drinks I took more out. When we were done, we smoked more and our fingers touched, feeling like spikes.

 

“The windmill, Jessie…” he began to say, but before he could continue, I drew my hand up suddenly, the joint in my hand looking something like a wand or a beacon, and I cut him off. He looked down for a moment and didn’t say anymore. Whatever was in my heart had risen to my eyes and he knew better. Instead the silence hung in the air and it was only broken by the mention of the eclipse.

 

“Where’s a good spot?” he said and I immediately pointed to the path leading to the forest; I had earmarked a place weeks before. He nodded, looking into the distance and drew a final hit from his beer. We collected our plates and went inside, taking more drinks for our walk in the woods.

 

We left a good few minutes before it was due to begin. My mind jagged as we left the safety of the house for the darkness of the woods, but a part of me enjoyed the way I felt. Being with him had woken up a part of me, whether it was good or not; the old part, the side that used to cause damage. I almost reached back to roughly grab his hand but stopped myself. Instead we walked deeper; the crunch of leaves breaking under our feet, the trees quiet, so there was only the clinking of our rucksack of bottles.

 

The path spilled out to the bottom of the hill. We began walking it and both of us looked up to the sun, watching as the first rumblings of what was to occur were taking place. I felt my head swim and I looked down, then unable to resist, I looked back. There were chunks of darkness swimming over my eyes and I had a clear image of a body, either mine or his, lying on the peak of the hill. The body was stuffed with crows and in an instant they burst out of the gut and out into the sky, free. I looked away from the sun to him and he was looking at me. I’m not sure he had ever taken a single glance up to the sky. He took the lead and began to climb the path and I followed, watching the bag on his shoulder sway in time with his footsteps.

 

By the time we reached the peak I could feel sweat on my brow, but felt oddly cool. I looked over to him, but he looked untouched, as if we had only just stepped off the back porch. The sky above was darkening with a speed that drew my breath away. Great swirls of black gathered at his shoulders, as if the sky itself was simply dropping out of the sky. I walked over to where he stood and we stood side by side, as the light went out of the sky.

 

There was a moment when everything stopped and then surged forward, like some dark pulse of energy. The world disappeared and there was only the feeling of his breath on my neck in the darkness. The ink swam on and on, covering everything around us and I drew in my breath, feeling the tightness of my skull as I seemed to fall into a vacuum. I felt him move, shifting from my side and slipping behind me. The sway of his body jolted me, as if a part of the dark had actually fallen to earth right by me. I didn’t hear his footsteps or sense the closeness of his body. All I could tap into was the harsh pockets of breath surging onto my neck.

 

I felt into my pocket without realising it, animal instinct taking over and feeling good to me then. I hadn’t known I had slipped the kitchen knife in there and it felt cool against my fingertips. There was a sudden rush and I was aware the eclipse was at its fullest. It was all set to happen in those next few moments. I drew out the knife, feeling as if I could actually cut through the darkness in great swathes. As he moved behind me, I turned to face him.

 

We were close, close enough to kiss. We drew each other in and I felt his fingers on me and he was no longer my friend. We moved against each other and I felt his breath against my lips in thick heavy bursts, wet enough to almost swallow. The dark kept us wrapped up and hidden from the world and it felt like the loneliest, most beautiful place on earth. Then the sky began to shift and the darkness began to slip away in long, hollow clumps. The sun began to bloom above us and we drew back, still facing each other, our breathing heavy as the world returned and took its rightful place all around us.

 

 

peck.jpg
Art by Brian Beardsley © 2011

Peck

 

Chris Castle

 

Peck, peck, peck.

 

Amy looked out of the window and then turned back to the bedroom. In her hand, a picture of John, the man he was. She noticed the frame shook and she held up her free hand. The wedding ring was dirty and rusted; with a little soap, it would slip away easily.

 

Once, that had almost happened; Amy remembered the horror she felt as she scrambled through the suds; the comic scene all at odds with her racing heart. She had called John’s name then, back when they still finished sentences with each other’s names, rather nods or sighs. He had rushed to her and found it immediately; it still sparkled back then. Amy still remembered the thought she had as he slipped it back onto her finger; I love this man. I love him and no other. Within moments they were making love, the suds on her skin, buttons rolling onto the floor and under sideboards, lost.

 

Amy set the picture down on the table and looked up to the skies; it was clear with no sign of rain. Nothing would interrupt it now. The birds gathered, looking for all the world like small, angry clouds. Soon they would start to descend. They squawked, the noisy chatter that she had always hated and he had always loved. Amy had studied them well enough in his shadows to know they were growing restless. No, they were circling. God forbid, she should get the terminology wrong about his precious birds. Soon, John would come round and she would have to speak to him, to explain what it was that was happening. She took one last look at her husband, tied to the ground outside, and then began to walk out of the room.

 

They had loved, she was sure of that much. Not just lovers, but love, taking care of the small things that build a life together and give it foundations. He had done a thousand tiny jobs and tasks without asking, so that, for a while, he was carrying her through each day, making her smile, catching the glass she’d knock over before it could smash on the ground. She too, had lived for him; watching him sleep and trying to imagine what dreams made his eye lashes flicker, then slip to the pillowcase. There was a time when she felt as if they were the only two people left on earth and that feeling, that notion, was a blessing rather than a sentence.

 

Amy put the coffee pot back on the stove and forced herself to eat. Bread was all she could manage, though her stomach roared. She walked over to the trolley, the vast array of cakes and pastries almost glittering in-front of her. All those wonders and she could not bear to touch a crumb. The colours were so bright it almost made her wince; she blinked over and over and pinched the bridge of her nose. She would not stop now, she told herself; she could not stop. The coffee bubbled and she poured it into her mug. With each bite of the bread, she sipped from her cup, making it go down. Amy shrugged on her coat and slipped the knife from the drawer into her pocket. After one deep, perfect breath, she gripped the door handle.

 

Two passions, so diverse they joked about it. John in love with birds, just as Amy was smitten with food. Amy would tease him about blackbird pies; he would threaten to sacrifice her latest creation to his feathered family. Such odds things to love, she often thought. Amy had listened to John as he explained patterns and behaviour; he had followed her around the kitchen as she took ingredients and made them into something that sparkled. Amy twisted the doorknob and opened the door, expunging the good memories from her head, like a perfect, pointless dream.

 

The first blow had shocked them both. Amy remembered the sound as clear as his laughter on their wedding night. That sounds like a branch snapping, she thought. Clear and true, she added in her stunned mind, for no real reason. The seconds that followed were crystal moments in her head; she drew the back of her hand up to her lip. On her skin, just around the knuckle, was a small blotch of blood. Without thinking, she licked it up, as if it were syrup. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see John rolling his hand over the other, as if cold. Later, he confessed, he swore he could still feel the hand vibrating. After a few seconds, they looked to each other and he drew her in silently. She waited for him to cry but instead, there was just the sound of his breathing against her neck. If he had cried, she wondered later, would it have made a difference?

 

Amy braced herself against the wind and closed the door behind her. It bit; she thought and then remembered that final time, when he had used his teeth. The final straw, she had told herself in the mirror that night, looking over the damage. There was coolness in her thoughts that had surprised her, then; the decision seemed to make itself, independently of her, her heart. It’s over; her body seemed to cry out. And what comes next? Her mind whispered back, spitefully. But already a part of her, some dark matter, knew what came next. And instead of horror, the idea quelled her racing heart enough to continue the matters at hand; the small horrors of wiping the marks with the flannel, applying the disinfectant and prodding the plasters down until they stuck.

 

Amy walked to each tent peg and checked it was securely lodged into the ground. Impaled, the spiteful part of her said, with something close to glee. Each of them was sturdy, the rope biting into the skin just above his socks and making the flesh red and raw. Blood had seeped down, staining the tops of the white material red, but there was not enough slack to offer any give in the knots. Splayed as he was, in a perfect ‘x,’ she couldn’t help but notice the wet patch on his jeans; she felt no disgust, nor black humour to it; if it were her, she reasoned, she would have done the same. Amy finished the inspection and walked over to his head, where she crouched.

 

As the violence increased, the words slowed. His apologies spluttered into coughs and shakes of the head, then into nothing at all. Over time the words in her head re-adjusted in much the same fashion; the pitiful whisper, ‘but I love him,’ gave way to a hardened, ‘I loved him once.’ The sprawling pile that had once been a home became a cage, then after the shift, a battleground. As the plan took hold it morphed once more; first to a place of execution and finally, a burial ground.

 

Amy thought about what she would say; more than the action itself, this was what she had laid in bed at night thinking about. She looked to him, the sweat on his forehead increasing, despite the cold, his eyes drugged but aware. The gag, she had decided from the start, would remain. John’s eyes flickered for a moment, registering her and then rolled out with shock. For a moment her heart tumbled; the love she felt fought with the hatred she now could not deny. In the end, she stooped low enough to whisper a few words, watching his ears twitch, as if expecting a blow. She smiled, despite herself, feeling their roles reversed.

 

Amy brought herself up from her haunches and drew the knife from her pocket. Starting with the tie, she steadily cut away all the clothes, the knife sharp and working soundlessly, everything slipping to the ground in neat, silent strips. Last of all were the boots, which she set by the door. Amy collected all the rags up off the floor and bundled them next to the boots. She pitched the knife over to the pile and reached back into her pocket. She cracked the smelling salts and wafted them under his nose, spinning away as his whole body snapped against the rope, the dirt puffing where he rose from the ground.

 

Amy bundled the clothes and the boots into the black bag and walked over to the coffee pot. After two quick cups, she reached out for the cake trolley and pushed it out of the open door, gripping it tightly against the uneven ground. One or two of the pastries swayed against the forward motion, but only slid as far as the handles before settling. She parked it a few feet from her husband; she noticed he’d kept himself elevated from the ground, his whole body still raging against the ropes. She felt his stare, the eyes blazing, the neck bulging. There was a low, steady scream buried behind the gag, like some sort of constant radio interference. Without looking down to him, Amy began to scoop the cakes off the stand.

 

She broke them over him, some dropping in thick, gooey clumps, others crumbling onto his skin like dust. He flinched as they fell, snapping his body one way and then the other to try and shake them off. Amy followed them, making sure the dry pastries stayed in place, stuck by the icing and the creams. She worked methodically along the body, until it was covered, like some fairy tale suit of armour. She went back for the cakes on the lower level, turning once suddenly, when his strength gave out and he finally slumped back down to the dirt with a thump. A slight dust of sugar rose from the ground and then stilled. Amy walked back over, her hands full.

 

After it was all done, she wheeled the trolley back inside. She looked up to the sky and saw them all circling above them. She did not have to look over to know he was watching the same thing. Amy looked at the body, saw the melted texture it had taken on and then stole a quick glance to his face while he stared, terrified to the skies. It was still her husband, she thought, and then looked away. She stepped back to the door, feeling his eyes on her as she opened it and not looking back after locking it.

 

Amy Ryan chose to watch what came next from the bedroom window. It was where she had been at her happiest and where she had known utter despair. She had saved a single cake from the trolley and ate it as the birds began to descend. By the time the first one landed on her husband she was finished. She wiped the back of her hand across her lips and peered over them; there was a light smear of white icing sugar on her knuckles and nothing else. She wiped down her hands on her jeans and looked back outside. After the initial bird had braved it and met with no harm, they fell like rain. Amy walked up to the window and put her nails to the glass and tapped it gently, mirroring what she imagined was the sound below. Idly, she wondered if one of the birds would scavenge the rag from his mouth, freeing him up to scream. It wouldn’t matter, either way, far as they were from anywhere. Her nail drummed on, speeding up with the movement of the birds as they began to nip and snatch:

 

        Peck.  Peck. Peck.

 

 

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Art by Mike Kerins © 2012

Haven

 

Chris Castle

 

She was born into snow. Amy Bridges had heard that story told often enough when she was little, how when she made to scream her first scream, snowflakes had sat on her forehead, on the cusp of her lip. Her ma always said she was going to be one with the cold and not going to be ‘no sun-baby.’ She looked out to the town, the snow, the few dim lights that flickered and then drew the curtains. She shivered, not for all that, not at all. No, instead she shivered inside, a proud heart roaring against old bones.

 

The television said it was set to be the worst cold since records began. Amy smiled, wondering if she was old enough now, to remember before ‘records began.’ Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. Amy wasn’t one of those old girls who shaved years off her birth certificate, same as she wasn’t one for pretending she was wise just because she had years. No, Amy knew what her body told her and most days that was enough. No more scooping down for the papers, no walks without the cane and that was okay. Her body was a true friend on those matters and she was grateful to it.

 

But then there was the mind.

 

Amy Bridge’s mind was an unpredictable thing, ever since that first scream in the snow. Through school some kids called her crazy, then worse, ‘creative.’ As much as she failed, almost heroically, in maths and science, young Amy walked off with every art award, stretching as far as three towns over. Her ma used to joke she sketched in her sleep and that she didn’t have a pillow case as much as a drawing pad for a pillow and Amy laughed right along, even though there were seeds of truth in there, if one chose to look hard enough. Amy did keep a pad by her bed and there were three a.m. scenes that scared her stiff as much as made her laugh out loud; no doodles for the Bridges girl, that much was certain. Amy was a girl whose imagination was a best friend as well as world class bully.

 

So there was art school, the failed ventures of a penniless artist, the love affairs and all the rest of the flashes and moments that make up the twenties of a young girl’s life. Then the one- two punch of teaching and meeting Bill left her dazed as much as it did happy. The second life, the one with one man that did everything the past half dozen could only scrape and nudge at; the art classes that gave her the constant warm buzz that replaced the too infrequent highs of the exhibitions.

 

Amy turned off the television and sipped from her coffee mug. Even after seven years, she still found herself looking for him sometimes. She was not the widow that cleaned everything out in mourning; there were still pieces of him trailed around the cabin; his books, the pages turned and folded, his CDs, smudged and in the wrong cases. Secretly, she still kept his t-shirt and shorts under the pillow on his side; it felt like the silly comfort she had when she kept her panda bear close-by, pointless and re-assuring, long after she was a little kid. Sometimes she laughed at the absurdity of herself, wanting to be haunted; an old lady looking for ghosts.

 

And then she found him.

 

It was Bill first, of course. There was none of the film clichés involved; no half-glances in the background of the mirror, etc. etc. No instead, it was as purposeful as it was beautiful. The solid, unseen force of his hand over hers as she reached for her morning coffee cup; his voice, filtered through an echo, answering a question she had muttered out loud. No, this was as definite as the snow that fell or the bills that slid onto her welcome mat. And never more welcome when he ate up her arthritis.

Ah yes, god’s home-brew disease, the pain that lingers no matter what pills you popped. Amy had gone through them all; the doctors, the healers, the mail-only cures, the internet research. After a while, she began to wonder what all these shysters would do if the goddamn thing hadn’t been invented. The few things that did seem to settle her joints; a wrist strap, a knee support, she wore like a second skin. It was a spiteful thing, though, the arthritis; it had caused early retirement from the job, had stolen so many hours at home, when she could not even bear to hold the brush. It had twisted her in a way that could not be conveyed in medical journals and ‘on-line assessments.’ One day, it had left her balled up on the floor, like a kid set to make angel wings in the snow. That was the day her husband came back home.

 

There were no grand scenes, no bright lights. It was just something like him brushing past her, the way he sometimes used to when he’d adjust the strap on her dress, just-so, without stopping on his way to the coffeepot. That sensation of brushing by and then the pain was gone. Amy had opened her mouth to call his name then, but no words came; instead, there was just a soundless wail, an odd, beautiful thing, which screamed thanks for the relief and a mighty ongoing rush of sorrow for the man she missed so badly. It was this thing, this beauty-terror wail that she crawled up from the floor to sketch while her bones were still set and her hands were good. She drew and drew, over the evening and into the night, stopping at last, close to morning. These were the paintings she forced out of herself, each time her husband saved her. When he ate the pain right out of her and left her free.

 

And now these paintings were done.

 

Amy knew it, somehow, as she finished the last one, not an hour or two before the snow started. As she applied the last few strokes a feeling rode over her and there was a knowing to it, a finality as clear as the one she’d known when she’d felt the force of Bill’s hand and then felt it slip away. On that day, she had neatly placed his hand back inside the rail of the hospital bed; this time she had just as precisely put the paintbrush back in the box. She stood back and looked at it; it was as good as anything she had done. Bill was not in the air, she knew that, but she smiled anyway.

 

Then the soft puffing noise had come, startling her, even though it was such a gentle, harmless sound. Amy turned and saw the snow dropping against her window in great, busy flurries. It felt something like the end.

Amy finished her drink and made another one. Even though the hour was wrong, something told her to make up some food, something heavy and hearty. As she made the food she was on guard, waiting for what came next. She was an impatient woman and she knew it too. She sometimes wondered how Bill handled it. Amy had asked, always in bed, afterwards, when she thought, like most men, he would be at his most vulnerable and contemplative And he would smile and look up to the ceiling, fully aware of her trap and never spilling a goddamn word of his secret.

 

“Toothpicks,” came his voice, causing Amy to spill the carrots into the pot a little sooner than she’d planned. She looked up and saw nothing, but the air was charged. Even though she was frightened, she smiled; every time she would get on about something he would slip a toothpick into his mouth. That was the secret. She shook her head at missing something so simple.

 

As she set the pot on the stove Bill’s shadow stretched out in the next room, where the paintings were all set out. She had gathered them all together a week before, not knowing why, grateful at the time that the pain had eased off and enjoying the toil. Now, she understood. Amy poured more coffee and watched the soup boil, feeling curiously nervous about the paintings. The shadow increased, moving slowly, like spilled oil, just like how he did in life. Even inside this craziness, and it was craziness, she took a long moment to enjoy the way he moved; it was one of the things she had almost loved most about him.

 

Amy poured the soup from the tureen into the bowl and cut off three thick slices of bread to go with it. The shadow dipped out of view, but she knew he was still there. Outside, the snow gathered up and harder flurries brushed against the window; soon, she knew, it would grow into something more, something that could end things. The soup tasted good, especially with the bread; her mother’s recipe and still the best. I’m never going to taste this again, she thought and gasped. It made her rear up, spilling a little of the soup on her jumper. She dabbed it away and saw her hands were shaking.

 

“Don’t be scared,” he said and Amy looked up. The voice was no longer separate; her husband stood in front of her, his shoulder against the door frame, same as it ever was. There was a paleness that ran through him; glacial, she thought again sharply, and a part of her wondered where these words were coming from. The clothes he wore were familiar, even though she couldn’t quite place them; they were clothes she thought he should be wearing.

 

“Even dressing you after you’re gone,” she said and tried to smile, even though she couldn’t quite manage it. He nodded and smiled, but there was something else about him now, something more. She looked at him for a good long while—how could she not?—feeling hungry after seven years of not seeing him. It came to her in a rush; there was none of the baggage on him now; no worries about the bills, no illness or pollution. It was just him, as he was meant to be and he looked not handsome, but beautiful.

“Are you ready?” he asked. He did not move, but there was something inside him that was like a low hum of static. She nodded, finishing the meal. It was a good meal to eat before going outside in cold weather. After she was done, she piled up the plates and walked over to where her coat and boots rested.

 

“Ma said I was never going to be moved by the snow,” she said and slipped on the heavy jacket. He was still by the doorframe but somehow his fingers were close-by, slipping the weight over her shoulders. She fought the urge to thank him and pulled on the boots. Last of all were the gloves, two sets, which went over her hands easy enough. There was no pain now, she noticed and scared as she was, she smiled at the idea of that.

“Nothing to hurt you,” she said and was aware he was following her, even though there was silence. Those are the last four words I’ll ever speak, the sharp part of her point whispered, almost in shock. Amy flipped the hood over her head and followed her husband.

 

The two of them walked through the room filled with her paintings to the back door. Their life together, looking back at them. Amy studied the sorrow and the pain but was sure the love outweighed it all. Once she started walking she did not stop, so the paintings themselves were mere flashes as she walked by but somehow that was enough. Life goes by quick, she thought, so why shouldn’t this? Her hand settled on the back door and turned it roughly. Everything she did, she did forcefully now, terrified she would stop if she had a moment to pause and think. The door swung open and she stepped out into the white blizzard, closing it securely behind her. Despite everything, she wanted the paintings to be safe. Amy turned round to the white wall and blinked hard against it.

 

From out of nowhere, he appeared and took her hand, a black slash against the snow. Together, the two of them marched out into the storm.           

It was like walking inside the arthritis, she thought; the snow was a constant block, an unnecessary pinch and then a heavy blow. Once, then twice, she lost her footing and a complete, simple panic rode over her; this is suicide, the sharp voice screeched. Amy drew her face up, feeling the old pain rack up inside her again and she began to feel her body revolt and curl up; it was then his hand came for her. The force of it had become greater; he practically wrenched Amy to her feet. The momentum stayed in her and she felt herself guided through the blizzard; it felt as if they were almost dodging every single flake by being too quick, too wily. Even amongst all of it, she felt her mouth turn into a smile, then a mad grin and then finally a long joyous scream, for she was living and felt alive for the first time in seven long years.

 

Amy walked on and carefully followed his shadow into a neatly filed tunnel. The memory of where they were going filled her up and when she reached the other side, it was almost as if the dream-memory had manifested itself in front of her. They were in what was called a snow-shelter but what she had christened The Haven. She patted the edges of it, smiling. In the centre was the small pond, frozen into something like a mirror now.

 

“It’s perfect,” she said quietly. He looked over to her and smiled again. It was where they had always gone; where they had tried so many times to conceive. The one place she could never paint, for the memories were too special, the passion too vivid. The one real place her imagination could never capture or rival.

 

“This is where I wanted to be,” he said. The words were different now and more like her husband. There was no filter or echo but just the truth and something else, she realised; his need.

 

“It is where I want to be, too,” she said. There were other things, a million more words that she wanted to say but knew she could not. Amy was aware that everything had shifted now and what she knew or understood no longer mattered. Instead, there was her hand reaching out for his and being accepted. A hand that was no longer glacial but warm. He drew her in and held her and there was no longer a fear of being released, of being lost. Instead, Amy Bridges closed her eyes and smiled, home at last and free from the snow forever.

 

 

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Art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett © 2012

Road Trip Zero

 

Chris Castle

 

You can’t outrun what’s in the air.

 

Kip said that minutes after it began. He’s smart like that, always saying the right thing in just a few words. If it wasn’t like it is, he would have made a great teacher I think, giving out information without boring the hell out of the kids with all the baggage. If it wasn’t how it is. Sometimes, I wonder how it would have been if the people in charge, the politicians and the generals, had acted like Kip, just telling people the truth straightaway, in as few a words as possible, if it would have saved us. I don’t think it would have, not really, but sometimes at night, looking up to the broken stars from the car seat, I imagine it might have. That there would still be people on the streets, the noise of children, the commotion of life, rather than all the quiet we have now. Now the world is dead.

                                                *

We pull over onto the hard shoulder and I slip the extra mask over my mouth for the outside air. It scares me a little that I don’t even notice the fabric against my mouth anymore. Kip told me once that it was the first thing he did, even before he pulled on his underwear or wiped the crud out of his eyes. I stretch and watch Kip as he casually slips the mask off and lights a cigarette. It’s still shocking to see him do this. A part of me is jealous of the freedom he has now, even as I feel the sorrow stab through me to know he’s already dead and he’s just waiting for the rest of the sickness to catch up with him. I feel those two things always, but a new thing, more powerful than the others had started to seep into me now, too and that’s terror.  A real, almighty fear of being left alone without him standing by my side. I guess its one thing to live in a world full of dying but it’s something else on top to know you’ve got to do it on your own.

“What are you thinking about?” He says, looking like we’re getting ready to crash a party or something. He finishes the cigarette and looks over to me, his blue eyes burning.

“About the tank,” I lie. “We’re gonna need to fill up before dark, otherwise we’ll have to go searching.” I look up and he grins at me. Even though I don’t want to, I feel myself smiling all the same. Kip draws an exaggerated breath and I do too- I see his tongue even as I suck in the white material-and we don’t break each other’s stare.

“No adventures after dark!” We scream and immediately burst into a fit of giggles. It doesn’t go on for as long as it used to and as it subsides and we walk back to the car, I wonder when the time will come when we don’t laugh at all.

                                                *

So, let me ask you something; what would you do if you looked out of the window and saw the world dying right in front of you? It comes down to family, to lovers, to responsibilities, right? Now, say you don’t have any of those things in your life; you sure as hell go looking for your best friend, don’t you? I ran over to Kip and he was already standing in the doorway, like he’d been waiting for me and for it, all his life. He threw me one of his facemasks and slipped one over his own head. My best friend being a science nerd saved my life—there are times when that wakes me in the middle of the longest nights with a short, sharp jolt—and took my hand. I didn’t ask about anything and I didn’t cry, either. All I did was take his hand and started running and you know what? It felt like it was what I’d been waiting my whole life to do. It felt right.    

People started dropping down dead, like they were suffering heart attacks, except that it was all ages. As soon as we headed for his old man’s car, Kip told me to either keep my eyes wide open or jam them shut as tight as they would go. I knew what he meant and I chose to see; I never looked away from the bad things in life, even when they came from my daddy’s fingertips or my ma’s raw breath. So I saw, I saw it all; children keeling over like they were the worst kind of drunk; husbands and wives, holding hands like me and Kip just stopping all of a sudden and popping out of their lives, like a blown bulb, pop! If I had to say, I think the thing that threw me the most was the lack of violence to it all, like God was just flicking over toothpicks. I was used to hurt by then, seen and felt it and all of this was too…gentle to understand.   Later, when it finally caught up with me what I’d seen and I was shaking, I told him how I didn’t see any evil in it, like I’d expected and maybe, just maybe, how I’d hoped. Kip nodded all along and when I was done—‘you stopped making with all the shaking?’—he looked me in the eye and told me what we were seeing was a kind of death built in  test tubes and governments and had no room or place for the Bible or anything like it. It was, he said, a modern kind of dying.

                                                *

While I’m driving I like to look out to the houses and try to imagine what the people did for work. When I’m done with that, I try to guess what pets they kept in the yards. It’s a childish thing, I know, but it keeps me sane and it almost makes me happy. Sometimes I steal glances to the back seat and watch Kip working on his science kit, trying to figure out a way to keep the death from coming from him and I wonder just how long I’ve been in love with him. I used to pretend it was only recently, maybe even since Hell started, but I know, in my heart, it’s been forever. Before he got sick, I teased him about starting a family, like it was our duty as the last few people left on earth but he’d just blush and wave me off. I’d laugh too, but my heart would break all the same, because it was all I ever wanted, really, not that I’d ever tell him that, of course. Instead, I’d look off, out into the stars and be glad the mask was covering me as I chewed my lip. It was a trick I learnt early on in life instead of crying and has served me well in my life.

The government’s around, like it’s always been, though until now, neither of us have seen it. The roads we drive down are clean of bodies, but there are no notices, no signs or instructions. The government’s Carl Perkins to me, the bully who was always in the shadows or lurking just round the corner and out of sight. A boogieman I could never see but always feel, nonetheless. Kip can talk about the government until he’s blue in the face, but I only let him off once every few days; it gets exhausting just listening to someone be so angry for so long. It’s the only thing he gets angry about, hell the only thing he’s ever got angry about and he’s right of course, but to me there’s no sense being angry in something you can’t see. It’s like being angry at dreams.

                                                 *

So we high-tailed it out of town in my daddy’s car and hit the road. We drove until we were exhausted and parked up in a place we knew that no one else went to. All night we listened to the radio and tried to make sense of what was going on. It was crazy, like listening to a rumour at school, everyone saying a half-dozen crazy things at once and nobody listening to anyone else. By the time dawn came around all we really knew was that it was all over. I glanced over to Kip and he was already staring hard at me.

“Are you scared?” He said softly, like he was whispering. I shook my head and a thought occurred to me that this could be what the world would be like from now on; so quiet we could spend the rest of our lives whispering and still be heard. That didn’t sound like anything to be scared about to me; it sounded something close to heaven.

“I’m not scared, Kip. Are you?” I looked over then and hoped I wasn’t smiling. I didn’t want to be selfish, but I wondered what it meant, to be the happiest in my whole life as the world was collapsing in on itself.

“If you’re okay, I’m okay,” he said and squeezed my hand tighter. Even though he was only a year older than me, he had always felt like a much older brother. I knew he was hurting, that he would miss his old man even though he was cruel in ways only a few of us in the world would know about, but he was strong too. When the boys picked on him, I punched them out for him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t defend himself; he just didn’t want to hurt anybody.

“Excuse me?” came a voice from the bushes. We both flinched and turned round. A middle aged man came out of the dark and looked at us. His face was pale, as if the suit he was wearing was too tight and draining all the colour out of him.

“Do you know about this? The sickness I mean?” he came closer, until he was only a few feet from the car. Something in me told me this was important, this meeting. I glanced over to Kip and saw he was studying the man and thinking the same thing.

“I’m sick already, see?” The man said and waved his hands over himself, like it was a sickness with a colour that we should be able to see somehow. “I’m already sick! So, do you think this new thing…?” He stopped for a second and frowned, like he was trying to figure out a sum in his head.

“Do you think it might make me better?” He said and wafted his hands over himself again. “Maybe we could—”

“No,” I said flatly and at the same time, Kip slipped his hands onto the steering wheel. It was a moment and we had made our choice. As he turned the ignition, I pushed the locks down. I could have said more but I didn’t. Instead, we reversed and drove away from the man. He was still moving his arms around, like he was fending off all the different sickness he was housing and as I watched him in the mirror it looked as if he was trying to fly.

                                                *

I never get tired of driving, the same way as a kid, I used to love walking. I guess I just like keeping on the move, the same way some people like staying put. A few months ago it was my birthday and Kip made a fake driver’s certificate for me, that I’ve kept in the overhead ever since. There’s a noise in the back seat and I look in the mirror to see his hands balled tight into fists and I know another experiment’s failed. When it’s late at night, I wonder what it must be like, knowing every night you’re dying and trying to save yourself every day. Kip’s never spoken to me about it; I think if he brings it up into the open, it’s like saying he’s defeated. Sometimes, I think about him leaving and I realise I’m preparing myself for dying as much as anything, going the same way, just without the science kits and frustration. Kip’s made up his mind about how he wants it and it makes total sense to me. I think when I go, I want to be driving, still holding the wheel, so even after I’m gone, I’m still moving forward.

“I’m fuelling up,” I say quietly. I look at his fists rather than his face and see them gently unfurl, like baby bird’s wings. A lot of what Kip’s about is in his body rather than his face; tapping his feet, rolling his neck and knocking his elbows together. Sometimes, it’s like he acting out with invisible puppets attached. I told him that once and he laughed so hard, his cheeks turned the colour of beetroot.

“I’m going in, then. Any requests?” His voice was shallow and I could tell he was getting tired. I shook my head and opened my door, already looking to the pumps for any gas.

                                                    *

Kip came up to me and tapped the window of the car. I looked up, sleepy and confused and wondered just why the hell he was outside. I scrambled up, pulled on the mask and climbed outside. He looked at me and pulled down the mask.

“I got it,” he said. He wasn’t scared or angry or anything else. I couldn’t help but keep looking at his mouth, his teeth and the way the lower part of his mouth moved. “Okay?”

“Okay,” I said. I always thought it would be me who got it out of the two of us. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t meant to outlast him but now I was. I looked up and saw him rock on the balls of his feet. It was my time to ask him all the questions I was supposed to ask. Instead, I climbed back into the car and poured coffee from my flask. You won’t be able to share that now he’s dying; I thought and slammed the dashboard. It was the only thing I did about the whole mess. A few seconds later, I reached behind and unlocked the back seat and he climbed in, double masks over his mouth.

Sometimes I wonder if he went out looking for someone to be with.

Sometimes I wonder if he wanted it so he could cure it and save the world.

Sometimes I wonder if he was just lonely.

Sometimes I wonder if he was just sick of being with me.

                                                *

I watch Kip go through the aisles as I siphoned off the gas. He keeps a baseball bat by his side, even though he uses it for a walking stick. We had listened over the months about how the Infection was mutating, that it was making monsters out of men. The commentator was trying so hard not to say ‘zombie’, I could almost hear him dribbling. Now, we had got proper words for it all; Contagion, Infection, Detection, Prevention. Kip listened and said they’d left out ‘Admission.’

He comes walking out, grinning and lifting up the brown paper bags, like a prize. I stare at him and try to memorise him right then, beautiful and strong. I feel somewhere inside me, it might be the last time I will see him like this. I keep watching him and lift my thumbs and he looks back at me and I realise he’s doing the same as me; freezing time, knowing it’s almost over.

I drive until I see the signs for the beach. I swallow hard when I read them and grip the wheel harder. Kip is sleeping now, the science stuff still huddled in his lap, like an unfinished meal. I wonder for a second if any of it has made a difference or if he had just been fiddling and fooling for my benefit. Maybe all the stuff he injected was just sugar water and nothing else. I didn’t want to know. I think spending twenty four hours a day with someone and still not knowing them is perhaps the best thing you could say about friendship. It is to me, anyway. I pull down the road and within seconds, the sea comes into view.

“Kip,” I say gently, tapping the window. He looks up, his eyes immediately alert. I jerk my head behind me and he leaps out of the car in a flash, so fast, he makes me jump. As fast as he comes out, he slows almost to a standstill, the sight stopping him in his tracks. For a long while he stands there, watching the waves and there is just the sound of the water lapping against the sand and the rocks. It’s the finest sound I’ve ever heard.

We eat on the beach, with the sea at our backs. Now it’s over, we don’t have much to say. We eat, we drink, all the while aware of which way the wind was blowing; we even find a bin to put the rubbish into. When it’s over, Kip looks up at me and nods.

“What I was working on, is in the backseat. If the soldiers ever catch up with you, give it to them, okay? It might help.” His eyes are burning now and he doesn’t blink once. “I don’t think anyone’s going to catch up with you, though,” he said and winks.

“I won’t let them,” I say, my voice small and choked. He nods, as if that was what he wanted to hear.

“Keep driving,” he says and then turns away before I have a chance to say anything else.

                                                *

Kip ran towards the sea, throwing down his shirt, his mask. He stopped at the foam and pitched off his shoes, his jeans. I blushed as he slipped off his boxers and then he was in the water, already half-buried. He kept going, on and on, the waves swallowing him up. I saw one last glimpse of him, his head bobbing amongst the crest of a wave and then he was gone. I waited for a long time to see him again but there were just the waves, rolling over and over and then nothing.

I sat on the bench for a long time, watching the water. A part of me waited for his body to wash up so I could bury him. Another part of me waited, dreaming of how far he was into the ocean, never stopping, like a shark. I felt an itch on my back and that was what brought me out of it. I saw a plaque, dedicated to a Tom Bisbee, who had lived until he was eighty one. It was pretty, the gold not yet rusted, the words clear. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife and below it I began carving his name, careful to get each letter right and clear. I wrote thinking of the next girl or boy who would sit on this bench, who would be deciding whether to walk to the water or drive into the desert. I wrote until my fingers bled, to let them know they were not alone in this dead world.    

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Art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett © 2012

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Art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett © 2012

Shelter

 

Chris Castle

 

You weren’t supposed to fall in love after you died.

Levitt looked back from the field and looked at the small barn that looked for all the world as if it had been dropped from the sky and onto the dirt. He drew his hands out and closed his eyes, trying to feel the blades of grass around his fingers. So close, so far away, he thought and smiled. Even though he felt nothing, there was something crackling on the end of his fingertips, something that was impossible; both cool and full of warmth. The touch of a ghost, he thought and smiled.

Her name was January, though her lover called her Janie. Levitt watched as she appeared, walking out of the barn and over to the well. She walked quickly, despite carrying the heavy tin bucket. The fact she was saddled with such a thing and marched at such a pace and still carried it off with grace was, to Levitt, the real miracle. She drew the water from the pump until it was full. For a second she stopped, drew her face up to the sun and breathed. Levitt copied the action, the same one she repeated each day, even though he no longer drew breath. When it was over, she stooped down and collected the bucket, buckling slightly and then re-adjusting herself. As she re-entered the barn, Levitt began to move after her, not walking, not exactly, but drifting; he tried not to notice how his feet did little more than skim the ground below him. He stopped at the well.    

I’ll never leave footsteps again, he thought as he looked down to the neat trail leading back to the door. It was little things like this, the details, which at first had almost driven him insane. His mind was altered: he understood that. He was aware of his death but not how he had died, for example. No trace of him existed and yet now he was in tune with each sense to a degree that he felt almost constantly wired and…alive. As he bent down and placed his fingers on the imprint of her shoe, he knew he was not capable of disturbing the ground itself and keenly aware of the small vibrations of the crushed dirt as it re-assembled itself.

Levitt now knew every word in the dictionary, a power as bizarre and unexpected as it was perfectly useless. A mute king of communication, he thought. And not just words; as he padded around the fields, he instantly identified every flower by sight, was able to calculate the number of blades of grass that were sprawled out before him. By the time the stars drifted into place on that first night, his mind had almost collapsed with the data of each star, every constellation.

When he fixed his eyes on the shack, he suddenly became aware that his purpose lay somewhere inside of it. No direct sign sparked into life but he knew this was where he was supposed to be. Levitt wept, though there were no tears, when the barn came into his path. He knew, somehow, he had come home.

Feeling like a stranger, or worse, a thief, he had at first been reluctant to approach the shack. Levitt had lingered on the outskirts, walking as far as the door and then skirting left or right, like some nervous boy on the verge of a first date. The action of doing this prickled something inside him and he was faintly aware of trying to recall his past life, lovers, and experiences. The feeling flickered briefly, like fireworks too quickly extinguished. Memory was out of reach, he realised that night, as he settled on the field, suspended above the bed of grasses and began to trace the history of each star that came into sight.

Finally he had stepped into the house and waited for what came next. Immediately, he became aware of the couple; photos on the wall showed the man and woman drawn close together and smiling. He heard the creak of stairs and then the steady rhythm of the man walking, followed by the woman. The man was slender yet well proportioned; his lips were thin and his eyes were bright yet cool somehow. Levitt understood on a basic level that he was a bad man, though outwardly there were no signs of it, which perhaps made him more dangerous. January followed and Levitt rocked where he stood. 

He moved slowly away from the stairwell and into the kitchen, where they sat.

No feeling of self-consciousness or fear was left in him; when he stepped out to the kitchen, he felt as if he were on a set, watching the actors move. Nor was there any primal need for recognition in him; he was, in that moment, simply a witness. Levitt stood, unsure of what was supposed to come next. The first few moments were full of mundane, slow actions; she filled the coffee pot, he spread jam over the bread. It was not until the man, whose name was Joseph, rose up, that he understood.

The gesture itself was harmless, loving even. He pulled roughly away from the table and then stepped over to her; as he did, Levitt noticed she did not move. The man moved towards her and then kissed her on the mouth, drawing her in a half-formed embrace. It was over as quick as it began and then he turned and walked away, towards the front door. Levitt did not even register his leaving; he was too transfixed on January. Even after he was gone, she did not move; instead she stood, statue still. Throughout the whole episode it was only her eyes that seemed alive; they winced as he kissed her and then, as the door closed, tears began to fall. She was frozen in horror, he realised. In that moment, Levitt became aware, on some level, what he was there to do.  

For the rest of the day he had watched her from a few paces distance as she went about her chores, watering her plants and turning on the radio. The radio itself dis-orientated Levitt; it was, to his ears, distortion and white noise. He understood that the world, in its day to day actions, was now off limits to him. After a while, he managed to tune it out, so it was little more than a low hum, and yet, it served as a way to find himself drawn closer to her, knowing there was nothing else left. Each time she visited the bathroom, he pushed himself to another part of the house; the same when she changed clothes or did anything that demanded privacy.

As he waited, he found himself drawn to the pair of square black spectacles she had set on the kitchen table; beside them was a book, the words of which were blurred to Levitt’s eyes. He ran his hands over both items and a rush of information rode into him. He knew she studied and also that she dared not wear the glasses in front of the man. She feared him finding out she was smart. Once or twice he had caught her at the table studying; the rush of what had happened next launched into Levitt’s mind with a ferocity that made him wince. He shuddered and reeled away from the table. By the time he had recovered, she had returned to the table; even though the house, as she knew it, was empty, she still looked around before slipping the glasses on, before burying herself in the book.

Levitt kept her company as she went about the thousand little things that made up somebody’s life. When the door opened, he watched as she flinched and then composed herself; the feeling Levitt had that he was watching an actress returned. The man walked in without a word; there was no sign of drink on him, though his body seemed to be coiled, as if lying in wait. Levitt looked at him for a moment and was stunned at the cool fury in his eyes. It was, Levitt understood then, simply the way the man had been put together; full of spite and evil. Around his body, Levitt began to see a raw black energy course through the man, black spikes of oil that seemed to grow from his spine and realised this was hate in its purest, unfiltered form. Without a word, he lunged at January; the only sound his shirt, as a button popped from the cuff.

Levitt wanted to be away from the scene. After he tried to uselessly come between them he willed himself away but something stopped him. He was forced to watch is horror, as the room itself seemed to tear itself apart. There was the sound of violence and then long bouts of silence. Each blow was a hammer to Levitt’s brain. Even as he closed his eyes, something prised them open, so he could see. After each act, parts of the room were destroyed; a chair broke, a photo frame smashed. The darkness that came from the man spread; it covered the walls and enveloped January, until the place was almost in total darkness.

In between there was just the sound of breathing; the ragged sound that came from her and the cool rhythmic pulse from him. Time crawled, until at last it was over; the man walked up the stairs and January was left on the floor. Levitt lay beside her, stunned until she somehow found the strength to draw herself up. For a long time Levitt waited for her to faint, or stagger to the bathroom; instead, she slowly forced herself to stoop down to collect the broken pieces of the room that lay scattered everywhere. He waited for tears that simply did not come. When it was over, she climbed the stairs.

Slowly, he propelled himself outside and into the fields. In place of the anger he knew he felt, his body began to shimmer and vibrate, as if shaking loose from itself. Levitt reached the fields and felt the sensation swell inside of him, until at last it purged itself, black oil spraying onto the grasses and killing each blade it landed upon. He tumbled to the ground, watching hate itself eat away at the grasses until his body calmed. As he drew up, he looked up at the stars; he waited for the moon to calm him but instead the silver shades simply made his head ache. He crouched down, the residue of the violence still humming inside of him and waited.

Levitt did not sleep, not quite, but instead lay suspended. He was aware of the hours passing, the night slipping away into daylight and yet in the days gone by he’d felt neither alert nor tired. As he drew up into the dawn of the new day, he felt weary; as he looked down onto his body, he saw bruises that would be mirrored in January. Even though he felt no pain, he felt the scarring nevertheless. Slowly, he began to think of action, of revenge. Summoning enough strength to hurl a knife into the air or willing his body into some form of physical action.

It was then, as he fought against whatever power it was that controlled him, the sky seemed to re-arrange itself. Levitt looked up and saw the sky, on one level, unchanged and on another begin to take shape and begin to rip and shred itself up. The tornado collected itself and grew into an awesome sight before his eyes. Behind the layer of blue sky, it looked hungry, a predator amongst calm waters; the future, he realised, I am seeing the future. In another instant it was gone and all that sat before him was the blue summer sky, but he understood all the same. It was coming.

She walked out into the dirt, holding a plastic jug. She couldn’t carry anything else, he realised as he watched her limp to the well; all the grace was gone from her now. Levitt edged up and looked at her; her face unblemished and perfect, the faint traces of bruises and welts appeared at the straps of her dress. She’s covering up even when she’s alone, he thought. The water ran and overflowed; it was not until it trickled onto her foot that she reacted, shuddering and almost dropping the bottle. She’s even scared of water, he thought, as she recovered her balance.

She busied herself with jobs but couldn’t finish any of them. Halfway through, she would slowly collapse, her hands shaking. As the afternoon began, she sat in the kitchen and slipped the book back from its hiding place, under the sink and onto the table. Levitt watched as she took the glasses out of the case and decided whether to slip them on or not. Carefully, she willed herself to put them on and almost immediately tore them off her face and flung them against the wall. Though he fought with all his will to sit by her side, he found himself forced away, towards where the damaged glasses lay.

The lenses themselves were intact and the only real problem was that one of the screws had dropped out, making one of the arms come away. He heard her footsteps and then was aware of her crouching beside him, sighing at the damage. Forlornly, she started looking for the tiny, missing screw, padding around the floor. Levitt heard her gasp and realised how much pain she was in to repeatedly stoop and crouch. As she hunted for it, Levitt found it immediately, nestled under the leg of the couch. It had rolled a fair way and January was nowhere close to it.

Even though it seemed a small thing, he realised it was important somehow and for the first time, he focused on something, the screw, like nothing before. Ridiculous as it was, the tiny piece of metal felt incredibly heavy, an immoveable weight. He concentrated on it until he felt something inside himself would break and at last felt a slight shift in the balance of the air, as the screw rolled gently towards the girl’s foot.  She turned and saw it gleaming and her face burst into a smile. She held it between her thumb and forefinger, as Levitt continued to watch her beaming.

January walked to the kitchen drawer and rummaged through the cutlery for the screwdriver. As she did, Levitt watched as the sky outside began to ripple and darken. Focused as she was, January didn’t seem to notice and went on with her search. For a few minutes she continued hunting, until, with an exasperated sigh, she slammed the drawer, masking the first, distant rumble of thunder. As she drummed her fingers against the counter, Levitt detected the first drops of rain falling from a distance and willed her to move, to act. Finally, she turned away from the drawer and walked from the kitchen and the gathering clouds outside her window.

Levitt felt the power of the oncoming weather as the two of them strode towards the cellar door. As it creaked open, another cluster of thunder rolled around outside; it was getting closer. He wondered how much suffering she would have to be in to not notice the onset of a full-blown storm. Carefully, she reached for the overhanging switch and began to step down the stairwell. The door to the cellar hung wedged at an angle.

By the time she had rooted around and found the toolbox, Levitt found himself feeling two things; the velocity of the storm and the humming of the man’s tyres as they roared towards the house. Levitt did not know why the man was so desperate to beat the storm back to his house and why he had not stayed somewhere else, somewhere protected. Maybe he cared more for January than Levitt knew; maybe he just wanted to see her suffer more, another voice whispered into Levitt’s mind.

By the time she found the screwdriver—punching the air as she did—Levitt felt the car pull into the long winding driveway. By now, the storm was in force, though it had not reached its peak. Levitt closed his eyes for a moment and saw the howling wind pulse along the grounds close-by. It was hungry now and ready. Rocks began to spark up into the air as the car parked; as he shielded himself from the winds, Levitt saw the man look up to the lightning and smile. Anyone sane would be terrified, he thought as he opened his eyes back up. Unless they see it as an opportunity, the other voice whispered a second time.

Levitt followed her as she dutifully carried the toolbox back to the right spot and began to turn to the staircase. For the first time, she seemed to tense; Levitt wondered if it was at the realisation of the storm that was upon her or the feeling the man had arrived home. She held her glasses up in front of her, as if they were some sort of beacon and looked up to the stairs. The front door slammed, making her flinch and for a perfect moment there was silence as everything stilled. Suddenly, a panic seemed to move over her and she frantically started to look for a place to hide her glasses, holding them close to her heart, as if they lived and breathed against her. A thunderclap rang out and then the light at the top of the stairwell was suddenly smothered by darkness.

For a moment everything remained perfectly still; the man looked down, just as January looked up, as if the two were in perfect synch and back to being actors on the stage. Levitt saw the man smile and nod with a sort of satisfaction, as if the scenario he had played out in his head had been perfectly realised. Before he could move, she began to scale the stairs. She tried to speak but her voice was too dry, all the air stolen by the storm.

Levitt understood that if he stepped inside the cellar or she reached him at the top, she would die. Die and become a ghost, the other voice called out. By your side and just like you, it went on, in a sing-song voice. It would be perfect, Levitt thought; it would be wrong. Before he could listen to the voice any more, he snapped it shut by moving, moving as powerfully and sharply as he could. He moved alongside January and then edged inches in front of her, taking control.

The man was waiting, Levitt knew; he was waiting so he could push her back down. He saw as the man’s arms tensed, readying himself and just as she reached the top of the flight of steps, Levitt summoned everything in him, everything he was and for a moment broke through, broke over, broke out. He felt his fingers dislodge the cellar door. Before either of them could react, it pitched forward, swinging with such speed, it simultaneously knocked the man backward, towards the house and the storm and January to one side. She pitched left, almost swaying off the step but Levitt’s hand steadied her, before slipping back into his own body and the ether.

What happened next was a cacophony of noise. As January edged back down the stairwell, the storm roared into life above her. It seemed to land in great roaring bouts, smashing and clattering, rocking the beams of the cellar door and almost prising them free but not quite. The thunder and the lashing rain seemed to be all there was, but Levitt understood there was more. The man’s screams rang out amongst the torrid weather; at one point he almost drowned them out, such was the scale of his pain.   Levitt was aware January had gathered herself up in a ball, frightened beyond all measure. He simply looked on, sure that the cellar beams would hold, certain the man would hurt her no longer. He did not feel pleasure, the same as he no longer felt fear, but he couldn’t help but think the man being torn apart above them was evil and it was good he was no longer a part of the world.

As the storm reached its peak, he saw January reach for something. At first he thought she might have been clutching her heart but then seconds later, she drew her glasses on, like some sort of good luck charm. She looked bewildered, as if she couldn’t quite understand why she was there or how events had come to pass. At least, that was what Levitt assumed, until, after a few seconds, she began to reach out for him. He steadied himself, sure that she could not make him out. Still, her hand kept reaching. It drew up and pressed against his heart. It stilled, not resting against any weight, but still suspended in place. Her eyes went from her hand to his face; she was looking into his eyes.

January no longer shook. The storm subsided in that moment and the house no longer rocked. Before she withdrew her hand from his heart, she slipped off her glasses, as if the two things were interconnected. She peered at the frames and then up and no longer saw him. She let her hand fall, but gently, as if she still clutched at the last few wisps of a cobweb. Levitt followed all this and took a step away from her, knowing it was over. He watched her as she looped the glasses into her blouse and then made her way up the steps.

 

He watched her for a few seconds more as she unsteadily pushed the door upward, until great swathes of light rode in. January paused and then slipped the glasses back on. She turned round and stole one last glance back, but by then, Levitt had moved into the shadows. He looked at her and then followed her until she slipped away.  All there was left was the light that was now surrounding her.

Levitt did not close his eyes. All around him, he felt movement; his body began to accelerate and his mind expanded, as if he was moving so fast, he was leaving the earth behind. Within seconds, the barn and the fields were gone, a thing of the past and he was catapulting into the future. He hurtled on, unable to stop and careered towards the new light. Levitt was aware of all this but he could not escape one, pure feeling; the pressure of her palm against his heart; as he fell further into the fresh heat; he wondered if this was what gave him the strength to finally out-run the world.

 

 

carvedheart.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson © 2012

The Carved Heart

 

by Chris Castle

 

The man looked out to the city and the streams of people racing by. Most of them looked angry or desperate; the lines on their faces twisting hard and deep, so even the kids looked like old men. It was a place of hustle and bustle, take or be taken. A city of hard rain, he thought, and as if on cue, the first drops began to fall. Jake Mulligan flipped the sign over and walked back into the safety of his shop and the re-assurance of the dust and shavings.

 

The day had been a mild success; he had sold two chairs and a bureau. Once, his wife had teased him for living in the past, but it seemed as if more and more people thought like him; eager, even needy, to have old things in their houses, their lives. She had circled his chest one night and wondered why he never built anything modern, her nail firm against his skin, almost drawing blood. It was a joke but something that frustrated her, he knew. Jake had smiled and shrugged, drawing her close.

 

He finished sweeping and completed the bill of receipt for the day. Outside, the rain bubbled into something like a storm and the people began to scurry by in a blur. Jake felt the sharp pain in his wrists that always came with a change in the weather and gently rolled his wrists. Arthritis at thirty seven, he thought sadly and wondered if the penalty for living in the past was to age quicker. He smiled sadly and popped a couple of pain killers he kept below the counter, next to the gun. A quick tug of his water bottle and then he was done. The first snap of lightning lit up the street as he dragged himself away from shop floor and to his home above the shop.

 

Wait, it whispered.

 

He reached the back door and felt the familiar struggle race over him. It had been a good day and a good day meant upstairs, to his radio and a meal in a well lit room. A few pages of a book he was enjoying and a couple of minutes of the news. That was the rules…and yet, and yet…the pain in his wrists was not subsiding and the storm had brought his mood down considerably. Almost against his will, he turned away from the northern stairs and began to walk down into the cellar.

 

“Hello?” he called out gently, almost feeling foolish. The light down here was poor and he had to remember to be careful with his feet. As he reached the floor, the table came into view and the sight of the two of them instantly settled his heart. The pair of shadows, one long, one barely a shadow at all, drifted over him, removing al the turmoil inside his wrist almost by magic. Jake laughed, rolling his wrist once, twice, and shaking his head at their powers.

 

“My wife and kid,” he said cheerily; “The wizards.”

 

Before he joined them at the table, Jake walked over to the small cupboard at the far end and collected what was necessary; a few scraps of food he kept in the fridge for  visits, the small tool kit that he kept by the sink. He thought about it and then took a single bottle of beer and walked back to the table.

 

“Raining cats and dogs out there today,” he said, as he set down his plate and his bottle. Out of politeness, he kept the tool kit on his lap and out of sight. Before he ate, Jake closed his eyes and locked his hands together; waiting to see if this would be the day a prayer would come. For a minute he waited and then reluctantly prised his hands apart, feeling a brief, intense flare of pain in his bones as he did. The magic wears off quick, he thought glumly.

 

“Cats and dogs,” he repeated and looked over to his son. The expression he wore was of a constant, almost fully blown smile. Jake had used only the finest oak for the body and a teak finish for his face. Each tooth in the smile had taken him a week and the eyes twice that. Jake winked at him and leant over, re-positioning him a little more into the shadows, so he almost looked real. A family drowned, reborn in wood, the cruel second voice whispered, as his fingers trembled. At least they’ll float.

 

Jake swallowed and blinked fighting down the noise, which he hated more than anything in the world.

 

He began eating and rolled his eyes at his wife’s disapproval of him eating with his hands; it was the same when he took a pull from the beer bottle. After a while, his meal was done and the bottle was empty. He made to clean up the table and then stopped, uncertain of what he was going to do next.

 

“I think the pain’s getting worse,” he blurted out. Until then, he had not been sure if tonight was the night to bring it up. Jake looked over to her, keeping his voice low and leaning away from their son.

 

“If my hands get worse…” he made himself say, each word raw and almost impossible to force out. “If it gets worse then I won’t be able to fix anything…that goes wrong…” an arthritic carpenter and his wooden family-what a joke! The second voice spat into his ear, making him wince. Jake shook his head, not wanting to hear it, wanting something good, something to ease the fear he felt in his fingertips.

 

He drew his hands up and put his palm to his wife’s face. It felt cool against his skin, every contour of the wood smooth against his fingertips, like silk. Her eyes, cool and calm looked into his, waiting for him to say more, though there was no more to say, not when it came down to it. His fingers edged down to her lips, set in that soft half smile she had worn on their wedding day; a smile that was subtle and full of contentment which had captured his heart from day one. He brought down his own head and rested it lightly against hers. For a long moment there was only the sound of breathing. His heart pounded for her and he drew himself closer to her.

 

My god, man, think of the splinters! The second voice roared, full of spite and giggling.

 

Jake reared back and saw that he had left smears of grease on her cheeks. He gasped, drawing his hand up to his mouth and suppressing the scream just in time. The cruelty of what he had done raced through him, bringing bile to his throat. He kicked out of his chair, causing the tool bag to crash onto the floor and the table to shake. The two of them rocked in their chairs and for a second of pure, unfiltered horror, he thought they might tumble out of their seats. After they settled, he ran to the sink, the disgust coming out of him and heaved. When it was over, he washed his hands, running the water until it was scolding hot and his fingers red raw. As he repeatedly ran the towel over his hands, he imagined the shift in her eye, the terror, as he marked her. Without thinking, he forced more burning water over his face, the back of his neck.

 

Jake returned to the table, apologising and wiping tears away from his eyes. He wiped her cheeks with a tissue and when it was done, drew her under the bulb to inspect the results. When he was satisfied, Jake tried to set her back in the chair as carefully as he could, knowing grace had always come hard to him, as easily as it had come to her. It was true of so many other things between them; it was like everything good was in her.

 

After everything restored to its right place, he scooped up his tool box and drew out the miniature lathe he had custom made for them both. The horror show behind them, he started to talk again, trying to find a semblance of calm. He carefully trimmed their hair, first his son and then his wife, mindful to collect the shavings that curled and bunched on the floor, almost as soon as they fell.  It was a ritual and the familiarity of it calmed him, the way routine always settled him after a crisis.

 

Remember wood rots as sure as skin! The second voice bit into his ear, almost making him jump.  He drew breath and brought the shavings up to his heart until he stopped trembling, the carvings silencing the other voice. Jake continued with his routine until it was over and finally said goodnight, kissing one forehead and then the other. His final act was to polish all trace of his lips from them and snap off the light.

 

                                         *

 

The storm had gathered pace as Jake reached the top of the cellar and closed the door. The thunder rumbled over him as he traipsed the stairs, feeling heavy and out of sorts. The image of her cheek, smeared with fat and scarred wouldn’t leave his mind and wouldn’t for the rest of the night. By the time he reached his room, the plans he had in his head were all gone. Instead, he yanked the single photo from the wall and dragged his easy chair over to the window, to watch the storm in the dark.

 

He sat, following the lightning chase down the street, cradling the photograph in his lap. When he peered down, she looked up to him, her subtle smile beaming and flaring his heart, while their son, almost laughing, looked on. Jake Mulligan gently dropped the peels of shavings over the three of them, until it all blurred together, along with the muddle of his tears. Satisfied, he went back to the lightning, the storm and the darkness.

 

                                         *

 

 

graffititrain.jpg
Art by Mike Kerins © 2012

Graffiti Train

 

by Chris Castle

 

<Click> Here we are Rosie, back where it all started. The train’s still here, sitting in the middle of nowhere, covered in the same old graffiti. More now, of course and with words we didn’t use back then, but the colours are still the same, if nothing else. The world’s a pretty rotten place now, Rosie and sometimes I’m glad you’re not here to see it spiralling out of control. Was the world really a better place back then? I don’t know, but I think it was. I wonder if I knew, even then, that the world would go the way it did, back then. I think your love protected me from dwelling too much about it; now that you’re gone, it’s all I think about.

 

By now, people back at the big building will be looking for me, no doubt. All of them will be slipping their gasmasks in place now, swiping cards and tapping keypads, readying to go back out to the big, bad world we’ve kept away from for so long. The government looking for someone as small as me, Rosie, can you believe it? One tabloid newspaper, when there was still paper, tagged me as, drum-roll, please; ‘the small, science man who killed the big, bad world.’ But I was trying to save it, Rosie and not kill it. They said I only wanted to change time to save you but it was more than that; I wanted the world to have a second chance, after all we’d done. I wish…I wish you were still here and not just inside me and I could see your eyes and know the truth about myself.  

 

(Long Pause)

 

Gone are the science gowns and ID cards, Rosie; I’m back to good old-fashioned jeans and t-shirt! The same clothes I wore the day we met, apart from the face-mask, of course—that might have put you off a little. I don’t even have to take a second to remember what you were wearing that day: a yellow summer dress and white sandals. The strap on the left shoe was loose and I crouched down to tie it before you even knew it was broken. It was the only time I ever thanked God for making me short! How we talked back then, so formal and polite, like two stiff actors in a small town play. But underneath it all, in your eyes and in mine, we knew, didn’t we, Rosie? We knew we were meant to be together. I’m going over now, to—

 

(Interference)

 

A helicopter’s just torn overhead, almost rocking the train off its foundations. It’s gone for now, but I know it’ll be back soon enough. As soon as the big, tough government’s prepared itself against the one thing it can’t bully or bribe: the air itself. Look at this poor thing, Rosie! There’s moss around the wheels and chunks of it fall off in rusty clods under my fingers. Not like that day when we first found it, with the steel gleaming and barely a scratch or fleck of paint out of place. Remember the stories? My grandpa said it was used for storage by the gold stealer gang, what were they called? ‘Gate 13’, that’s it! Then there was my cousin Randy who spun it so it was a slaughterhouse for ‘Crazy Left Hook Lee’ from the next city over. What did you say about him? ‘Randy by name…’ We laughed at him, but we both kind of believed him, too, didn’t we? That first day I took you inside, both our hands were trembling, weren’t they? But we were smiling, too, right? I think that day, Rosie, was the first time I ever felt alive. I’m going inside to look at it. The sky, such as it is, doesn’t have any helicopters in it right now. Instead, it’s just torn and shredded, like it’s ready to explode. It reminds me of one of those crazy paintings you used to study in class, those…‘Surrealists.’ Guess it’s not so much surreal as reality, now, Rosie and it sure as hell’s not art…but I created it all the same.

 

(Muffled noise) 

 

>Click< The carriage is so small it makes even someone like me feel like a giant! The body of it glows, like some kid’s spent a lifetime tagging luminous colours across its beams. I know it’s just what’s in the air—what I put in the air—that’s reacting with the metal, but even so, it looks spectacular, like a techno-colour ghost train. The helicopters looping back overhead, landing. There’s a set of distorted voices, but I can’t make out the words; it sounds confusing, like cluttered, heavy traffic. I guess I don’t have much time left, Rosie. I’m walking a little further down the carriage. The skeleton of this place is really glowing now, right under my fingertips! I’m going to start looking for the place where we sat.

 

(Footsteps and heavy breathing) 

 

I’m crouching down and settling on our spot, Rosie. I’m not dumb enough to think this place has stayed an inside lover’s lane; for years the people who’ve crouched down here have had needles hanging out of their veins and done god knows what. But under the bright skin of the walls it feels like all the filth and mess has been seared away, at least for a little while and everything’s…simple, like it’s all just bare bones. It’s back to where we started, Rosie. Looking at it…I don’t know; maybe, just maybe I did succeed with changing time, after all.   

 

Okay, so now I can hear feet hitting the ground outside. Not long now, Rosie. I sit on the busted seat and stare at the traces of names signed overhead. Ours is here, somewhere, lost under the signatures of a hundred other lovers, but still there. It feels good to be buried under all those other couples, as if we’re all offering each other protection from the rest of the world. And isn’t that what lovers do in the end, Rosie; isn’t that what we did? On that last day, Rosie, I held your hand and felt everything leaving you but squeezed it tight, too, to keep everything that was good in you from escaping. I drew you up, even as you left and held you tight. I wanted to shield you, even from that, the way you would have done the same for me.

 

(Long pause)

 

Both of us were nobody’s fool’s but our own.

 

And then you were gone.

 

(Muffled noises)

 

>Click< Holding hands when it came to an end, holding hands when it began. Like any man, I thought I was in charge until you stopped me at the seat where the sunlight hit the carriage just right and I realised it was you who’d been leading the way. You sat first, Rosie, and let the shards of sun light you up, like you were controlling the sun itself. My girl, moving with a grace I’d only ever seen in the movies. I stood there, like a fool, didn’t I Rosie Almond? Like a dumbstruck spectator until your hand came out of the pools of heat and reached for my fingertips, whispering…

 

Let’s take the first time quick and then go slow.    

 

And like a kid I didn’t understand and then you touched me and I did.

 

The voices are closer now, their instructions clear and using my first name to show we’ll all still friends, even as they assume tactical positions. How did it come to this, Rosie? I don’t know and you’re not here to answer, so I guess that’s that. I’m drawing out the scalpel I stole from the lab and beginning to carve our names on the beams.

 

I’m trying to recreate what we wrote that day as best as I can. It’s not perfect but almost; my hands are shaking with fear now, the same way they were with love back then, so some spike when they should flow, but its close.

 

The instructions are still going on outside the door of our graffiti train, Rosie; they assume I’m trapped in a box like a rat. But I’m home and this is nothing like a cage. Now that it’s over, I’m slipping the mask down—(pause)—the air still smells like air, Rosie…doesn’t feel like dying. I’m taking great lumps of it in, one after the other, like the way you used to eat candyfloss at the fair. I think I’ve found a place to keep this. They won’t have the time to search the place and I’ll leave the scalpel behind for them to find.

 

Maybe, years from now, after everything is gone and begins again, a couple will find this, Rosie, and hear about us both. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m going to put it in the overhead, in amongst the countless names and hopefully they’ll keep us hidden and shielded until the time is right for us to live again…in the future, when all this is over.

 

(Interruption-banging noises)

 

I’ll be dead before the door opens and then we’ll be together again.

 

I’ll sit in our seat and try to find the sunlight like you did that day.

 

I love you, Rosie Almond.

 

>Click<

 

 

Chris Castle is English but lives in Greece. He has been published almost 300 times, including anthologies, end of year collections and has been included in pushcart nominations. Influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached at chriscastle76@hotmail.com and is also on Facebook.

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