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Mike Kerins
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sisyphus.jpg
Art by Jeff Fallow © 2011

The Compulsion of Sisyphus

 

Mike Kerins

 

 

Tartarus Book’s was my favorite bookshop. It was situated in a basement off the beaten track, still, it seemed to attract steady custom, a flow of lost souls who’d chanced their arm to discover an oasis of calm beneath the bustling city. Here I whiled away my lunch hour peacefully browsing, escaping the monotony of the office to step off life’s treadmill for a short while at least, a place where I could relax and be myself.

 

I’m not really the “literary” type; poetry readings, literary lunches aren’t my thing. I just like to pass away a few hours reading something a little more challenging than tabloid papers and their endless stream of celebrity revelations.

 

          I was wondering when it was I’d first discovered the shop, but the memory seemed to slip like a fish from my grasp and I gave up. Stepping inside, I noticed the owner, standing at the counter with two men. They glanced casually at me before returning to their conversation. They appeared to be viewing some CCTV footage on a monitor. I looked up at the screen as they turned it off.  I thought perhaps it was me; I spent so much time here I’d be surprised if they didn’t have any footage of me. I chuckled to myself; I’m getting totally paranoid.  

 

 Still I’d been getting rather forgetful lately; the lack of recollection bothered me. I’d been a bit stressed; some weird stuff had been happening, disturbing dreams played like bad movies in my head, nothing heavy, just weird. The rest was the usual: work, bills, family. I’d put it all down to lack of sleep, nothing to worry about. No need to see the doctor.

 

I’d been browsing the shelves for about half an hour, when I was startled by the dull thud of something hitting the floor behind me: a book.  

 

Bending down, I picked up a slim volume and looked for a space on the shelves but there was no obvious gap. The title of the book was a single word: Sisyphus. I recalled the name from my school days, a Greek myth, something about ravens pecking out his liver, punishment for stealing fire from the Gods. I tried to think, but the rest escaped me. Mythology wasn’t my strong point but at least I remembered something!

 

 I could identify with Sisyphus and his problems. My wife Doreen was the ruling deity, pecking my head constantly. God knows, how we’d created our two cretinous teenagers, stuffing their faces, grunting like pigs, because there’d never been any fire in our marriage, yet still—here they were.

 

I riffled the pages of the book, good quality paper, soft and creamy, smooth to the touch; turning it over in my hands, I looked for a contents page but there wasn’t one. I had the strangest feeling, as if the book somehow wanted me to notice it. I know that sounds ridiculous but perhaps it was destiny giving me a nudge, telling me to somehow fill the void in my life. I was searching for something but I didn’t quite know what; now I felt as if something had been searching for me and perhaps the fates were telling me I’d been found? A shiver ran down my spine and I smiled wryly to myself. I was making something from nothing. Still, I decided to indulge myself and read a chapter or two.

 

I turned to look for somewhere to sit and tripped over a cardboard box. Old copies of Rolling Stone spilled across the floor. Red-faced, I scrambled them back in, glancing quickly around to see if anyone had noticed. I saw a man looking at me and I reddened again. I’d seen him peering through the shelves at me earlier, one of the men standing at the counter I was sure—no, I couldn’t remember? I pushed the thought to the back of my mind—paranoia was my middle name today.

 

The whiff of incense and the aroma of coffee, mingled with the fustiness of old books, lent the place a certain ambience. Most of the books were secondhand or remaindered; boxes of comics and magazines lay on the floor, accidents waiting to happen. Nevertheless, the place had a welcoming homely feel that made up for any health and safety issues.

 

          The small cafeteria served a few modest refreshments; I made my way through an elephant’s graveyard of old furniture, no two pieces matching, and ordered a cappuccino.

 

The girl behind the counter prepared me a coffee as I pondered recent events. It wasn’t the dreams or the memory loss that bothered me so much as the strange appearance of what I can only describe as random books. I know this sounds strange but I’d been finding old paperback books that I had no recollection of buying, literally everywhere, in the pockets of my coat, in my briefcase, and at work. It had started out as the odd one, hardly noticeable at first, but the flow had increased daily.

 

On the first occasion, I was at work, readying myself for home. I put my hand in my coat pocket and to my surprise, pulled out a dog-eared paperback—something about comparative religion, I believe. I couldn’t understand how it got there. I made enquiries amongst my colleagues in the office, just in case someone had mistakenly slipped it into my pocket but no one had—at least that’s what they said!

 

The next occurrence followed quickly, the very next day, as a matter of fact. Returning from my mid morning break, I found spread across my desk a selection of paperbacks. The covers displayed explicit pictures of cavorting females, and lurid titles that left nothing to the imagination; the text was of an equally disgusting nature. I looked around quickly, to see if I could spot any sniggering or smirking, but no one seemed to be paying me any attention. I scooped them up and crossed the office purposefully, dumping them with a flourish into the office waste— that’ll show ’em with their stupid jokes!

 

Things then took a more disturbing turn. I awoke one morning to discover a selection of murder mysteries beneath my pillow, mostly Agatha Christie novels. It wasn’t the subject matter that offended me but rather the nature of their appearance.

 

I’d been sleeping in the spare room for quite sometime; I went to bed as usual, turning the light out, drifting into another troubled sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I felt rather uncomfortable. I pulled back the duvet to find the bed full of paperbacks. Most were under my pillow but some torn and crumpled and wedged beneath my body. I suppose someone could have put them there while I slept, but who? The idea was absurd.

 

I noticed the bent and torn cover of a Ruth Rendell; scrawled inside, the phrase: “SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND!”  My heart missed a beat. Randomly, I picked out others and found the phrase repeated, scribbled in red Biro over and over again, the constancy of the message instilling in me a feeling of horror and dread. The price-stickers on their covers were familiar and it dawned on me that the books were from my favorite book shop—Tartarus!

 

Holding a volume to my nose, I breathed in the smell of incense, yes, unmistakably of the shop. I felt sick, somehow violated.

 

The books began to appear everywhere: at home, in my desk at work, in the drawer where I kept my socks. I thought perhaps it was the kids—one of their cruel tricks, only I couldn’t see the lazy little sods going to all this trouble; they wouldn’t recognize a book if they fell over one, MTV was king.

 

Each day the volume increased; I was throwing the books away as fast as I could find them. They seemed to be everywhere. That morning I’d found more in my desk drawer: a selection of puzzles and conundrums. I sneaked a full plastic bag out of the office and deposited them, like Johnny Appleseed, into various bins in the high street on my way to lunch at: you’ve guessed it, Tartarus. You might think I’d be sick of the sight of books, but the shop was my comfort zone and I needed time to clear my head and have a think. Tartarus was just the place for that.

 

 

 

I’d coped reasonably well with this madness up until now. Only yesterday I’d been sat in the office canteen. Fishing my packed lunch from my briefcase, I peeled back the cling-film. To my amazement, squeezed between the ham and pickle sandwiches and smothered in salad cream was a yellowing, well-thumbed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d let out a little yelp.

 

With trepidation, I’d opened the cover and found the expected phrase scrawled with more than usual vehemence, the pen had torn and ripped its way through several pages, leaving a ragged red gash like an exposed wound. I was mystified, horrified, my frustrations boiled over and tears of anger pricked and seeped from the corners of my eyes.  A few heads turned but no one said anything and I quickly re-wrapped it and put it back in the briefcase.

 

I was constantly vigilant from then on; I wondered could Doreen be waging some insane campaign to torment me, or perhaps it was one of the two mummified cadaverous parents? She’d nagged me for months to let them move in. I’d finally caved in and they’d taken over, acted like they owned the place. I spent most of my time in the spare room reading, in order to escape the constant chatter of the TV morning noon and night. “Do you have to watch everything?” I’d asked.

 

 “We have catholic taste,” hissed the old man through yellowing dentures. They were attracted to the TV like moths to a flame.

One day you’ll get burned, I thought darkly, not quite knowing myself, what I meant by this.

 

I began to wonder if I was having some kind of a breakdown. I knew teenagers and lonely old ladies occasionally stole from department stores: lipstick, bottle openers, underwear, all seemingly random items. Could it be me? Was I the world’s most prolific shoplifter of books?  I couldn’t imagine why I should start, if in fact that was what I was doing, though I’d a deep suspicion it was. Was my life really that much of a living hell?

 

 The books weren’t even to my taste: myths, legends, romances, true crime, horror, anthropology and ancient ritual— not really my thing at all! I liked Sci-fi and Fantasy, the odd biography, something that would help me escape the everyday banalities of daily life, that was more my cup of tea.

 

 

 

The till rang—I slipped back into the present, smiling at the girl behind the counter as I paid for the coffee. I picked up the tray and navigated a path towards a leather armchair that had seen better days.

 

As I put the tray down, the table rocked, lurching to one side, and I grabbed it instinctively to prevent everything from sliding to the floor. I slopped a little of my coffee in the process, splashing my chinos with a galaxy of tiny brown dots.

 

Cursing, I steadied the table before pouring the full saucer back into the cup. Had those men at the counter really been watching tapes of me? Was there a store detective following me, watching me at this very moment? I glanced around and laughed nervously to myself. This is total paranoia: Seek and ye shall find? What could that possibly mean?   

 

I settled myself and tried to put this weirdness from my mind and so sipping my coffee, I opened the book and began to read. Immediately thoughts of recent events evaporated.

 

I was captivated by the fluidity of the prose. It flowed with the light abandon of a mountain stream: bubbling and frothing, joining other smaller narrative tributaries, gaining in energy and strength, the complexity of plot flooding the arid nooks and crannies of my mind and washing in torrents over me; the thrill of its white water rapids was matched only by the depth and relentless flow of ideas moving like a great river through a wild and exotic landscape, broad, deep, and fast flowing. I anticipated the novel’s inevitable conclusion as a river accepts its final fate, to be consumed by the cold green depths of the ocean.

 

Yet the text wasn’t about verdant landscapes or green oceans teaming with life but rather a place where oceans boiled, crimson and primal, where black roiling clouds of ash and sulphur were illuminated by eruptions of gas and flame that seared the sky. It was about a place, harsh, without compassion or kindness, a world of fire and blood, where strange creatures skitter and clatter across the rocks of newly-formed continents, their only impulse to kill or be killed.   

 

I’d found myself, overwhelmed, almost drowning beneath the lyrical beauty of the writing. I’d felt somehow cleansed, baptized in the waters of Lethe, that had washed the filth of civilization from my skin so that I might be prepared to know the heart of creation, even the beginnings of time and space itself. I was now lost, my soul in thrall to each and every sentence; darkness gripped my mind and in its depths, I discovered the primal pleasures of pain, the icy chill of instinct, and the fire of the kill.

 

 

 

There was a crash—breaking crockery on tiles waking me from my reverie; I was vaguely aware of the girl at the counter cursing under her breath and reaching for a brush.

 

I tried to focus on my surroundings but they had receded into a blur of white noise and indiscriminate shapes that hovered at the extremities of my vision, barely registering, my mind recalling the wonders and unspeakable horrors, the revelations that had so profoundly affected me— I felt reborn.

 

The words “seek and ye shall find” echoed over and over in my mind.

 

I reached out, my hand shaking and found that my coffee had gone cold.

 

Yet now I understood the phrase. This was what I’d been searching for all my life; I’d finally found it. This book held all the answers—I knew that now.

          On one level, its contents repulsed and revolted me, yet the desire to reach the book’s conclusion was like the pull of a whirlpool drawing me into its nightmarish depths. Like a drowning man I’d struggled to stay afloat, but found myself dragged under to become one with its narrative flow, letting the text overwhelm me as I gave myself up to it, body and soul.

 

The interruption had irritated—no—angered me, but I needed to stay calm. If there was ever a page-turner, then this was it. I needed to go somewhere private to luxuriate in the remainder of the prose. After all, wasn’t anticipation as much a part of the pleasure of reading as reading itself? 

 

I waited for the dots of light still floating before my eyes to recede. It was as if I’d been staring into a bright lamp and it took a couple of seconds before I could reorientate myself.

 

          I looked at the cold coffee sat on the table. It looked more normal than anything had a right to look. I knew now that things would never be, if they ever had been, normal again—it was imperative that I possess this book at all cost.

 

 

 

I got up, clutching it to my chest. I was sure I saw a man pretending to read but actually spying on me. Just in case, I rattled a few coins onto the counter. The proprietor leered at me disconcertingly and said something about “paying this time. . . ?” The girl, still retrieving the shards of a broken mug off the floor, gave me a questioning look.

 

I skittered away from the counter before anyone could say anything more. I made my way to the exit, avoiding the other customers who seemed to be looking at me strangely—covetously? I heard a voice yell, “Security!” A hand reached out and clutched at my jacket; I yanked myself free and ran, as another voice shouted, “He’s the one. . . .” That was the last thing I heard as I stumbled up the cellar steps, eager to escape.

 

I blinked and staggered into the sunlight. The midday heat hit me with a blast, as if someone had opened the door to the mouth of hell itself. My only thought was to get back home with my prize and finish reading it.

 

I flagged down a cab and was soon home—I entered the hallway and clicked the door shut behind me.

 

“I’m back!” I called, out of habit. There was no reply. I didn’t expect one. I heard the muffled sound of the TV droning on behind the sitting room door. I knew they were all in there—I didn’t care.

 

          Dashing upstairs to the bedroom, I lay on the bed, caressing the cover of the book, prolonging the moment, a thrill of anticipation running through me like an electric current. My hands shook with feverish excitement as I opened the covers and began to read.

 

Yet the more I read, the greater my frustration and disappointment. The author’s innate delicacy of touch, the descriptive elegance that so seductively extolled the virtues of man’s primal instincts, the power of fire and blood and the cold reptilian instinct of a mind without conscience, now droned on about an office clerk and his dreary meaningless existence: a man with all the backbone of an amoeba, living out a gray, monotonous existence in pointless banality. A man who earned his family’s daily bread and worked with colleagues who ignored and despised him, a man no one had any respect for—a small man in every way.

 

I now found the subject matter repugnant; the glamour gone, stripped away. The author might as well write of a new species of insect that crawls unseen beneath the notice of the dark and vengeful gods. I needed to bathe in that transforming fire, for it to flow through my veins and be inspired as I had been in the shop—what I didn’t need was this crap!

 

I flung the book down in a rage, my disappointment turning to despair. Perhaps it was the day’s heat or the intensity of my disappointment, but I drifted into a feverish sleep, tossing and turning, my mind filled with the strangest and most terrifying images imaginable. I dreamt of tearing and ripping and howling like an animal, of dancing insanely like some primitive being in the most ancient of forests. In my dream I bathed in the hot spurting blood of the kill, my hands spreading the victim’s life force slickly and wetly over my nakedness. Spirits, seemingly conjured from the depths of the night, screeched and roared, there eyes glinting and flashing in the flickering firelight, the thrill visceral, primal, raw set my heart pounding to an ancestral beat.

 

 When I awoke a few hours later, my head throbbed, the remnants of disturbing and lurid images floated before my eyes. My breathing was short and shallow, a patina of sweat covered my skin, but I could feel fire smoldering in the pit of my stomach.

 

Had the writing somehow caused my brain to overload? I was confused, my memories fragmented. I tried to think clearly, but I couldn’t quite recapture the day’s narrative or extricate it from the fiction that had somehow become entangled in my mind.

 

I rubbed my eyes. I could still hear the TV blaring away downstairs. The room was stuffy, the curtains closed against the heat of the day, the light fading. My watch had stopped, but I guessed it must be getting on for evening—dusk.

 

Leaning over the side of the bed, I picked the book back off the floor. I began to flick through the pages, my hands twitching like an addict in need of a fix. Beads of sweat splashed from my forehead onto the pages. Thoughts ran wildly through my mind. Had I experienced some kind of a seizure at the bookshop—too much sun? Could I have imagined the whole episode?

 

I began hyperventilating. I found a paper bag discarded in the corner of the room and unfolded it, raised it to my lips and breathed deeply. As it expanded and contracted, my breathing slowed, the panic subsided.

 

A fly buzzed close by and I swatted at it, ineffectually.

 

I stared accusingly at the book, its cover fallen shut. It had slipped off the bed onto the floor: a floor that I now realized was covered entirely with paperback books. I laughed hysterically until my ribs ached, only stopping when I felt the smoldering fire in my gut ignite.

 

 

 

I was halfway downstairs; the TV boomed ominously from behind the closed door, its inane chatter relentless.

 

Stumbling down the remaining stairs in my eagerness, I giggled to myself and slowly pushed open the door. The room was dark and stuffy, illuminated by the flickering light of the TV screen, the curtains were pulled across. Flies buzzed lazily in the darkness, some crawled busily over the remnants of a takeaway congealing on a tray that lay on the coffee table.

 

There they all sat, staring at Pandora’s Box devoid of all hope, their empty eyes reflecting only the TV host who grinned inanely from the screen, canned laughter washing over them.

 

The kids seemed to have fallen asleep, leaning one against other, Gina clutching her computer game and sat next to them were Doreen’s parents. Grandpa, open mouthed, dentures slipping out, drool running down his chin; Grandma, with her skirt hiked up to shamelessly reveal her underwear. Shadows splashed and pooled eerily around them.

 

I turned at the scratch of a match; Doreen’s face, illuminated by the flare, peered at me emptily; coughing, she sucked, then blew a plume of smoke from a cigarette that glowed like a single red eye in the gloom. “So you decided to crawl out of your pit, then?” she rasped.

 

I felt the fire flare briefly inside of me. “Yes,” I said, “I decided to crawl out of the pit.”

 

Her eyes widened, and she looked at me with a flicker of interest, catching the unfamiliar edge to my voice. The look turned to one of suspicion, as if instinct warned of her immediate fate.

 

The kids stirred as Doreen’s parents turned to see what was happening—but too late; the flame inside had flickered, then roared, catching like a forest fire, flowing through my veins and searing every atom of my being. Within seconds, it was consuming every last remnant of my humanity, the last flicker of memory, a line from an old rock song burned brightly in my head, then in a moment shrivelled to ash and was gone forever.

 

The pale white orbs of my eyes were left exposed, as my pupils slipped beneath my eyelids, the agony and ecstasy of transformation suffused my being. I took a face from the ancient gallery to become one with the dark gods of insanity, a lord of the inferno. I felt the cold steel in my hand and heard the screams that echoed from a place far, far away as I began to carve a razor smile on the first of their miserable faces, releasing the blood of life; that I might bathe in the crimson tides of madness for all eternity.

 

 

 

woodforthetrees.jpg
Art by Aisling Kerins © 2012

The Wood for the Trees

 

By Mike Kerins

 

 

Tick, tick, tick, restless sleep—relentless ticking, like a branch at the windowpane, tap, tap, tapping gentle but persistent, then the metallic shriek as the clock shredded my delicate web of dreams with the subtlety of a pneumatic drill.

 

My hands scrabbled like blinded crabs to stop the noise. I heard things skitter and thump as various objects rolled off the side table, hitting the floor. I felt for the familiar switch at the back of the clock—and then suddenly blissful silence!

 

I lay for a moment; eyes shut mentally preparing for the day ahead, one last yawn and stretch before rolling out of bed. I felt stiff, a little sluggish, not my usual spry self, an ache at the base of my spine, overdoing it with the jogging I supposed; not as young as I used to be.

 

I crept across the landing to the bathroom but didn’t flush the toilet as the cistern makes a horrendous racket. I didn’t want to disturb the girls until it was absolutely necessary. I’d let them sleep while I prepared the breakfast.

 

I lay the table with bowls and cutlery then searched the cupboard for cereal. I could only find a box of cornflakes, I frowned, puzzled. I tried to keep up with all their fads and the cupboards were usually well stocked.

 

Teresa the eldest was easygoing but Anne my youngest, well, she’d let you know if she wasn’t happy, especially if the “sugar coated choc bombs” weren’t available.

 

I smiled—she’d have to make do this morning! The kettle boiled as I put out the teacups, Anne has three sugars in hers. I try to discourage her with warnings of dental decay but she flashes those pearly whites and I’m putty in her hands—well, could anyone resist that smile?

 

I tended to spoil them since Madge died. Not that they remember her, they were too young. Teresa was three, she might have a few fuzzy memories but Anne was only a baby. It’s the guilt thing isn’t it, kids without a mum—or maybe not?

 

I suppose it was as much for my own sake –spoiling them I mean—but when I looked at them I saw the little nuances and gestures so completely their mother’s—living echoes, better than memories.

 

I popped bread in the toaster, the kettle clicked off and I waved my way through a cloud of steam searching for the butter, one ear listening for the girls—not a sound? Unusual— one of them should have woken up by now, disturbed by my puttering. “Dad, you woke us ‘gain,” they’d moan no matter how quiet I tried to be!

 

I scraped butter onto toast and listened expectantly for giggles and galloping feet.

 

I stood at the foot of the stairs, about to shout up to them, then thought better of it and decided to pad upstairs and wake them with a gentle shake instead.

 

These stairs seemed to be getting steeper every day or maybe it was me getting older, a wry smile touching the corners of my mouth. I stopped and caught my breath, waiting on the landing for a moment—not a peep.

 

I gently pushed open the door, whispering their names.

 

Not a stir, but some untold fear lurked in the back of my mind and urged me to scream out loud. I didn’t. It made no sense, still, I wanted to shake them roughly from their slumbers but I hadn’t the heart.

 

Instead I peered into the gloom.  A shaft of light pierced the darkness from an opening in the curtains. I made out the shapes of Anne’s dolls lined up at the end of her bed. Teresa’s school uniform was folded neatly on the chair.

 

Creeping across the room I barked my shin painfully on something and swore under my breath as I clutched my leg, waiting for the pain to subside.

 

I hobbled over to Anne’s bed, reached out to shake her. “Anne,” I whispered gently. “Anne,” and reached out—but there was nobody there.

 

Perplexed I pulled at the cold sheets. There was a strange sense of déjà vu but I pushed it away, pushed aside confusion, the mounting panic.

 

I turned to Teresa’s bed they’d both be in there, they sometimes got in each other’s beds for a chat, whispering their secrets as they lay there cosy and warm before falling asleep.

I groped my way over whispering their names frantically— but there was no response! Panic took hold, ice-cold fingers clutched at my heart, my stomach was in knots. Tearing the blankets from the bed I let out a low moan that rose from deep inside me. I scrabbled again, desperately, hopelessly, at the bedding but found nothing! My thoughts and emotions were tumbling through a void as my strength evaporated. Where could they be?

 

The window was an obvious point of entry; I staggered over and yanked back the curtains but it was shut— locked!

 

I whirled around, dust motes floated crazily, hypnotically on the shaft of light. I sneezed. My world was turned upside down, this was a nightmare. Focus, concentrate! I told myself.

 

I focused on their dolls’ house in the corner, that’s what I’d scraped my shin on. I’d built it one Christmas, I don’t remember which; how they’d loved it!

 

I sat down head in hands, I needed to think. What’s happened? Has someone taken them? Why? What should I do? I tried breathing evenly so as to think calmly, slowly, evenly, stopping my thoughts from racing, evenly, helping them clear, evenly. . . . Ring someone!

 

The police! That was it I needed to ring the police. I hobbled down the stairs. The phone was on the hall table—beside it, taped to the table-top was a paper with the words, “Do not ring the Police yet—WAIT!” scrawled in blue biro. Beneath those words was a phone number—in my hand?

 

 For a moment I stared at it, my forehead creased. I scratched my head— there was a whole Alice in Wonderland quality about the day I just couldn’t fathom.

 

I’d ring the number anyway, what was the worst that could happen?

 

I pressed the keys and waited. Eventually someone answered.

 

“Hello,” I said breathlessly. “I need to talk to someone in charge, immediately.  It’s an emergency.”

 

It was the police! I sighed, relieved.

 

“Well, if I can just take down a few details, sir . . .” said the voice.

 

“Details, what details?”

 

The voice was infuriatingly calm and relaxed. “Well if you’ll just bear with me sir and give me your name and address.”

 

“But it’s an emergency!”

 

“Now if you give me your details sir, we can then deal with the matter.”

 

“Collins,” I say. “Mr. Collins . . .”

 

The conversation was abruptly broken off.  I knew he’d covered the receiver with his hand.  I could just about hear a few muffled enigmatic words and then he was back on the line. “Mr. Collins?”

 

“Yes, I’ve already told you that!”

 

“Would that be Mr. Collins of Beech Tree Cottage, Wood Lane?”

 

“Why, yes . . . how do you . . .”

 

“Just sit tight Mr. Collins and someone will be around to see you, soon.”

 

 “But, but this is ridiculous! My two daughters have been abducted and

. . .”

 

“Yes sir, I understand sir. Please don’t leave the house sir.”

 

There was a click, then a static hiss that left me feeling cold, empty, helpless and angry, all at the same time. I was stunned.

 

I couldn’t keep still. I paced the hallway and stared in disbelief at the phone. The silence of the confounded thing was palpable and twice I reached for it but something stopped me, I didn’t know what, other than perhaps subconscious fears of what might be the fate of my two daughters.

 

The waiting was intolerable.  I decided to re-examine the girls’ room again and tramped upstairs.

 

Halfway up the doorbell rang and I went back down again.

 

“Hello, is that the police?” I said through the frosted glass. “About time – what’s the meaning of this?” 

 

I was in a rage now and ready to give any half-wit they’d sent a piece of my mind.

 

“Daddy . . . it’s us!”

 

For a second I couldn’t speak.

 

“Who . . . what—who is this?”

 

“It’s me, Daddy— Anne, and I have Teresa here with me.”

 

I choked, unable to speak, my eyes welled with tears. “Anne?”

 

She was speaking through the letter box but in my distressed state I couldn’t follow what she was saying.

 

“I don’t understand . . . Anne?”

 

“Open the door, Dad, and let us in and we’ll explain everything.”

 

It wasn’t her voice but then at the same time it was. How could that be?

 

“Take the chain off and we’ll explain Dad.”

 

I was confused and a little afraid and started to weep. I shuffled upstairs to escape their imploring voices. 

 

As if in a waking dream, I found myself back in the bedroom and reached for the light switch. It clicked on and to my surprise, I found everything coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. I could see my own footprints in the dust on the carpet.

 

“I don’t understand,” I kept repeating, feeling as if I were in a vast place far removed from myself. My lips trembled and I began to stammer. I needed to tell Teresa I loved her and explain that breakfast was ready and ask why they were hiding from me.

 

They were ringing the doorbell and shouting, cajoling to be let in. Well, I didn’t have to stand for that—harassed in my own home?

 

I went back downstairs and saw their silhouettes at the door. I’d give them a piece of my mind, tell them to leave me alone or I’d call the police, yes that would stop them.

 

I unchained the door and turned the latch. I took a deep breath and prepared myself to face them. I opened the door. “Who are you, disturbing me like this?’

 

On the path stood two middle aged ladies.

“Daddy?”  

 

It wasn’t the voice of my daughter but at the same time it was, folded deep within the soft tones of middle age, yes, undoubtedly the voice of my daughter Anne, cute little blue-eyed blonde Anne.

 

A dry croak escaped my lips.  Then I smiled. “I’ve got the kettle on,” I said, “you’re just in time for a cup of tea.”

 

“Oh, Daddy, look at the state of you!” said Teresa.

 

I looked down at myself. I still had on my pajamas. They were crumpled and stained around the crotch, hanging loosely from my limbs.

 

I stretched out a fragile trembling hand, covered in liver spots. The nails were long and dirty—yet somehow familiar. I frowned; it was all a puzzle, everything seemed a puzzle.

 

I was aware of Anne speaking to me but I made no sense of the words.

 

A surge of anger rushed through me. “Well, are you coming in for a cuppa or not? I haven’t got all day!” I snapped, but then who wouldn’t snap if their children had just been stolen?

 

They followed me into the kitchen.

 

“How could they?” I sobbed aloud.

 

“How could they what?” they asked simultaneously

 

“Steal my children,” I wailed and wept—distraught.

 

I felt the tears streaming down my face as I picked up the teapot and pressed it to my ear. “You’ll have to leave now. Madge will be home soon. She won’t be happy if she finds out I’ve let strangers into the house again. Why should I be the one to do everything, anyway?  This is the fourth time the police have rung me this week. . . .”

 

 

 

strangerdays.jpg
Art by Mike Kerins © 2012

Stranger Days

by

Mike Kerins

 

A bright day in early September and we were out shopping. Well when I say we, Jeani was shopping while I emptied my wallet, at her request, into the nearest till. I’d been bumped and kicked so many times by the most unlikely of women: old, mostly, with sticks and lethal handbags, that I was sure to be black and blue.

I kept hinting, whenever we passed a café, that I’d like a seat as my feet were killing but she was deaf to all requests. We soldiered on, well, at least me and my plastic did. Jeani was totally at home in the midst of all this mayhem, expert, in a seek-and-destroy kind of way, in evading anyone who might come between her and the object of desires, mostly clothes but sometimes shoes.

“Isn’t it just fantastic, dad?”

I’d smile weakly before looking disconsolately at the price tag.

Standing in front of a mirror was a safety hazard when Jeani was about, and if no mirror happened to be available, then any reflective surface would do. “Oh, don’t I look gorgeous dad?” 

“C’mon, Jeani love,” I whined. “I’m shattered.”

“Not until the cards maxed out, dad.” She laughed, patting, tugging, and pulling an overpriced outfit that refused to bend immediately to her will. Then, pulling a face, she said, “No thanks,” to a much-maligned assistant.

Not quite sure if she was joking or serious, I lumbered on, a beast of burden, my knees buckling under the weight of plastic bags that got heavier as my metaphorical wallet got appreciably lighter.

“Don’t worry, dad, it’s only plastic,” she said, smiling.

She sprang, gazelle-like, into another teenage emporium, “There’s a sale in here, dad, thank goodness for a global recession. I don’t know what politicians worry about.”

I sighed. What could I say? What could anyone say? Some kids don’t know they’re born.

Miraculously, Jeani ran out of steam before the plastic did. We left the mall to get some fresh air and bought ourselves a couple of Cokes and sat down in the square to drink them. I closed my eyes for a moment and rested my weary feet.

There was a nip in the air now, but plenty of people were sitting out in the watery sunshine, eating their lunches and chatting away. We sat on a low wall beneath the big wheel that was circling slowly above us, a must-have adornment to British cities nowadays, and watched people as they bobbed in and out of shops or strolled leisurely about, enjoying the last remnants of a mediocre summer.

We chatted about nothing in particular and sipped our Cokes, when for no particular reason we both stopped, aware of some unseen intrusion—as if a presence had encroached into our personal space—I know it sounds silly, and I find it difficult to explain the sensation, but we both turned to find a man, standing ever so still, watching us from across the road: a stocky man in his seventies, watching us intently. I didn’t really know what to think and turned back to continue with the conversation.

I’m always conscious not to give eye contact to the strange folk who haunt our streets, so I carried on talking to Jeani without looking back again. I soon realized she wasn’t listening to me, just nodding distractedly as I spoke—not unusual behavior in a teenager I suppose— but I let my voice trail off and followed her gaze back across the street.

The strange man was still standing there looking at us. His hand lay on the tree next to him, but he didn’t appear to be leaning on it; he hadn’t, I realized, moved a muscle since I’d last looked a couple of minutes earlier. The overall effect was disturbing, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to rise.

I looked at Jeani and said jokingly, “He must be looking at you,” while nudging her with my elbow, trying to make light of the situation.

There was a long pause. “No, I think it’s you he’s looking at,” she whispered.

           I was feeling really freaked out. It was now a good three minutes since we’d become aware of the man’s presence, and he hadn’t moved an inch since we’d first clapped eyes on him. There was no sign of emotion on his face: it was blank; expressionless; yet, he continued to stare.

It was obvious we were looking straight back but it didn’t seem to bother him. If anything, he became more intimidating. His dark, piercing eyes stared back as the crowds of shoppers flowed round him, seemingly oblivious to his presence.

My initial reaction was that perhaps he was a homeless person. I studied him closely, which was rather difficult as the intensity of his gaze was disturbing.

He wore a cream-colored jacket that was soiled around the cuffs and dark crumpled trousers. His shoes seemed to be in a reasonable condition, still my overall inspection proved inconclusive, giving me no real clues as to who or what he might be. His black woolly hat was pulled tightly down over the long gray wisps of hair that escaped from beneath, framing his head with a slight fuzzy halo. His face hadn’t that ruddy glow associated with someone constantly exposed to the elements but rather the soft white of someone that spends a lot of time indoors.

I began to think perhaps I was being silly, overreacting to the situation? It’s not exactly a crime to be scruffy, nor to stare at people for that matter: A cat may look at a king, after all.

I looked at Jeani, who seemed rather subdued; her abandoned Coke sat on the wall. Through lowered lids, she watched the man. “He seems somehow familiar,” she said.

The man appeared completely composed—relaxed, even—staring back at us unwaveringly, while the butterflies in my stomach were transforming themselves into a churning sea of fear.

          Then a shadow fell across the street, a cloud momentarily obscuring the sun, as a slight breeze blew up and sent the litter skittering over the pavement. I felt a spatter of rain that had threatened all morning and now appeared to have arrived.

Jeani looked at me, laughing nervously, the weather momentarily distracting us from this weird, even sinister experience.

I suggested we made tracks and she nodded eagerly, relieved I thought to be going. We picked up our shopping; I’d decided to give the sci-fi department at the bookshop a miss for once, as more than anything, I wanted to go home.

I glanced back over the road one last time, but to my surprise, the man was gone—vanished!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stopped in my tracks. It was incomprehensible. “Where’d he get to?”

I spun around wildly, gripped by a sudden fear he might come upon us and . . . I calmed myself. What could he do in broad daylight in one of the busiest parts of the city?

The two of us turned around, looking everywhere, but there was no sign of him. He’d just disappeared into the ether. If he’d headed towards the Royal Exchange, I’d have seen him. I’d been facing in that direction and Jeani would have seen him if he’d gone the other way. There was nowhere he could have gone, not in the matter of a few seconds; it was impossible!

Well that’s my tale of the vanishing stranger and I suppose looking back on events and if I were you, I’d be asking what all the fuss was about. It’s a bit of an anticlimax, really, and to be honest, I can’t dispute such an observation. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt in my mind or Jeani’s that something strange, uncanny even, happened to us that day but what it was, well, who can say? 

One last thing . . . on reflection and with hindsight, I realized there was something that had escaped my notice but that Jeani had commented on it at the time. There was a familiarity about the man’s face that I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on and when I later questioned her about this, she felt the same. 

Then a few days later, while I was shaving, it hit me.

The face was a good few years older and a little rounder, the gray stubbly chin a little less sharp, but the dark eyes—eyes seem to remain more or less the same over the years—well, this made me think, that in a good few years from now, that face staring back across the road at me, could quite possibly be mine.              

 

modhranhiht.jpg
Art by Author, Mike Kerins, 2012

 

Mōdraniht

By Mike Kerins

 

The room was almost full, the murmur of conversation had subsided and there was a feeling of expectation in the air, as the fire crackled in the hearth. Then a voice, rich and dark, began to recite the ancient incantation: 

“Gather round the fire and listen, listen well, for winter’s the time for tales and I have a tale to tell. It’s a tale of the Northlands, of ice and snow, where nights are long and in darkness, strange creatures dwell.”

So it began…  

A single star, sharp and bright as the rarest of diamonds, sparkled in the winter sky. While in the cold aching silence, snuggled deep beneath a blanket of snow, the village prepared for the forthcoming festivities and a sense of excitement was almost palpable. Lights from windows shone bright with anticipation, as soft plumes of wood smoke drifted from chimneys, up into the night sky. A vast primal forest sprawled like darkness across the land, only the cracking of the ice and the occasional whimper of hibernating beasts; that dreamt of a warm and distant spring, broke the silence.

Maria, her face pale and drawn, smiled quietly down at the new born child. It had been a long labour but the other hopefuls had offered comfort and support, amidst their barely concealed but understandable disappointment. So close to full term, their bodies were round and ripe, yet not quite ripe enough. She too had suffered disappointment but that was all behind her now, the honour had fallen upon her and her family at last. It was rare for births to occur on the Eve of the Feast itself, a miracle perhaps. It was, at the very least, a special blessing on the village and promised a bountiful year ahead. She reflected back on the day, the last day of what they called The Yule Days and looked forward to sharing Mōdraniht with her family.

She could hardly believe that only that morning she’d been busy preparing for the festivities. Thomas, her husband, brought the jars of pickles, salted pork and beer from the cellar, while she cooked and cleaned, so that all would be in readiness, for this feast of feasts. The children hung the sprigs of holly, she’d gathered from the forest all the while asking, with wide-eyed wonder, if the Red-man would really be coming to their home: “Soon Momma, will it be soon?” they laughed, dancing merrily about her skirts.

 “We’ll see” she’d say and ask, “have you been good children this year?”

“Yes Momma we’ve been good and we’ll be extra good if the Red-man comes.”

“You wouldn’t want to upset the Red-man, would you now my little loves?”

“No Momma; and will he come down the chimney Momma?”

“Oh children you know he always does.”

She smiled at their shining, happy faces. Absently stroking her full round middle, her thoughts turned to her beloved husband, Thomas, who would soon be home from the forest. They hoped today would be the day and he was anxious about her condition. She was sure he wouldn’t be long.

“Can we leave the Red-man something to eat and drink,” cried the children, “can we Momma - please?” she came back to the present as their voices interrupted her reverie.

“Of course but you must be good children, now run along and stop asking me questions.”

“And can we…” but their words were lost, as a gust of wind and a flurry of snowflakes whirled through the open door. Their father Thomas was hauling a freshly cut pine tree into the room. “Give me a hand and be quick,” he said, “We don’t want to lose the warmth now do we?” the children slammed the door shut and watched as he brushed snow from his shoulders and stamped it from his boots.

His eyes shone in the firelight, cheeks ruddy from the cold air. The children capered excitedly about the room. “Dada got the yule tree, Dada got the yule tree,” they chanted, pulling decorations from the cupboard, spilling baubles and carved toys onto the floor, rummaging for their favourite ornaments.

He chuckled as he took his wife by the hand, pulling her close. He looked up for a moment at the mistletoe, then smiled and kissed her gently on the lips. Stroking the soft curve of her belly he whispered, “This year, will be our year, just you wait and see.”

She blushed and let go of his hand to put the kettle on. “You best stand the tree in its tub; you’ll have no peace till you do.” The youngest was pulling urgently at his sleeve, “Come on Dada, come on we want to dress the tree. Don’t you want to help, don’t you Dada?” 

He’d just finished planting the tree in the tub, when her waters broke.

The news spread swiftly, women crunched through the snow and crowded at the door offering assistance. “It is it true then?” they asked.

“Yes, we are the chosen.” said Thomas, holding open the door so they might enter. Soon the women were bustling under the watchful eye of midwife and village elder, Shayla. She asked one young woman to decorate the tree to keep the children distracted, while she dealt with the business of birth.

It wasn’t a quick and easy birth but before long Shayla held the baby in her arms. She removed the cowl from the tiny wrinkled face and it howled, as if in protest at being dragged into the cold, bleak world but it was large and plump – perfect, she thought, just perfect.

She cleaned and swaddled the infant before placing its angry red face at Marie’s breast and watched as it suckled hungrily.

Shayla blessed herself discreetly and whispered: “Rejoice villagers, rejoice, our saviour has come… the villagers bent their heads and joined with a prayer of thanks giving.

Later that evening, Marie sat up in bed, surrounded by friends and family; her face was radiant as she watched the villagers celebrate with mulled wine that Thomas heated with a red hot poker. All eyes drawn to the soft plump child, sleeping in its crib, as they nibbled at the food provided. Yet as the evening wore on, Marie’s eyes grew heavy and tired. Shayla, noticing, clapped her hands sharply to gain the villagers attention. “We should leave and make our own preparations for the morrow, it’s late and the mother needs her rest. Let us all go forth and be thankful for the gift we have received, our children’s saviour, may the year be happy and prosperous.” She brushed a few stray hairs from Marie’s brow; the baby stirred in its crib, then settled. Shayla said her goodbyes to Thomas, reminding him to dampen the fire before he retired. 

The villagers began to move towards the door, hunching their shoulders against a wind, that was carrying wraiths of their conversation far and wide, spreading the news as indiscriminately as the snowflakes it whirled above their heads.

In the depths of the dark primeval forest, something stirred. It looked at first like a root or the white skeletal branches of a dead tree, half buried amongst the desiccated remains of leaves and undergrowth. It was a cosy spot to hibernate for a creature, the bole of a tree, a tree that’s ancient trunk, twisted and gnarled, was the darkest heart of the forest and as the wind snaked its winding path, it whispered the news to the sleeping inhabitants and with its final breath caressed the slumbering ear of the creature - the Red-man awoke.

Thomas put the children to bed. They’d been excited but tired out and were soon asleep. Time now, for this most important part of the festival – the wrapping of gifts.

He took the children’s presents from the wardrobe and began to fold the brightly coloured tissue paper around them. He looked up from his work as Marie turned over in her sleep, her breathing even and steady. She was exhausted and he doubted she would wake before morning. He placed the presents beneath the tree, where they would be easily found. He made his way to the far end of the cabin. His shadow, cast long by the still flickering embers of the fire, it would burn out soon, becoming nothing more than a soft glow but warm enough to give warning he thought and smiled wanly. He pulled up the cellar door and descended. There was a table he’d made especially for the occasion – not that he’d been sure they’d be chosen but he’d had a feeling and made preparations accordingly. He wiped down the surface with a cloth, while outside the snow fell and the drifts grew ever deeper.

The Red-man blinked, confused for a moment and looked around in the darkness, then scampering up the tree with the speed of a squirrel, surveyed the wilderness from the top-most branches. The wind had abated temporarily but the snow fell heavily on the tangle of the forest’s canopy, its branches could be heard to creak and snap beneath its weight.

Sniffing the air it stuck out its tongue, tentatively; a flake resting delicately on its tip. Immediately it grimaced and shook its head, then spat repeatedly into the night, before scampering down again, sharp claws scoring the iron bark to leave it horribly scarred.

The forest was far too dense at this point, for the snow to penetrate but the undergrowth was stiff and white with hoar frost. The creature skipped through the tangle of branches with ease, its blood red eyes dilated in the darkness; it padded swiftly traversing the forest floor, evading obstacles with an elastic agility and in no time reached the forest’s periphery, where it shuddered on stepping into the cold whiteness, then scrabbled, disgruntled after slipping on ice and sliding into a drift. It shook the snow from its pale naked body and loped, with ease, its instincts taking control as it felt the emptiness inside.

Soon it reached the outskirts of the village. It watched the smoke as it drifted from the cabins chimneys, all except one. Somehow the creature had known this and set off in the direction of that particular dwelling.  It circled the cabin, and sniffed the air carefully, before leaping and embedding its claws deep into the roof. When it felt secure it, padded gently up to the edge of the chimney and peered into the darkness. It sniffed and caught a whiff of acrid smoke from the dying embers, making it cough and sneeze, like a cat.

The creature frowned and licked its lips; it could smell plumpness, fat, ripe and delicious, waiting below. It slithered down the chimney, landing on the warm ash and squealed as it trod on a red hot ember.

Thomas woke startled by the noise; he was sat dozing, waiting in the children’s room, his axe across his lap. The Elders had always denied the stories, saying such things had never happened, yet since childhood he’d heard rumours, that if the gift didn’t satisfy the Red-man, then he would sometimes take all and this, he was determined, would not happen.

He could hear it now, scrabbling from the hearth, sniffling and snuffling as it searched. He knew it had caught the child’s scent. He’d left it sleeping, on the table in the cellar, bound hand and foot with red and green ribbons and anointed with oil as tradition dictated. Leaving the cellar door open, he’d retired to the children’s room with his axe.

He heard it slithering down the cellar stairs; it loped into the cellar, the short brown hairs on its body rising; the plumpness within reach. With a graceful leap it landed on the edge of the table and began to stroke the gift gently, for somewhere in the recesses of its mind, it had learnt and remembered, that this was called – gift. It sniffed then licked with its rough grey tongue, the warm sweet bundle, savouring the aroma that tickled its delicate nostrils. Then stretching its lower jaw wide, the creature revealed the long sharp barbs that were its teeth. The eyes of the child opened. On seeing the incomprehensible nightmare that looked down on it; the baby opened its own pink lips to scream but before it could the creature plunged expertly into the heart of the gift, ripping away the packaging, to play with the soft gelatinous contents inside the fleshy parcel. Gnashing and tearing it ripped the poor pink bundle apart to bathe in the scarlet slime of its innards, painting its own pale body red, as it ate with ecstatic relish, to chew and digest at leisure, each and every tender morsel. Thomas listened to the creature sucking on entrails, lapping at the red salty pools, as it dipped the delicate bones like bread in gravy. Petrified he sat there immobile – then silence, an age of silence. He strained to hear, even sense, any movement from the creature but - nothing. After what seemed like an eternity he crept to the doorway of the bedroom and peered out, axe in hand, shaking uncontrollably. What met his eyes was a scene of horror; red in tooth and claw, the monstrosity slithered from the cellar. Then standing upright, it belched provocatively. It was coated red from head to foot and left a slick wet trail on the floor behind itself. Its eyes met his and it waddled belligerently towards him, its belly distended.

He raised the axe, no longer caring what the village elders said about sacrifice for the common good or any of Shayla’s mumbo jumbo, this creature was not going to take the rest of his family, no matter what. He ran forward screaming and swung at the monstrosity but it slipped from beneath the blow with unexpected agility, the axe burying itself in the floor. Its mobility compromised, the creature headed, terror stricken for the fire place and disappeared, with difficulty, up the chimney. It could be heard flopping like a stranded fish on the roof. Then with a muffled plump, it landed in a snow drift outside and was gone.

Marie stood bleary-eyed in the doorway of the bedroom. She had lit the lantern. “What’s going on?” she said wearily. The children stood in the doorway of their room. “Was that really the Red-man?” the youngest asked, “Wow, he went up the chimney just like they say but look, he left presents under the tree!”

It was not yet dawn but the village was alive with the sound of children and the rip and rustle of tissue paper as presents were opened. “Come to bed darling.” said Marie, “it’ll be a long, busy day for us both, so come to bed and be thankful, for the village and its children are safe and we can all look forward to a prosperous year ahead.”

Thomas pulled the axe from the floor and put it away, then sighed as he went to bed. She was right and it had been a long night after all.

Somewhere, deep within the darkest forest of the Northlands, the creature, sated, satisfied, full and plumptious, curled itself up cosy and warm. It had felt slightly perturbed at the turn of events but they were soon forgotten, as it closed its eyes and prepared to sleep for another year. It snuggled beneath the detritus of dead things that would collect around a certain tree, in a wild and desolate forest. The creature smiled as it slipped into sleep and dreamed of future feasts, the forest quiet with only a pleasant and satisfied snore to be heard.        
 
 
Mike is a writer/artist based in the UK. His artwork has been exhibited in various galleries and he has written articles, stories and illustrated for various publishers including: Yellow Mama, Dark River Press, Black Petals, Tartarus Press, The Horrorzine and the BBC. He is currently working on his first novel. The magnificent depravity of his illustrative work can be experienced at: www.darkartgallery.com  <http://www.darkartgallery.com/>

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