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THE OFFICIAL SD EZINE Introduction by Steve Upham Christmas Overtime by Rhys Hughes Gifts by David A. Sutton Just For You by Gary Fry A Zombie is for Life, Not Just for Christmas by Bob Lock Behind the Devil's Mask by Charlotte Bond Candy Dish by John Grover A Sword of Ice-Brook Temper by James Bennett The Precious Mundanity by Rhys Hughes Some Holiday Cheer by Jane Frank The List by Marc-Anthony Taylor Crack'd by Lee Moan The Twelve Coats of Father Christmas by Michael Colangelo You'd Better Watch Out by Shaun Hamilton Home for Christmas by Hugh MacDonald Patent NonScience by Geoff Nelder Cold Caller by Paul Edwards Granma Haygoode and the Devil in Me by A. J. Brown Jimmy by David Gatward What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Andrew Marshall Not a Creature was Stirring by Shane McKenzie Terror on the Moors by David Riley Stale Air by Rhys Hughes Cover illustration Copyright Š Anne Stokes 2009 All content remains the Copyright of each contributor and must NOT be re-used without permission from the original Copyright holder(s). Thank you. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

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STEVE UPHAM

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any festive greetings to all Estronomicon readers. I hope that you have your Christmas shopping done and are currently wrapped up warm inside the house, ready to relax for the holiday season. Put your feet up, pour yourself some wine and read a good book or two (and this eZine of course!) Thank you for the excellent response to the call for Christmas submissions. In fact I received far too many stories in the end, so my apologies to those who didn’t make it into this issue. I enjoyed reading them all but I’m afraid I couldn’t include everything, so had to leave some out. As a special treat we have three (yes, three!) short stories from that elusive Welshman Rhys Hughes. I hope you will enjoy his usual blend of surreal wit! I’ve put one of his stories at the start, one towards the middle and one to finish off the issue at the end. Anne Stokes has once again kindly provided the stunning cover art. Thanks also to all the other artists who sent in their work, including David A. Hardy, Richard Bizley, Ben Baldwin, Matt Truiano and Stanley Morrison. I hope that 2010 will be a good year to us all. The three main dates for me are January (my next heart scan, so wish me luck!), the World Horror Convention in March (more news about this in the next issue) and of course FantasyCon in September. I hope to catch up with some of you at these events (not at the heart scan though, obviously!) Just a short intro as time is running out and I need to get this online. So I’ll leave you with the usual seasonal wishes...

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RHYS HUGHES

I

t is Christmas again, of course it is, and a full stop has been placed quite deliberately, like a glacĂŠ cherry, at the end of the year. This time, though, you are excluded from the festivities. You have lost the chance to eat, drink and make Mary. Christmas is red rotund, noble and inane, but you are not. You cannot spill the cream of indulgence down the shirt-front of success. You cannot laugh when neighbours toast your health with your own Malt. You cannot choke on the wishbone of convention. So now you decide to cut through the season with a serrated truth. You decide to fight back. There is no goodwill to all men, at least none without an ulterior motive, and you will tear away this canvas of delusion and expose the facts as they are, a process as painful as the breaking of a tooth on a sixpence concealed in a pudding. But how can you do it? Is there anything you can do? You ponder this over. Yes, there is one thing. There is one balloon you can burst before its time, one cracker you can defuse, one fairy light you can ground to coloured glass. His door is ajar. You peer through the crack. His eyes are open. They are large and moist and round. You almost falter before taking the fateful step, but then, sudden intoxicating courage overwhelming, you push forward. You enter without knocking. He turns towards you and smiles. There is unaffected joy in his smile. There is excitement intolerable. His stocking hangs large and empty. The tree in the corner winks its tiny lights. You are not what he is waiting for, but it is early yet. The hands of the clock pass very slowly. Good evening, you say, and the awkward pause threatens to drown your resolution, drown it in his large, moist, round eyes. But you are still drunk with purpose. So with a breath as deep as a snowdrift, you continue. There is no Father Christmas, you announce, savouring the effect of these negative words. There is no Father Christmas and no reindeer sleigh. There is no such bulky benefactor, and thus no -2-


RHYS HUGHES hand in a fur-trimmed glove to fill your stocking. And, of course, he bursts into tears. You are a liar, he wails, and yet as he voices these words, he knows in his heart that you are right and that his dreams are gossamer webs, baubles to be trampled underfoot, pine-needles to be shaken loose and swept away. And triumphant, you close the door and return to your desk, while the sobs of your boss echo through the deserted office. Copyright Š Rhys Hughes 2009

Rhys Hughes is one of the most prolific and successful authors in Wales, although his work has rarely been available in his own country. His earliest publications were chess problems and mathematical puzzles for newspapers. His first short story was published in 1992 and since then he has embarked on a project that involves writing exactly one thousand linked 'items' of fiction, including novels, to form a gigantic story cycle. Many of these individual items have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies around the world and his books are currently being translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian and Greek. Watch his blog at : http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com

The Postmodern Mariner by Rhys Hughes ISBN : 978-0-9555185-2-2 Paperback : 216x138mm : 160pp Cover artwork by Steve Upham A short book of implausible adventures featuring absurdities, anachronisms, exaggerations, outrageous puns, pirates, mythological beings, giant cups of tea and the occasional metafictional trick. More info HERE.

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FESTIVE IMAGES

Great Comet of 1843 : David A. Hardy 2009

www.astroart.org -4-


DAVID A. SUTTON

T

he woodsman shuffled frost off his shoulders and looked up at the night sky. Niklas watched a hoarfrost cloud-dagger drift across the face of the Moon. Earth’s companion was in its gibbous phase and, like him, it appeared deformed, thrown lumpish onto the black star field. A meteor grazed an arc of light as if to strike the wonky satellite, but its luminosity was lost in the Moon’s dazzling coronal glow; light that Niklas was pleased to have tonight. A snort brought him back from the heavens to his task tonight. He removed his sealskin mittens and immediately felt the seething cold snap at his fingertips. But he was unable to deal with the leather harness in heavy, restricting gloves. His fingers began to loop the leather straps to his sleigh. The two reindeer waited patiently, snorting great billows of heated air from their nostrils. In comparison Niklas’ own frosted breath came as small puffs of thin smoke. His fingers were starting to seize up and he redoubled his efforts to hitch up the reindeer. He moved from one side of the sleigh to the other, ducking under the beasts’ necks. He didn’t need to lower his head much with his four and a half feet of stature, but even so his long coat tails slithered through the soft snow, leaving a glistening skin of moon glowed stardust around the hem. Niklas checked the sleigh and the great leather sheet protecting its cargo. Underneath was piled high the limb-fall timber he had collected the last two days and many of the logs he had cut during autumn and dried out in shelters near his hut. Soon he needed to be on his way. The reindeer were ready and soon he would be too. He slid his sealskin gloves back over his bone hard fingers, pain coursing through them as warm blood was once more able to reach his fingertips. He rubbed mitten against mitten and clapped his hands. The reindeer snorted geysers of steam. The woodsman nimbly leapt onto the sleigh and the reins cracked in his hands as if they had been frozen stems of wood snapped by weight of snow. His two animals pulled and tugged and at first the sleigh dug its skids in; the snow was frozen glue gripping the smooth honed timbers in a vice that would perish flesh in an instant. But after a moment of inertia the reindeer had the upper hand and they were moving along, gathering speed beneath the cold cold light of the Moon. Niklas did not need to steer his beautiful beasts. They knew the way and they new where the road went even though there was no road to see beneath the drifting snow. Swathes of it came off the nearby trees, washing down as a -5-


DAVID A. SUTTON misty rain of frozen droplets. Soon the leather covering the sleigh was a white blanket; reindeer heads sported white caps; woodsman shivered as sprinkles of ice melted on the inside of his collar. “Well done, my girls,” Niklas cried as they swept across the icy terrain, veering away from great fallen trees and navigating around snow slumped into craters where hill turned into dale. The beasts snorted back at him in turn, as if to reply, “Thank you, Niklas, you are welcome!” The woodsman urged his beasts to ride faster, but with care. His cargo was precious. So precious. He must reach old Johan and his wife Ruta soon. They were well, but old, in their eighth decade. Their need for firewood was urgent and they might not survive the night without the replenished stocks of the woodsman. The temperature this winter was the coldest Niklas had ever known; without warmth old people would turn to ice sculptures in a minute with their thin skin and thinner blood. Niklas also thought about Katrikki. She was next on his delivery round. Her fire would need to burn bright and hot and welcoming as she lay before it while her midwife helped with the birth of her first child. Without Niklas’ wood the babe might not survive the night. Then there was Tuomas and Oskari. And Eeva who made beer and at her inn he would stop for a short while to replenish his strength with Eeva’s ale and her beautifully cooked fish. Her inn was a lifeline for travellers and the woodsman’s timber would be welcome there. Niklas has a soft spot for Eeva, but he did not think she had for him. After all, he was a lump like the gibbous moon, hunched and small. And not too pretty either. Niklas was thinking sad thoughts and happy thoughts at the same time when he realised that he was hearing something in the distance. The snort of the reindeer and the slithering of the sleds couldn’t completely mask it, but he turned his head towards the sound. He could not imagine a church bell ringing at this late hour of the night, but ring the bell did, a cold clang as if from another time. His beasts seemed to move faster with the tolling, they moved towards the sound, if reluctantly. Faster they raced and Niklas sensed his sleigh lifting as if it were flying. The reindeers’ hooves hardly appeared to dent the snow. And the landscape, lit by cold moonlight, was somehow magically changed. “No, my great girls – tonight is not for prayer! Away, away to our deliveries!” Niklas shouted. But truth to tell, Niklas was confused in the murk of snowdrift -6-


DAVID A. SUTTON from overarching branches. He was unsure if his beasts had diverted from the correct trail. He cracked the reins and they snapped like the frozen saplings beneath his sleigh. The reindeer slowed and stopped, and the bell stopped its tolling. It was then that Niklas realised that he was nowhere near his church anyway. The countryside, limned by silvery light, was familiar, yet not. The church was not to be seen. Around about him trees arched weighted limbs and thin skeletal fingers tipped with snow. A snow-capped boulder to his left was an unfamiliar marker. He was no longer on the road to old Johan and Ruta. The bitter air was turning his brain sluggish and addled. He was about to urge his beasts onward when a man stepped out into the snow drift. The reindeer snorted, startled. Their eyes displayed white snow crescents. Niklas shivered and he gripped his reins tighter. The moon glow glistened diamonds across the snow drift and a breeze whipped up a flurry as the man, a big man, stepped forward into the moon’s light. “Hallo,” Niklas stuttered. His voice stirred a clapper in an invisible bell and it resonated with a metallic echo. Where was he? The big man stood like a ghost in the snow. He wore a dark blood-red leather coat trimmed with the yellow fur of the snow bear from up north. A wide belt with a grey metal buckle gripped his waist beneath it. The belt was not leather, but some curious fabric Niklas had never seen before. And the buckle’s emblem was peculiar too, not the decorative sigils his folk were accustomed to wear. “I need.” the stranger spoke and it came out a puffy, snowy white bellow from a within a bushy beard. “I need a favour, friend.” The man’s accent was strange. He was a foreigner, even though he spoke Niklas’ tongue. The big man would add weight to the sleigh, Niklas thought, but he would not leave a man out on foot in this winter night, despite the urgency of his deliveries. The man would slow things down but… “Climb on, friend,” Niklas shivered. “I cannot offer you shelter yet, for I am a woodsman delivering for the hearth. I must complete my task within a couple of Moon hours…” “Stay your prattle,” the stranger said harshly. “It is your sleigh I need, not your company!” -7-


DAVID A. SUTTON A slow silence billowed as big as the huge puff of ice-whitened breath from the big man’s beard. The reindeer shifted their feet, scuffing snow silently. Niklas thought he could hear the leather traces snick as they began to freeze from inaction. He realised he was holding his breath. In the woods, at night, in winter, the woodsman had much to fear. The cold could turn a man, falsify his emotions and his feelings. The cold could make you feel warm and drowsy; lying down in the snow field could seem to be welcoming. Then… you didn’t wake up the next morning. And at night, in winter there were wolves on the prowl. Their regular prey was harder to track and kill. A man, especially a short man like himself, might see the glowing eyes of a pack at his heels and struggling through snowdrifts would be painfully slow. The wolves would find such a man an easier meal than deer or hare or grouse. Yet Niklas, at that moment, had less fear of the cold and the wolves than of this big stranger, who seemed no friend at all. He finally let out his breath and gasped in a fresh chill one. The twin bags of freezing air in his chest inflated and so too did his resolve. “Stranger, you must be in a great hurry and if there is an errand of mercy I will help, but know that I too am on an errand of importance. Kinfolk may die should my deliveries fail.” The stranger’s eyes glinted with a ferocious anger in the moon light. “What care I for your Kinfolk. I have a delivery too and mine is of the most enormity, the gravity of nation against nation.” The big man moved behind the rock from which he had appeared and with some difficulty dragged forth a long wooden box, like a coffin, bound with metal clasps and with rope handles. Apart from its unusual design, Niklas felt sure it was, indeed, a coffin. “Your sleigh will carry this swiftly to my comrades,” the big man continued. Niklas bridled at the stranger’s discourteous attitude, but tried to hold his tongue. He needed to be on his way, and soon. He thought about a way he might deflect the stranger’s insistence, but could think of nothing quickly. He wondered what might be in the box that was so important, if not a body. In this freezing winter there was little for folk to do than hunt and keep warm, and perhaps bury their dead. “Your coffin is important to you, that I can see,” Niklas replied. “Yet surely the advance of daylight will not be too late for its interment? My work must be -8-


DAVID A. SUTTON accomplished while the moon still sways in the heaven and the sun still sleeps under the world.” A breeze stirred soft snow across Niklas’ face and over the sleigh and a shiver of cold coursed through him. The big man was tipping the box on end as if readying to lift it upon the sleigh. The reindeer shuffled nervously, anxious to be on the move. The stranger’s silence unnerved Niklas. “Have you lost your ears, friend?” He tried to sound jocular. “Daylight will do for that coffin; the occupant can surely have no opinion either way. Leave it hidden in the snow. I will come back this way at dawn and we will collect it.” The stranger swirled around, his red leather coat with its wide snow bear trim flicking particles of wet snow in all directions. Beneath his coat the man wore thick mottled green clothing and Niklas again noticed the strange belt, and attached to it a leather carrying case with a curious contraption tucked into it, a weapon, but like nothing in Niklas’ experience. The woodsman did not recognise anything about this man, other than he had a military bearing about him. “You have travelled far… you are not of this country?” Niklas said. “Our customs… you are unfamiliar with them –” “Not this country, dwarf, no!” The big man bellowed. “But it is you, friend, who are out of place. There is no place for you in this land. It will be a mercy to deal with you now and take your sleigh.” With that he jumped up, startling the reindeer into leaping forward. Niklas toppled to one side and fell heavily into the snow beside the coffin. In an instant the stranger had him by the throat. “And this is no coffin, you oaf.” His strong fingers began to tighten and cut off Niklas’ breath. He attempted to choke out some words, but failed. Niklas struggled frantically beneath the big man, but he was much heavier and more agile. Niklas kicked his legs and attempted to knee his assailant in the groin, to no avail. The stranger’s legs entangled his and immobilised them. He scrabbled with ineffectual mittens at the big man’s hands around his neck, unable to find a grip. As the pain in his chest convulsed him and his eyes dimmed, he felt a great regret. His kinfolk would be denied his deliveries and they would be left to the unforgiving elements, perhaps thinking that Niklas had abandoned them. -9-


DAVID A. SUTTON When he could no longer draw any breath, the pain of the stranger’s fingers on his neck eased and a warm glow began to infuse him. He was dying. And he wondered why had this stranger told him this was not his land, for surely it was. Yet he felt again that sense of being in an unknown place, as if he had drifted with the snow along a stream of time that was not his own. A small spark of life was still there, but only just. The stranger now fully released his grip on Niklas’ neck and grabbed his hair as if to drag him away. And as his body turned over in the snow, he was able to indistinctly see the very neatly drawn lettering on the coffin. It was not quite what he expected to see, but it made some kind of sense, for there was the age and the initials of the deceased, he imagined, and the year. And Niklas new that this was the very last thing his dying eyes would ever see… ‘Qty: 20: A.K 47’. Copyright © David A. Sutton 2009

David’s short stories have appeared in a number of periodicals and anthologies, including Skeleton Crew, Beyond, Kimota, Best New Horror 2 and 7, Final Shadows, Cold Fear, Taste of Fear, The Mammoth Book of Zombies, The Mammoth Book of Werewolves, The New Lovecraft Circle, Shadows Over Innsmouth, The Merlin Chronicles, Beneath the Ground and When Graveyards Yawn. Plus more recent short story appearances in the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 19, The Fisherman published as a chapbook by Gothic Press, and stories in The Fourth Black Book of Horror and Subtle Edens. He lives in Birmingham from where he regularly rambles through the surrounding hills, woodland, countryside and mud. When not poring over Ordnance Survey maps he is working on a batch of new short stories. His debut collection, originally published by Crowswing Books (now re-issued by Screaming Dreams), is Clinically Dead & Other Tales of the Supernatural. David's homepage : uk.geocities.com/david.sutton986@btinternet.com David's blog : http://davidasutton.blogspot.com

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GARY FRY

T

he box was delivered on Christmas Eve. Mrs Jenkins – the old lady who lived in the ground floor flat; one of the few people in his life he’d yet to offend – had obviously signed the courier’s paperwork and left the box in the lobby for him to find after returning from the DHSS. It was square, waist-high and the length of an adult’s arm. God knows how he managed to get it upstairs to his flat. Since the divorce and losing his job, he hadn’t exactly been following a healthy diet, and already the effects were telling. His hangover seemed to be rendering the box double its weight; surely it was actually no heavier than a…a child. He crushed that thought in its mutinous cradle, and then proceeded to shuffle the delivery into his single room. Of course he hadn’t read the address label yet – that was another process which would bring back too much of his treacherous past. Once he’d set the box in the middle of his mismanaged hovel, he went to the window to close the curtains against a snowy sky. Everything seemed to be against him today: the woman behind the benefits counter had reminded him of his mother; the driver of the bus home had been not unlike his father. Still, by avoiding the high streets and its clusters of giddy shoppers, he at least hadn’t seen any little girls… He poured himself a supermarket-brand scotch, a double-double, and then squatted in front of the box. Feeble light from his cheap bulbs cast a supernatural sheen upon the taped-down lids of the thing. But here was the label; it bore familiar spiky handwriting. And at once, with the power of the alcohol unleashing so many emotional recollections, he was back at home.

“Ha! Billy can’t spell ‘Claus’, Mummy! Look, he’s spelt it C-L-A-W-S! As if Santa’s an animal!” “He is, and he’s coming for you tonight,” replied Billy with audible spite. “He’ll crawl in through your bedroom window and do horrible things to you.” “I’ll do them to both of you if you don’t stop squabbling,” said Daddy from his armchair, and it was left to Mummy to calm everyone down. She offered Billy a sympathetic look – it was the two of them alone who’d dealt with his problem at school – and then switched her gaze to Helen. “Don’t tease your brother,” Mummy said, before stooping from the couch to - 11 -


GARY FRY pick up the letter Billy had been struggling with. “That’s pretty good so far,” she added, having read it at a glance. “Now let’s see if you can finish it by yourself.” “That’s not fair!” replied Helen, gripping her own letter, which would be as immaculate as her schoolwork always was. “He said a nasty thing to me, too. I’m…I’m scared to go upstairs now.” “Don’t be silly, Helen,” said Daddy once he’d poked his head from behind his evening newspaper. “And turn that fire down! I know it’s cold, but money doesn’t grow on trees!” Billy’s sister did as she’d been bidden – the bars on the electric grill lost a little of their fierce expression – and then turned back to confront her younger brother. “I might be scared, but at least I’m not dis…dis…dyspeptic.” Mummy laughed involuntarily, and the stark silence after this noise was more noticeable because the fire wasn’t hissing as loudly now. The ensuing shuffling sound must have been just echoes of their activity in the cooling lounge. It was ice-cold outside, true Christmas Eve weather. Surely only a lunatic would be out tonight. “I think it’s time for bed, you two,” Daddy announced quite suddenly. “Santa Claus won’t come if you’re still awake.” “I haven’t even finished my letter to him yet.” “Billy, if we wait for that, he won’t come till we’re both Mummy and Daddy’s age!” “Helen, please,” Mummy cut in, and then addressed the boy. “Billy, come along, hurry up. If you want to leave your letter with your sister’s, then you’ll have to be quick. I’ll help if you like.” “But it won’t work that way, Mummy!” Helen told them. “Whatever you ask for has got to be a secret.” Billy knew that his sister was trying to make this task as difficult as possible for him. She understood that he suffered from something called ‘dyslexia’, even if she couldn’t even say it properly. And he hated her for this – not always and forever; no, not that badly. But just then, he thought he’d like to make her at least cry a bit. As he fiddled with a pen and the half-written letter (‘Deer Santa Claws, Waht I want four Xmas is’ was as far as he’d got), he tried to buy some time by - 12 -


GARY FRY asking, “What I don’t see is how Santa can get into our house anyway.” “What do you mean?” asked Daddy, perhaps because he worked with houses all day and he was now interested. “Well, we don’t even have a chimney,” Billy added, and hoped the comment would make one or both of his parents proud of him. But then Helen typically spoilt it all. “Hey, maybe you’re right: maybe he does come in through the window.” She turned to Mummy. “I wouldn’t like that! I mean, I know he likes children, but…but…” “Scaredy cat.” “Shut up, Billy! I hate you!” Daddy had finally had enough of them. “Right, that’s it! Billy, finish your letter, and then both of you go to bed!” At the moment Billy hated his sister right back. In fact he was so shocked and hurt by Daddy’s violent exclamation that the only way he could think of getting rid of these feelings was to write down something nasty. So he did. To ‘Deer Santa Claws, Waht I want four Xmas is’, he added, ‘four you to mayke Helen go’ – but then he hesitated. “Mummy, how do you spell ‘away’?” “How do you mean? ‘Away’ as in ‘go away’ or ‘a way’ as in a path to take?” “The first one,” Billy replied. Suddenly Helen was singing, “Hey, you, go away, come back another day…” And Billy couldn’t decide whether she was referring to him or to Santa Claus. All he knew was that her constant repetition of this line broke his concentration, making him all the more determined to finish what he’d started. Indeed, as Mummy spelt out the word he needed, he carved it satisfyingly onto the sheet, before folding this and adding it to the other. Now, ready for bed, he could tolerate his sister’s irritating goading. And as they traipsed upstairs to their separate bedrooms, he thought: Christmas is a time for wishes to come true… The handwriting on the box’s label was of course Helen’s. In all the years since her disappearance, he’d deliberately committed to memory as much of her as he could: the way she’d moved her small body, the things she’d said a lot, and other stuff such as this – her handwriting. He’d been seven-years-old when it had happened. Perhaps the many - 13 -


GARY FRY developmental changes which accompanied growing up had distorted his recollections, making him remember things which had never been the case; maybe this handwriting wasn’t hers, after all. However, he saw now in his mind’s eye her tiny form rising from the carpet in front of that old electric fire they’d had in their home, and it was surely more than the snow tapping against his window here in the flat which caused him to hear delicate, singsong words in his head: “Hey, you, go away, come back another day...” He glanced at the box. The past wasn’t done with him yet. The following morning – Christmas Day – Helen hadn’t come downstairs to open her presents. Santa had been; there on the lounge carpet, between the couch and Daddy’s armchair, were two stacks of gifts, one papered in blue (for Billy), and the other in pink (for his sister). But even after both of his parents had joined him, Helen didn’t appear. Mummy had said something like, “I’ll go and rouse her. Maybe all the excitement last night made her tired… But it’s most unlike her – she’s normally the first up among us all.” Just then, Billy had been too excited to pay the problem much attention. He’d immediately ripped open the largest of his several boxes, and removed a miniature toolset just like Daddy’s bigger one at work. “Now you can get practising,” Daddy had told him. “God knows, when you grow up you’ll need a trade. Houses and cars and families don’t pay for themselves, you know.” And that was when Mummy had screamed from upstairs. The two of them had rushed at once to join her, before seeing exactly what had prompted her terrified exclamation. Helen’s bed was empty, the sheets drawn back in a confused huddle. It was also very cold in the girl’s bedroom, and it was soon apparent why: the window was open; snow had gusted inside, a little spray of it settled on the inner sill. Daddy had rushed back downstairs to call the police instantly, while Mummy had collapsed in a heap on the landing floor. Only Billy had remained in his sister’s room, the better to edge across the carpet and view what was wrong with the window frame. - 14 -


GARY FRY There’d been scratch-marks in the wood, as if someone had prised it open in a brutal manner. And then suddenly all he could think about was what had happened the night before: Helen’s fear, his own question about how Santa managed to get into a house without a chimney, and finally, worst of all, his incorrect spelling of the big man’s surname: CLAWS. Billy had looked again at the gouges in the frame…and had then fallen away in a dead faint. After he’d located a knife among the detritus on his flat’s floor, he started to cut the tape which held down the box’s lid. There would be more of this tomorrow, he reflected; he supposed he should make the effort to traipse across to Wendy’s house and see, if not her and her new bloke, then at least the kids. But what would be his reception after all his unruly behaviour recently, after he’d learned about the man who’d been set free from prison…? He continued to slice at the tape. It seemed to give eagerly, as if threatening to unleash more than whatever of its contents had ‘come back’. Indeed, as the cardboard lids soon sprung free, more of his memories lurched up to envelop him. A few months after that most terrible Christmas of all, the police had tracked down a man who’d developed a pathology characterised by a penchant for stealing into the bedrooms of little girls, threatening them with a sizeable razorblade, then abducting them, taking them back to his grotty, singletenanted bed-sit, performing God-alone-knew-what heinous acts, and then getting rid of the bodies. Billy hadn’t learned about any of this until he was a teenager and had been old enough to understand it. The facts had come to him by gradual increments: at around eight-years-old, an understanding that Santa Claus didn’t actually exist; by ten, an appreciation that not all adults could be trusted; at twelve, the knowledge that life was really quite un-mysterious, un-magical; and then during early puberty, the full facts of the case. His parents, shattered people who’d campaigned long and hard for sterner sentences for such despicable criminals, had shielded Billy from the great majority of the event: media interest, legal developments, even teasing at - 15 -


GARY FRY school. Then they’d just kind of given up together, divorcing when he was sixteen. Still, Billy had managed to get on with his life: a job in a furniture manufacturing company, before promotion to management in his midtwenties. Meanwhile, he’d married, had two children, bought a house…and had always kept his nebulous demons at bay with copious helpings of booze. It wasn’t that he really believed in any of what he’d imagined as a child. Yes, his sister had disappeared, and for a while he’d felt guilty (that letter, that letter), but at a rational level, as his memories stirred and adjusted over the years which passed far too quickly, he’d understood that Helen had been a victim of a very human crime. No, Santa Claus (Claws) didn’t exist, but evil men did, and his sister had suffered the mercifully rare yet grave misfortune of attracting the interest of one of these vile individuals. Not that the authorities had ever found her body. However, DNA matching that taken from saliva on her toothbrush in Billy’s childhood home had confirmed the location of what were almost certainly her final days: the killer’s bed-sit, to suffer incomprehensibly. Maybe having kids of his own had tipped Billy over the brink. He hadn’t been able to let them out of sight, had suffocated them, especially after hearing the news that having endured a twenty-year sentence with repentant behaviour, the man who’d caused all the horror had been released. Billy had wanted to rip his face off. This anger had slipped over into his domestic duties. He hadn’t told Wendy about his past, no way – in fact he hadn’t told anyone. And that was probably why his marriage had failed. Wasn’t it? Whatever pain it caused you, life made sense; it did. Didn’t it? Billy sat in front of the box, his mind full of spirits in every sense; the whole of the glass of scotch was gone. His memories pitched and lurched, blended together like potion ingredients. The chill from the window grew intolerable, while Christmas snow whispered busily at its pane. He set aside the knife and the empty glass. Gripped both lids and tugged. There were two inner flaps: he did the same to these, too. The thing inside moved before he did. Billy wasn’t the guilty party, but try telling the thing that. Perhaps it still thought like a child. As it rose to its natural height – only as tall as Billy seated on the floor, as tall as a child – he recognised - 16 -


GARY FRY its posture, then its demeanour, and finally its voice. It was his sister…only it wasn’t. It was dressed in a miniature Santa Claus outfit. In one girlish hand, the figure held a crumpled note – surely Billy’s secret wish – while in the other, it clutched…not razorblades; there were too many of them. In fact these were the thing’s fingernails – no, its claws. Then it was saying again, “Come back another day,” though its voice was still muffled, because the pale, dead flesh of the man that Billy knew so well by sight – the pervert; the perpetrator – had been carved off its owner’s head to make a facemask, through whose ragged sockets glistening eyeballs now caught in the naked light, a pink-rotted tongue poked like a living thing, and no air whatsoever was passing. Billy jerked back. “Hey, little brother,” said the Helen-thing as it slashed with its fistful of nightmares, “I can spell ‘the end’ – just for you!” Copyright © Gary Fry 2009

Gary Fry has a first-class degree and a PhD in psychology, though his first love is literature. He has been writing seriously for around five years, despite dabbling with prose since his teens. His first sale was rather a grand one: a short story, Both And, to Ramsey Campbell for inclusion in the international anthology Gathering the Bones. Since then, he has placed tales in innumerable outlets, including the Arkham House collection Evermore, the nationally distributed US magazine Brutarian Quarterly, the Cemetery Dance anthology British Invasion, and lots of others. His first collection The Impelled And Other Head Trips (Crowswing; 2006) included an introduction by Ramsey Campbell in which Gary was described as a "master". His second collection World Wide Web and Other Lovecraftian Upgrades (Humdrumming; introduction by Mark Morris) came out in 2007, and his third Sanity and Other Delusions: Tales of Psychological Horror (PS Publishing; introduction by Stephen Volk) is out now. His first novel, The House Of Canted Steps, will be published by PS Publishing in 2010. Gary also runs Gray Friar Press at : www.grayfriarpress.com - 17 -


FESTIVE IMAGES

Christmas Tree on the Moon : Richard Bizley 2009

www.bizleyart.com - 18 -


BOB LOCK

Christmas Eve 2050

D

ouglas hoped the smell would abate. They told him there would be no smell, but upon opening the caravan door the hint of decayed flesh caressed his nostrils like Claire’s hand used to caress his neck, lightly, fleetingly. Now she very rarely touched him at all, he hoped this Christmas present would re-kindle the spark between them; after all, it had cost him all of his savings. It was a basic model, Douglas couldn’t afford the top of the range one, but he had an idea on how to upgrade it. He just hoped the smell was from something other than the zombie, covered in the gaily-printed sheets of Christmas wrapping paper, which he had hidden in there from her prying eyes. Claire was a hard person to buy presents for, and also an impatient person, who would turn the house upside down as soon as she had a suspicion that something had been hid away and was not meant to be found until Christmas morning. The caravan had been an ideal place. Its floor had long ago rotted away making it impossible to tow and now it resided down the bottom of his water-logged garden as a storage area for tools, the redundant lawnmower and an expensive un-dead person. Douglas sniffed the zombie covered in the blue and silver paper with Rudolph pulling an obese man in a white beard and red suit. By now his sense of smell had become accustomed to the aroma in the interior of the caravan and he shrugged, perhaps it wasn’t as bad as he first thought. They had told him that the plasticised coating, which covered the un-dead man from top to bottom, would contain any flaky piece of skin, any bodily fluid and any smell. There was no chance of contracting the plague from one of them by transference of bodily matter. They were encased in an impermeable covering, nothing got in and nothing got out. The only thing that - 19 -


BOB LOCK was deadly was their mouth and the collar made sure that stayed closed until they needed nourishment. He checked the flesh-plant growing in the terracotta pot and was pleased to see it had already sprouted two elongated orbs of fruit. They looked a little like an aubergine but were red, veined and were genespliced... with human flesh. It was what all the un-dead were fed on, unless of course they were not collared. Then they reverted back to their natural state. They fed on humans. When the plague had started in 2010 by the opening of a strange tomb deep in The Valley Of The Kings in Egypt, no one realised it would become a pandemic and spread like wildfire around the world. By 2012 humankind was on the threshold of extinction and most of the world’s animal population had already gone the way of the Dodo, only insects seemed untouched by the rampant disease. In 2015 a researcher named Campbell invented a sophisticated collar which, when attached around the neck of an un-dead, inhibited their desire to eat human flesh and also augmented their shrivelled brain by clever electronics which allowed them to understand and obey simple commands. Built into the collar, Campbell’s collar, was a fail-safe device, an explosive charge which would decapitate the wearer should things go awry. Very few people had found it necessary to activate, as the collar had proved to be extremely reliable. In its basic form, such as the one Douglas’s zombie wore, the wearer could only follow rudimentary commands such as, stand, sit, walk, carry, and wash the dishes. However, Douglas was something of a geek and was about to turn his un-dead servant into a super-zombie. The World Wide Web had been one of the first things that humankind had restored to functionality once the zombie threat had been surmounted. Internet connection was something that had the highest priority; it allowed planet-wide communication and exchange of information on how best to combat the undead nuisance. It also supplied clandestine programs, to those who knew how to obtain them, such as Douglas, to upgrade the Campbell collars and make your particular zombie servant into something much more than just a walking mannequin. Douglas powered up his net-book and pulled out its usb5 connection, tore a small hole in the wrapping paper, just enough to expose the area of the collar into which he plugged the lead. He’d been downloading applications from the torrent sites for a week and had garnered quite a variety of programs to upload to Reeves. He’d decided to call his zombie Reeves after - 20 -


BOB LOCK watching a few online videos of a film-star from the early part of the millennium named Keanu, who, he surmised, might have been one of the first infected. He started the upgrade and watched carefully as the new information flowed into the collar. Reeves’s eyes turned to stare at him and as time passed Douglas felt sure an intelligence, that wasn’t there before, began to make itself known. When the download was complete Douglas disconnected the usb5 and closed the net-book. He withdrew a cheap watch from his pocket and undoing the paper from around Reeves’s arm fixed it upon the cold flesh of the zombie’s wrist. ‘What time is it?’ Douglas asked. Reeves’s lifted his wrist to his eyes with a crackling of wrapping paper and stared at the watch. ‘NNntwoo tthhirty,’ Reeves’s replied with some difficulty as the zombie’s vocal chords were hardly ever used and were more than likely atrophied. Douglas beamed. ‘Well done, Reeves. Oh, yes, your name is Reeves. Do you understand?’ Reeves nodded in reply. ‘Good, now, tomorrow morning at nine I want you to stand outside the patio door to the conservatory and when my wife Claire opens the blinds I want you to bow and wish her Merry Christmas, okay?’ The un-dead man nodded again. ‘Great, then we’re booked in for Christmas dinner at the Royal Oak, just outside the town; the appointment is for one thirty so you’ll need to have the car around the front of the house waiting ready for us. Check your programming; have you assimilated the driving program?’ Douglas asked and smiled when Reeves nodded yet again. ‘Good work. What about the satellite navigation, has that come online too?’ Reeves said. ‘YYyess.’ As the collar latched onto four satellites and gave him the position in which he and Douglas stood. A virtual map of the area and of the route to the Royal Oak formed in his macerated brain and electronic collar. ‘Okay, see you in the morning,’ Douglas said as he left and closed the caravan door. As he squelched his way back to the house over his flooded garden he began to plan how he’d get Reeves to build a protecting wall to help combat the ingress of water from the swollen river, he was fed-up of the mess. ‘If I drive you can have a few drinks,’ Claire said at eight fifty the following - 21 -


BOB LOCK morning, Christmas morning. ‘I don’t mind not drinking... again.’ They were having breakfast in the conservatory. It had rained overnight once more and Douglas guessed that Reeves would be full of mud by the time he crossed the garden. Never mind, he wouldn’t catch cold. He smiled to himself. Claire narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you grinning at?’ she asked. He looked at his watch. Almost time. He took a sip of tea and shrugged. ‘Oh, nothing.’ ‘You’ve got that look about you,’ she said. ‘The look when you’ve done something you’re proud about but which usually turns out to be a catastrophe. Like when you tried to put in a loft conversion last Christmas and we had to have the ceiling repaired when you fell through it. What have you done?’ He raised his hands. ‘I haven’t done anything, honest.’ She frowned. ‘Hmm...’ then she asked, ‘when are you going to give me my presents?’ Douglas looked at his watch. ‘Presents?’ he asked. ‘You know I couldn’t afford presents this year. I’ve bought you one present.’ ‘One?’ she asked as a knock came to the patio door. ‘Who in goodness’s’ name is that at this time of the morning?’ she said as she went to the blinds and pulled them apart. ‘Dear lord!’ she gasped as she looked through the pane of glass at a man-shaped Christmas parcel which stood sopping wet just outside. The figure bowed from the waist, the wrapping paper tore and fell from it and then it stood up and spoke. ‘Mmmerry Ccchrisstmas, Cllaire,’ Reeves managed to grate out. ‘What the hell?’ she said turning to Douglas. ‘It’s our own un-dead servant. He can do almost anything, watch,’ Douglas said and instructed Reeves to come in, tidy away the breakfast and do the dishes. The zombie did so. ‘But they cost a fortune!’ Claire declared. ‘Yes, but you’re worth it, my love,’ Douglas replied. She caressed his neck lightly and kissed him. ‘My present seems inadequate now, compared to that,’ she nodded towards Reeves who was doing the dishes and then she gave Douglas his bottle of twelve-year-old whisky. ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ Douglas replied as she kissed him again.

- 22 -


BOB LOCK ‘It can drive too?’ Claire asked as Douglas opened the back door of their car and helped her in before sitting next to her. ‘Of course,’ Douglas answered smugly. ‘Reeves has lots of applications and plenty of room in his memory banks for more.’ ‘But even the basic model is so very expensive, how much did this one cost!’ ‘Doesn’t matter, my darling. You’re worth every penny,’ Douglas replied and then said. ‘Okay, Reeves, off to the Royal Oak, take the shortest route, I’m starving.’ He put his arm around Claire and they kissed as if they were teenagers again on the back seat of their car. They were still kissing when Reeves drove the car off the end of the derelict bridge. The bridge that had been destroyed in a flood five years previously, but still showed up as intact on his out-of-date satellite navigation system that Douglas had pirated. As the car sank in the deep river, and all the electrics shorted, trapping them inside, Reeves looked at the couple drowning in the back of the car, but without receiving any instructions from them he just sat impassively as the water went over their heads. Perhaps he should have opened the door and left them there. But a zombie is for life, and not just for Christmas. Copyright © Bob Lock 2009

Bob Lock is a Gower born Welshman, married with two grown-up children and two grand-children. After taking early retirement he now spends his time writing. In 2007 Screaming Dreams published his debut novel Flames of Herakleitos, which can be found HERE. Watch out for his new novella The Empathy Effect, due out in 2010. Visit Bob’s main website at : www.scifi-tales.com For the latest news check out his blog : http://bob-lock.blogspot.com

- 23 -


CHARLOTTE BOND Let her go ahead Take his love instead And one day she will see Just how to say please And get down on her knees. Yeah, that’s how it begins. (“Needles & Pins”, The Searchers)

H

ow it began for Doug was in a bar over a glass of cheap whiskey. His father had always said that a refined gentleman drinks his whiskey with ice and a dash of soda. Drinking it neat was Doug’s first small rebellion, and the habit had stuck. The whiskey burned his throat, as if he had swallowed pungent fire. Doug resisted the urge to cough. The blonde barmaid in the tight t-shirt had been watching him for about half an hour and he didn’t want to spoil his otherwise brooding macho image by spluttering over his liquor. Trying to avoid meeting her gaze until his throat had stopped constricting, Doug glanced at the bar in front of him. Someone had taken the time to twine tinsel between the rows of bottles. It sparkled beneath the winking fairy lights that had been pinned along the edge of the topmost shelf. All the colours of Christmas were reflected within the multicoloured spirits which lined the bar. The sight made Doug’s head hurt. Turning to look out of the window instead, he felt the gut-cramping ache of loneliness as he saw a pair of lovers walk by. They wore matching scarves and were laughing whilst never looking away from each other’s eyes. ‘Picture bloody perfect,’ muttered Doug, hastily looking away in case the tears started to cloud his vision again. He caught the barmaid’s attention and held his glass aloft, unaware that his arm was swaying unsteadily. ‘Another one,’ he said, pushing it towards her. She pursed her lipstick-pink lips and frowned. ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough, sir?’ she asked. Her voice was light but sounded forced, even to drunken Doug. ‘Don’t you think you ought to do what you’re damn well told?’ he said, almost in a snarl. ‘I pretty much pay your wages. If I don’t buy drink – you don’t get paid. So how about pouring me another one, darling?’ - 24 -


CHARLOTTE BOND Doug did not fail to see the questioning look that the girl sent to a man standing at the end of the bar, nor did he miss the nod which the man gave her before she filled up his glass again. Reaching in his pocket, Doug poured some coins on the bar in front of him. With a long-suffering sigh, the girl picked out the right change and stalked off. Missed my chance there, Doug thought wryly. Not that she’s really my type. After all, she’s not – He squeezed his eyes tight shut, stopping the thought before it could finish. Stopping his mind from saying her name – Rachel. There was a whole world of pain and longing that would cascade over him if he dared himself to say, or even think, her name. A clipped but genteel voice on his right cut through his thoughts. ‘Wait – I’ll have one too, if you don’t mind, my girl.’ Doug opened his eyes, blinking somewhat blearily and peered at the stranger who had taken the seat next to him. The man wore a long black coat that hung beautifully from his broad shoulders, tailored to hug the top of his toned chest. He wore a black shirt, immaculately ironed, and a tie of such deep red that it almost seemed black itself. Doug’s gaze travelled all the way down to the man’s highly buffed black shoes and back up to his face. His eyes were dark, his hair well groomed into a rakish style and his chin beautifully chiselled. ‘Thank you,’ said the man when the barmaid had poured his drink. His lips parted to show shining white teeth in a dazzling smile. The young girl returned the smile coquettishly and Doug felt a small burn of jealousy at this man’s easy and charming manner. As the barmaid sauntered away with a definite swing in her hips, Doug realised that the bad taste on his tongue was not whiskey but envy. He felt angry at himself for such puerile thoughts, and he made an effort towards conversation to assuage his shame. ‘It’s bad. Really bad,’ Doug said gesturing to the whiskey the man was raising to his lips. The man looked at him, intently but with a grin. ‘Just the way I like it,’ he replied before knocking it back in one. He smacked his lips then stood up on his bar stool, reached over the bar and picked up one of the whiskey bottles which lined the bottom shelf. Doug stared aghast as the man poured himself another glass, filling it right to the very top. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the man, turning to Doug with a look of concern. ‘How very - 25 -


CHARLOTTE BOND rude of me not to offer you a drink as well. Would you care to join me?’ Doug glanced round but the barmaid had moved to the other end of the bar. She and her boss were intently focussed on the content of the till, oblivious to the man’s misdemeanour. ‘Why not?’ Doug said, holding his glass out. A warm feeling of comradeship chased away his envy as the man fill his glass to the brim like his own. ‘By the way, I’m Doug,’ he added as he carefully moved the overflowing glass to his lips. ‘Drake,’ replied the man. The burn of the whiskey couldn’t chase away the sudden chill that Doug felt running through his blood as the man spoke his name. He looked again at his new companion – nothing was different. The man’s eyes still sparkled, his lips still held the twinge of a smile and his body spoke of easy grace. It wasn’t the name that disturbed Doug, it was the way the man had said it. ‘Is there a problem?’ asked Drake raising an eyebrow. ‘You look a little pale, my friend.’ ‘Nothing,’ mumbled Doug, not really sure himself why the name had made his veins feel like icicles. ‘I must admit, I find this time of year so tiresome,’ said Drake with a sigh. He drew his arm in a wide gesture which took in all the gaudy decorations from the thick twinkling tinsel to the twirling glitter balls suspended from the ceiling and the speakers which were swathed in ribbons and hummed with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean,’ replied Doug. His momentary chill passed and virtually forgotten, he was savouring the drink before him. It appeared that when Drake stole whiskey, he stole the good whiskey. ‘Still,’ added Drake, sipping from his own glass, ‘I suppose it’s a time for families, for goodwill to all men. A time for togetherness as the card industry would have us believe.’ Drake turned as Doug coughed and made a small choking noise. ‘Oh, I’m sorry – I appear to have said the wrong thing.’ ‘Goodwill to all men?’ growled Doug, a bitter taste spreading through his mouth. Anger and regret were creeping through him. ‘I can think of at least one person who disregarded that when she tore out my still beating heart.’ ‘Ouch,’ said Drake, wincing as if he had actually witnessed such an event. ‘I’m sorry, mate. What happened?’ - 26 -


CHARLOTTE BOND ‘Paul happened.’ Doug spat the name as if it was the cause of the bitterness on his tongue. ‘Seven years Rachel and I had been together. Then he waltzes in with his money, his sharp suits and his flash cars. I mean, I earn enough – we lived okay, Rachel and I. But I could never compete. I thought she loved me, but apparently I was just a stopping point while she waited for something better.’ Doug downed most of his drink, hoping the fire of the liquor would overwhelm the smouldering fury which was building within him. His vision began to blur, but with tears rather than alcohol. ‘I just miss her, so much,’ he said, plunging from the heights of rage to the depths of despair. He tried to keep his voice steady despite the silent sobs that shook his body. ‘I would give anything to have her back. No, wait,’ he said, narrowing his eyes. A new idea was occurring to him. ‘No, I wouldn’t give anything to have her back – not yet. I’d give anything to have her suffer, like she’s made me suffer. Then I’d have her back – if she crawled for it. Yeah…’ Doug’s mind drifted off into fancy, imagining Rachel on her knees with tears streaming down her face. She was pleading with him. He could hear her words now: ‘I’m so sorry – I missed you so much. I never realised how much I hurt you. I’ve just felt dreadful. Please, please take me back.’ Doug would laugh at her first, make her cry a little more just as he had cried so many nights. Then he would scoop her up in his arms and tell her that it would all be fine. He would look after her and love her just as before, but before he could forgive her, she would have to know the suffering she had caused him. ‘I’d give anything to make her suffer, like she’s made me suffer, to make her understand,’ he said, almost to himself. Drake leaned towards him. ‘Anything?’ he asked in a quiet yet undeniably eager voice. Doug looked at him, intoxicated with alcohol and self-righteous pity. ‘Hell, yeah!’ he said. The words skimmed easily across his mind and out of his mouth. ‘I’d sell my soul to the devil to make her feel the pain that I’ve felt.’ Drake sat bolt upright and slammed his hand down on the table. ‘Done,’ he said. He grinned at Doug who looked bemused. ‘What?’ Doug asked. He tried to ignore the unpleasant sense that was growing in his gut. He didn’t feel sick, yet a subtle cramp was starting in his stomach and spreading through his limbs. ‘You said: “I would sell my soul to the devil to make Rachel Anne - 27 -


CHARLOTTE BOND McGuinness suffer the same pain as I have”, and I said: “Done”. I accept your offer. We have struck a deal.’ ‘What are you on about?’ Doug said. He tried to laugh, but the cold numbness from his stomach had crept into his throat. It felt very dry. ‘Are you trying to say that you’re the devil and I’ve just sold my soul to you?’ ‘Absolutely,’ replied Drake. He met Doug’s gaze evenly. ‘Very funny,’ said Doug in a low voice. ‘I don’t believe in the devil.’ ‘Well, you know what they say, Doug,’ said Drake, taking a swig of whiskey before fixing Doug with a hard stare, ‘he believes in you.’ A thought was nagging at the back of Doug’s mind, something unpleasant curling and uncurling in the darkness. His stomach tightened as a realisation occurred to him. ‘You said your name was Drake,’ said Doug. ‘It means dragon.’ ‘So?’ replied Drake with a shrug. ‘Doesn’t yours mean “dark water” or something?’ ‘Drake is just the sort of name the devil would choose if he came to earth,’ Doug said suspiciously. ‘I thought you were just arguing that I wasn’t the devil?’ said Drake with a laugh. ‘Next you’ll be saying that I’ve got to be the devil because I’m dressed all in black.’ Doug’s brain swam with a mixture of confusion and the conviction that something wasn’t right. That there was something he was missing and it was vitally important. ‘No,’ said Doug defiantly. ‘I’m not saying anything. I’m just… It’s just that…’ The idea at the back of Doug’s mind, trying to burrow its way into the light, suddenly broke through. A sense of dread began to steal through him. ‘How did you know Rachel’s name? Her full name, I mean – Rachel Anne McGuinness.’ ‘You told me,’ replied Drake casually. He drained his glass, refilled it then leaned over to refill Doug’s. It seemed to Doug that his whole body had lost the will to move. Drake leaned on the bar, the picture of refinement, while Doug struggled to force his lips to move. ‘No, I didn’t,’ he said. Drake shrugged nonchalantly. ‘I’m sure you did,’ he replied. ‘If not, maybe she did.’ He gestured behind Doug who expended great effort in willing his increasingly numb limbs to - 28 -


CHARLOTTE BOND move. He turned to see a woman dressed in a brown knee-length coat looking at him anxiously. Her eyes were red from crying and looked at him pleadingly. ‘Rachel?’ he asked, his voice cracking. His throat felt like sandpaper. He desperately wanted a slug of whiskey, but he couldn’t have dragged his eyes from this figure even if the whole bar had burst into flames. ‘Douglas,’ she said. Her voice stirred something within him. His name on her lips was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. As she came forwards to tentatively hug him, he suddenly found the will to move his muscles again. He fastened his arms tightly about her and she melted into his warm embrace. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered into his ear. ‘I missed you so much, Doug. I never realised how much I hurt you – hurt us both. I’ve just felt dreadful. Please, please take me back.’ Doug stiffened as he heard, almost verbatim, the words he had imagined her saying. He pushed her away, more roughly than he had intended, and he looked behind him. Drake had gone. For a moment, Doug thought maybe he had vanished into thin air, but as he scanned the bar, he saw that his companion had simply taken his glass and the bottle to a nearby table. Drake leaned back in his chair, raising his glass in a toast to Doug, a wide grin splitting his face. Rachel’s voice made him turn back. ‘Doug?’ she said, a worried expression on her face. ‘Are you okay? Did you hear what I said? Is there… any chance?’ ‘Of course,’ he breathed, reaching out to embrace her again. They hugged fiercely for a few moments, then Doug released her and they called the barmaid. He ordered the most expensive champagne they stocked. Then, when he heard how much it was, he ordered something slightly less pricey but nevertheless better than the regular fare. Doug and Rachel worked their way down the bottle together, both of them alternating between laughing and crying as they spoke about the past and the future. Neither of them paid any attention to the man in the dark clothes sitting and watching them silently from the shadows. When the bottle was empty, Doug stood up – a little unsteadily – and helped Rachel into her coat. As he turned to put on his own jacket, his eye was drawn to a solitary, shadowy figure at the back of the bar. Drake raised a - 29 -


CHARLOTTE BOND second toast to Doug as their eyes met, but this time there was no smile on his face. His dark eyes appeared almost black at this distance, and it seemed as if his table was clouded in more gloom than any of the others. Despite this foreboding appearance, Doug smiled and waved. He was ecstatic. He had Rachel back and that was all that mattered. The weird exchange between himself and Drake before Rachel arrived was lost to memory, eclipsed by his newfound happiness. Doug escorted Rachel out of the door, the cold December wind on his exposed face chasing away once and for all any thoughts about dark strangers and their peculiar words. ‘It’s a bit late,’ said Rachel, fumbling in her purse. ‘The last bus will have gone. I’ll have to get a taxi. Hang on a minute, I’ve got some money in here somewhere.’ Doug tugged his gloves out of his pocket as Rachel delved even deeper into her bag. The streets, so bustling with Christmas shoppers when Doug had entered the bar, were virtually deserted now. ‘Here we go,’ said Rachel, brandishing a ten pound note. A gust of cold wind curled around Doug’s neck and then whipped the note out of Rachel’s gloved figures and sent it twirling down a side street. ‘Damn!’ cried Rachel, rushing after it. ‘Wait!’ called out Doug. He went to follow her, but a figure strode across his path at that moment and the two of them collided. ‘I do beg your pardon,’ said Drake’s familiar tones. ‘I am sorry – completely my fault. Good night.’ Doug glared at Drake’s retreating form, feeling surprisingly irritated by the encounter. Then he hurried after Rachel. What Doug saw in that alleyway he remembered afterwards only in disjointed images. Three figures – two tall men towering over the third, smaller figure of Rachel. Her bag, pulled taut between her and one of her attackers. He remembered hearing her yell of defiance – a sound which was forever associated in his mind with the flash of a knife’s blade. It was her screaming that finally forced the world around him to jolt back into time. He yelled as he saw the knife blade flash for a second, then a third time. As he rushed towards the trio, the two men looked up, evidently surprised. They fled as Doug rushed towards them, Rachel’s bag and its meagre contents clutched under the arm of the first one. As they raced past him in the - 30 -


CHARLOTTE BOND alleyway, the man aimed the knife at Doug who dodged on reflex. Doug didn’t even attempt to stop them. He had no thought in his mind except to reach Rachel as swiftly as possible. As he knelt down next to her, Doug’s mind was filled by the sight of her pale face with the red spatter of blood on it. Her eyes were closed, blood on her head indicating where she had struck the wall as she fell to the ground. Doug tried his best to stem the flow of blood, but it seemed to be seeping from everywhere. He howled in frustration, trying to undo the buttons of her coat. He found her blouse stained red all on the right hand side. Tears streamed down his face as he pressed his hands against first one wound, then two of them, then he howled again because he didn’t have enough hands to stem the blood seeping from the third. ‘Help me!’ he called. ‘For God’s sake, somebody help me!’ He glanced up at the entrance to the alleyway. He desperately wanted to run back to the main street and attract someone’s attention, but he was too afraid Rachel might bleed to death in his absence. ‘Good grief, what a racket,’ commented a calm voice behind him. Doug spun round, his hands slick and slippery with blood. He stared with undisguised shock at Drake who was leaning against the far wall of the alleyway. ‘How did you get there?’ Doug asked, his voice a whispered hiss. Drake frowned at him. ‘That’s hardly your most pressing concern right now, is it?’ he said reproachfully. ‘Still, I guess you got what you wished for.’ Doug stared at him aghast. ‘What the hell do you mean? I never wished for this.’ Drake cleared his throat and did a passable imitation of Doug’s voice: ‘“I want her to suffer, like she made me suffer. Then I’ll have her if she crawls back.” I tell you, Doug, I don’t think that girly is going to be able to do much more than crawl from now on.’ Drake came to kneel down next to Doug and frowned at Rachel’s wan features. ‘That is, if she lives at all,’ he added ‘Looks like they got her in the liver – look at all that dark blood’. ‘I didn’t mean it!’ Doug cried. He reached out and gripped Drake’s lapels, fairly shaking the man. Drake’s expression remained supremely unperturbed. Doug let go of him abruptly, turning back to put pressure on Rachel’s wounds. - 31 -


CHARLOTTE BOND ‘I don’t see what the problem is,’ Drake continued. ‘You wanted her to suffer. She’s suffering. You wanted her to stay with you – she will. There is no way that Paul with his fast cars and expensive suits is going to want a burden like this little lady. She’ll be ever so grateful to you, you know.’ ‘I don’t want her to be grateful,’ Doug said, panic rising like bile in his throat. ‘ I want her to live. I want her to be well. I want her to be happy – whatever it takes. Even if that means she has to be with Paul and not me.’ Doug turned back to Drake, tears staining his face. He took hold of Drake’s lapels again, his hands over the bloodstain he had left last time. He looked pleadingly into the other man’s eyes. ‘I don’t care – just please, don’t let this happen. I’d do anything.’ Drake firmly yet surprisingly gently prised Doug’s hands away. ‘Those are dangerous words, Douglas,’ he said in a tone of reprimand. ‘You’ve already used them to give away your soul once tonight.’ Doug felt the world spin and he had to swallow hard to stop himself from vomiting. ‘Please,’ he said, his voice no more than whisper. ‘Please…’ Drake looked at him for one, long intense moment. Then he sighed. ‘Alright,’ he said, almost irritably. ‘Whatever.’ Doug’s eyes widened. ‘You can help her? She will live?’ he asked, hardly daring to hope. ‘Christmas is a time for miracles, you know,’ Drake replied standing up and reaching into his pocket. ‘That’s not an answer,’ said Doug forcefully. ‘Will she live?’ ‘Well, she might do, if you weren’t so stupid as to stand here and barter with the devil rather than calling her an ambulance,’ replied Drake as he took out a phone and dialled. ‘Hurry,’ Doug said. He turned back to Rachel’s prostrate form, his tears falling to mingle with her blood on his hands. As the ambulance pulled away from the Old Bell Tavern and the crowd of onlookers dispersed, a street lamp flickered out across the road. Beneath it stood a man in a long black coat, leaning against the railings of the cemetery behind him. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a long black cigarette and placed it between his lips. He fumbled around in the other pocket, cursing when he couldn’t find his lighter. The click of heels on the pavement made him look up at the girl sauntering - 32 -


CHARLOTTE BOND towards him. She wore a fur coat which came to her hips, over a long red skirt which clung to her hips. A split up the side of it showed off her shapely legs and expensive stilettos. ‘Allow me,’ she said in a voice of velvet and honey. She lifted a finger to the end of the cigarette, her long painted red nail curved beneath it. A heartbeat later, a small blue flame danced above her skin. It curled hungrily round the cigarette until the tobacco started to glow, then it winked out of existence. ‘Thank you, Arioch,’ the man said. He drew deeply on the cigarette then blew out a perfectly formed smoke ring. He handed the cigarette to the woman who took a drag herself then handed it back. ‘Not that I’m not pleased to see you,’ the man continued, ‘but I thought the circles of Hell closed their gates around about this time.’ ‘Yeah,’ she replied, coming to lean against the railing next to him, ‘but the boss likes to keep some of us up here. You know – yuletide can be quite prosperous for us. A time of sacrifices, hungry beasts stalking through the night, the gluttony of the feast.’ ‘Where have you been?’ the man asked with a laugh. ’It’s nothing like that now. There’s still the gluttony, of course, but now it’s more about families falling out and splitting up. There’s less quaking in the darkness and more avarice and spite. Mind you,’ he added reflectively, taking another drag on the cigarette, ‘that still sounds more your area than mine.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know, given your performance just then’ said the woman teasingly. ‘Who would have thought an angel could have done such a good impression of Belial himself?’ ‘It was rather good, wasn’t it?’ said the man, allowing a grin to spread over his features. ‘The boss won’t be very happy about it though,’ added the woman, taking the cigarette from his fingers. ‘If he ever finds out one of God’s higher angels was impersonating him then all Hell will break loose – metaphorically, of course.’ ‘Hey,’ said the man defensively, ‘it’s not like I went up to that guy and said: “Hi, I’m the Angel of the Bottomless Pit” or anything. It was just a bit of creative imagination on his part.’ The woman snorted derisively. ‘Anyway, it was worth it,’ added the man. ‘Two for the price of one.’ The woman looked at him quizzically. - 33 -


CHARLOTTE BOND ‘Two? By my counting, you only got one, and it seemed more like you got him for our side than yours.’ The man turned to smile at her knowingly. ‘Appearances can be deceptive, Arioch. My little drinking buddy won’t be indulging in such evil thoughts again for a while. Trust me – he’ll be the paragon of virtue for the next few years, and his example will influence others. He might have promised his soul to your master, but his good deeds will redeem him in the end.’ ‘And the second?’ the woman asked with interest. ‘The girl. Her near-death experience will make every moment of her life more precious from here.’ ‘So she’ll be okay then?’ asked the woman. The man nodded. ‘Probably. The ambulance got there quick enough. I’m sure they’ll be able to fix her up pretty well. ’ He took one final draw on the cigarette before casting it to the floor and crushing it with his polished black shoe. The two of them sat in silence for a moment before the woman asked: ‘Will she take him back?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said the man in exasperation. ‘I’m not a sodding fortuneteller.’ He turned to the woman as a thought struck him. ‘I never had you down for one who likes a happy ending,’ he said with a wry smile. The woman blushed then looked quickly away. ‘I thought we might go share some Christmas spirit,’ she said, deliberately changing the subject. ‘Of the juniper variety, I mean.’ ‘You haven’t been up here for a while, have you, girl?’ said the man standing up and offering her his arm. ‘Gin is no longer the favoured drink of the masses. There are so many more intoxications out there now. There’s vodka, brandy, port, absinthe, alco-pops – the list goes on.’ The girl took his arm. ‘I think I’m going to like it up here,’ she said. The man gave her one of his most charming smiles. ‘A drink first, to celebrate Christmas, then I can show you around.’ The girl grinned her assent and together they walked towards the Old Bell Tavern. From the sky above them, the first snowflakes of December began to fall. Copyright © Charlotte Bond 2009

- 34 -


FESTIVE IMAGES

Surprise Gift : Anne Stokes 2009

www.annestokes.com - 35 -


JOHN GROVER

I

t was a quaint New England town and the snow gently dusted the countryside. The December day was perfect for Christmas shopping, carols hung in the air with crystal clarity and the streets glowed with holiday cheer. He walked along the sidewalk, staring into the shops along the way, searching for that perfect, special gift. It was three days before Christmas and David Lockmore had still not found a suitable gift for his wife Marcy. He traveled through the town square—its ordinary, subtle look now beaming with many colored lights and seasonal foliage, shops buzzing in a frenzy of shoppers. David began to despair as he glared through the glossy windows. Frustrated, he started to increase his pace. His eyesight lingered on an interesting little shop across the street. He stepped off the sidewalk, his steps crackling on the glittering ice and approached the shop. It was a rather plain antique shop with a single wreath hanging on the door. With an air of curiosity, David took hold of the old heavy door and went in. The shop was smaller than it appeared outside, yet littered with all manner of antique and collectibles. Dust layered everything with a blanket of age, and the room was dimly lit with small, foggy lamps. David browsed casually around the shop. Everything seemed delicate and old. His wife loved antiques and had quite the collection going. Statues stared at him and vanities reflected his handsome face in the mirrors. Goblets, candelabra, swords and platters gleamed with effort through the dim light. Then something particular caught David’s eye. Down on the lowest shelf of a cabinet was a small silver candy dish. “This is perfect, Marcy will go crazy,” he murmured to himself. At a slight tap on his shoulder, David turned around in fright. To his surprise, a short elderly man stood behind him. “Oh you must be the owner,” David said. “Uh-huh. Do you see anything you like?” David paused and took up the candy dish with a firm hand. “Yes, this candy dish is just what I have been looking for.” The elderly man looked at it and shrugged his small shoulders. “Are you sure? I can show you something else. That really isn’t a suitable article to purchase,” the man’s eyes widened and stared directly into David’s. “It’s not in the greatest shape.” David was taken by a sudden chill but clasped the dish tighter with both - 36 -


JOHN GROVER hands. “Don’t be ridiculous, my wife will love it. I must have it. I’ll pay anything.” “Are you sure?” the man asked once again. “Positive,” David answered firmly. “Alright, if you insist, I’ll sell it for one hundred and fifty dollars.” It was an instant sale, David had it wrapped, and proudly strolled out of the shop. He considered himself quite a shrewd businessman. Christmas morning came bright with fresh new snow. Marcy opened the last present of the morning and as the paper tore from the gift like scrap, Marcy’s eyes lit up like glowing candle flames. “Oh honey, it’s beautiful! I love it. Thank you!” she threw herself into his arms and kissed him. The elegant candy dish was immediately filled with Christmas candy received from relatives. David put on his new wool sweater and lounged on the couch as Marcy tended to a savory roast in the oven. Around the house were precious vases, old portraits and lamps: all elegant, old, and irreplaceable. The candy dish sat in the living room on an end table with a pyramid of chocolate in it. David could smell the fresh chocolate and finally could not resist. With a greedy hand, David took several pieces of chocolate and popped them into his mouth. Within minutes, fatigue set a heavy weight upon his limbs and David curled into the cushions of the couch. When David began to scream for his life, Marcy raced into the living room to find him shivering on the couch. His face was covered with sweat. “David, wake up, David!” she shook him desperately and finally he opened his eyes, a look of horror in them. “It’s all right now. David, I’m here. What happened?” He looked up at her, still trembling, trying to remember what he saw. “My God, it was so real. I found myself in a dark dungeon and suddenly these hideous midget creatures jumped all over me. They...they began to eat me. I felt my flesh tearing from my bones!” Marcy held him tightly and stroked his damp hair. “That’s all it was, a dream. It’s over now, and it’s time to eat,” she soothed. That evening, David began to feel foolish. So upset over a stupid nightmare! Yet the memory of it still caused him worry. When it grew late, they decided to go to bed, but not before Marcy grabbed a chocolate from her pretty new dish for a bedtime snack. “Good night sweetie, and Merry Christmas,” Marcy said as she kissed her - 37 -


JOHN GROVER husband. “Merry Christmas to you too, love. Good night.” As she fell asleep, Marcy found herself at a wedding reception. The bride wore a stunning Victorian wedding gown of white satin and lace, the groom black tie and tails. Marcy watched as they opened their wedding gifts. The first gift was a silver layered candy dish. It was the same dish David had given her for Christmas. Could they actually own the same dish as she? The dream began to change and rearrange itself in a wave of colors and movements. “Marcy, Marcy!” David shook his wife with force, yet he was having little luck in rousing her. “Marcy, you’ve overslept. We’re having company remember?” Marcy awoke from her slumber and turned to greet her husband with tired eyes. “Is something wrong, Marcy? You never sleep this late,” David asked, concern in his voice. “Oh, I was having such a wonderful dream. I just didn’t want to wake up. I wish I could go back,” she replied, sounding disappointed. “Well, it’s time to face reality. We have to get ready for our guests.” David said, again remembering his own horrid nightmare. Within hours, Marcy and David had prepared a small table with pastries, cookies, cheese and crackers, punch and the candy dish with its delicious chocolates. In no time at all, it seemed, Cynthia and Mark Stone had arrived. “How are you, Cynthia? Mark? It’s great to see you,” Marcy beamed. “Merry Christmas,” called David. Within minutes of Mark and Cynthia’s arrival, another knock bounced upon the door. Marcy gave the same greetings to George and Carol Gormly. The six of them visited in the living room for hours, this was their annual day after Christmas gathering. They would go over old times, make predictions for the coming year, and gossip. Cynthia was the first to spot the candy dish. “Wow, Marcy, a new piece? I think it’s the most beautiful one yet.” “Thank you,” said Marcy. “David gave it to me for Christmas.” Cynthia took a piece and returned to her seat. George, having a fondness for chocolate too, rose and snatched two. Marcy took two as well. The small party died around eleven and the guests departed. Marcy and David cleaned up. By midnight, they were in bed. Soon Marcy entered another - 38 -


JOHN GROVER dream. The married couple in her last dream now stood in front of a huge Victorian house. Marcy herself stood behind them, observing every event secretly. A large sign in the meadow-like yard read SOLD. The couple moved in and the house was decorated exactly to their liking and style. From the wallpaper to the lavish rugs, everything was elegant and expensive. In the living room sat the silver candy dish. Marcy casually walked around the house, exploring it, her curiosity unnoticed to the newlyweds. The house was magnificent with its vases, portraits, crystal chandeliers, statues, figurines and furniture. If only she could take these fabulous things out of the dream and into her home! The phone ringing tore Marcy reluctantly back to consciousness. “Hello,” Marcy answered, annoyance weaving through her voice. “Oh...hello, Carol. How are you?” “I’m all right, though after last night I’m not so sure.” “Why?” Marcy asked, propping herself up in bed with interest. “Well,” Carol continued. “I called to tell you George had chest pains last night. He’s all right this morning. The strange thing is he swears it was his dreams that caused the chest pains!” Marcy gasped in shock and sat up. “That’s not all, when I told Cynthia all of this, she said she had the worst nightmare last night too,” Carol’s voice wavered. “She was being burned at the stake for being a witch. It was so vivid. She said she could feel the heat and smell the smoke. Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.” “I’ll be sure to let David know. I’m glad George is alright,” replied Marcy before hanging up. Marcy walked toward the kitchen to make coffee but caught the sparkling candy dish. Perhaps if I eat a candy and go to sleep I can get back into my dream. It was so pleasant. Without delay she ate several chocolates. She buried herself back into bed, and with little effort drifted off. She found herself back in the Victorian house, but it was night and the couple was asleep. Suddenly, with a shocking crash, the front door flew open. A masked man rushed in with an ax just as the couple was rushing downstairs. The man attacked both of them and in a bloody frenzy, massacred the Victorian couple as Marcy watched helplessly, frozen in shock. - 39 -


JOHN GROVER The ax man turned and for the first time, seemed to see Marcy. The killer smiled, mask splattered with blood and attacked. With all the force she could muster, Marcy woke herself, bathed in a feverish sweat. Marcy sat up and collected herself. The ax man was standing at the foot of the bed. He lunged at her, hacking her pillow to shreds as she raced from the room, hearing his mad laughter behind her. He was coming for her. Coming home for lunch, David walked through the front door. Seeing Marcy in jeopardy, he leapt in front of her as the killer swung the ax. David’s sudden entrance startled the ax man and his arm wobbled. The blow only gashed David’s arm. David grabbed the handle and pulled the ax from the killer’s hands. As Marcy watched in horror, she spotted the candy dish next to where the ax man stood at bay, unsure of what to do. “It’s the dish! The candy dish!” Marcy screamed. David swung the ax down and the man cowered, his arms raised in defense. But the blow was not aimed at human flesh. Instead, David severed the candy dish, burying the head into the coffee table. The ax man vanished as if never there. David and Marcy embraced in frightened bewilderment, staring at the broken pieces of the candy dish scattered upon the carpet, the silver reflecting the rays of the afternoon sun. Copyright © John Grover 2009

John Grover is a dark fiction author residing in Boston, Massachusetts of the USA. He completed a creative writing course at Boston¹s Fisher College and is a member of the New England Horror Writers, a chapter of the Horror Writers Association. Some of his more recent credits include The Northern Haunts Anthology by Shroud Publishing, The Zombology Series by Library of the Living Dead Press, Morpheus Tales, Wrong World, The Willows, Alien Skin Magazine, and more. He is the author of several collections, including the recently released Feminine Wiles, sixteen tales of wicked women as well as various chapbooks, anthologies, and more. Please visit his website at : www.shadowtales.com for more information. - 40 -


JAMES BENNETT

“S

o that’s it then. You’re just going to leave me here like this.” The old man in the grey robe looked apologetic, his bearded face furrowed with guilt. “It’s all for the best. You won’t be here long, I promise.” “As if anyone could rely on your timekeeping, you withered old coot. Dinosaurs, multi-storey car parks, interstellar craft – they’re all the same to you, aren’t they?” A muffled harrumph whispered through the winter air, swallowed by the snow that carpeted the cathedral square. “I’m freezing my bloody balls off here!” A smile twitched against the old man’s solemnity. “Balls, old friend?” “I’m speaking metaphorically. Oh, I don’t like this at all, wizard. Why couldn’t you just leave me and the Lady alone for once?” “Because the time has come again, just like it always does. Albion needs us. I’m afraid you’re not the only one up to your hilt in it.” “Oh very fucking funny.” The old man ignored the sharp reply. He patted the pommel of the sword, a gesture more awkward than it was encouraging. “Do try to behave yourself, Caliburn. This will all be over and beginning again before you can say Camlann.” If the sword had had eyes instead of gemstones, it would have rolled them. “I won’t forget this, you know.” The sword practically quivered in the anvil set atop the stone. “When you’re locked in your Eternal Oak, don’t come crying to me to chop you free. Oh no. The Lady can do what she wants with you.” “You really ought to watch those cutting remarks. One day, someone might just throw you in a lake.” “Are you a conjurer or a comedian? Oi! Where do you think you’re going? I asked you a fucking question!” But the old man’s boots continued to crunch across the square until the echoes faded into the blizzard, leaving the sword with no option but to shout in his wake. “Bastard!”

All night, the Sword in the Stone stayed wedged in the anvil and the frosty chunk of rock outside Saint Paul’s, its steel naked to the biting wind. Knowledge of tomorrow did nothing for its mood. Oh, it knew what was - 41 -


JAMES BENNETT coming, all right. Bold claims and bolder declarations, followed by sweaty palms, fierce grunts and hoarse profanities, all invited – nay, provoked! – by the simple iron (yet woefully purple prosed) plaque that the wizard had bolted to the rugged stone. On occasion, the sword shivered, muttering to itself. What was the point of being magical if one had to suffer these indignities? It just wasn’t fair. Golden Age, Chivalry, Peace, it whined. What good are such words when my hilt is colder than Morgana’s tit? It knew all the sound bites, had ‘read the blurb’, a thousand, a million, a trillion times. Every time some dreaming pair of hands opened up a storybook and forced them all to relive the legend. Round Tables, Camelots, Rights for All, it huffed. What about rights for swords, that’s what I want to know? Come midnight, ice had crept up along the blade, hungrily advancing on the dragon-shaped hilt. The sword missed the Lady terribly, despite all the current-swept weeds, the swirling mud and the ever-present, irrational fear of rust. Despite all those damnable bubbles. To Hell with Yule and Once and Future Kings. The sword was frozen half to death and wanted to go home. An owl landed on the branch of a nearby tree, shaking loose a miniature avalanche. The creature hooted, its curious eyes blinking at the strange contraption taking up the middle of the square. The sword suppressed its shivering, suddenly embarrassed. “What the fuck are you looking at?” it said. The problem with birds is that birds gossip. Once London’s pigeons had gotten hold of it, the sword knew that further humiliation was, as ever, inevitable. And so they came. The barons, the knights of rich, of poor, of ill, of famed, of false renown. Not to mention their pimple-faced squires, their cringing servants, their hennin-sporting, grease-painted, giggling groupies, and more than a fair share of Have-A-Go peasants. They had all but forgotten the Yuletide tournament taking place that very afternoon – for which most of them had travelled to the city – in light of this new and peculiar spectacle: an exquisite sword embedded in stone right in the heart of Paternoster Square. In no time at all, a crowd lined the edges of said square, all chattering at once in the crisp, white winter morning, six hundred pairs of eyes all witness to the sword’s misery. Some of the knights looked so gallant it almost seemed a shame they had no king to champion, nowhere to bend the knee. But then, - 42 -


JAMES BENNETT wasn’t that kind of the point? Wasn’t that why that cradle-robbing, interfering old buzzard had stuck the sword here in the first place? Of course it was. Each and every one of these folk, at least in their own minds, thought themselves worthy of the Dragon Throne, either sat upon it or sat beside it, holding regal sway over Albion. The sword, fangs of ice dripping from its knuckle guards, bitterly cold and bitterly vexed, was pleased to disabuse them of the notion. “King Lot? Ha! More like King Not. Your fingers are so fat I’m surprised you can even grip me. Well, I suppose with you we’d have a constant royal presence on the throne. Once your chubby arse got wedged up there, you’d never leave the fucking castle!” King Lot pushed and pulled, grunted and groaned, spat and swore, all to no avail. Exhausted, red-faced, with the laughter of the crowds ringing in his ears, the self-styled Lord of Lothian retired to his tent, shaking his fist and promising vengeance. “Uriens, you clapped out sack of shit, put your bloody back into it! I’ve seen more strength in a starving sparrow! Here now, why don’t you stand aside and let your daughter have a go? With arms like hers, I’m sure she could lift this rock over her head and carry it back to Gore!” Uriens, one boot set firm against the anvil, the other slipping on the icy rock, grimaced and cursed, but the sword – boasting loudly to all and sundry that it was jammed more tightly inside the stone than a priest in a choirboy’s backside – refused to budge an inch. There came louder peals of laughter, even from along the straggling queue of would-be-kings waiting to take their turn, and then Uriens was storming off across the square, his furious gaze eagerly hunting out some ill-starred squire on which to bestow his displeasure. By midmorning, after enduring three hundred pairs of greasy, fumbling, wrenching hands and three hundred disappointed growls, the sword was almost having fun. Oh, it knew that its attitude was petty revenge, a pitiless sharing out of pique (and it also knew that this particular version of events would never reach the aforementioned storybooks, not if rugface had anything to do with it), but who honestly gave a crap? Fourteen hours stood naked in a block of stone in the middle of London during deep midwinter will do that to a person, even a magical sword. The affront solidifies and boredom takes over. Why should it be the only one to suffer? - 43 -


JAMES BENNETT “Leodegrance, you big girl’s blouse, this is a contest, not a courtship. Don’t be shy – grip me harder and pull, man, pull! One would’ve thought you’d have gained enough practice groping stable boys all summer. Whoops, silly me. Was that supposed to be a secret?” Then the cathedral bells were chiming midday, drowning out the guffaws and giggles, drowning out Leodegrance’s desperate denials. The baron slunk back into the crowds, to stand before his pregnant wife’s folded arms and tapping foot, as a trumpet sounded to announce the opening of tournament. For a fleeting time – a time in which the sword savoured an imperious, righteous silence – hesitation settled on top of the snow. Then, one by one, the knights valiant and craven, the squires humble and proud, the servants, wives and every last Have-A-Go peasant filtered from the square, a wide track of slush marking their defeat. Some shot angry glances up at the sword as they passed, while others looked away, content to follow their put out noses. One or two grumbled about the need for stricter regulations regarding the display of offensive weapons in public places. Most said nothing at all. A tournament awaited and although nobody dared say it, most of them preferred games they stood a chance of winning. A nun was the last soul to leave the square. Wimple raised to the flat grey skies, she sniffed as she shuffled past the Sword in the Stone, pausing only to impart her pious opinion. “You, sir, are a very bad sword.” The sword grunted in return. “Oh, bite me, sister.” Truth be told, there are many different versions. The sword understood this as well as the wizard did. Time is more like a ball of yarn (an extremely knotted, twisted, slippery ball of yarn) than it ever was a straight line, and all things being subjective, who could really know the truth of it? But one thing your Geoffries, Mallories and Tennysons never came and never would come within a million-times-folded, ice-tempered, faery-blessed, moon-razor’s edge of touching upon was the sword’s insufferable loneliness. Over those long three days of the tournament, the sword experienced the loneliness of isolation, listening to the cheers from the nearby jousting fields, all splintering lances and clashing blades, while it had nothing to do but stare and stare at the white expanse of Paternoster Square and listen to the mockery of birds. - 44 -


JAMES BENNETT Worst of all was the loneliness it felt surrounded by crowds. Naturally, the barons and all their hangers-on came back, and this time they were drunk, high from carousing in London’s taverns, bragging of invented lineages, wrestling matches with dragons and giants, dashing rescues of fair princesses (and their later seductions to boot) and other tall tales of derring-do. All in slurred support of their claims to the throne. Uther must have spun in his grave. Nevertheless, that second night of its imprisonment, Caliburn put the lie to them all. Lot, the self-styled Lord of Lothian, led the fool’s parade. With the benefit of beer goggles and an equally inebriated audience, he was much less reserved in his struggles with the sword than he had been earlier that day. Eventually, however, bare-chested and beaten, the king collapsed with hairy shoulders against the anvil, panting up at Uriens that should the younger baron succeed in releasing the sword, he was honour bound to place it in the king’s hands. This Uriens promised to do, ignoring the sword’s sarcastic snigger, and then called out for the blacksmiths. When the blacksmiths failed to part sword from anvil, Uriens called for the stonemasons. When the stonemasons found the rock as immune to chiselling as the blade itself, the baron dispatched a squire to the local garrisons, with a half-illegible scroll commanding the speedy use of a catapult. Uriens had it in mind to load the catapult with rubble, attach a rope from its wooden bowl to the sword’s hilt, sever the rope at its tautest point (with no thought to where the rubble would land – more than likely straight through the bishop’s window on the other side of Paternoster Square, thereby crushing His Grace in his sleep) and thus prise the weapon free. The Captain of the Guard put paid to this scheme with his own hastily scrawled scroll, arriving with the breathless squire twenty minutes later. Nobody knew precisely what the scroll said, but clearly, it did not contain some cheery Yuletide greeting. Uriens went red to his ears and scrunched the scroll into a ball before his squire, peering over his lordship’s shoulder, had managed to decipher the two-word response, which assuredly began with the letter F and ended much the same way. Leodegrance, still smarting from his earlier disgrace, forwent brute force and employed what passed for his intellect instead – in this case, drunken threats. Quarries were mentioned, as were forges. - 45 -


JAMES BENNETT The sword remained unmoved. “Dearest, dearest Leodegrance,” it sighed, a steely, long-suffering whisper. “Do you honestly think I have anything to fear from a man so dense he’ll call his own twin daughters the same bloody name? Sir, you look tired. In an hour or two, Christmas Day dawns upon us. Nonetheless, I do not share your discourtesy. My pommel is hard and gem studded, granted, but I’ll wager it is no less comfortable than those seats offered you in your stables…” With a roar, Leodegrance kicked out at the sword, then stumbled away clutching his foot. The crowd roared too, with much less rage and heaps more mirth. Uriens stifled a smirk behind his gauntlet while Lot merely bellowed for more ale. In those days, there were not many problems in the Realm of Albion that most folk fancied they could not solve with the bellowed phrase ‘more ale!’. A good explanation, if any were needed, why most folk still huddled under thatched roofs and failed to live past the age of forty. The wizard often claimed that regular exercise and a good diet would shape the future (along with electricity, cosmetic surgery, traffic jams, free internet, house music, nuclear meltdowns and teleportation) but the sword didn’t need to worry about such things. Right now, there were more pressing matters at hand. The ale had arrived and a brawl was imminent. The barons had already started playing the time-honoured game: ‘When I Rule Albion I’ll…’ and historically, amongst barons and self-styled kings, it was all downhill from there. Now this, the sword thought on its lonely plinth as some sozzled clown threw the first punch, this was Albion. It sighed again, this time sincerely. Some things would never change... And that was the problem, wasn’t it? The sword was stuck here, playing its part, but in the end, it would make no difference. Oh, there are many versions, all right, even of the brawl presently thrashing its way through the square, insults flying along with the fists. Sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t, but something always happened to fill in the gaps. (In one version – nay, alternative – the sword remained in the stone for hundreds of years, until the Mayor of Avalondon eventually granted it the status of Tourist Attraction, encircled as it was by a busy ring road, racks of postcards and hordes of tourists snapping pics, all cooing over this famous blade that never rusted, never grew blunt and never, ever shut up.) It was as if the room stayed the same while the furniture shifted. All the same, in the end, there would come the same old - 46 -


JAMES BENNETT seduction, the same old betrayal, the same old fateful battle and the same old spluttered last words on a blood-drenched lakeshore. A lone boot sailed over the sword’s hilt, prompting it to shout up at the winter skies, its despair lost in the clamour of the fray. “WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT?” Christmas morning and the bishop woke in excitable mood. The sword, who never slept, not even on feast days, had watched the portly little man emerge from his house and cross the square on incredulous steps, his silk slippers leaving footprints in the crisp new snow. The bishop’s robes, spotless at the best of times, looked drab against the pristine ground. His Grace paused several feet away from rock and anvil, his porcine eyes taking in the chaos before him – a loose circle of tangled limbs, torn clothing, broken barrels, snapped weapons and chipped teeth cluttering up the square. Thankfully, powdery drifts obscured most of the splattered blood. In the lee of the frost-covered rock, King Lot was snoring loudly. The self-styled Lord of Lothian resembled a half-melted snowman sprawled on a stack of comatose serfs. The bishop’s eyes were bright beads of shock. The swollen clouds refused the sun, but even in the flat grey light, even through the gently falling snow, he could make out the shadow of the sword, the slow umbra of hilt and blade stretching across the littered square. Now, the problem with priests is their ‘extrasensory vision’. Where most folk would simply see the shadow of a sword, the slow umbra of hilt and blade stretching across a littered square, the bishop saw an inverted cross, sent to blight London City, along with the entire Kingdom and all the Souls of Men, who would, of course, Burn Forever in the Bubbling Pits of Hell. The sword could have told him that the shadow really was just a shadow, and that Satan was capable of much much more than tawdry special effects (and, in all honesty, why would Satan even bother?) but the bishop was clearly beside himself. Eternal Damnation aside, the vision meant that he was going to be late for the traditional blessing down at the jousting grounds before the last gaggle of knights spent all day vying for the Feather of Champions. Nevertheless, duty was duty, sin was sin, and once his shock had subsided somewhat, the bishop flung out one trembling, sausage-like finger and started to scream. - 47 -


JAMES BENNETT “Oh ye Corrupter of Men! Oh Worm that Doth Not Die! What wickedness hast ye whispered to our lords here last night? What foul dissent hast ye poured in yon aristocratic ears?” The sword, had it possessed a shoulder instead of a crossguard, might have glanced over it to make sure whom the bishop addressed. Even as the echoes of the bishop’s cry bounced off the cathedral’s fluted face, a crowd was gathering. London was never short of crowds, at any hour, day or night. Lot groaned at the bishop’s proclamation, the pile of serfs shifting under him. Not one of the slumbering barons, their fallen squires or disarrayed ladyfolk would thank His Grace for this early morning attempt at saving their souls, Christmas or no. Crook shaking, mitre trembling, the bishop approached the impaled anvil, spittle flying from his lips. “Out Beelzebub! Out Belial! Get thee behind me Satan!” The sword, in no mood for Eternal Damnation, this morning or any other, completely ignored him. “Out, Spawn of Lucifer! Out demon! Out!” And went on ignoring him. The bishop came to a breathless halt before the rock, glaring hellfire up at the sword. His reflection slid greasily over the sparkling blade and uncertain laughter rippled through the throng as his zealous words fell to the ground like frozen birds. A bell chimed, calling all to the opening of tournament and the aforementioned Yuletide blessing. King Lot groaned again, and sat up clutching his head. “For God’s sake man, give it a rest. One more peep out of you and Beelzebub will be the least of your worries!” The laughter of the throng shook of its reservations. The bishop appeared to have swallowed two hot coals; his cheeks had grown so fiery red. Nevertheless, the growled threat had stolen the sting from his ad hoc exorcism, and without the promise of further entertainment, London crowds didn’t hang about for long. A Feather of Champions beckoned (as did plentiful mead), and so the throng trickled away towards the jousting fields, followed by a ragged band of green-faced barons, half-crushed serfs, and a veritable battalion of hair-patting, dress-smoothing, tutting ladyfolk. - 48 -


JAMES BENNETT The bishop went last, crook and mitre still aquiver, cheeks still enflamed. The sword waited until Paternoster Square belonged solely to the snow again and then it muttered under its breath. “Twats.” Alone, the sword waited out the morning, grumbling at the distant hubbub from the jousting fields, the faint carols of overeager minstrels and the occasional snigger of passing pigeons. The sun sulked behind the clouds, dragging itself towards midday with all the reluctance of a scolded pupil heading towards a headmaster’s office. Snow fell off and on, half-heartedly carpeting the square. Denied the luxury of a snooze, the sword cursed the wizard in Avalonian tongue, but soon fell into despairing silence. Representing Justice, the sword wondered why none of this quality extended to itself, and made a mental note to take the matter up with the wizard (who was undeniably responsible for the whole damn mess) when he deigned to return from whatever intrigues he was presently about. Moreover, it intended to lodge a formal complaint with the Lady herself, but for that, it knew, it would have to wait a rather long time… Time. It never seemed to matter how things played out, or how much the sword recalled of the future. The loneliness, the bitterness, was always the same, clouding any thought of comfort. Thus it was with a small, unexpected shiver of surprise that the sword watched the boy hurry into the square a little after lunchtime. Gangling he was, his knees bobbing up and down like rebellious tangerines in two badly darned Christmas stockings, his boots sending up flurries of snow. The boy peered around the square, his desperation plain on his face, and stumbled to a halt as he took in the rock, the anvil and the sword embedded within them. Cautiously, the boy walked over to scan the simple iron plaque that the wizard had bolted to the rugged stone. It was apparent to the sword that the purple prose was lost on the boy, for he scratched his golden locks and then squinted nonplussed up at the blade. “May I help you?” The sword enquired, not a little sarcastically. The boy jumped back, his eyes narrowing. “Who goes there?” The sword snorted. “Where?” The boy crept close again, a growing suspicion written on his face as he - 49 -


JAMES BENNETT peered up at the sword. He pointed a trembling finger at the jewelled, dragonshaped hilt. “There…?” he hazarded. The sword, of course, knew its lines off by heart. “Perchance ‘tis the wind through yonder trees, singing a sacred song of Destiny. Perchance ‘tis… oh, stuff it. Look, kid, let me save you some trouble. It’s me, ok? The sword.” Doubt replaced the boy’s suspicion, swiftly swept away on wings of derision. “Don’t be ridiculous. Swords can’t speak.” “Oh dear, not very bright, are we? Sir Ector has a lot to answer for in terms of education. No wonder things happen as they do. Chivalry is no match for smarts…” But the boy was barely listening, his limbs tense. “What do you know about my liege?” The sword sighed. “Only that he’s waiting for you down at the jousting grounds, along with his bullying brat of a son. You know – Kay? The one whose sword you were meant to bring from the inn this morning? Can’t join the lists without a sword now, can he? Not on your nelly.” The boy blushed. “We…we were late for the tournament. In the rush, I…I forgot all about it.” “Not much of a squire, are you? Perhaps you should find a better occupation before Kay tosses you out on your arse.” Red-faced, the boy clambered up on the rock, and stood glaring down at the sword. “Good job I found you then, isn’t it?” The sword affected a scandalised gasp. “You wouldn’t bloody dare.” But now the boy was grinning. “Watch me,” he said. And with no more effort than drawing a knife from a slab of butter, the boy pulled the sword free of rock and anvil. The oppressive clouds parted suddenly, and a shaft of sunlight shot down through the gloom, turning Paternoster Square into a glittering field of white. There may have been a burst of angelic song. Then again, maybe not. As the boy shook icicles from the sword’s hilt, Caliburn felt a shudder of heat pass along it from pommel to tip. Bitterness and loneliness rolled away, - 50 -


JAMES BENNETT and the sword practically hummed with pleasure, for here, at last, was the fucking point, so easy to forget whilst speared through stone. Yes, there would come the same old seduction, the same old betrayal, the same old fateful battle and the same old spluttered last words on a blood-drenched lakeshore. But that was to put the cart before the horse, because first there would come Camelots and Round Tables, Green Knights and Questing Beasts, Joyous Gardes and Holy Grails. First, there would come a Union of the Realm, a Golden Age for All Albion that would glimmer but briefly in the gulfs of Time, but would glimmer forever nonetheless, providing comfort every time a dreaming pair of hands opened up a book and rediscovered the legend. First, there would come hope. And hope was the fucking point, nothing more and nothing less. The sword laughed, delighted in spite of itself, as the boy climbed down from the rock and hurried back across Paternoster Square, lugging the ornate blade behind him. In the branches of a nearby tree, an owl hooted and puffed out its chest, looking unbearably smug. The sound only tempered a sliver of the sword’s joy, but purely from habit, it spat a few rude words in the bird’s direction. The boy gasped and stammered a rebuke. “Oh you think I’m sharp,” Caliburn told him. “Just wait until you meet Guinevere.” And then they were running down the snowbound street, towards a headlong collision with Destiny. Copyright © James Bennett 2009

James Bennett is a British author of horror, fantasy and the occasional contemporary fable. His debut novel Unrequited was nominated by the Lambda Literary Foundation (US) for Best Debut Fiction in 2007 and he is currently working on a dark fantasy epic. A Sword of Ice-Brook Temper tips its pommel at T.H.White for The Sword in the Stone and Thomas Berger for Arthur Rex. Further information is available at : http://waxlyrikal.webs.com

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FESTIVE IMAGES

What the Cat Dragged in for Christmas :Stanley Morrison 2009

www.stanleymorrison.com - 52 -


RHYS HUGHES

A

fter the boy was tucked up snugly in bed, the mother kissed his forehead but she didn't turn to leave. Then the boy said, "I'm so excited about tomorrow I don't think I'll ever get to sleep!" She smiled at him and patted the sheets, but her face was sad. "There's something I need to tell you," she said. His eyes widened in response. "You don't mean I'm not adopted?" "Don't be silly." She laughed. "Why would I lie about that? You've always known my husband isn't your real father. No, it's something else. You're seven years old now and it's time you learned the truth." "I don't understand, mother," he answered. She sighed and regarded the simple bedroom. They were a poor family and lived in a very modest house in a shabby town. Outside, the sun had already set, but the sky still held enough light to illuminate the people trudging up the dusty street. A donkey began braying and kicking a clay wall; elsewhere the tradesmen and merchants were shutting their shops. A pale moon rose over the low hills. A normal evening. "It's about Christmas," she said. He was sitting up in bed now, blinking at her. "Yes?" "Father Christmas in particular‌" His eyes lit up at the mention of this name. "Last year he brought me a toy boat and the year before that he gave me a ball and the year before that‌" He caught his breath and added, "I can't wait to see what he'll give me tomorrow!" She placed a finger over his lips and shook her head. "That's exactly what I must tell you. Father Christmas doesn't actually exist. It's your father who brings you those gifts. Your real father. That's the truth." "What?" He was distraught. "You mean there's no such thing as Santa Claus? The jolly fat man in red with a sack over his shoulder is just a myth? A lie?" "I'm afraid so. Your father pretends to be him." "My father? My real father? The supernatural force that created the universe? The omniscient, omnipotent lord of everything? Oh mother! You've turned Christmas into a magical occasion. You've destroyed the mundanity of it! The precious mundanity! I'll never forgive you for this. Never!" "My poor son," She reached out to hug him close to her, but he pounded his little fists against her and then fell back on the bed and turned on his side. She - 53 -


RHYS HUGHES spoke to his bristling back. "I'm sorry to break the news this way. Santa Claus is from the future, you see. That's why your father keeps up the pretence. Even Christmas hasn't been invented yet!" But it was no use. He wasn't listening. She rose and quietly left Jesus sobbing into his pillow. Copyright Š Rhys Hughes 2009

Christmas Card :Vincent Chong 2009

www.vincentchong-art.co.uk - 54 -


JANE FRANK

J

ulie poured a cup of coffee for Dan, then one for herself before sitting down opposite him, elbows resting on the table. He reached for the small carton of milk and poured a bit into his mug. Then, out of habit, he pushed the sugar bowl to her side of the table and watched her methodically spoon two teaspoons’ of the fluffy sugar-substitute into her mug and stir. She looked defeated, but sounded determined. “Your reaction to my having a glass or two of wine, or a drink with vodka in it – sue me! It was a Christmas party for godsakes! - feels just like your intolerance to my smoking back in 1988. Every day the same excoriating “I can smell the smoke as soon as I walk in” comments. Now, it’s “did you have to order that second glass?” Really, this has got to stop. You’ve heard the news about “red wine,” so you know that drinking alcohol is not the same thing as smoking cigarettes. My drinking isn’t going to kill me. But it definitely is killing our relationship.” She lifted her cup and took a couple of sips, and waited for Dan’s response. Hearing none, she plowed on. “ I was younger in 1988,” she said, “and bore it. But no longer. This is MY life, not yours, and you are not in charge of it. You can disapprove all you like. You can put me down in public, you can make snide comments in front of our friends. You can chafe at my lack of will power, you can be as parental as you like. Come 4-5 PM, this is the way I relax. I don’t drink all night, I don’t drink all day. I have a glass of wine or two every afternoon, or a strong Bloody Mary, if I can. Because I like it. Just the way you like coffee.” Julie tilted her head slightly to acknowledge the cup sitting in front of Dan. “Huh,” he grunted, in self-defense, and – to demonstrate his disdain – picked up the cup and downed half of the contents before setting it down. “And that’s the way you like your wine, ” he said sneeringly, “because you like it.” But Julie wasn’t done. “Just because you’ve again decided what’s “best” for me, regardless of what position you may have held towards this behavior in your 30s or 40s, doesn’t mean I have to be a teetotaler too.” She reached for the carafe sitting on its warming stand next to the napkin holder and re-filled his cup. “ I just can’t stand going through another holiday like this, with you picking and sniping at me, every time I raise my glass.” “And I can’t stand living with a drunk, who can’t remember a single thing they said the night before,” Dan retorted, calmly topping off the refill with milk. - 55 -


JANE FRANK “This isn’t just a matter of alcohol destroying your liver. You embarrassed Sue with your comments about the Christmas tree ornaments. Mike was standing right behind you when you compared the shape of one of her hand-made candy canes to a sex toy. And trust me, he wasn’t amused. Neither was I.” “You know,” Julie said, eyes narrowing, “you are getting to be an old man, napping after work while I fix dinner, and having no interest whatsoever in going out on weekends the way we used to. And I think your aversion to drinking is part of the same thing. You say “I don’t need it” in the same way you don’t “need” to go out to a Thai restaurant, you can have Chinese food delivered instead.” But Dan’s face was impassive as she poured herself another cup and spooned a bit of sweetener in, then stirred. “You weren’t always this way,” she said, pausing to lift her mug, then shaking her head as if recalling better days. “It’s not that you can’t be persuaded to go out and have a good time, but if it’s not part of the job, if it’s not an invitation from someone whose opinion of you matters to you, you won’t do it. Pure and simple. That’s why, as much as they love you, even your kids think you’re boring.” Julie leaned forward and shook the spoon in the direction of Dan’s nose. “You’re the man who retires early and resists all efforts to socialize. They call you a party-pooper and a fuddy-duddy behind your back. Maybe I’ll be like you some day, but in the meantime, here’s some news for you: my life is not over yet, and what’s more, it’s my own.” Dan looked bored. He was sitting back in his chair, shoulders sagging, eyes disengaged. Julie watched him fiddle absent-mindedly with a napkin at the edge of the table, then lift his cup and shrug. He drank about half a cup again, but this time there was a finality to the way he set it down. “Are you through?” “Not hardly,” she said, although she too was beginning to tire of the argument. “I’m a grown-up now, and I’m tired of defending myself.” She paused before getting to what sounded like an ending point. Her heart just wasn’t in it any more. What’s the use? she was thinking, but out loud she said “In any event, I don’t really care what you do, or whether you drink or not. The only reason I bring this issue up is because this disparity between us is driving an unnecessary wedge between us. When you disapprove, you make me defensive. You make me feel as if I had a character flaw. When - from where I sit - I know that’s not true. So, yes, I am taking your perpetual sniping and put-downs very personally. And, trust me,” she said, her emphasis placed so as - 56 -


JANE FRANK to mock his earlier use of the phrase, “they will stop.” Julie’s eyes were bright and glittery as she stared hard at Dan. He seemed to be only half listening, and was staring fixedly at his napkin, now a bit shredded on the edges, with no expression on his face at all. Any second now, she expected him to dismiss the entire conversation by saying, “well, I guess it’s time to catch up on the news. I may take a little nap while I’m at it.” Indeed, she was counting on it. But instead, after a few seconds of silence, he shifted his gaze and looked directly at her. “As usual,” Dan’s voice was soft, “you are thinking only of yourself. The aggrieved party, eh? And what you will, or will not stand for.” He shifted in his seat, as if getting ready to stand. “As usual, thinking if you bitch enough, I’m gonna change.” Then, and for a fleeting moment, Dan let Julie see the depth of his pain and sadness. The wrinkles around his eyes looked as grey as his thinning hair, and under the harsh kitchen lights he looked pale and ill. For a moment she thought she saw his fingers tremble as he put down his coffee, for the last time, and he looked so fragile that for those brief seconds she almost regretted putting him through this. But Dan kept talking, and those thoughts evaporated as quickly as they had come. “But also as usual, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t a situation you’re going to fix with your mouth, so that we can somehow march gracefully into old age by keeping time to a different drummer.” Dan always liked that quote from Thoreau, so it didn’t surprise Julie that he had worked it into his rebuke of her, now. He had once asked her to embroider it onto a piece of needlework she was working on, in cross stitch right below a beautiful forest scene. She refused. “As you say, Dan, we’re not joined at the hip. If I want to get buzzed at a holiday party in front of friends, I will. If I want to have a drink in the afternoon, all by myself, that’s what I’m going to do. Period. If you don’t like it, tough.” Julie heard the words pouring out but was having trouble understanding them. She suddenly was feeling disoriented, confused. A terrible headache was coming on, and the pain behind her eyes was making her nauseous.. As if she were observing the proceedings from far away, disembodied, she felt the hysteria rising, and knew it would overtake her, there was no controlling it now. Her neck constricted with pain, spittle flying from her mouth, she exploded with frustration and screamed, “You’ve told me how to live my life - 57 -


JANE FRANK for the last time, do you hear me? It’s over! I don’t need a policeman telling me what to do, I don’t need someone breathing down my neck, always monitoring my state of health, or behavior.” “That’s good,” Dan responded,“ as he made ready to stand, shifting his weight forward and placing his hands on the arms of his chair for support, “because sometime in the next couple of minutes you’re going to find that your health has deteriorated to a stunning degree.” Dan’s prediction caught Julie off-guard. It took less than an instant for the sour bilge to rise from her gut, and spew with force from her mouth and nose. The brownish green liquid splattered across the table, bouncing off the mugs and soaking the stacked and neatly folded paper napkins in their holder. When the spray reached his side of the table, Dan flinched, but he would have laughed in derision if his breath hadn’t been taken away by a sudden sharp pain in his bowels. He gasped, but managed to continue with a melodramatic “And no one is going to be watching you or caring one way or another about you, or what you drink, after that.” He was going to say this with a nasty smirk on his face, but was surprised to find his balance gone once he lurched unsteadily to his feet. Plus, his vision was getting blurry, making it hard for him to focus on what he was doing. Dan was swaying, but he somehow mustered the strength to spit out, “because that wasn’t sugar you were putting in your coffee.” Julie blanched, but stayed stiffly upright in her chair, watching with detached satisfaction as Dan lost his footing and collapsed, his ass missing the seat by inches on the way down. His knees hit the tiled floor heavily, and he slowly slumped and crumpled sidewise, rolling as he went so that he ended up face downward, his forearms cradling his head on the hard floor. Julie was bone tired, but she would have the last word, if it killed her. “Oh, Dan,” her voice slurring as if high on the champagne she had been saving for New Year’s Eve, “and do you think that was milk you were pouring into your coffee? Pity I’m having to say it a week early, but, “bottom’s up.” Copyright © Jane Frank 2009

Visit Jane’s website at : www.wow-art.com

- 58 -


JANE FRANK

Worlds of Wonder Art 20th Anniversary Issue Catalog 25 Amazing selection of original artwork for sale! Browse online or order the printed version from... www.wow-art.com - 59 -


MARC-ANTHONY TAYLOR

W

arm air filled the car with a gentle whirr, barely audible above the Christmas hits the radio played without interruption, protecting Patrick from the cold Christmas eve outside. His fingers tapped out the various beats on the steering wheel, his mind wandering to the woman he had left on the bed. Face down, blond hair splayed across her naked back, sheets crumpled just above her buttocks. He could still smell her perfume, still see the outline of her legs beneath the covers. She was beautiful. Her blue eyes had been warm and her voice deep and rich, her whole being inviting. He didn't feel guilty, he loved his wife and so had to ease the pressure he felt with others. If she knew she would surely understand. But it was better for her if she did not know. The kids would be asleep by the time he got home, trying their hardest to fall asleep so that morning would come all the sooner. Karen would be waiting for him with a Scotch in her hand. They would finish wrapping the presents and then go to bed together, a happily married couple. There would be no arguing and no blame. As far as Patrick could remember they hadn't had a fight since his first. It was hard for him to believe that it had been almost a year ago that he had first killed.

"Yes, darling. I won't be much longer than two hours, I'll be back before two. Love you." The hands free made a bleep sound and the radio came back on. The motor-way was almost deserted, just the odd business mum or dad rushing to get home to see the look of joy on their kid's faces as they ripped into their carefully wrapped presents. Despite the lack of cars, Patrick kept within the speed limit. It wasn't just about not wanting to draw attention to himself, he truly did not want to cause anyone any harm. It was his favourite time of year. Patrick was a Christmas person, he always had the tree up thirteen days before and after, his cards were always on time. Although his children were too old to believe in Santa he still put out the milk, biscuit and carrot, and one present under the tree was from 'Santa'. It was just such a happy time. Snow started to drift lazily from the sky and ahead Patrick saw hazard lights blinking furiously on the hard-shoulder. Without a second thought he slowed and pulled over, his headlights illuminating the license plate of the small red - 60 -


MARC-ANTHONY TAYLOR car: HLPR 13. Leaning against the car, wearing only a pair of jeans and a tight red t-shirt, was a strange little man. He was shorter than any adult Patrick had ever met, yet didn't seem like a child or a dwarf, the proportions were different, somehow conveying maturity. The man's face was both boyish and manly, and was almost split in half by a wide, friendly grin. "Wonderful," the man said as Patrick opened the door. "Thought I'd be here all night. On a Christmas eve too." His voice was much deeper than Patrick had expected, rougher. "Any chance of a lift?" Before Patrick could open his mouth to say yes, he heard a click as the passenger door was opened. "Thanks mate, you won't forget it. The name's Eoin. Nice to meet you." he said and pulled the door closed with a thud. Patrick didn't know what to say. Well, he thought, good will to all men and all that. He smiled at the strange man and slid behind the steering wheel. "So Patrick, what is it you do?" Eoin asked, his hand dialling down the hot air from the vent in front of him. "What's got you out on the road at this time of night?" Eoin had turned the radio off as soon as he had seated himself, so they could talk more easily, he said. Not wanting to be rude, Patrick had said nothing, waiting for the little man to start talking. When he didn't, his mind began to wander thinking about how his children would look in the morning, how his wife would welcome him once he had dropped his passenger off. He thought about pale, alabaster skin that had finger shaped purple marks around it's neck, of the fading red of those cherry lips. Eoin's question brought him out of his reverie, confusing him for a moment. "I, er, I'm a sales rep. I was down in London to meet with some clients and you?" "Me? Oh I'm workin tonight too. Busiest night of the year so it is." "And what is it you do? If you don't mind me asking, of course." He was starting to wonder why he had stopped, even if it was the season. Eoin turned in his seat, his dark brown eyes fixed on Patrick. The corners of his mouth pulled outwards revealing two rows of sparkling white teeth. "I work for Santa." - 61 -


MARC-ANTHONY TAYLOR A minute went by in stunned silence as Patrick tried to convince himself that he didn't believe what he had just heard. But he did, it was completely illogical, but he did. Ever since childhood he had been in love with Christmas. He had dreamed of Santa coming down the chimney, of Rudolph flying through the night sky. He always made sure he was on his best behaviour in the run-up to Christmas. He helped his mother and carried the neighbours shopping for them. Now it was paying off. He felt like a five year old again. "You can close your mouth you know." The little man winked at him. "You really work for Santa Claus?" His own voice sounded high and childlike to his ears. "Yep." said Eoin, powering down the window and spitting. "It's not all like you'd expect though. Not since he lost all that weight anyway." He spat again then let the window back up. Patrick barely noticed, his mind filled with Christmas decorations, Santa suits and elves. "Wait. Wait, you're an elf?" He asked, taking his eyes from the road. "Watch it." Said Eoin gesturing at the windscreen. "For lack of a better word yes. And don't start with that 'little helper' stuff, that's just rude." Patrick took a moment to gather himself, fixing his eyes on the road. He couldn't think clearly at all and his nose was full of the scent of cinnamon. Santa Claus. Elves. "So what are you doing out here? Are you delivering things?" His voice almost broke in his excitement. A real elf! "Nah, we don't do that anymore. Not for a while now." The elf sounded bored and had begun to rummage about in his pockets. Patrick looked agahst. "You don't?" He whispered, again taking his eyes from the road. Eoin gestured again at the road and removed a silver PDA from his pocket. He started jabbing at buttons, seemingly randomly. "Have your kids ever got a present from the old man that you didn't buy?" "Well, no but..." "There you go then. We deal with the other stuff nowadays. We still have a couple of factories up in Lapland, of course. They churn out all manner of technological wonders, no more little wooden toys. We sell them on to the bigger companies, make not a bad profit neither." Eoin stopped tapping and - 62 -


MARC-ANTHONY TAYLOR sighed. He placed the PDA back in his pocket and withdrew a flask. "Drink?" Patrick shook his head. This was all wrong. This wasn't what Christmas was supposed to be. Where was the singing and the tinsel? "Suit yourself." Eoin tipped the flask back, and swallowed loudly. "We do lots of charity work too. We help out those that need it. And the list of course." Patricks heart caught at the mention of the list. Finally something familiar. "You mean the naughty and nice list? Like in the song?" A measure of cheer had crept back into his voice. It faded when he looked at the elf, whose face had turned stern. "What is it?" "You were always a good boy when you were younger. You helped Mrs Harren when she broke her hip. You didn't complain when you didn't always get what you wanted. Yes you were good." His deep, rough voice grew darker. Patrick began to worry, he didn't like the sound of what the elf was saying. "Even as an adult, you were never mean. You gave to charity and you didn't raise your hand in anger." "I think it's time you got out." Patrick managed to mumble. "I don't know what you think you are doing but I have had enough." He eased his foot from the accelerator and began to apply the brake. "Enough. Yes you have had enough." The elf said and grinned again. This time the sparkling white rows where parted, showing sharp points. "You made your way to the naughty side and you won't be getting any presents this year. Patrick screamed and slammed his foot on the brake, smashing his head on the wheel. He blanked out for a second and when he came to the car was on it's side and the elf was crouching over him. Eoin's eyes glittered in the fire that had started in the hood, his grin impossibly wide. "You're the last on my list tonight. Should have been a good boy." He snarled. Patrick screamed once as teeth tore into his face. He had always been such a good boy. Copyright Š Marc-Anthony Taylor 2009

Marc lives in Vienna, where he makes ends meet by teaching English in his Scottish accent. He was never on Santa's good list and always avoids elves around Christmas. This is his first published story. You can visit his blog at : http://gileadslostson.blogspot.com. All comments welcome. - 63 -


LEE MOAN

“T

he grotto is going to be completely different this year,” the shop assistant said, stuffing the groceries into the bag with great force. “Santa is seeing the children alone. No parents.” “Really?” Epiphany said. “How come?” The girl paused and leant over. “Mr Blackley says the parents are worse than the children. Always interfering, ruining the whole ‘Christmas vibething’.” “Mr Blackley is still the store manager here?” The girl’s forehead wrinkled. “Yeah, why wouldn’t he be?” “Leilani, didn’t you say a while ago that Mr Blackley had . . . wandering hands?” “No, I didn’t.” Epiphany tilted her head and examined the girl. “Leilani, you’re the girl with all the gossip. You told me a couple of weeks ago that Blackley groped your friend Tanya in the store cupboard.” Leilani finished pricing up Epiphany’s shopping and stared into the distance. “That must have been a misunderstanding. Mr Blackley would never do that. Mr Blackley is definitely not a pervert. In fact, he’s really nice.” “Nice? Really?” Epiphany frowned. “Perverts can be nice, too, you know.” “Not Mister Blackley.” She hit the total button on the till. “That’s twenty-six ninety.” Epiphany handed over her card. “So who’s Santa this year?” “Mr Blackley is doing it himself,” Leilani said. “Don’t you think that’s amazing? There aren’t many store managers who would devote their time to dressing up as Santa.” “No,” Epiphany said, a deep groove of concern on her brow. “No, there aren’t.” The card machine beeped and Leilani handed back the card. “Thank you for shopping at Quentin's,” she said with a bright smile. “Leilani?” Epiphany said. “Yes, miss?” “Stay out of the store cupboard.” Epiphany walked to the front of the store and approached a young girl with bobbed dark hair who was sifting through a dump box of bargain CDs. - 64 -


LEE MOAN “Find anything interesting?” The younger girl didn’t look up, sorting through the noisy plastic cases with great determination. “There’s a Lighthouse CD in here, I know it. I sensed it as soon as I walked past the box.” “Jade,” Epiphany said, “you’re such a loser.” “No. It’s here. I know it.” “Jade, if you want a Lighthouse CD I can get you one from Amazon. You don’t have to rummage through thrift boxes.” Jade said nothing, pulling out handfuls of CD cases and stuffing them under her arm. “I’m not having my sister spending her hard-earned money on a CD when I know for sure that it’s here in this bargain box for two-ninety-nine.” Epiphany shook her head. “Jade, listen, there’s something I need to tell you.” “I found it! See!” Jade held up the CD, brandishing it with an air of triumph. “Lighthouse. Wonderful,” Epiphany said. “Listen, Jade. There’s something you need to know.” Jade’s shoulders slumped and she rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Please don’t tell me you’ve met another cute checkout guy and asked him for a date.” “No, my feeble-minded little sister, I think there’s something sinister about the manager of this store and he may be planning something . . . Something to do with the Christmas grotto.” “Okay,” Jade said without pause. “Epiphany, do you have three quid? I spent the money you gave me on a Frappe.” “My sister, the loser,” Epiphany said, reaching for her purse with a heavy sigh. “So why do you suspect the manager of Quentin's Department Store is up to no good?” Jade asked. “Just some things the checkout girl said. Don’t you think a store manager dressing up as Santa is odd? And Leilani changing her story like that. I remember her very clearly telling me about him have wandering hands. Now it’s like . . . like she’s been brainwashed. This Mr Blackley . . . I don’t know. I just get a bad feeling about him.” “A bad feeling,” Jade said. “Right.” She took the proffered money from her sister and they headed back - 65 -


LEE MOAN towards the checkout. “So what do you propose we do about it?” Jade asked. “About Blackley, I mean.” “I’ve arranged to see him this afternoon.” “What about?” “A job position.” “For what?” “One of Santa’s elves.” Jade laughed. “You are way too old to be playing an elf.” Epiphany looked at her sister with eyebrows raised. Jade’s smile evaporated. “No. No way!” “Gee. And you’re the one with the psychic ability.” Mister Blackley was not what the sisters had expected. They were both sitting outside his office when they first caught sight of the short, squat, sandy-haired figure approaching down the brightly-lit corridor at a brisk pace. His pronounced paunch shuddered persistently as he walked, mesmerising the two sisters for a few moments. He stopped in front of them and fixed a smile on his round face. “Ah, you must be the Crowe sisters,” he said. Epiphany stood up first, extending her arm for a formal handshake. Blackley grabbed her wrist and kissed the back of her hand. She glanced at Jade who communicated her unease with a quick widening of the eyes. He turned to Jade and was in the process of reaching for her wrist when Epiphany intervened. “This is Jade, Mr Blackley, my very young sister.” Blackley’s hand hovered in the space between them before he reached up and ran it through his hair. “Well, nice to meet you both. Come into my office, girls,” he said, resuming his over-confident air. He thrust the door open and motioned for them to enter. His office was a summation of the man: bland, malodorous, and shabby. They sat in the two chairs on the near side of the desk while Blackley slipped sideways past a massive pile of DVDs to reach his own swivel chair. He dropped into it and observed them for a few seconds, palms pressed together as if in prayer. - 66 -


LEE MOAN “So,” he said eventually. “I understand you’ve applied to be Santa’s elves?” Epiphany raised a quick finger. “Not both of us,” she said, “just my sister.” Blackley’s fixed grin waned. He glanced at Jade and his nose wrinkled slightly. “Oh. That’s a shame. I bet you would look amazing in one of our elf outf--” Blackley suddenly went rigid, gripping the edge of the desk with his right hand and making an eerie humming sound through his lips. Eventually, the humming stopped but Blackley continued to stare ahead, his eyes red and watery. “Are you all right?” Epiphany asked. “Fine, fine,” he said, shifting in his chair. “I’ve got this awful boil. It causes me great pain now and then.” He sat back. “Anyway, about the job.” He appraised Jade with his bulging eyes. “What size are you, my dear?” “Uh, size eight,” Jade said, still recovering from the information about the boil. “Slim fit, I guess.” “Hm,” Blackley said. “I suppose you’re pretty enough.” Epiphany saw Jade’s lips press together in a tight pout. “I’ll see if we have an outfit in your size,” Blackley said, rising from his chair with sudden energy. “Wait here. I’ll be two ticks,” he said and vanished from the room. Epiphany and Jade looked at the closed door for a few seconds. “Well, what do you think?” Epiphany asked. “What do I think?” Jade said in a high-pitched whisper. “Oh . . . My . . . God! Pervert? Uh, yeah! Weird rating? Uh, seven-point-five on the creep-out scale. And as for the boil-thing…” “Yes, yes,” Epiphany said. “You don’t need to be psychic to see all that. But what about the stuff most people can’t see?” Jade glanced round at the closed door, then turned back with a grave expression on her young features. “His aura, Pip. His aura is seriously messed up.” “What do you mean … messed up?” Jade shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. Most weirdoes, their auras are usually dark, or at least darkened, muted. But Mister Blackley’s … I can’t see his aura at all. It’s like … like there’s something in the way.” “You’ve lost me, Jade.” - 67 -


LEE MOAN The door opened and Blackley skipped into the room holding a brightlycoloured elf costume in a polythene bag. “Would you like to try it on now?” he asked with a broad grin. Jade glared at him. “Honest answer? No way.” Blackley’s amiable expression darkened. “You don’t want this job then?” Epiphany kicked her sister’s ankle under the chair. Jade looked at her. Epiphany made a ‘behave’ gesture with her eyes. Jade took a deep breath, then said, “Of course I want this job, Mr Blackley. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if I couldn’t dress up in this wonderful costume.” “Excellent!” Blackley said, thrusting the outfit into her arms. “I’ll just turn my back while you undress. Don’t want people thinking I’m a pervert, do we?” “No, of course we don’t,” Jade said. She looked round at her sister and slowly mouthed the words, ‘I am so going to kill you’. Epiphany stood on the balcony of their house, looking down over the gardens below. The night lights had come on a few moments before. She loved being out here at this time: the sun sinking below the horizon, the night life chirping out its evening chorus. Through the open French doors behind her she heard the sound of Jade’s footsteps as she entered the lounge. “Pip, have you seen that old cigar box of Dad’s? The one with the sailors on it?” “Sideboard I think,” she called back. After a pause, she asked, “What do you want it for?” Jade didn’t answer. The sideboard doors opened and then banged closed. Epiphany wandered inside and found her sister leaning against the sideboard and looking through the open cigar box. “What are you after?” Jade pulled out a silver chain with a pendant and held it up to the light. “This.” Epiphany stepped up to her shoulder and cupped the pendant in her palm, examining it closely. It was a solid silver ellipse. The design was unusual -- a snake wrapped around a strange unidentified creature with a solitary heavylidded eye. - 68 -


LEE MOAN “That is so freaky,” she said. “I don’t know why Dad kept it.” “He gave it to me,” Jade said and Epiphany caught the hard edge in her voice. “I didn’t know that.” “On my twelfth birthday. He gave it to me and said . . .” Emotion stole her voice for a moment. She took a deep breath. “He said ‘you know you’re special, Jade. More special than you could know. This is for the time when things start to come through’. I never understood what he meant, but he said I would one day.” Epiphany studied her sister. Jade had really suffered these past few years. When they lost their parents Jade had nosedived into a terrible depression. It had been Epiphany’s biggest challenge in life so far, pulling her little sister out of the pit of despair whilst still trying to come to terms with the loss herself. The experience had made them closer, so close. Now they were inseparable. Of the two sisters, Jade had been the one who inherited all the unique powers: as well as her psychic ability Jade was able to see auras and sometimes move things with her mind. There was also an immense latent power which both of them sensed but had not yet come to the fore. In terms of ability, Epiphany was like a candle to Jade’s flaming inferno. But again, when they were close together her own meagre power (a highly-tuned sixth sense) seemed amplified by her little sister. On the rare occasions when they were separated, she felt empty and powerless; but together Epiphany felt they could take on the world. “What made you think of the pendant now?” Epiphany asked. Jade placed the chain around her neck, running her fingertips over the pendant‘s carvings. “I don’t know. I’d just feel better having something of Dad’s with me tomorrow, that’s all.” Epiphany nodded. “Jade, I was really proud of you today. I asked you to do something I knew you would hate doing and yet you did it and didn’t even complain once.” “Really? I seem to recall telling you I was going to kill you.” “Oh yes. Apart from that.” “And I said you were a paranoid idiot with way too much time on your hands.” Epiphany wrinkled her nose. “Okay, you complained a little bit, but - 69 -


LEE MOAN nowhere near as much as I expected.” She paused. “Do you think I’m paranoid?” “No. Not this time. That doesn’t mean to say you haven’t been wrong before, but I don’t do these things for you because I know you’re usually right.” “Then why do you?” Jade looked down. “I do it because I know your heart is in the right place.” The sentiment took Epiphany’s breath away. She reached out and pulled her sister towards her. “When did my little sister turn into such a sweetheart?” “Enough,” Jade said, making a show of pushing her away. “You’re making me sick.” They fell into a natural silence, both of them staring out at different parts of the Crowe estate. Their parents had left them so much. “Mum and Dad would be so proud of you,” Epiphany said. “Mum and Dad are proud of you,” Jade replied. They looked at each other and Epiphany saw tears in her sister’s eyes. She knew what her sister was hinting at -- had suspected her sister was able to communicate with their parents in some way -- but decided not to pursue the subject further. Now wasn’t the time. Epiphany drifted around the lingerie department, watching her sister at work in front of the grotto entrance. It was impressive: not the usual cardboard façade, but a stylish makeup of a cave complete with what looked like glittering jewels in the walls. Jade held a sign which read: SANTA’S GROTTO OPENS TODAY AT 4PM. There were two other staff members dressed in elf outfits; one of them Epiphany recognised as Leilani, the checkout girl. She was dutifully tending to the children who came up to the perimeter, entertaining them by pulling silly faces and performing strange elf-like dances. The second elf was a young man with a surfer goatee. He appeared to be busy texting someone on his iPhone. Jade met her sister’s gaze and made a ‘come-here’ motion with her head. There was no sign of Mr Blackley yet, so Epiphany decided to wander over. “Everything okay?” Epiphany asked. “Apart from being dressed like a prize idiot? Yeah, it’s all good. But . . . There’s something wrong.” - 70 -


LEE MOAN “What do you mean?” Jade pressed her fingertips against her temple. “I can’t put my finger on it. Something that should be obvious.” “So my hunch was right?” “Maybe.” She looked round at the other two elves. “Everything seems fine on the surface but I feel . . .” “Feel what?” Just then a booming voice echoed across the grotto area. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Several children squealed and a few parents applauded. All eyes were fixed on the back of the cave entrance where a figure in traditional red and white ambled out into full view. “Merry Christmas!” Blackley bellowed. His Santa costume was distinctly unimpressive. The white beard barely covered his chin, the fabric of the suit was frayed at the seams and there were buttons missing from the jacket. “Hello children!” he said. “The grotto is now open!” Cheers went up around the store. “Now who’s going to be first into my grotto?” Blackley’s eyes alighted on a young brown-haired boy in a tank top. “How about you, young man? What’s your name?” “Freddie,” the boy replied. “Freddie! What a fabulous name. Would you like to come through?” “Can my sister come too?” the boy asked, pointing at the blonde, pigtailed girl standing beside him. Blackley hesitated, then his face spread into a grin again. “Of course. More the merrier.” “Everything looks fine to me,” Epiphany whispered. “I know,” Jade said. “That’s why I can’t understand how I feel this way. I mean, what’s he going to do? What can he do with me and the other two watching?” Behind her, Blackley clicked his fingers. “Elves, bring these delightful children through to my grotto, would you?” “Duty calls,” Epiphany said. Jade’s expression was grave as she backed away. “There’s something different about the store, Pip. Look around. What’s different?” - 71 -


LEE MOAN Epiphany watched them disappear through the cave entrance, a terrible churning heat growing in her stomach. She turned and looked across the expanse of the department store floor. Everything seemed the same as it always was. There was the perfume counter, the assistants dutifully spraying passersby with the latest scents; there was the sports section, the young staff laughing and goofing around with the ski equipment. And then there were the numerous clothing sections. Epiphany wandered over to the ladies fitting department. A middle-aged woman was holding a red evening dress in front of her and frantically looking around for something. She eventually strode over to the nearest sales assistant. “Excuse me,” she said, unable to hide the annoyance in her voice, “can I please try this on? I can’t seem to find a mirror.” “Of course, madam. The changing rooms are over there.” Epiphany watched the woman disappear through the curtained area at the far wall. She scanned the clothing department, looking at each of the square columns which punctuated the department store. The columns were bare. She approached the nearest one and touched the plaster. There were screw holes where the mirror had been, and a shaded area around the empty space. A shop assistant appeared behind her. “Hello, miss. Anything I can help you with?” “Where are the mirrors?” Epiphany asked. “Excuse me?” the girl said. “Where have all the mirrors gone?” The girl stiffened. “The store manager had them removed.” “Why?” “Well, I don’t really know. He said it was something to do with customers being more likely to purchase items if they go to the effort of trying them on rather than just seeing them in the mirror.” “Mr Blackley removed all the mirrors?” “Yes, miss.” Epiphany looked over at the grotto. The children, her sister, were out of sight . . . “Where are they?” - 72 -


LEE MOAN “I‘m sorry?” “The mirrors!” Epiphany said. “Where are they?” “The store room,” the girl replied, flustered and not happy about being shouted at. “Show me!” When Epiphany burst into the grotto, she found a subdued, prosaic scene. Santa/Mr Blackley sat on the throne with brother and sister, Freddie and Samantha, on each knee. The two shop assistants, Leilani and the goatee-surfer guy, were standing by a large open sack but their eyes seemed glazed over, unfocused. Jade was standing near the doorway, holding her head between her hands. “Jade!” Epiphany shouted. Jade looked up as her sister brushed past her carrying a large full-length mirror. Her face was etched with pain. “Jade! It’s the mirrors!” Epiphany slammed the mirror against the facing wall and stood back. The reflected image of the grotto behind them shook. A tremor ran through the room as the glass of the mirror convulsed. A steady roaring sound appeared from nowhere, filling the air around them. The mirror cracked diagonally from top to bottom. Epiphany grabbed Jade’s arm and dragged her over to the mirror. Jade looked into the trembling glass, squinting against the pain in her head. The vision of Santa sitting on the throne was no longer the portly image of Mr Blackley: the face was ashen-white, the cheeks sunken, bloodshot eyes wide and piercing and filled with malevolence. Somewhere amidst that fake beard, Epiphany thought she saw tentacles. Writhing tentacles, wet with blood and mucus. “Epiphany!” Jade said, unable to take her eyes off the macabre image in the mirror. “It’s a perception demon! Mr Blackley must be possessed. The demon is masking its true form.” “What do we do?” Epiphany said. Jade looked at her sister, a fearful look in her eyes. She shook her head. Then her hand went to the pendant as she subconsciously sought reassurance. As her fingers closed over it Epiphany saw the silver ignite with a - 73 -


LEE MOAN strange amber glow. “Jade, look.” “I know.” The roaring sound grew louder. The grotto walls shook violently. “I know what’s coming!” Jade said. She stepped up to the mirror, keeping her eyes fixed on the growling figure seated on the throne behind her. “Demon!” Jade shouted. “Demon, I see you!” The demon threw back its head and barked laughter. “And what are you going to do, little girl?” “Drive you out!” “Oh, really?” the demon cackled. “I am warning you now. Leave this man alone! Leave those children be! Leave this place now!” The demon laughed again. “Never! I want their souls, I want their hopes, their dreams! I will feed on them and there is nothing you can do!” Jade tightened her grip on the pendant and closed her eyes. Epiphany backed away. Jade tilted her head back, her face to the sky, eyes still shut. Her figure began to glow with a blinding auburn halo: the colour of autumn, the colour of fire, the early morning sun on the horizon. The howling wind grew in intensity. Epiphany had to cover her ears. The two helpers did the same, their faces now white with terror and panic. Jade’s eyes snapped open, filled with a searing amber light. And when she spoke her voice filled the grotto; to Epiphany, her voice seemed to fill the entire world. “SEE ME . . .” The demon stopped laughing, appeared to choke on something. “SEE ME!” Blackley stared at the mirror, unable to draw his eyes away from the vision now sending bright auburn light out into the grotto. Epiphany followed his gaze and looked into the mirror and saw what she had been so afraid of -- her sister, transformed. The vision in the mirror was like an angel, but not the image of an angel most people were used to. The wings were huge, but not feathered: they - 74 -


LEE MOAN appeared to be made of fire, with a strange, hot liquid running off them onto the floor. Her sister’s body was impossibly thin but filled with latent power. Just before Epiphany tore her eyes away she noticed that her sister’s reflection was floating just a few inches off the ground. Her eyes were burning pits of swirling heat. “SEE ME NOW!” The demon let out a howl. The two terrified children dropped from its lap and scrabbled away across the grotto floor. The elf-helpers cowered in the corner, openly weeping with fear. The demon stood up and arched its head back. A strange gargling sound emerged and Epiphany saw a stream of yellowish gas escape from between the mass of writhing tentacles. The cloud of gas coalesced in the air above him and after a moment it lurched forward, streaking across the grotto and pounding into the surface of the mirror. The mirror exploded, fragments of glass shattering in every direction. Blackley slumped back onto the throne. In that moment, all light vanished from the room. When Epiphany stepped out the front doors of Quentin's, she found her sister sitting on the cold stone steps, hands clutching her knees, staring out into the shifting fall of snow. She was still in her elf costume. In silence the two sisters observed the scene out in the street: the twitching form of Mr Blackley was strapped onto a gurney being carefully loaded into the rear of the ambulance. There was no urgency about the operation. Epiphany knew the entire incident was already being regarded as just another store manager suffering an anxiety attack brought on by the stress of the holiday season. The two shop assistants, Leilani and the goatee guy, stood by the ambulance taking to one of the medics. They appeared confused about the entire incident, but otherwise sane. Eventually the ambulance pulled away into the snow-obscured traffic. Epiphany looked at her sister for a long moment before sitting down on the step next to her. “You okay?” Jade nodded, still staring ahead. “Jade . . . did you know something like that was going to happen?” - 75 -


LEE MOAN Jade’s fingers closed over the pendant. “Not really. I had a feeling, that was all. Well, more than a feeling. Last night . . . Dad spoke to me.” Epiphany felt a rush of goose bumps on her arms. “What did he say?” “He said I would need this. He said I had to wear it.” “Did he know what would happen to you?” Jade thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Don’t know. I just knew I had to let it happen.” “That was very risky.” “So?” “So . . . I don’t like it when my little sister risks so much. It goes against my big sister instincts.” Jade looked at her. “But that’s what we’re here for isn’t it? That’s what you’re always saying . . . what Dad always used to say. We have these gifts. If we don’t use them to help people, what good are they?” Epiphany nodded. “All the same. I wish there had been a safer solution.” “So do I.” Jade’s face creased as she thought back over the events in the grotto. “What happened to me, Pip? What did I turn into?” Epiphany recalled the terrifying image and blinked rapidly. She gripped her sister’s cold hand in her own. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t know.” Just then the doors opened behind them and the two children from the grotto emerged with their parents. They both looked pale, their eyes searching the world around them before continuing down the steps. “Do you think they’ll be okay?” Jade asked. “They’ll probably forget about it in time. Although I bet they’ll be terrified of Santa Claus for the rest of their lives. They won’t be the only ones.” “That demon would have taken their souls, Pip.” Jade shook her head. “And they have no idea, do they? They didn’t even look at us just then. If it wasn’t for you . . .” “Me?” “Yeah, it’s you people need to thank, Pip. If you hadn’t had that hunch…” “I guess.” Jade exhaled a large cloud of breath. “Anyway, it’s over now. You still haven’t told me what you want for Christmas.” They smiled together, leaning against each other. - 76 -


LEE MOAN The entrance doors flew open again and a dark-haired young man walked out dressed in the Quentin's Department Store uniform. He paused a few feet away and smiled at Epiphany, making a ‘phone-me’ gesture with his right hand. Epiphany nodded, waving as the young man skipped off down the steps. “I think I’ve already got my present worked out for this Christmas thanks,” she said, feeling heat rising in her face. Jade shook her head and looked up at the night sky. “You are such a loser.” “What? He’s nice.” “Loser!” Jade said, announcing it to the world. They laughed together before descending into a natural silence. “Do you know what I really want for Christmas?” Epiphany said. Jade caught a snowflake in her palm and watched it melt. “No, what?” “Christmas with my little sister,” she said, catching her own snowflake. “There really is nothing else like it.” Copyright © Lee Moan 2009

Lee Moan is currently living on the south coast of England with his wife and four children. By day he works as a nursery officer in a pre-school. He is also studying for an Open University degree in Literature (four years down, two to go!) And somewhere amidst all that, writes stories. One of his earliest influences was Stephen King, whose books and stories he began reading in his early teens (which may account for his rather warped view of the world). Later literary heroes include Terry Brooks, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Michael Chabon, John Irving, China Mieville, HG Wells, Douglas Adams, Tolkien, Agatha Christie... the list goes on. He had his first short story acceptance in September 2004, a flash fiction piece entitled Probability and Chaos, which appeared in issue 76 of Antipodean SF. Since then Lee's had over thirty stories accepted, some in print, some on the web, but all of which he is proud of. Lee can be found online at : http://leemoan.blogspot.com

- 77 -


FESTIVE IMAGES

Revenant :Ben Baldwin 2009

www.benbaldwin.co.uk - 78 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO

P

eter watched the wooden cuckoo clock ticking upwards toward the day of Christmas Eve, while younger brother Jack completed the finishing touches on the presents for the others on the big pine table behind him. “Only a few more minutes, Jack, and then it’s Christmas Eve.” “And then only a day and then it’s Christmas Day.” Jack replied. It was a special day in more ways than one. The pair was the eldest siblings in the family, and they had policed their younger brothers and sisters like the secret police. Ever since the Rites of the New Year, they had done all they could to ensure the safe return of their parents this year. “Do you think we’ve done good enough, Peter? I wonder which of the twelve will deliver them.” Peter did not have an answer for his younger brother. It could have been any one of them. Of course, like all good boys and girls, he hoped for Greatfather Hansel. He was the country’s greatest hero, and wore a gold-and-silver gilded coat and a magnificent shining beard. They said that his laughter melted snow and made flowers bloom from the earth. They said that great flocks of painted singing birds followed in his wake. And they said that his mere touch could bring longevity and good fortune to anyone he chose to bestow his blessing upon. But he dreaded a visit from any of the other eleven. Even the most banal of the other Greatfathers could be terrible in their own ways. From the gray Greatfather Anders, who brought only boredom and dullness with him, all the way down the line to Greatfather Hades - a Greatfather who brought only his appetite for wicked children for Christmas. Then the clock hit midnight and the wooden bird crashed forth from its tiny shutters. It rattled him from his thoughts, and then it was suddenly Christmas Eve. “One day to go,” said Peter. “One day to go,” confirmed Jack. In the morning, the pale sunlight brought with it the sounds of bombing to their ears. The noises were closer than the day before. They had been bombed before, but not for a very long time. It was quite clear that the village was soon to be bombed again. Or was it something else this time? It was unusual for the enemy to advance on Christmas Eve. Not - 79 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO because of their charitable natures, but because the twelve Greatfathers would be lurking the skies at this time of the year. By the afternoon, they could hear the sounds of gunfire echoing through the air and Jack led the younger children into the root cellar where they would be safe. The two eldest boys stayed inside the house. Someone would need to defend their food and belongings, even if they were unenthusiastic about the job. There was still a day to go before Christmas, and they still needed to do the right things or they would attract the attentions of the wrong Greatfather. Shortly before dark, there was a knock on their door. It was a loud, pounding and authoritative knock. It was the knock of a soldier and not a timid neighbor. It was too early for a Greatfather to arrive. “I’ll get the door.” Peter told his brother. The door swung open and the interior of their cottage exploded in red as the tainted light leaked in from the outside. There was a soldier standing there, towering above Peter in his enemy uniform. His left epaulette had been singed by fire, and his right one was completely gone, burned off by fire. His face was blackened with fighting, and around his waist he wore a belt of severed heads. Some of these Peter recognized from town. The soldier pointed his rifle at Peter and asked him where his parents were. “Our parents are dead!” Jack piped up from the background. “You killed them last year!” It was a clever ploy, Peter thought, to tug at the heartstrings of the enemy. After all, they were just men, and not every man could stomach the slaughter of children whether they were at war or not. But it was also a lie, and that jeopardized that they would see Greatfather Anders and their parents this year. Peter just hoped that it was a well-placed lie in the eyes of their national heroes. That it would not lead to undoing their year’s worth of hard work. The man grunted in response. “Do you have any money, food or water?” This - they couldn’t lie about. If they said no, he would wonder why they were so healthy and well-fed and perhaps even call the boys on their earlier lie too. But they had prepared well in a case such as this. Peter walked across the cottage floor to open the pot-bellied stove where they stored a pile of bread crumbs. - 80 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO “This is what we have left. You’re welcome to it.” The soldier wrinkled his nose at their offering. But he seemed to buy their story, and then he turned around and left. It wasn’t a moment after midnight when another knock came at their door. The children were still downstairs, safe in the basement. As a heavy hand fell across the cottage door, Peter and Jack woke and looked up across the cottage at one another, startled by how quickly the Greatfather had arrived. Jack motioned to Peter to get the door, and the older boy hurried across the moonlight to answer it. There was a moment where he thought for certain he would open the door to greet Greatfather Hansel’s shining visage. After a full year of being an adult, he let himself, only for a few seconds, be a boy again with his exuberance that their parents would be returning. Peter felt the same way. From the other side of the room, he stamped his feet on the cottage floor and twirled around and around in an excitable dance with anticipation for what this Christmas would bring them. But when Peter opened the door, a great swarm of flies whooshed in with the wintery air, and Greatfather Coprophage, dressed in his red, brown, and rust colored coat, stood grinning on the furthest side of the fly cloud. They knew him from the storybooks. He brought the only thing he knew with him, to liars, mostly. And that was the gift of defecation. “Oh no!” cried Jack. “It didn’t work!” “Run!” shouted Peter. He tried to close the door shut, but Greatfather Coprophage had already placed a stout arm out and easily pushed his way inside. The flies were terrible. They were everywhere. They were in Peter’s eyes and ears and his mouth. They tried to drink from his tear ducts and the corners of his mouth, and he could do very little except thrash about in a hopeless effort to keep them off of him. His brother, Jack, couldn’t run. He could only stand in abject horror as Greatfather Coprophage stood in the center of the cottage and loosened his stained trousers in preparation for delivering the boys their special Christmas gift. - 81 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO But then, moments before releasing his bowels upon their otherwise wellswept floor, Jack snapped into action. He picked the fire prod from beside the wood stove and charged the Greatfather. “No, no, no. We’ve been good! We’ve been well-behaved all year! This can’t be happening!” He brought the steel prod down on the squatting saint’s head, knocking his fur-lined cap askew. His action caught the Greatfather’s attention. It made him pause in mid-defecation. “Good? No.” His voice sounded like the buzzing of fly wings that surrounded them. Supernatural, certainly, but his response only upset Jack more. He brought the fire prod down on Greatfather Corprophage’s skull again. This time, he knocked his cap clean off his head to reveal a patchy scalp and thin gray hair. “Wicked boys,” the Greatfather told them as he did up his pants again. “Wicked, wicked boys that only deserve one visit from one Greatfather this year.” Jack hit him again with the fire prod. “... AND NOT FROM ME.” He added with a roar. With that, Greatfather Coprophage picked his cap off the ground and stormed from the cottage. The flies that blinded Peter slowly faded as their visitor took his leave, and he picked their smeared insect remains from his mouth while Jack checked to make sure that he was okay. “What happens now, Peter? Do we wait another year? I’m sorry I lied, yesterday.” But it wasn’t Jack’s fault, Peter knew this. They were only protecting themselves and the others from the enemy soldier. “It’s okay, Jack,” he told his brother, patting him on the head. “But I think that Greatfather Hades is coming now. I think we might be in trouble.” Jack nodded his head in understanding at the gravity of their new situation, but his eyes were also filled with great sadness. Peter was sad too, but he didn’t want to show weakness in front of his younger brother. They needed to be strong if they were going to figure a way out of this one together. “This is going to be hard, Jack. But they won’t be returning Mama and Papa to us – at least not this year. They are going to try and eat us, though.” “What are we going to do?” Peter looked around the cottage. The two boys had never known another - 82 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO home. If his plan worked, they would both have to work even harder next year to try and behave in the eyes of the twelve Greatfathers. “Come on,” he said and started to leave the safety of the cottage. “I think there are tools in the shed out back. I have a plan.” Jack beamed then. “I love plans!” But Peter noted that he didn’t put the fire prod down when they left their home. They gathered supplies from the tool shed, which was surprisingly wellhidden with overgrowth from its disuse. Its invisibility was the only thing that kept it from being looted, Peter supposed. And that had worked to their advantage this year. Once they had all the supplies together inside the cottage, they went and got the other children out of the cellar. They marched their younger siblings to a neighbor’s house, long bombed out by the enemy’s mortar cannons, and hid them in what remained of the cellar there. Then they went back to the cottage and fashioned two boys out of old rags, a pile of wool stuffing, bags of carpenter nails, and a can of black paint. The counterparts did not look particularly believable, as neither boy had been apprenticed yet, but the crude dummies would have to do the trick. They placed their decoys at the threadbare table in front of the stove and doused the rest of the cottage in kerosene. Then, using an old bottle, a rag, and his father’s old lamp, Jack made a bomb of his own and then took up a wood hatchet in his spare hand. He whispered his plan to Jack. They would wait in the back, lurking in the undergrowth with their bomb for the moment that Greatfather Hades entered the cottage. When he did, Peter would light his bomb and launch it through the window. He wasn’t sure if it would work, but it might distract the Greatfather long enough for the boys to strike with fire prod and axe. If it didn’t work, they could run away and simply pray that they were faster than their anticipated visitor. It wasn’t a fantastic plan. Sherlock Holmes would have a better plan than they did. But Peter didn’t think it was too bad, given the fact that the detective was an adult, and he did not live in a country where he had to defend against - 83 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO the Greatfathers or an invading army from over the mountains. “Won’t that mean that the house will be destroyed?” Jack asked once Peter was finished telling him the plan. They both knew the answer to that one. And Greatfather Hades came for them both just as the sun was setting on that day. He had been busy with the rest of his tasked charges and his snow white beard was saturated crimson with the blood of bad children by the time that he arrived. He rode into the village on a sleigh made of old bones, carried by a pair of the largest wolves either boy had ever seen. He carried with him a sack of those body parts that he could not immediately stuff into his mouth, and an axe decorated in scalp and human hair. Greatfather Hades did not knock on their door. Instead, he peered in the front window, saw the two figures sitting by the stove, and came through the window with such ferocity that its wooden frame cracked. From the back window of the cottage, the boys watched trembling as he bit down on one of the dummies they had built and tore it like a dog might attack its owner’s favorite pillow. Peter hurried to light his homemade bomb, even as Greatfather Hades choked on the nails that they had hidden inside the dummy. When it was finally lit, Jack shattered the glass on the back window with his fire prod, and Peter hurled the bomb inside. It hit Greatfather Hades directly and he exploded in a ball of flame. The Greatfather suit was made of rough, untreated wool, and it quickly caught fire as the kerosene from the modified lamp burned hot. Even as his beard burned away, though, and the rug beneath his feet caught fire to spread it to the cottage’s curtains, Greatfather Hades simply spit the charred remains of the dummy from his mouth and peered out the back window to see who had set him ablaze. “Come on!” Jack cried, tugging on his brother’s wrist. “Quickly!” Peter let his brother lead him around to the front of the cottage, and the pair of them waited for the burning form of Greatfather Hades to exit the cottage, which was quickly going up from the fire. Thick black smoke poured out its shattered windows. He shambled from the place a burning wreck and the pair set upon him - 84 -


MICHAEL R. COLANGELO with fire prod and hatchet. At one point, Greatfather Hades curled a hand around Peter’s neck. His fingers felt as if they had been charred down to the bone and Peter’s skin blistered beneath his touch. But the fire ate away at the Greatfather’s fortitude, as did their blows. After the brief violence, the Greatfather seemed to lose his ravenous appetite for boyflesh and staggered away from them both. Peter and Jack stood and watched him crawl towards his sleigh, until he fell short and slumped over. His death rattle released a cloud of black cinder into the air, and then Greatfather Hades was no more. “We did it!” Jack cheered. Neither boy dared turn around to look at their burning cottage. “Look!” Peter exclaimed, pointing up the village road. Sure enough, two pale figures, mirage-like out of the horizon, floated a foot above the mud towards them. A man and woman they both recognized. “Mama! Papa!” Both boys dropped their weapons and rushed towards their returning parents. “We did do it Jack! We really did!” And both boys ran forward into their parent’s carrion embrace. Copyright © Michael R. Colangelo 2009

Michael R. Colangelo is a writer from Toronto. For more information please visit his blog at : www.michaelrcolangelo.blogspot.com

- 85 -


SHAUN HAMILTON

U

nder the glare of a fluorescent light filled with blackcurrant bodies of cremated flies, a beginning unfolds. The Detective Inspector is weary, his time and effort filled by a case of such magnitude the whole world is watching his every movement. 24 people have been kidnapped over the last 24 days. One a day, every day since the December 1st to this present time - even Christmas Eve saw a disappearance. Men, women and children of all ages, sizes and colours vanished; no prejudice, no distinction. Not a single element able to connect any one to the other. Some were snatched from their homes, others from work, from the streets, from the cash point – one was even taken from the pub: he’s there one minute, sitting and laughing with his friends at the office party, the next, poof. Vanished into thin air. And not a single ransom note for any of them. No wonder the detective is weary. But today, Christmas Day, everything changed. This morning, they all turned up; walking into his police station as if it’s the most natural thing to do. All 24 of them. The girl sat before him was the first to push open the door and pronounce her name. Julia August. She’s the first to be interviewed by him; the first to offer an explanation for the hardest month in the detective’s career. The first to explain what she meant when they all claimed to be deceased. Her skin is pale, as white as a snowman’s, but her blue eyes pierce at him as though they’re lasers reflecting off concave mirrors. Dying embers from Staffordshire’s first white Christmas in a decade succumb to the tangled remnants of her golden hair; shoulder-length strands tied into a ponytail with an elastic band. Her slender body is garbed in clothes much too inappropriate for the time of year – she puts the detective in mind of a young partygoer on her way back from Ibiza or one of the other ‘happening’ places he’s heard so much about but knows he will never see. Her arms, midriff and legs are exposed to the frigid elements – elements that have remained frigid despite the room’s heating – but she does not seem concerned. No pimples decorate her skin; her hands don’t rub at her nakedness in an attempt to generate warmth. The offer of a blanket was refused. She feels no fluctuations in temperature. - 86 -


SHAUN HAMILTON She insists she is dead. The detective pulls a cigarette out from the packet lodged within the pocket of his greying shirt. Lighting it, the match’s flame provides warmth to the room he feels it perhaps does not fairly deserve. He offers her one but she refuses, waving her hand in front of her as if saying hello to the smoke now filling the tight confines of the interrogation suite. He lays his hands on the table before them, pleading for some realm of sensibility. “Please, just tell me, once again, starting from the beginning, explain what happened to you; to you and the others.” “It doesn’t matter how many ways I say it, it’ll still be the same story.” “I know but please, humour me. If I’ve got to retire to the loony bin, then I would like to ensure I do so in the safe knowledge I have the correct reasons.” She laughs, enjoying the joke. He was serious. “Well, I suppose, I suppose it all started way back on December 1st. It was a Tuesday if I remember rightly…” Noddy Holder’s voice fills the air. His dulcet tones bounce along the tight confines of the bookshop’s corridors, filling the ears of all staff and patrons with the familiar lyrics of his infuriating Christmas tune. The silly season is well into its swing. Second hand copies of famous (and the not-so-famous) books open their folds, letting his screams and the artificially heated air into their hearts, suffusing the voids between their words. Scrutinizers pick up and inspect titles of interest, opening pages as a means of inspection, only to leave with a warm feeling and an empty pocket. Some ponder, others neglect, but the whole experience is shared by one and all. Christmas is here and the country’s favourite stocking filler is doing a roaring trade. Julia August is happy. 50% of her year’s takings are made in the three frantic weeks leading up to the traditional pagan ritual snatched by the Christians and she loves it. Her summer’s holiday is dictated by the amount of business generated in these few crazy days. Queues of only a couple in depth during the summer months - 87 -


SHAUN HAMILTON increase ten-fold during December and she takes full advantage: ignoring the summer sales, she ensures her trade will flock to her doors by having every kind of offer available during the one time in the year when people reluctantly have to think about others over themselves Books are always a sufficient last minute satisfier, whoever the customer. Like Julia, Catherine Cookson, Stephen King and Michael Palin all make the majority of their incomes during the passing of the advent calendar, so she ensures their titles are close to the counter, but there are others. Some surprises always manage to appear. Last year, neglected copies of the Bible were a big seller for the first time in her knowledge, whilst the year before, it had been Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. It’s with a snigger of curiosity that Julia stocks up the horror section in her shop. Which will it be this year? Satan or God? She has no time to ponder her answer. Inserting a recently obtained copy of Peter Straub’s Shadowland into its appropriate home, all Julia August has ever known disappears before her eyes. Darkness. Nothingness. No walls before her, no ceiling above her, no floor beneath her. A total void. It is as though she is floating in the wilderness of Lazarus’s pit. There is no change in temperature, but her body fills with a cold that freezes her capillaries. She tries to yell, but no sound will emit; screams, but only produces silence. Purgatory or hell? Another question lacking an answer. As her mind fills with panic, everything morphs into that which is impossible. Black becomes white; void is filled. A desolate landscape of undisturbed snow forms before her, taking her away from the pit. Did she reach the bottom, or is this the same trick that stole her from her bookshop? Winds appear, throwing dunes of white into her, around her, above her, blocking out the crystal sky. Her feet settle on the frozen crust; minute atoms split beneath her heels. She should be frozen, but the cold that snatched her in the darkness has dissipated, replaced by a heat she cannot comprehend. It is as though that which was inside, is now outside. Again she tries to scream but no sound surfaces. - 88 -


SHAUN HAMILTON Should she move? Should she walk and try to find a way out of this place? Should she endeavour to make her way back to the sanctuary of the bookshop, wherever that may be? Or should she stay where she is, stock still, awaiting the arrival of the individual who has done this to her? In response to her thought, a red blob punctures the horizon, peering at her through the snowy mist. It is too far away for her to make out, but she can see it is edging closer, as though it is a sealed sphere of blood running down a hill. Miles in the distance she watches it steadily enlarge, growing ever bigger as it makes its approach. She tries to move towards it but her limbs are stone. She is a frozen statue lost in a frozen wasteland. Only her eyes still function. She stares. What was an age away a moment ago now stands before her, travelling through the desolation at a speed unrecorded. To her amazement, she finds herself staring into the blue eyes of a man. A large man, his stomach stretches out over the distance between him. He is barely taller than her six-foot frame, but with the hat he wears, his height seems immense. A red coat with white cuffs and woollen buttons struggles to reach over the girth, red trousers are held up with unseen braces. The ensemble is completed with a black belt, black boot and black mittens. Over the coat’s lapels, a thick white beard rests, joined with the white hair hiding beneath the silken red hat. She recognises him. St. Nicholas. Father Christmas. Santa Claus. She is staring into the frozen eyes of a mythical being, designed to warm children’s hearts and decorate people’s homes. The man before her, wrapped in a glass bubble to protect himself from the violent elements, does not – cannot – exist. He is simply a folk tale; a figment of an overactive imagination; a page from a children’s book. He is not real. But she sees him. Sees him and knows him. Father Christmas. Again, she searches her vocal chords for the means of communicating her fears but nothing emerges. - 89 -


SHAUN HAMILTON She wonders if she’s still in the bookshop; if a heavy book has fallen from a top shelf and knocked her out. Or perhaps she’s still in bed, dreaming a surreal nightmare, knotting her body within cotton sheets as she tries to escape this other world. Her mind fills with questions, none of them the right one. He speaks, explaining it all. “What did he say?” The D.I has heard this story before, only an hour previous, but he needs to hear it again. He needs her to repeat the fantastic tale just so he can understand what he was really being told (and to ensure the woman is as sane as she seems) so he already knows what she is about to say. But knowledge fails to remove the shock from her words. “He told me I was dead.” He takes a final drag from his cigarette before crushing it into an already full ashtray. Dying ash clings to his pale fingers. “It was as if he’d searched my brain, found all the questions racing through it and decided to put me out of my misery. Whether it was the confusion on my face, or the fact he really could mind read, it’s not easy to say, but he knew what I wanted to know, and just as easily as asking for a coffee, he told me I was dead.” “Dead?” “Dead.” The detective leans back against the harsh bars of the metal chair and watches the girl, looking for the tell-tale signs the body provides when someone is lying. There is nothing; not a flinch, not a move, nothing. It is only now he notices her chest – not her breasts, but her chest. It is not moving. It should be rising and falling with her breathing, but it lies still, inert. Dead? If she notices, she pays it no heed. He reaches for yet another cigarette. “What happened next?” She remains motionless, only her eyes moving as they trace his actions. “I tried to speak but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, it was if what he said were true – but if that were the case, how could I see him? Was in heaven? In hell? I had no way of knowing so I tried to ask, but I remained silent. - 90 -


SHAUN HAMILTON I was a living soul in a mannequin’s body. “But then he did again. He saw what I was trying to say and told me that which I needed to hear.” His voice fills her head, but she does not see his lips move. The beard and moustache remain immobile, but his thick voice - deep as the ocean, dark as the pit from which she has emerged – carries itself through his bubble and into her frigid mind. He tells her the shocking truth. “You are in my home, at the North Pole. As you have recognised, I am indeed the gracious Saint Nicholas, however, if you wish to speak to me, you shall call me Sir, or not speak at all. You will find your words are unable to leave your body at the moment – this is a normal reaction, brought on by the transportation into my world. I have the remedy for such an inconvenience, but I will administer at my own disposal, not when you wish me to. When I do perform this genial act, you shall speak only in emergency, or the right will be removed from you just as quickly as it is provided.” He stands perfectly still, like a general talking to a new recruit. His words aren’t loud, but they’re filled with a cobra’s venom and she knows that what he says is true: her life is indeed over and she is indeed in the North Pole. He is Santa Claus and he is her master – and he is not a nice man. “Now, you are no doubt wondering how and why you are here. The answers are simple enough, but may take your feeble little mind sometime to understand. The how is through this -” He opens up a pocket hidden behind his belt and produces a hand-sized pouch of golden cloth, tied closed with the finest silken rope. “This is something you adults tell your children is called Fairy Dust. In truth it is something much stronger known as ‘elix’, based on your English word, elixir. A sprinkle of this transports your body through the many dimensions separating your world and mine. Unfortunately, what is flesh dies along the way, but the elix preserves your soul, ensuring that when you reach here, I am able to resuscitate that which I need and allow you to move about as I dictate. Your body no longer lives on the planet you call home, and you will now be registered as missing. Your family and friends will search but shall not find you until I decide it is time for your return.” She stares at him, unable to comprehend the severity behind the madness - 91 -


SHAUN HAMILTON he utters. Can he be serious? Can he be real? Is any of this real? Dead? “Trust me when I say this: you are no more. Your body, though you see it, no longer feels, no longer knows. Life has left it and only your conscious soul – the part of you I need – is all that is left. I have seen your reaction a thousand times over a thousand years and it is no different to any other. You are dead, you are here, you see me, Saint Nicholas and you are my slave. This will all become painfully apparent if you do not accept what I say. “As to why you are here, the answer is two-fold. You are here to build the devises I require to keep the children in your dimension happy. I will use your knowledge, your mind and your skills to inform of that which will make your offspring and their compatriots happy. Your mind will inform, your hands will build, and finally, when it is all over, you shall return. “And as to why I have chosen you, it is because of your greed. You know nothing of the goodness the 25th December can bring; know nothing of the sorrow it can create. All you care about is the money it provides. You see you the selfish pleasures and nothing more. Summer cruises, expensive meals and designer clothes. These are all you care about and such I am using you as a means of punishment. But do not panic, you shall not remain alone.” “But I don’t understand. If he’s so nasty, so evil, why did he want you to help build toys for children?” The detective’s puzzled stare is exemplified by the cigarette smouldering between his lips. Smoke climbs above him like a cartoon rain-cloud forever following the unlucky recipient. “That was something I managed to find time to ponder about, but it wasn’t explained to me until much later, when I’d pleased him enough to allow him a further audience. He told me his dimension and ours are linked, and this link is through children. Apparently, when we’re kids, our innocence is like a life-force, a force his dimension is able to nurture and cultivate, providing them with the essential elements we take for granted such as water and breathable air. This innocence is lost when they stop believing in Santa Claus and thus, a part of his world dies. Therefore, to ensure all remains as he sees it, gifts are made and presented on December 24th in line with the great tradition we have all grown up with.” The detective disposes of the fag and rubs his eyes. He reaches for yet - 92 -


SHAUN HAMILTON another of the rapidly diminishing cigarettes before speaking. When the tape is played back later that night, it is possible to hear the weariness in the man’s voice along with the settling of throat cancer. “But we both know there’s no such person as Santa. He is a figment of imagination. Kids believe the presents come from him, but in truth, we, the parents, are the poor sods running the retail gauntlet trying to find that last Barbie Doll or Star Wars figure to make them happy.” “But don’t you ever wonder where that last present came from? That one you knew nothing about? Did your wife buy it? Did you buy it and not realise? Was it the grandparents or a friend? And why that toy? It was never asked for, yet it pleases them most. How can that be?” He looks at her pensively, remembering Christmas morning when he and his wife held a covert conversation in the kitchen over the resting turkey, each one wanting to know who’d spent the extra pennies on the unexpected gift. She sees his look and knows her answer. “He exists alright. I might be dead, but I can testify to that.” “Okay then, what happened next?” “It went dark again, like I was back in the void. The snow, the wind and he all disappeared. I can’t describe how – they’re there one second, vanished the next – but I’ll never forget its impact. I felt I’d been slapped across the cheek. It was the first thing I’d felt since I got there; turns out that was the impact of the elix hitting me, giving me back all required needs and sensations.” “Elix being the fairy dust?” “Exactly; ‘elix being the fairy dust’.” He rubs at his neck, still unable to comprehend all taking place before him. The world’s media is watching his every move and he’s got to report back this nonsensical lunacy. He envisions his pension wittering away in the winter’s breeze. “Go on. Then what?” “Well then, then I knew I was in a room. It was still all darkness, but I could feel a desk in front of me, large and wooden, like the type found in a factory. Feeling its outline, I found the edge that butted up against a wall. These were movements I’d forgotten I’d had, but when I tried to turn and leave what was to become my station, I couldn’t. My legs were paralysed, my waist only able to move in line with the desk’s elevation. I was rooted. The next thing I know, - 93 -


SHAUN HAMILTON the desk is filled with toys of every description.” “Hold on. One minute nothing, the next, a room full of toys?” “Yes.” “But how?” “I don’t know – or at least I didn’t know then. Again, during my gathering with Sir later during my stay, I was able to ask the question. Apparently, the room was linked to my memory. It searched through everything I had ever known, everything I had ever seen and pulled out what it felt appropriate. Then, when it had determined that which would make the ideal toy, my hands started making them. I would picture something, and as long as it could be played with by an innocent on Christmas morning, it would be reproduced. I had no idea I was making something because I was dead – my hands worked separately from my spirit – but I could see the end product, and the end product was a table filled with toys. Simple as that.” He gawps at her, cigarette precariously dangling between lips that want to open but cannot. “Simple as that?” She shows no reaction to his incredulity. “Exactly, simple as that.” Ash drops onto the table, dragging him from his trance. He leans back, folds his arms and takes yet another drag on the cancer-stick. “So let me get this straight. You’re asking me to believe that you’re dead - a zombie so-to-speak?” “Yes.” “And that you were transported from the humble confines of your bookshop to a North Pole in another dimension where you met Santa?” “Yes.” “And then, with the use of some fairy dust, you were magically transferred to a dark room where you became Santa’s little helper with the help of telepathy?” “Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it telepathy, but you’re on the right lines.” “Wouldn’t call it telepathy. Well what would you call it? And what about the rest of you? Did the other 23 go through this same experience, or is this just restricted to the first in the queue? And why now? Why’s he doing this now? Why has it never happened before? Why is it only this year that 24 people have disappeared during December to become gnomes in a mythical grotto?” She ignores his sarcasm, as insensitive to it as she is to the room’s frigid - 94 -


SHAUN HAMILTON temperature. “He has done this before. Every year for thousands of years. The difference between this year and the last is that it’s London’s turn. Most years, he takes people from third world countries where people disappear everyday. No one notices when someone vanishes because it’s always on the cards. But he’s fair. He has countries, and towns and cities on a rota, and last year, it was a village in Ethiopia, this year, it’s the UK’s capital.” “He’s fair? Taking 24 people away from their families at Christmas just so he can keep on living the high life in his own dimension is something you would class as fair? And what about the rest of you? Is this something just restricted to you, or did it happen to everyone?” “You’d have to ask them yourself, but I suspect we all went through the same. After a period of time, which I can only imagine as being an earth day, I felt another presence. Another desk materialising and a new member standing before it. I tried to speak, but I had no voice – he didn’t give me that back until I had my second meeting with him, and only then could I use it in front of him and no one else. The same happened everyday – people and desks turning up - until we’d finished our work and the tables disappeared and we were back here, in your police station, waiting to tell you the truth before we die.” “Before you die? But how can you die when you’re already dead?” “You don’t believe me when I say I am dead, do you? Despite seeing I do not breathe, your conscious mind refuses to accept that which is perfectly obvious to you.” He disposes and lights up yet another cigarette. One more to go before he sends someone out for a fresh pack. “To be quite frank, I cannot see how any of what you are saying is humanly possible.” “Hand me that cigarette.” He looks at her momentarily, wondering what she’s up to, but duly obliges. As he does so, he reaches for his final one lying lonely in the packet, but she stops him before he picks it up. “No. Wait. I don’t want to smoke it; I just want to show you something; something I hope will finally convince you I’m telling the truth.” She takes the fag and turns it round so the lit end faces her like a torch seeking out its target. Rather than putting it to her mouth, she lifts higher and - 95 -


SHAUN HAMILTON thrusts it into her open eye. There’s resistance at first, but soon, the burning of the nicotine merges with burning flesh and the plasma of her eye begins to melt. “Jesus!” The detective leaps back, throwing his chair towards the room’s rear wall. He watches, transfixed, as she twists and turns the cigarette, forcing it ever deeper into her head. Soon, the filter is caressing the edge of her eye-socket; paper against bone. He wants to be sick – he should be sick - but he remains stock still, his mind unable to accept the play being acted out before him. “This… this is a trick. You’re a magician like David Copperfield and this is all magic.” She removes the offending item and places it into the ashtray. Rather than soaking up running blood, the fag’s paper is smothered in blobs of red; congealed crimson sticks to its new home like limpets to a rock. The detective looks at her, at the hole where her eye had been and feels the gags wracking his midriff. Blood rushes to his head as his empty stomach contemplates filling the room with acidic bile. Muscles tense as a glob of eye slips down her cheek towards her exposed waist. “No, no I’m afraid this is no trick. What you see is real. I feel no pain. “When I was stood at that desk, I realised I no longer felt the things I used to take for granted. Pain, aches, tiredness: all were removed. I no longer felt hunger, thirst, or the need for the toilet. Standing for 24 days solid, I did not feel stiff or weary. I simply existed.” The detective suppresses the urges that had taken him a moment ago. He reaches for the chair and sits before her. Unable to look her in the face, he stares at her bosom – perhaps being the first man she’s ever known to get away with holding a conversation with her chest. “So, so what now. You’re here, you’re dead and yet you’re dying. What do you want from me? Why are you all here?” He fights to contain the nausea raging through him. What was once ordinary and then became extra-ordinary is now on a different planet and his tired mind feels unequal to the challenge. “We need you to stop him. We need you to tell the world about him, to tell everyone who he is and what he does. He is evil; evil and selfish. He lives by killing people and using their souls as slaves. It’s as if he’s a voodoo master who’s out of control. We need you to make it stop, for him to die, for it all to - 96 -


SHAUN HAMILTON end.” As she tells him this, he sees the first sign of emotion in her dead eyes. She is pleading with him, desperate for his help. She needs him to believe, needs him to convince but needs him to do it quick before her time on this earth comes to an end. “I-” But he has no time to tell her; no time to reassure. She slumps forward, her face falling into the ashtray. Dead. The detective reaches out instinctively, wanting to revive the person he’d been holding a conversation with, but when he touches her leathered skin and realises how cold it is, he knows all is pointless. This time, she truly is dead – at peace – and there is nothing he can do for her. Except, to tell the truth. He stands, hearing the knock on the door. There’s panic in the station as 23 other people all fall down and die at the same time. A silent command has been spread and they have all obeyed. Raised voices and screams tell him all he needs to know. He keeps his hand on her shoulder and whispers an impossible promise. He strides towards the door with the intention of doing what’s best but it is no longer there. Darkness. Black. A never-ending void. Santa is waiting. Copyright © Shaun Hamilton 2009

Shaun Hamilton was raised on a regime of Hammer Horror, Universal Horror, Japanese Horror (can you spot the link?) with a mix of slasher movies, along with the works of Stephen King, James Herbert, Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle. There is little wonder that his imagination has always ventured towards the dark side. Visit his website for more information : www.shaunhamilton.co.uk - 97 -


FESTIVE IMAGES

Snow White :Matt Truiano 2009

www.matttruiano.com - 98 -


HUGH MACDONALD

H

arlen hurried along the crowded street in Canada’s only super city, or at least that was his opinion. Toronto used to be known as Toronto the Good. It may no longer be that good, but it was his most favorite city in the world. Although, since Harlen wasn’t much of a traveler having only Montreal and Halifax to compare it with, he wasn’t really much of a judge, but God, this city was alive, he thought. Besides, he didn’t have to travel abroad; every culture in the world was well represented in Toronto. He’d grown up here and loved it. Slush spread as each hurried step sent him sliding. He was in great shape, so he was able to keep his balance. Christmas was his time of year. Peace on earth, goodwill to men, and women. Mustn’t forget the women. The music carried on the night’s air. Christmas Eve. Was there a more joyous time of year–he thought not. Yonge Street, now that’s what you call a street. Over a hundred miles long threading throughout much of Ontario. It ran north and south, splitting Toronto in half. Walk across Yonge and you were in the west end. Go back across and there you were in the east end again. It was so easy to get around. All the major acts came here: musicians, plays, and pro sporting events. Toronto’s film festival brought in all the biggest names in the world of entertainment. Yes he loved it here. The stores looked busy, but he had to go in and get Lindsay something special. It was tradition. Three years. Harlen never thought he’d ever commit to one woman, but geez, Linds was all he could have ever hoped for. A true beauty in every sense of the word. She taught grammar school. Did they even still call it that, or did they ever? Elementary school, yes that was more like it. As he approached the door, a hand reached out to him. One thing he thought Toronto could have used less of was the stemmers, the panhandlers, the bums...people who he’d rather not see. “Can you help us out on Christmas? The taxi dropped us here and we have no more money. We’re trying to get to our daughter’s home for Christmas.” the old man said and held up a piece of paper. Standing behind him was a woman at least as old. To guess seventy-five would have been kind. Their threadbare coats were not appropriate for a Canadian winter. Harlen noticed an eastern European accent when the man spoke. The old woman smiled and shivered simultaneously, rubbing her arms to drive away the cold and looking with pleading eyes at him. - 99 -


HUGH MACDONALD Harlen didn’t look at the paper, but instead reached into his pocket and pulled the loose change from there and placed it into the man’s hand. It totaled $1.27, not even enough to buy one of them a coffee. Harlen felt himself flush when the old man looked with disgust at the coins in his hand. He dropped them to the sidewalk and taking the old woman’s hand started down the street. Harlen made to enter the store, then took a few steps toward the couple and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry. That was all the money I had. I have to go in the store, but I’ll be out in a little while, and I’ll have some cash on me to give you. Okay?” Harlen saw a light in the old man’s eyes and they turned with him and went back to stand by the store’s entrance. “Why don’t you come in and get warm?” Harlen asked. “Thank you, this is fine. Anna and I are used to the cold.” The old man pulled his wife to him, and Harlen watched her teeth chatter. “Alright. I’ll be as quick as can be.” Harlen went right to the jewelry counter and saw a pair of diamond earrings that would do the trick. Lindsay would have been just as happy with the box they came in. Man life was great. He would give her the earrings first and then pull out the ring. Harlen patted the breast pocket of his suit coat for what must have been the fiftieth time in the last few hours. All indications were that she would say yes to his proposal, but he didn’t want to screw this up. He glanced at his watch and noticed the night was getting away from him. The young salesgirl was spending too long on the kid with the ten dollars to by mommy a pair of earrings. Didn’t she know he had some real money to spend? White Christmas came over the store’s speakers and Harlen started to relax. It was short lived as Harlen wondered where the extra staff were. “Hello, It’s Christmas Eve. Are there anymore clerks to wait on the rest of us?” The little boy turned to Harlen. “You can take my turn, if you’re in a hurry.” “Thank you, son,” Harlen said and started to point to the earrings he wanted. “Those with the diamonds in them,” Harlen said. He felt the eyes of several shoppers upon him and kept looking forward. “When I’m finished with this young man, I will serve the next person in line, and it’s not you, sir.” “I’m in somewhat of a hurry, and the little fellow said I could have his turn. Look I’ll buy his present too. Put it on my bill.” - 100 -


HUGH MACDONALD “Thank you sir, but I saved my allowance to get Mama this gift. It wouldn’t mean much if you bought it, but thanks just the same Mister,” the little boy said. Harlen looked incredulously at the salesgirl. Didn’t she realize that she would have made at least fifty dollars commission from the sale? Not bad for a college kid, he thought. “Alright, I’ll wait my turn, but please hurry...a little,” Harlen said. “Damn,” he said in a low voice. Not low enough, because a woman scowled at him. You’d think I’d said fuck, Harlen thought and scowled back at her. When it was finally his turn he forgot all about the old couple that waited for him in the doorway of the store. He simply paid for the earrings and made his way to the exit. Spotting the old couple, Harlen slowed and looked back towards the line-up at the cash registers. All the ATM’s had line-ups too. There was nothing he could do. He had to get to Lindsay’s place right away. He didn’t want to be late tonight of all nights. She made some beautiful, exotic dishes for Christmas Eve. She’d told him they were recipes from her childhood. His mouth watered as he thought of the hot food that was waiting for him. Harlen tried to walk right by the old couple, but felt the old man’s hand take hold of his sleeve. “Look, I’m sorry. I had to wait in line so long that I forgot to ask for cash back. All the ATM’s have line-ups and I’m in a hurry to get to my girlfriend’s house. I really have to go...Merry Christmas. I really wish I could help you, but I’ve got to go...sorry.” “You had us wait for forty-five minutes, and now you say you are sorry. We deserve better than that,” the old man said. “The Salvation Army or some other church group help the homeless. Why don’t you call them?” Harlen said, anxious to get clear of the couple. “We are not homeless. We are proud people. We arrived this afternoon….” “Look, I really have to go...sorry, I don’t have time to listen to your story, but good luck.” Harlen stepped quickly to his left, feeling the old man’s fingers release the sleeve of his top coat. He picked up his pace to get away, then slowed and sneaked a guilty look over his shoulder. The old woman was waving her arms and shouting something. The old man tried to hold her back as she came forward, moving toward Harlen. Harlen stood, tranfixed, unable to move. Anna walked up to him and tapped his chest. “That black heart of yours will shrivel in your chest. You will not see.…” - 101 -


HUGH MACDONALD “No Mother, do not curse him. He is not evil, just a fool,” the old man said and reached to cover Anna’s mouth. “You crazy old bitch. I didn’t do anything to harm you and you want to curse me with some Gypsy curse. Go to hell,” Harlen said, and turned away. He didn’t stay to watch the old woman pull free from her husband, and he didn’t hear the final words she screamed, “another dawn.” The curse was completed. As he rounded the corner, Harlen glanced back and saw the old woman crumple to the sidewalk. Poor thing, he thought. He didn’t see the old man reach up in the air and make a fist, twisting his hand back and forth. A sudden pain struck him, and Harlen reached for chest. He shivered and pulled his coat more tightly around himself. He felt winded. The stress of dealing with the old couple had put a damper on his evening. He slowed his pace. Man the old ticker is really beating fast, Harlen thought. Lindsay lived on the third floor of a renovated townhouse. Part of the charm was the absence of an elevator, but tonight Harlen wished it had one. The stairs looked daunting and to think there were three flights seemed impossible. After just four steps, Harlen had to rest. His heart raced like he’d run the hundred meters in under ten seconds. “What the hell is wrong?” Harlen hissed through clenched teeth. He tried a few more stairs and rested again. Harlen pulled his cell phone out; pressed the number to reach Lindsay then heard the door to the lobby open. To his amazement, he saw the old couple shuffle into the lobby. He closed his cell phone. Against the signs his body was giving him, Harlen started back up the stairs. As he reached the second floor, he heard the old couple start their ascent. The faster he tried to go, the louder the footfalls of the old couple became. Just as he opened the door to the hallway of the third floor, Harlen came face to face with Anna and the old man. They passed him and started down the hallway. Thirty feet more and he would be at Lindsay’s door. He wondered where they were going and felt another pain as the old man stopped and looked his way twisting his hand back and forth. Harlen saw the doorway to Lindsay’s flat open and heard her lovely voice. But it was not for him. He dropped to one knee and then lay prone on the floor. He just needed a moment’s rest. “Mama, Papa, where were you? I was so worried. Harlen isn’t here yet, but - 102 -


HUGH MACDONALD he should be here soon. I’m so glad you were able to come visit for Christmas.” Harlen watched the light fade as Lindsay closed the door. Of course she didn’t see him, but then she wouldn’t expect him to be lying on the floor. He tried to keep his eyes open and called out in a weak voice, but no one heard. He was alone in the hallway as he heard the Christmas music from Lindsay’s flat. The aroma of the special dishes she’d prepared filled his nostrils as he listened to the dishes hit the table and the sound of the silverware striking the plate as they started the meal without him. Harlen tried to stand, but did not have the strength and fell face first. He would be somewhere this night, but he knew he would not be home for Christmas. Copyright © Hugh MacDonald 2009

Hugh has a passion for writing horror fiction. He believes that when you look into dark places, something looks back. Watch for more of his stories in future issues of this eZine!

SUBMIT YOUR WORK TO ESTRONOMICON Send in your work for future publication in this eZine We are looking for... Short stories (original and reprints) Non-fiction articles Book and film reviews Artwork (cover and interior) Author/artist interviews All text must be sent in *.rtf or *.doc format only (not *.docx) IMPORTANT : All work must be fantasy, SF or horror themed See the website for more details.

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GEOFF NELDER Blurb: Albert Onestone has the unfortunate ability to unmagic events around him. Consider the magic of everyday life such as electricity, magnetism, gravity and the trick light has of pushing away dark. But is he who you think he is? Bern, 1905 AD

A

lbert ground his teeth in fear but it created too much noise for someone hiding under a desk. Another sneeze was trying to escape, but he gripped his nose. He was lucky the staff upstairs hadn’t already rushed in. Perhaps Herr Berghaus and his secretary were too busy with each other under the mistletoe to check on him. Luckily, his office had emptied itself of other clerks; it was the office Christmas lunchtime, but he’d stayed to try out another experiment. Hearing the rhythmic screech of tortured metal scared beads of sweat out of his forehead making his eyes smart. Licking his dry lips, he found his moustache was salty. Had the desk fan slowed? He risked lifting his head above the mahogany bench. The remaining blade sang through the air creating a new parting in his spiky black hair before embedding itself in the wooden filing cabinet behind him. His nose, pressed to the desk, wrinkled at the beeswax. Slumped now on the floor, Albert remembered to breathe in while his right hand explored the top of his head. Did blood sting like sweat? His hand returned with sticky red smears but minus skull and brainy bits. He worried over the destination of the other fan blades. He’d heard the window smash, and the ceiling managed to stop Herr Berghaus receiving one of the flying blades. Remaining on the floor, he clasped a requisition docket to his wound while contemplating his resignation note and how this episode had its origins. One morning a month ago, on top of Albert’s in-tray sat a large plain brown envelope. It could’ve been any of fifty patent submissions, all in the same anonymous envelopes indicating nothing of the contents, brilliant or mundane, except for one thing; the sender hadn’t stuck on sufficient postage. Ordinarily that would be a return-to-sender job, but Albert had a funny tingle up the back of his nose with this one and paid the surcharge. Settled into his comfy swivel office chair, Albert hesitated with the - 104 -


GEOFF NELDER envelope lying on his cleared desk and a paper-opener in his right hand. Experience informed him that the application within was fifty pages thick, or thirty if the sender had used satin-finish heavy paper, which would indicate an amateur. He smiled at the red sealing wax and sniffed it. Just like a birthday cake candle. As if the envelope contents emanated the dawn of a new age, he savoured the moment, the sharp metallic edge hovering, eager to slice. The blade neatly lacerated the end of the envelope and the contents slid out. He always groaned when the submission came with writing that looked like a drunken shoelace. Tempted to procrastinate by inserting the dreaded application into the sedimentary layers of his pending tray, Albert decided, instead, to read the patent on the train home. An hour later, thankful for a quiet carriage and a seat with a table, he spread out the sheaf of papers. In spite of narrowing his eyes he couldn’t make out the inventor’s name; possibly Macs Plank. The title also evaded clarity, but it most closely approximated to A Time and Space Mechanism. Oh no, another pretender to HG Wells. On the other hand, Albert’s spots reddened with excitement at physics, so he smiled with anticipation. The train lurched, sending Planks’s patent application sliding over the precipice, Albert put out his hand, but too late. Twenty pages obeyed gravity. They twirled like winged seeds, and carpeted the train floor. Before Albert could retrieve them, a fellow passenger stooped to gather. A danke later, Albert groaned. The papers were not numbered. The only certainty was the title page. The rest depended on Albert following arguments, equations and the widows and orphans of the writer’s loose sentences and concatenated words. And thus was born the Theory of Unrelativity. By the time his train screeched to a halt, he’d worked out how the Time and Space Mechanism (TASM) worked even though he was prepared to admit it was not as Plank intended. Building the wardrobe-sized TASM took several weeks mainly because the heavy elemental components proved difficult to source, and the original schematics had lost their correct sequence on the train. He realized that his construction was botched but maybe it didn’t matter. He switched on the - 105 -


GEOFF NELDER machine. Nothing happened. Unlike most people, Albert found rising in the morning as easy as sniffing. Not this Saturday. His mind was willing but the sheet was leaden. Raising himself on elbows took the kind of gargantuan effort required after a night of swallowing black beer on an empty stomach. But it was different in that his head and belly felt normal; it was only the pushing up into his bedroom air that met resistance. It was as if the atmosphere had swapped the 70 percent reserved for nitrogen with transparent treacle. He could hardly move but he noticed the extra piece of furniture he’d built. A humming along with the smell of cooking valves told him he’d left it on all night. He needed to turn the lever on the side to the off position, but at his rate of motion it would be lunchtime before he reached it. His nose tickled but he could only use will power to fight the growing sneeze. He found that his fingers, dangling down the side of the bed, could grasp a slipper, and so with enormous effort he threw the pungent leather footwear at the lever. Normally, Albert was a fine judge of distance. So his mouth fell in consternation when his slipper reached only his bedstead, half the required distance. He concluded that either his room had doubled in length, or gravity had doubled in magnitude. The latter explanation gained credibility when he considered his difficulty in rising. Luckily, slippers came in pairs and so his second attempt succeeded. As his breakfast of strong coffee, combined with Emmental cheese and crackers, travelled inside him, he reflected on the apparent increase in gravity the Time & Space Mechanism created. How far had the effect spread? Crumbs spilling from his moustache, he wandered over to his balcony and examined the Saturday morning street activity five floors below. Were they scurrying now because twenty minutes earlier they couldn’t move? Did those lamp standards bend more now, or were they always so twisted? He looked upwards. Would clouds have a struggle to stay afloat with double the gravity? And would birds have been hobbling instead of flying? Sadly, he couldn’t answer those questions after the event. He’d have to switch on the TASM again and observe, but he’d install a clockwork timer first. That done he poured another coffee. His nose savoured the aroma and he returned to the balcony and waited. Nothing happened. Birds flew, no one sat - 106 -


GEOFF NELDER on the pavement and horses trotted tugging their hansom cabs like on any other Saturday. Perhaps the machine hadn’t worked. But a stroll into his apartment showed it had. He felt his heaviness immediately. It must be more than double gravity. He controlled his collapse to the floor grateful he’d arranged a timed session. A gaslight fitting creaked away from a wall. Its wrought iron filigree must have had weak screws and waited decades for strong gravity to appear to complete its downfall. He looked at his wrist and in the blue pulse felt his blood struggling to flow. Beads of perspiration worried out of his forehead, yet his brain operated normally. He put a synapse to work on how a device labelled as a Time and Space Mechanism should, instead, have had a localised heavy gravity effect. Had gravity been left unchanged but time and space were altered? The mechanism clicked off. Albert stood, but feeling shaky sat at his table. A tingling sensation travelled up his spine, down his arms and escaped through his fingertips resting on the wood. He snatched his hands back as a blue static wave surged across the waxed teak. The first rush of fear receded when he decided that the phenomenon was a purging event and that his personal electricity was back to normal. He should test himself. The large voltmeter for electrical experiments hardly registered when he touched the terminals. Looking around for more inspiration, he was about to test his remaining static by fondling the iron radiator when he was distracted by his apartment door opening. His frowning wife stepped into the room. He’d forgotten she was due home from a week’s visit to her mother. Mileva let her bag of groceries drop to the floor. “Albert, you’ve forgotten to meet me at Schrödinger’s Pet shop, again.” He raised a hand in apology while watching an orange roll under the chaise longue. “I had to leave a box of vegetables. Pick them up this afternoon when they re-open at four. You really are the limit.” “I’m sorry, I was immersed in a curious situa—” “Not interested at the moment, Albert. Now, did you fix the…” She blah blahed while he waited – in vain – for the orange to reappear the other side of the heavy chaise longue. “I met Herr Berghaus in the grocery store. He says you’re in danger of being fired from the Patent Office for spending too much time doodling and day - 107 -


GEOFF NELDER dreaming.” “How else is one to cogitate?” “Why can’t you pretend to work, like everyone else?” “I’m not like everyone else. Which brings me to events this morning that might intrigue you.” He ignored the hiding orange. “I’m not one of your Sunday school audiences, so no more magic.” “Well…” Mileva scowled at the TASM. “And why is your homework still in our apartment?” “It’s gone beyond homework, my dear. This is... your Christmas present! Would you like a demonstration? I just need to set the timer.” “I’m fed up with you using our home to test silly gadgets like that mechanical potato peeling machine you made for my birthday. Not as good as mother’s knife. The electric lamps have nearly blinded both of us, and look what that hair drier has done to your hair. You must apply for a university post before your job kills us.” Her chiding affected him no more than continuous drizzle. The pitter changed to patter at random intervals while he screwdrivered the insides of the TASM. A few aspects of the design eluded him. In particular what a Time and Space Mechanism was supposed to do. He turned for the ninth time to the patent submission document under the Aims, but that is where a spider must have escaped after dropping into the ink. Normally, he’d have recommended an outright rejection, but he’d read of intriguing papers by this Macs Plank, in which the thermodynamics of electromagnetic radiation was explained in terms of infinitesimal quanta. Should he try the machine again? He changed his mode to listening for a few seconds… “…we could move back to Munich and rent a house. You know I’ve always wanted to—blah blah…” He ensured the timer would turn the machine off in ten minutes and pressed the lever. Nothing. His right nostril felt as if an ant was exploring up there. At last he made the connection: a predisposition to sneeze was a precursor to the machine’s effect. Perhaps that sliver of magnetic bone we have in our nose picked up gravitational changes. - 108 -


GEOFF NELDER A few minutes later Mileva, quietened at last, dropped to the floor. Albert had chosen to be seated but perhaps unfairly had neglected to warn his wife – not that she’d have listened. From observing a spilt glass of milk dripping, in haste, to the floor, he gathered the impression of a larger increase in gravitational attraction, if indeed that was the explanation for why objects fall rather than, say, a warp in the way space behaves at a given moment. Mileva’s look of puzzlement matched the one she displayed after imbibing excess Leibfraumilch, but without the accompanying smile. To test if his body contained static he strained to put his hand on the earthed radiator. Before skin touched iron he felt the tingling shock as blue lightning flickered across the void. His hand jumped in defiance of the increased gravity as electricity spasmed his muscles. Anxiety over Mileva’s health obliged Albert to make the effort to abort the experiment by manipulating the lever in advance of the timer. “What the hell was that? You strudelkopf. Did you use me as a laboratory rat?” “Not at all. I was unsure what would happen, although it was a similar effect to one I had earlier and which I tried to talk to you about. Careful, dear, there may be side effects.” “Such as? And why did I feel so weak?” Albert helped her to her feet and then for a lie down on their lumpy bed. “Static, and I can only surmise.” “Static? I don’t feel anything from you now.” “Probably too many clothes.” To his astonishment, she smiled and licked her lips. “Albert, I want to conduct an experiment of my own. Remove your clothes.” “You are as capable a physicist as I, but why the disrobing? Ah, surely not…” She quickly but carefully stripped away her baggy underwear and lay with her skirt up around her waist. “I’m intrigued by the static, Albert.” He looked at her as if for the first time. Weeks of celibacy interspersed with moments of incongruity typified their love life; and he rather liked the randomness. He listened to her instructions. “You are not to touch me or anything else until you enter me. Then let the fireworks begin. Are you sufficiently aroused?” “I am now.”

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GEOFF NELDER A Christmas school party expected him to deliver his magic show. He enjoyed entertaining children; their exuberance was infectious. He found they were more critical than adults, and tested his skills with incisive questions. He couldn’t decide who inspired whom the most: he them or them he? Although he felt his static had been discharged, along with his conjugal duties, the morning found both himself and Mileva in friendly moods, but out of sorts. Perhaps the erotic excitement of Saturday coupled with insufficient food played with their stomachs. Albert’s favourite tricks involved illusions, particularly those using patented gadgets he borrowed from work and modified for the shows. Anything involving electricity was popular even though lights and electromagnets had been around for decades. He would levitate model railway carriages, and combine mirrors with projectors to make ghosts appear. His excitement matched that of his audience. They cheered when he stepped through the green curtains on the stage in the small hall. He liked to open with a pinhole camera illusion such that the audience happy clap at their image on a silver screen. No trick but clever manipulation of lenses and prisms allowed him to enthral them with inverted then righted images. The illusions zoomed in and then out, the whole group imaged and then a focus on one gleeful child. But it went wrong. Wrong was the inappropriate word because the audience shrieked with delight. On a split screen people were shown in various states of undress, apparently in the changing rooms of the Bern Municipal Bathing Emporium across the road. Albert realised that the audience might think he was showing a silent movie or a camera obscura image. More likely the latter, assuming the juveniles realized that silent movies were invariably grey, whereas the pinks and whites of flabby Swiss stomachs and pendulous breasts tipped with raspberries, offered colours galore. The knowledge that he had to end the pornographic intrusion was tinged with regret as he needed to know how the error occurred. He rotated the lens, which should have projected a different view of his audience. Instead, it cut to a maternity hospital wing. The screen allowed the children to be treated to a six foot square view between the legs of a woman giving birth; the miracle of a sticky bloody infant. The shocked audience howled in disgust, but then shushed as the noise of the newborn filled the room. - 110 -


GEOFF NELDER “Impossible,” Albert said. He turned the viewpoint again. An equally impossible but breathtaking close-up of the Moon filled the screen. The children should have ‘ahhed’ but no one looked because their horror of the view of their own beginnings in this life had sent them to the doors. Before Albert could investigate the device more closely the accumulator released a cloud of noxious smoke resulting in the projector sparking and then partially melting. As his stomach tightened in panic, he threw up his hands at the disaster but then saw several parents storming into the hall as a counter flow to the escaping children. He made for the rear stage door. As he ran through the back streets, he knew the problem must have been related to the static electricity from the TASM, and perhaps other effects: magnetism, dark matter or was it dark forces? He met Mileva coming to ensure he took her father’s props home. “It might be better to return in the morning, Mein leibe.” She grabbed his elbow and marched him back. They scurried through the dark streets, lit only by corner street lamps. For once Mileva kept quiet. He carried his heavy brass electric hand-lamp but was reluctant to use it. He was surprised when they reached the hall’s side door with no parental assault or police whistle. Inside, he turned the knob on the lamp and a yellow beam spread across the floorboards. Mileva beat him to the box containing his props, and carried it outside. They left the smouldering projector. “That box must be heavy, let me carry it, dear,” he said, knowing it contained glass slides, lenses and prisms, and a relatively special clock. “No, you’re carrying the lamp. I’m stronger than you.” He had to acknowledge the latter truth: she had inherited bulky Baltic muscles. He illuminated the darkest corners, blazing the urban trail, hoping no one would see them. Damn, his nose tickled again. He attempted to calm his nerves, but the incipient sneeze continued to develop. He stopped, put the lamp down and rummaged in his jacket pocket for a handkerchief. “Never mind a runny nose, keep moving,” Mileva said. He blew his dry nose. The tickle grew. She seemed more panicky than he did. Suppose it was her anxiety that was triggering the effect through him? Would gravity increase yet again? Or, indeed, suppose it decreased or became negative? He imagined flying to their apartment, and his moustache hid a smile. - 111 -


GEOFF NELDER Albert picked up the lamp and hurried on. Around a corner was the long street of Schonburgstrasse. Lights illuminated the grey flat cobbles and yellow flagstone paving. Candles on a Christmas tree in a window added to the glow. He tried to turn the knob to ‘off’ on the lamp to save the battery, but it refused to move. So he stopped and frowned as if that imbued his fingers with more strength. Mileva had put the box of tricks on a bench while Albert fiddled. She seemed to be too out of breath to chide, but also he assumed she’d chosen to not attract attention. She grabbed the box again. “Never mind, let’s go.” She marched off in front. With an extra frown and a sniff, he managed to move the knob, but it came away in his hand. The light went out, but Mileva had to be caught up so he rushed after her. When he reached her, she was puffing. “Albert, what are you doing with the light?” He looked down at it. Nothing. It remained extinguished but wait; light rays appeared to be going into it from the overhead streetlamp. Also, light from the nearest window beamed towards him and then into the lamp. He didn’t know whether to be fascinated or worried. He walked on and found that the light around him brightened but at the expense of other light sources. The streetlamp behind him dulled and went out. So did the nearest window. He stopped. Light beams streaked towards him from other lights farther away while the periphery seemed darker then black. He heard shouts of consternation from behind nearby windows so he accelerated. “Come on, my love,” he called, “before we are accused of stealing light.” “You are,” she said. Then rushed on ahead, being able to see where to place her feet in the moving spotlight of usurped energy. When Albert collapsed on a chair in their kitchen, he thought of the trail of blackness he’d left behind. The lamp, too bright to look at, lay under the kitchen table from where it illuminated the whole apartment. After a minute he realised he couldn’t see through the doorway into the bedroom. He stood and walked over to the window. Sure enough, the light that had burst into the apartment from the lamp when they entered was retreating. With a sinking feeling, he watched the sphere of light contract until the only thing he could see was the space under the table. That too snuffed out. - 112 -


GEOFF NELDER He retrieved the lamp, and examined it courtesy of a newly lit candle. It made him think of light’s construction. He had notions of it being made up of microscopic bundles of energy – quanta if you will, even if obeying wave functions. So, where were all those quanta now? He rubbed his nose. It had stopped itching. “Will the gas lamp ignite, my love?” he asked. “It didn’t. Oh, it does now.” He rushed to the window and watched pinpricks of light blinking on in the neighbourhood. “You must dismantle that devilish machine, Albert, causing all this trouble, and I wanted a new stove for Christmas.” He had the feeling the machine was now irrelevant. It had imparted its magic or unmagic into him. “Certainly, my dear, but in the light, so to speak, of all that has occurred I’m going to pursue your suggestion of finding university work in Munich. I’m going to take this Time and Space Mechanism apart tomorrow and go to the office to organise my replacement. What do you say?” he said, as he fiddled again with the hand-lamp. An electrical spark leapt from his hand into it. “About time. What—” Albert turned in time to see Mileva’s open-mouthed face shrink then follow the rest of her body into a stream of particles squealing into the lamp. Moments later the lamp shrank. His shocked face watched the lamp tremble, and then crumple to a mote. His reminiscing took long enough for the ‘effect’ to wear off. Luckily, the fan was the only electrical gadget in the office. Earlier he’d switched it off, but it seemed the motor drew additional energy from him. Albert crawled out from under the desk, tidied up as best he could and resumed his resignation letter. That done, he spotted an application that would replace him. Excellent. Another former physics graduate, A. Einstein. He scribbled a recommendation for approval and made sure that the shuffled patent submission for the Time and Space Mechanism by Macs Plank was placed with Einstein’s job application for a trial period. Copyright © Geoff Nelder 2009

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FESTIVE IMAGES

Grim Tidings :John L. Probert 2009

www.johnlprobert.com - 114 -


PAUL EDWARDS

S

now buffeted the ancient town, burying roads and blanketing houses. Ice clung to windows, crusted the windscreens of cars. The cobbled streets were dead; nobody dared go out. Spellbound, Robbie watched the snow spiral down from a dead black sky. He gripped his father’s torch in tight, trembling fists, stared with eyes wide with wonder at the windowpane. I will see Santa, he thought. I will, I will! Snow flitted and flashed like fish. Grimacing, Robbie put the torch down, sat up and threw back the duvet. He needed to pee, bad, so he slipped out of bed and crept across the landing to the bathroom. Downstairs, the dulcet tones of his parents drifted up to him from the grainy darkness of the lounge. He peed, pulled the chain, placed the lid back down. Then, creeping out on to the landing, he paused at the top of the stairs. “Don’t think I’ll be able to sleep a wink tonight,” mother said. Robbie cocked his head, frowned. Is she talking about Santa? he wondered. He shuffled to the top step, a smile spreading out across his face. Then, straining to hear, he edged down the steps, one bare foot in front the other, and peeped through the banister bars. Mother and father were in the lounge, staring solemnly out the window. The lights of the Christmas tree painted their faces red – the colour of Santa’s hat, or Rudolph’s nose. “Must be cold out there,” father said. “Even for them.” Mother nodded briskly. “Last time it snowed like this,” she said, “they came, seeking shelter; the hybrids, the ones that hadn’t wholly changed...” Father said nothing. Then, rubbing the hollow of his eye, he said, “Thank God they didn’t come here. Christ. Remember the dreams we had that night?” He grabbed his face, breathed raggedly though his fingers. “And their voices,” mother whispered. “What were they doing out there? Crying? Singing? Praying?” “We worked hard to chase them away. Worked hard to turn the ’Mouth around.” Mother didn’t seem to be listening; she was staring into space, at nothing in particular. “Remember what they found curled up in old man Waite’s cellar?” Robbie gripped the bars, chewed his bottom lip, stared hard at those two - 115 -


PAUL EDWARDS dark figures in that small dark room. “Best lock up Robbie’s window,” father said, snatching shut the curtains, turning. Robbie stifled a gasp. Then, bounding upstairs, he jumped into bed and threw the duvet over his body. Lock my window? he thought, panicked. How will Santa get in if they lock up my window? Moments later, mother padded softly into the room. She kissed the top of his head, locked the window and then closed the door quietly behind her. Robbie gave it a good couple of minutes before getting up and sliding the window bolts free. He dived into bed, sat bolt upright, clutched the torch to his chest. His restless gaze followed the lazy trails of snow falling from the sky, pirouetting, patting softly against the pane. From somewhere in the distance, he heard the slow crash of waves from the sea. Patiently, he waited. And waited and waited. Half hour later, his eyes were lead-weights; he blinked hard to stop them from shutting completely. Yawning, he knuckled his eyes, stared resolutely at the window. Come on, Santa. Where are you? His neck was sore, his back ached. Sighing, he lay his head down and allowed his skull to sink into the soft, warm, feathery pillow. Darkness crept insidiously across the ceiling, snatching all shape, colour and form from the room… His eyes snapped open – Whoa, close one! He squinted hard, focussed on the windowpane. Tried not to close his eyes. Then, suddenly, movement – behind the glass, behind the snow! Robbie sat up on one elbow, stared with wide eyes at the windowpane. He’s here he’s here he’s here! The window groaned, then slid up, and the biting cold seeped into the room. This is it. This had to be him… Had to be! A shadow slopped through the window, pouring to the ground like treacle. Robbie sat up straight, peeled away the duvet, aimed the torch at the floor, the figure. His trembling finger found the ON switch, flicked it. - 116 -


PAUL EDWARDS “S-S-Santa?” With an awful croak, the thing stared into the beam with bulbous bright eyes. It was human-shaped. But wrong. Its skin was shiny, slippery and wet, the short ridges in its back scaly. It was hunched, greyish-green, thick-lipped and hairless. Raw, weeping gills pulsated on the sides of its neck. A voice, a breath. Dredged from the bubbling tar-pit of its throat… “Ho, ho, ho.” Then a terrible wet laugh, and Robbie screamed. Copyright © Paul Edwards 2009

Paul Edwards resides in Frome, Somerset. When he's not working, or spending time with his family, he writes horror fiction. To date he has had over thirty short stories published in various magazines and anthologies. He has had two honourable mentions in the Year's Best Horror and Fantasy, and in 2005 a short film was made by students of Surrey Institute of Art and Design based on one of his stories. You can follow Paul at : www.twitter.com/pauledwards666

ALMOST FOUR YEARS OLD! Did you know that Estronomicon was first released in January 2006? Which means we’ll be celebrating its 4th

birthday soon!

A big thank you to all the contributors who have been kind enough to support this publication with their work since the beginning. Thanks also to all you lovely readers who make this worthwhile! Don’t forget that you can still download all the past PDF issues of Estronomicon from the eZine page on the SD website.

- 117 -


A. J. BROWN

M

y first reaction to seeing her dead on the floor was shock, tempered with joy. Then, well, I just got all pissed off. Grandma Haygoode had always been a loving woman, doting on Charles and Winnie, showing compassion to dumb George, feeding stray animals and taking in the homeless. Yeah, she was a caring old woman for certain. Except when it came to me. For some reason or other, Grandma didn't like me much. She would swat my head if I spoke out of turn; smack me with a wooden spoon if I came home late. I got kicked out the house at fifteen. Dumb George got my room and the vagrant that slept in the empty corner lot near the Holiness Church got George's basement quarters. It was like we all traded spaces, with me getting the cardboard box on that corner lot. It was filthy and stank of crap and urine and body odor. I don't even want to know what the stains along the box's walls were. Right up until just before I turned eighteen, I roamed the streets, begging for food or a bit of spare change. The looks folks gave me—you'd think they would want to help a poor teenager in need, kicked out of the home his parents had owned before their deaths. That wasn't the case. Many shunned me, others chased me. Preacher Hollings lectured me every few days about doing right by the Creator and begging for forgiveness, not just from a higher being but from Grandma Haygoode as well.

"Reckon a feller like yourself done did something mighty bad to fall into her bad graces," he would say while wagging a crooked finger at me. "Confess your sins, boy and make things right with her." You'd think that maybe Grandma Haygoode was akin to being the Creator that Hollings preached about. When he spoke of her his face would light up, breath would hitch like he had himself a good orgasm and his eyes would glisten. The first few times I heard him talk of her I thought he would cry, or maybe he had been in my shoes at one time, put out by the Saint of All That is Good in the World. Not the case, though I do think he secretly fantasized about getting between her wrinkled thighs. Just thinking about that makes me shudder and my stomach lurch. - 118 -


A. J. BROWN Charles visited me in the back alley one evening around the holidays; said Grandma Haygoode wanted to see me. Sick with the fever and chills, I shrugged, staggered home for the first time in near three years. Being Christmas, I thought maybe she had forgiven me for the nonsense of eating one too many slices of bread at dinnertime. The house was all decorated in bright greens and reds, a tree sat in the corner, dozens of presents under and round it. Stockings—too many of them—hung from hooks along the room and on the mantle piece. She waited in the kitchen, her blue apron on, cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. When she turned to me I had to hold myself still. She had changed. Her face was lined with deep grooves—not just wrinkles, like they used to be, but valleys that bore right down into her very being. The skin round her eyes and mouth sagged. I thought for a moment that she looked like one of them bulldogs that Old Man Harper has—them are some ferocious animals that would rather rip your leg off than lick your hand if given a chance. She had lost weight—about a person, if you ask me. But what startled me the most was when she smiled. At first I thought I was seeing things, that maybe my fever had come on full force and I was hallucinating. Rarely did she smile at me. Everyone else she loved, smiled at, but for me it was a scowl and a snarl, like I was the devil or something. Maybe she thought I was. Preacher Hollings sure made it a point of telling me how the devil had hold of my soul and that I need to break free from his treacherous grip. Yeah, that's the words he used: "treacherous grip." I'm getting away from my thoughts here. You see, Grandma Haygoode, well, she went and smiled at me, exposing her yellowed teeth. A few of them were missing that weren't before but the one in the front, I'll never forget that one. It was bright white, not yellow like the rest of them. I wasn't too certain it was real or fake, like some of them folks who have those dentures the tooth doctors make for them. Something was wrong though. The tooth, well, it seemed to glitter and all, like it could have been some small light instead of a tooth. I stared at it for a - 119 -


A. J. BROWN moment, not sure I was awake and standing in the kitchen or still asleep and in my cardboard box, the one that used to belong to the bum that sleeps down in the basement now. The trance broke when she closed her lips, concealing the tooth from me. I shook my head, trying to force the cobwebs away. Dazed and disoriented, I stumbled back until I bumped the wall. My head pounded, eyes hurt. "Marty, it's been a while. You look like the devil done got hold of you." she said and shambled toward me, her legs barely moving. Her voice was like glass breaking against rock. I guessed age had caught up to her. She motioned with one knobby-knuckled hand. "Have a seat. Let's talk a spell." At that, I didn't know what to do. I just stood there like a knot on the log, dumbfounded, my head humming a tune of pain. "I need to go—I ain't feelin' all that good." She smiled again, showing off that tooth, repeated her request for me to sit. Without thought one, my legs moved and I found myself sitting in the chair across from her. All the energy drained out of my body and I slumped against the wall, vision blurred, sweat spilling down my face. My head swooned. Never before did I want to run away from my own home, but at that moment, in the kitchen with Grandma Haygoode, my head swirling and the fever biting down hard, I wanted to scream, to run away and never come back. I just didn't have the strength to push myself out the door and down the steps. Even if I did manage to get out the house I didn't think I could make it much further than the front walk without collapsing. Doubt surfaced, like so many times before in my life, but different this time. At that moment I thought I would never be able to leave the kitchen, to free myself of Grandma's ancient eyes. It's like she had her claws sunk deep in my skin and she was reeling me in for the kill. And all I wanted to do was escape, go back - 120 -


A. J. BROWN to the empty lot by the church and hide myself away from the world, let the sickness swallow me. If I was lucky, I would die and it would all be over. No more Grandma Haygoode, no more Preacher Hollings, no more worry of the devil getting me. "How about you tell me what ails you, Marty." All I could see were blinding dots dancing in my vision. Half of her face had been blotted out by these moving white lights, but her tooth remained, glistening, shining. My thoughts became muddled and the fever overcame me, causing my face to grow hot. Nausea swept through my body and I dropped from the chair to my hands and knees. Very little came from my stomach, mostly stomach acid and a few half digested pieces of bread I found in one of the trash cans on the other side of town. "Poor child," she said and stood. Her cold hand touched the back of my neck. Shivers trailed up and down my spine. I held onto my fading world, trying not to pass out. I bit down hard on my lip, drawing blood and fresh pain. The world came back, no longer washed away in confusion and lightheadedness. "Please," I said, grabbed the edge of the table and pulled myself onto my knees. "You want me to help you?" she asked. "No," I said, refusing to look up at her. "Stop smiling." "Everyone loves my smile, Marty," she said. Her hand tightened on the back of my neck, nails piercing skin, drawing blood. She used to do that before she swatted me good a few times and lectured about me being such a problem for her. With my strength waning, I swung a fist up, catching the bottom of her chin. Her few teeth clattered and she fell back. Crawling, I tried to get to the door, but it seemed so far away. I reached it, exhausted and looked back at Grandma. She lay on the floor, her head to one side, blood spilling from her open mouth. - 121 -


A. J. BROWN The white tooth lay beside her, part of her gum still attached to it. Yellow voids appeared in the corners of my vision, faded to brown, then black. I awoke some time later, head cloudy, neck hurting. Sitting up, the pressure eased on my head, neck and shoulders. Grandma Haygoode still lay on the floor, her eyes turned to the ceiling, mouth open, tooth by her head. Blood crusted along the side of her face and had soaked her white hair. The smell of burnt cinnamon rolls hung in the air. Early evening peeked in through the windows and I wondered where everyone was. Then I remembered, Grandma had a standing rule. If you lived with her, you spent the Christmas holidays taking care of the things she couldn't. I guessed most of them were out doing her bidding. But, with the coming of night they would all get home soon and what would they do when they found Grandma dead in her kitchen? As I crawled toward her, I kept an eye on the tooth, but it no longer sparkled. I picked it up. It was just a regular tooth, chipped where her bottom teeth had clipped it when I punched her, a flap of dry gum hanging from it. My fever must have made it appear special, like folks thought Grandma Haygoode was. Was. I nudged her to be certain she was dead and she was. I wanted to jump for joy—the loving woman to the rest of the world but evil witch to me, was dead. Dead. Maybe I would get my home back. Maybe folks would no longer look at me like I was some sort of disease. Maybe‌ maybe I was in a lot of trouble. Running wasn't going do me much good. Once the law found out Grandma was dead and that she had been talking to me when it happened, well, I would get strung up right there in the yard, no trial, just a bunch of pissed off executioners. And, I guess the devil certainly would have had me then, now wouldn't he. To tell you the truth, which is, I guess, what I have been doing all this time, though Grandma's tooth wasn't a light stuck down in her gums, it did kind of look like one, but without the bulb. I went into the front room where the logs in the fireplace crackled and all the pretty decorations were hung. - 122 -


A. J. BROWN On the tree were lights strung around. Their bright yellows, reds, greens, oranges and blues flicked on and off every few seconds. My heart ached and I longed for Momma and Papa, to be with them in the grave instead of alive and despised by all in our little town just North of Hell. Anger filled me and all the years of hate that I had suppressed for Grandma and Charles and Winnie and that old bum who slept in the basement surfaced. And for Dumb George, too, who wasn't so dumb after all, just liked to play stupid so folks would feel sorry for him. That Devil, well, he did get hold of me then. Lying about it will do me no good now. I sat and waited at the front door, listening for the others. One by one they came home, their faces weary from a hard day's work. Too tired to fight, they were easy to take. Charles first, the bum next; it was a little harder on my heart taking out Winnie—deep inside she was always a good person, but influenced by Grandma Haygoode, well, I guess even the best folks can think bad about someone when encouraged enough. Laying in the dark, hidden by the door, I wait for Dumb George. He should come in soon and when he does, his teeth will join the others along a strand of lights, ornament hooks twisted around them and holding them in place. They look nice around the Christmas tree, all glowing and glittery with the glare of the colored lights shining off of them. Then I'll call Preacher Hollings, invite him over for a while. And he'll come. He'll come because I'm at Grandma Haygoode's and he'll want to rejoice with her and me and everyone else because the Devil, well, he don't have me in his clutches no more. Like the rest of them, he'll be wrong… Copyright © A. J. Brown 2009

A. J. Brown writes from a cramped corner of the Mannesah Halls Institute for the Insane, trying to keep his sanity intact, though they think he has already lost it. Some of his ramblings have appeared at SNM Horror Magazine, Liquid Imagination, Allegory, Sinister Tales and Static Movement among others.

- 123 -


DAVID GATWARD

H

e didn’t like the way the fucker was looking at him. And considering it was Christmas Eve, if this was Santa, then he was in a seriously shit state. OK, so Dad had left him home alone with nothing but the dog, two bars of soap and some frosties from 1997 to eat. But that didn’t give this white shining sheet of who knows what the excuse to butt in on Jimmy’s first chance at a bit of hard-hand, man-a-lone, lovin. Oh no. After all, it’d taken him a week to pluck up the guts to buy the sheets of hot-as titty. Looking 18 was one thing, acting it another thing entirely. And he wanted… no, they wanted it… baaaaad. But what was he going to do? Jimmy pulled his hand out, sniffed it (some habits…) and stood, staring. Just like the ugly fuck at the door. Cunt. Jimmy wondered for a second about moving left to the kitchen. In there he had full on access to so much hard metal that he’d be pushed to know where to begin. Though he was pretty sure dad’s crap-as auto-carving knife was so NOT the way to go. It was like a big world of how-gay-are-you in this month’s chainsaw of the week. But it always cut the turkey up like some extra feature on the TCM DVD. No. Not the auto-carving knife. So totally not. Where to then, mister almost running away? Jimmy paused. Breathed. And then… The wall burst all over him in a spray of concrete shyte. Jimmy didn’t run. He flew. Christmas, it seemed, was going seriously to rat crap. He could hear the thing screaming behind him, trying to catch him, running though and in to so many walls and doors and shit that he was almost laughing when he slammed through the back door and in to the yard. And in to the jaws of Chris. Chris didn’t even budge. For a fat Alsatian with a history of pie-theft, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Chris was the only decent Christmas present Jimmy’s - 124 -


DAVID GATWARD dad had ever bought him. And he didn’t agree that dogs were for life. No. Dogs were actually for giving free access to the larder and a shop-till-u-drop account at the local butchers. Jimmy pulled himself out of the dawg, moved left, saw shadow, bolted. And the only thing that could’ve possibly given him away was the sound of Chris snoring. Chris… Ha, that made him laugh. Still remembered that Christmas day the daft mutt had turned up at home as a ‘present’ from Dad. Mum had seen it, blasphemed because of the size of the thing. Forever from that day it had been Chris. Christ, after all, was not the name you gave to a dog that stank like a dead sheep. The thing moved. But it was a movement that pissed Jimmy off. It was all look-at-me I’m-so-alien. Jimmy didn’t care. Bunched those fists. Slammed them. The thing ducked, dived, caught Jimmy across the chin. Blood and bone, he thought. Is this it when we get fucked over by Area 51 on Christmas Eve of all nights? Blood and bone? No fuckin’ lazers? No lights in the sky? Just a skinned fist fight of jaws and eyes and pain? The thing came back. Jimmy ducked, dived, caught it across the chin. Bitch. Yeah, see that?, screamed Jimmy, You may be from out there, but we’re here and you ain’t got it. And I’m not about to let you ruin my Christmas, even if it is all from Iceland! The thing backed off. Pulled out something unnecessarily shiny that made Jimmy think the best thing he could do would be to run the fuck. But Jimmy didn’t run. Not ever. The shiny thing slammed him hard with a thump of light that burned a hole right through his arm with pure silence. When he looked at it he was rather surprised to see right through to the other side. But that wasn’t what pissed Jimmy off. - 125 -


DAVID GATWARD It was the fact that the alien shyte was laughing. And hard. But it didn’t last long. As Jimmy, one arm down and pissed as a bull, charged hard and nutted it hard as a bus with no brakes. Screams. Howls. Only that made Jimmy worse. Much worse. And for five minutes and thirty two seconds, Jimmy gave the thing from who knows where beyond the dark side of the moon a little lesson in what happens if you run across an Englishman’s lawn when you should be carol singing instead. Then peace. Silence. Jimmy’s phone rang. ‘Yeah, a pint’d do me good,’ he said. ‘Tired.’ And when he gripped that cold glass fourteen minutes later, no one noticed the way the knuckles on his hands split and, deep inside the cuts, a grey liquid mingled with the blood. And meshed. Copyright © David Gatward 2009

David Gatward once worked for Ofsted, which was more horrific than anything he could possibly invent for a story. He now writes full time and has a horror series out in July 2010 called The Dead, published by Hodder. You can hear him twitter at : http://twitter.com/davidgatward Follow his blog at : http://davidjgatward.blogspot.com

- 126 -


ANDREW MARSHALL The wrong way round’s the right way up when she calls You can laugh but it won’t mean nothing at all You can find her scratching away in her room Stumbling round by the light of the straggler’s moon - The Fratellis

T

here aren’t any monsters. That’s what my mum and dad say. They say that there’s not anything to be afraid of in the dark because it’s just things without any light on them and you wouldn’t be scared of things in the light because that’s just silly. They say that I shouldn’t believe in monsters because monsters aren’t real. They’re wrong, though. I don’t just believe that monsters are real, I know they are. You can’t say that something isn’t real when the person you’re saying it to knows that it is. It’s like saying that the sky isn’t blue or grass isn’t green. I’ve tried telling them what happened but they don’t believe me. They just tell me that I’m being silly and that I have an … an …o-ver-ac-tive imagination. I know what happened, though. I don’t care if no one believes me; I know what’s real and what’s not. We always go to Granna and Grandpa’s for Christmas. I like it there because they’ve got a giant big garden that stretches for ages around their house. Me and my cousins have got so many different dens all over the place like under the tree beside the fence to the farmer’s field or around the wooden lock gates where there used to be a canal. I love my grandparents, they’re always smiling and they’re always happy to see me and Mum and Dad and my sisters whenever we visit them. Their kitchen’s got a smell that’s like nothing else in the world. Because they’re really old, they know a lot about everything, though I remember I once asked them if they remembered what it was like when the whole world was black and white like you sometimes see in really old films. They didn’t understand what I meant. This Christmas was different. It was one that I’m not going to forget because it was when I learned that Mum and Dad were wrong. I remember when we arrived and drove up the long, bumpy driveway I felt something wasn’t right. I don’t know what it was, just that there was - 127 -


ANDREW MARSHALL something different and I didn’t like it. I tried telling everyone else but they told me to be quiet and that I was just imagining things because I was tired. I got scared when we went into the house and everyone came to say hello. My aunts and uncles and cousins were all happy smiles so I knew that they didn’t know anything was wrong. Then Granna came out. I knew it wasn’t Granna because she smelled funny. I mean, Granna smelled funny as well but this lady smelled funny in a way that was different from the funny way Granna smelled. And her eyes were wrong. Granna’s eyes are kind; hers were cold and nasty. ‘It’s so lovely to see you all,’ she said. ‘Did you have a safe journey?’ My parents said that they did. They were smiling as well; they couldn’t hear the way her voice sounded all sneaky. ‘Grandpa isn’t here right now,’ she told us, ‘but he should be back soon.’ Nobody thought that there was anything strange about that even though it was already really late. Nobody except me, and I knew that if I said anything they wouldn’t believe me and the thing that wasn’t Granna might come for me in the night. It’s a long drive so everyone was tired and wanted to go to bed straight away, which was lucky because that meant it wouldn’t look strange when I ran off upstairs. I lied in bed for ages, but I couldn’t get to sleep because I was too nervous. I got out of bed and looked out the window. There was someone outside in the garden near where the damson trees are. It was a girl. She was dancing around like a fairy or something. Well, it wasn’t actual dancing, it was more like skipping around with her arms waving around the place. Kind of what I’m like whenever I try to dance. She looked up at the window and saw me. She smiled at me. It was hard to tell because she was far away and I could only see her in the moonlight, but she looked really, really pretty. Then she did that finger movement that means you want someone to come to you. Everyone else was asleep when I went out the room so I tried to be as quiet as I could so I wouldn’t wake them. I found my coat because it was really cold and then I went outside. On a log beside the door I saw a round silver plate with a cross scratched into it that I didn’t remember ever seeing before. I’d have to ask Grandpa about it when he came back. He knows about that kind of stuff. - 128 -


ANDREW MARSHALL I walked around to the back of the house where the trees were and saw the girl still dancing there. I could see now that she looked about the same age as me. She was only dressed in some kind of animal fur but she didn’t look cold at all. She held her hands out towards me. ‘Come and dance with me, Andrew,’ she said. She looked so pretty, so pale and delicate, I didn’t want to upset her by saying I didn’t know how to. I took her hands and we started laughing and spinning around in circles through the garden. I don’t know long we danced for, but the next thing I knew we were a long way inside the woods at the edge of the garden. A big man appeared from the shadows and grabbed the girl on the shoulder. She let go of me and the big man pulled her in front of him. ‘Ciorstaidh! Why do you dally with the mortal?’ ‘I was just playing,’ Ciorstaidh said. ‘He’s adorable. Can’t I have him for a little longer?’ ‘You may not. The UnSeelie Queen does not take kindly to delays. The solstice draws near and the teind is due. The changeling is ready to take his place and must be in the house before dawn if nobody is to suspect anything.’ ‘What of the old warrior? Will he not seek vengeance upon us?’ ‘As long as we hold his wife, he shall remain neutralised. We need not concern ourselves with—’ Something hit the big man in the chest and he stumbled backwards. His face turned twisted and ugly and looked so angry. ‘What the—’ Something else slammed into him and he fell onto his back. Ciorstaidh screamed. I looked behind me and saw Grandpa with a crossbow in his hands. ‘Get away from my grandson, you freak,’ he growled. ‘What are you doing?’ Ciorstaidh shrieked. ‘Haven’t you learned what we could do?’ ‘Those are two questions I should be asking you,’ Grandpa said. ‘Unless you want to feel some cold iron in your heart like your friend there, you will release Edna and leave my family alone. If you don’t, I swear I will spend the rest of my life hunting down as many of your wretched kind as I can find.’ I’d never seen Grandpa angry before. Right then, he didn’t look quite so old. He looked stronger and kind of bigger as well. ‘You will regret this,’ Ciorstaidh said. ‘The rules demand combatants must be engaged openly, not sprung upon unsuspectingly after this kind of skulking.’ - 129 -


ANDREW MARSHALL ‘You seeked to harm an innocent,’ Grandpa said. ‘Rule violations do not come more heinous.’ He pointed the crossbow at Ciorstaidh’s chest. ‘I will not ask again.’ Ciorstaidh’s face turned angry and ugly like the big man’s had. ‘So be it,’ she said. ‘Your wife shall be returned to you by dawn. Her double shall be used to pay the tithe for her failure to maintain a convincing subterfuge. But mark my words, that dawn shall see a new enmity between us.’ ‘Fine by me,’ Grandpa said. Ciorstaidh turned around and walked back into the woods. Grandpa looked down at me. ‘And what do you think you were doing?’ he asked, though I could tell by his voice that it was one of those questions that you weren’t supposed to answer. ‘Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?’ So was that. Then he sighed and became less tense. ‘Come on, let’s get you inside, you must be freezing.’ It wasn’t until he said that that I realised I actually was. We walked back up through the trees towards the big house. Once we were back inside the thing that wasn’t Granna took one look at us and ran out the door. ‘Will Granna be okay?’ I asked. ‘They promised they would let her go. Because of their nature, when they make a promise they cannot break it.’ ‘But what are they? What did it that mean? I don’t understand what was going on.’ ‘You will,’ Grandpa said. ‘I’m going to teach you. They’ll all know about you now so they might come after you again.’ I shivered. ‘I know it’s scary,’ Grandpa said, ‘but it’s best that you know what you’re dealing with.’ I nodded. ‘Mum and Dad always say that there aren’t any monsters and that there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ ‘Listen, if you’re prepared and know exactly what you’re doing and what you’re dealing with, they’re only wrong about the first part. Now get to bed, it’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.’ I’ve always known that monsters are real and that there are things that hide - 130 -


ANDREW MARSHALL in the dark, waiting for you to look away just for a moment so they can get you. Now I’m not just sure that they’re there, I’ve seen them with my own eyes. So the next time I see them, I’ll know. I’ll be ready. Copyright © Andrew Marshall 2009

When not working as a whipping bitch for a firm of commercial lawyers, Andrew spends his time wandering the soulless empty streets of purgatory, also known as West Lothian, in between engaging in Internet flame wars and amassing a vast library of rejection letters. Do not ask what is under his kilt.

- 131 -


SHANE MCKENZIE

I

saac stared into the mirror, laughing at his ridiculous costume. The fabric irritated his skin and he scratched his stomach as he grinned at his reflection. “Ho ho ho.” Time had run out, and he couldn’t think of a better way. They threatened to go after his family, and that couldn’t happen. He would get them their money, even if it killed him. He grabbed his red sack and headed out the door. Just a few days ago, he had picked out the house. The tree glowed through the window as he peeked through. A mountain of gifts lay under the branches, shiny in their decorative wrapping. There had to be something worth some money in that pile. The people in the house seemed regular enough. An overweight man, a small frail looking woman, and two kids. The kids were far too young to be a threat, and all he had to do was run away from the man, if it came to that. The interior of the house had strange decorations. Besides the typical holiday stuff, Isaac noticed some intriguing looking artifacts. A statue of a man stood near the fireplace. The chiseled muscles of the torso shone in the multi-colored lights. He held a sword and shield and seemed to be in the heat of battle. A flattened furry hide stretched out on the wall, Isaac couldn’t tell what it was. A golden urn sat on the mantle near the statue. Intricate designs curled around the urn, making Isaac lick his lips. He couldn’t take his eyes away from it, and even contemplated keeping it for himself. Either way, he knew he had found the right house. “In and out, no messing around,” Isaac thought. He drove toward his destination, his palms damp as he gripped the steering wheel. “How the hell am I going to get inside?” Isaac hadn’t done anything like this before, and he felt unprepared. “Please, just let this go smoothly.” He parked the car down the street and stepped out of the door. The buckles on his shoes gleamed in the moonlight. Grabbing the sack from the passenger seat, he slammed the door shut. The houses around him shone with festivity. Any one of them probably had all sorts of valuables, but he knew he picked a winner. That urn kept popping into his mind. The way it glistened, the carvings etched into the surface, he knew he had to have it. “Get focused.” - 132 -


SHANE MCKENZIE He had the essentials in the bag: a flashlight, crowbar, gloves, and his gun. He didn’t plan on using the pistol, but thought it was a good idea just in case. He walked down the sidewalk toward his destination, waving at passing cars, playing the loveable character. As dumb as he felt, his costume was a necessity. He could just hear it now. “Did you see the assailant?” “It was Santa Clause!” The house twinkled as he approached. Flickering lights hung from the roof like icicles. Multi-colored bulbs flashed from their scattered places on the home. A life-sized version of Santa stood in the lawn, his left arm waving. “I saw it first, fat ass,” Isaac said as he crept across the grass. Peering through the window, he saw no one. His stomach fluttered with anticipation as he eyed the gifts on the floor. Brightly colored wrapping paper beckoned him. He licked his dry lips and rubbed his hands together. “Merry Christmas, Isaac,” he said to himself. He pushed on the window, just to make sure. It held tightly in place. Side-stepping along the house, he checked every window except the bedrooms. The family apparently was very cautious. At the front door, he strained his neck, looking in all directions. The last thing he needed was for a nosey neighbor to catch Santa breaking and entering. The coast seemed clear and he tried the knob. The door didn’t budge and Isaac cursed under his breath. He checked along the side to see if he could get to the back, but their fence had a large padlock. He thought about jumping it, but his over-sized suit constricted him. Scratching himself, he adjusted the bright costume. Reaching into the bag, he pulled out the crowbar. No sign on the house suggested an alarm, but he prepared himself to run if he had to. The wood splintered as he wedged the crowbar into the frame and pulled. He checked again for spectators, but saw nothing. Repeating the procedure, he tugged on the crowbar with more force. The wood cracked and gave way. The door swung open revealing sparkling lights reflecting from the walls. “Where’s my milk and cookies?” Isaac whispered under his breath. He giggled as he approached the living room. Given the circumstances, he tried to keep a positive attitude about the whole thing. A wave of relief swept over him as no alarm rang out. The noise from the door didn’t seem to stir anyone as he - 133 -


SHANE MCKENZIE entered. Gold and silver ornaments dangled from the branches of the tree. Multiple tiny lights flickered white, the strands of wire wrapped all around. He looked up at the angel at the top and smiled. He remembered how when he was a kid, his father would always let him place the angel. He thought of his own son, and wondered if he had placed theirs yet. Standing in the living room, the amount of presents looked much larger. All shapes and sizes, piled under the tree. He knew he would be ruining the kids’ holiday, but times were desperate. He needed anything he could get. Pointing to the gifts one at a time, he tried to get a count. From what he could see, at least thirty wrapped treasures lay under the tree. He knew there would be a fair share of garbage, but there was bound to be something he could use. When watching the family, he noticed a sparkling bright necklace around the woman’s neck. She had matching earrings and a bracelet as well. Isaac was sure she had exquisite gifts waiting to be unwrapped. “This is the police, put your hands behind your back.” Isaac jumped and spun around. A bright red package wiggled from its place amongst the others, the paper crackling as it moved. Isaac took a step forward and nudged it with the toe of his boot. “Drop your weapon.” Grabbing the present, he tore the paper away revealing a robotic police officer. Its plastic arms moved up and down, the right hand gripping a flashing red gun. The head spun in his direction and the gun pointed at him, a buzzing sound with every movement. “Stop, stop. This is the police.” “Shut the hell up.” Isaac spun the figure around and flicked off the power. The flashing lights ceased and the officer’s arms slowly moved to its sides. Isaac placed it on the ground, hoping the noise didn’t wake anyone. He ran behind the statue and listened for the sounds of movement. As a kid, he could never sleep very well on Christmas Eve. He would lie in his bed, waiting to hear Santa walking on the roof. He hoped these kids were different. The sound of the robot could have easily alerted them. He stood still as he waited for a reason to run. Nothing happened. Kicking the robot officer, he started rummaging through the gifts. The first few all - 134 -


SHANE MCKENZIE proved useless. Plastic junk for the kids, varying from baby dolls to ninja warriors. Tossing them all aside, he kept moving forward. Isaac opened a small package to reveal a shiny platinum watch. He held it against his wrist and smiled. “Jackpot.” Tearing away paper with quickness, he found two necklaces, a pair of earrings, a bottle of expensive looking cologne, and even a brand new video game. He could get good money for those items. His gaze shot toward the urn. Dropping his bag, he moved toward it. There seemed to be a slight glow coming from it, which intensified as he grew closer. The hairs on his body all stood on end. He felt an urge to grab it and run, but kept his composure. The intensity of the glow made Isaac squint as his hand reached out and touched the cold metal. “Halt, this is the police.” Isaac jumped and ran toward the pile of discarded plastic. Digging through the toys, he searched for the robot. He knew he turned it off, but maybe it got turned back on as he tossed other toys on top of it. “I will be forced to shoot.” Isaac felt a sharp pain and jerked his hand away. Something had stuck him on the thumb and drew blood through his glove. The pile of toys moved as something emerged from the depths of plastic. A tiny ninja pulled itself out and looked at Isaac. Two more followed, talking to each other as they pointed toward him. The robotic officer stepped out, spinning its head toward Isaac. It aimed its gun at him, the red light flickering. “Isaac, this is your last warning.” Something bit the flesh of his cheek. He wiped his face, the palm of his hand coming away bloody. Another hit him, then another. The mini-ninjas threw what looked like tiny stars at him. The small pieces of metal penetrated his skin. The pile of toys came alive, every one of them moving of their own free will. The infant doll crawled toward him, the eyes slowly clicking shut and reopening as it grew nearer. Soldiers with their weapons drawn rolled across the floor to get a good position on him, shouting orders to each other as they aimed their tiny guns. A jumbo teddy bear trudged along the floor, long claws - 135 -


SHANE MCKENZIE protruding from the plush paws. “This isn’t happening.” Isaac backed away from the approaching toys, shaking his head. Not only were they alive and moving, but they seemed more realistic. What used to be plastic became living flesh. The heels of his boots collided with something, and he tumbled to the floor. A jump rope stretched out with a soldier on either side, pulling it tight. They quickly wrapped the rope around his neck and scowled at him, their minipistols aimed at his face. Tiny feet crawled all over him. A ninja stood on his chest, looking at him directly in the eye. It held a shiny sword above its head, then drove it down. The red suit became darker as the action figure twisted the blade. Isaac grunted in pain. He tried to get up, but the soldiers had reinforcements and all had their weapons trained on him. “Let me go. I’m outta here, I’ll empty my bag and leave. Just let me go.” The baby crawled toward his face, passing the hilt of the sword protruding from his chest. It stopped just before reaching his face and blinked. “Mama.” The mouth opened and a stream of warm fluid splashed into Isaac’s face. He thrashed his head as it poured onto him. He tried to get up, but found he was held in place. The soldiers moved fast, and had him tied down. He lay stuck on the floor, more and more toys crawling onto his body. The teddy bear stood above his face, warm drool oozing from its razor tipped mouth onto Isaac’s forehead. The buzzing sound of the robotic officer grew nearer. The lights flashed on the head as it spoke. “You are under arrest, Isaac.” “Get away from me,” Isaac said as he spit on the toy. Another buzzing as the officer raised its hand. It gripped a gun, but not the flashing one from before. Isaac’s own pistol was aimed between his eyes. He turned his head and saw that the other toys were watching. “I will be forced to shoot.” “Take back everything, just let me go. I’m sorry!” As Isaac tried to wiggle free, he saw the Santa from the yard, staring into the window and waving at him. - 136 -


SHANE MCKENZIE The urn glowed brighter than the tree. “What was that?” The couple jumped out of bed and dressed themselves. “I’ll check on the kids.” The woman ran from the bedroom toward the children. The man grabbed his baseball bat from the closet and headed for the living room. He thought it sounded like a gunshot, but didn’t want to worry his wife. His hands slippery as he gripped the bat, he ran toward the noise. “What in God’s name?” “Is everything okay out there?” his wife called from the other room. “I think so, though it looks like we had a visitor.” “Was it Santa?” his daughter yelled as she ran from her mother to join her father. “Hey, my presents!” They stared at a pile of unwrapped toys spread under the tree. The jewelry the man had bought for his wife hung like decorations on the branches. “What in the world happened here?” “Are all those toys for us?” his son asked as he ran toward the pile. “Yes, but not anymore.” “Why?” “You knew you were supposed to wait to open them. Now our Christmas morning is ruined.” “It wasn’t us, I swear!” “Honey, what is that?” “That’s a big one!” the boy yelled as he ran to the large wrapped gift standing in the middle of the room. “It doesn’t say who it’s for. You think Santa brought it?” Copyright © Shane McKenzie 2009

Shane McKenzie lives in Austin, TX with his fiancee and three dogs where he works for the police department taking emergency calls. His work has been published at Flashes in the Dark, New Flesh, Liquid Imagination, Twisted Dreams, House of Horror, Blood Moon Rising, and Dark Fire. He is currently the co-editor at House of Horror. - 137 -


FESTIVE IMAGES

Winter Solstice :Shaun Woodward 2009

www.seanwoodward.com - 138 -


DAVID RILEY

A

s he looked out of the office window across the snow-covered roofs of the bleak East Lancashire town, with its dark church steeples and factory chimneys, their black expulsions of smoke staining the ice-grey sky, Peter Ridgeway wished that he could find some way to shorten the business he had to get through this afternoon, so that he could start off home before dark. He did not relish the prospect of the long and arduous drive ahead of him, especially with the roads as bad as they were. Only one thing could make it worse, he thought, and that was fog. "As I was saying," Townsend continued, returning from a call in the outer office, where the staccato chattering of several typewriters seemed to perforate the air, "these figures you've provided us with will have to be checked out first before we can come to any definite decision. You realise that, of course." Suppressing the sigh of exasperation that tempted him so much, Peter said: "I had hoped that we could have something decided upon today if possible. I'm due to be at Bacup tomorrow and it'll be next week before I can call here again." How long was he going to keep on stalling over the matter? It wasn't as if there was anything vital at stake. He pressed one hand across his forehead, soothing the tension that forewarned him of the aching to come. He hoped another bout of migraine wasn't on the way, though he wouldn't have been surprised if there was after having spent the greater part of the day with a ditherer like Townsend. How the man irritated him! He glanced at his watch. "I had hoped to be off before five," he said. It was five fifteen already, though the gloom outside made it seem even later. "Do you have far to go?" Townsend asked with feigned interest which Peter saw through at once, but which, despite his irritation, he decided to ignore. "That depends on which way I go. I had thought to go by through Rochdale, then over the moors towards Rawtenstall." Looking up from the sheets he had been leafing through, Townsend said that he wouldn't advise it. "Not tonight. There are two foot drifts in town. God knows how deep it is up there. The road's only narrow, and bad enough at the best of times." "But it is direct," Peter pointed out, too annoyed already at the delay to spend any time arguing with Townsend. It was a further two hours before he could reach the stage where he could satisfactorily wind things up for the night. - 139 -


DAVID RILEY As they shook hands in parting, Townsend said: "I'd better wish you good luck if you're still intent on driving across the moors. You'll need it." Laughing dismissively, Peter stepped out into the street, walking gingerly across the hard-packed snow on the pavement towards his car. Shivering at the cold which quickly crept through his coat, he brushed the crust of snow off the windscreen. His breath misted before his face as he looked along the gloomy street. Finding his keys, he unlocked the door and climbed into the even more piercing cold inside. Starting up, he carefully drove towards the main road at the end of the street. An elderly couple, crouched forwards against the swirling flakes of snow beneath a black umbrella, crept by as he drew up at the junction. He switched on the radio; it would help to keep his spirits up on the moors, which were bleak enough, even in summer. As he drove out of the town up the winding road towards the moors, the headlights of his car flared across the bristling bushes and trees in the hedgerow. The cat's eyes embedded in the road surface traced a luminescent line into the darkness ahead of him, before they became buried in snow further from the town, where the salt and ash petered out. Pristine and sterile and cold, the snow covered the road, showing clearly enough in its unmarked surface that it was some time since anyone had driven this way. Ignoring the sense of loneliness this imparted to him, Peter tried to concentrate on the music on the radio. There was not much for him to look at outside. What little he could make out in the pallid light of the stars that showed through rents in the clouds was almost uniformly dreary, with undulant wastes of snow on either side of the road, from beneath whose depths the only things to appear were telegraph poles and electric pylons, with the occasional stunted tree curled up like a beggar in the cold. Gradually the road levelled out as he drove out onto the plateau-like heights of the moors. The faint street lights of the town he had left in the valley behind him disappeared, and around him now were only the wild, bleak wastes of the moors. Etched in a gaunt silhouette against the moonlit clouds ahead of him, a solitary signpost stood like a disused gibbet. He remembered it from previous trips this way, and knew it marked a road that led off at a tangent from the one he was on now. Where it led he did not know, since the weather had long since worn away whatever writing the sign had once had inscribed upon it. Not that - 140 -


DAVID RILEY he had ever concerned himself about this. It was unlikely the road led to anywhere of importance or interest; few places did he knew of that were more sparsely populated than the moors, whose barren immensities seemed to have been stricken by a blight from which they had never been able to recover. As he drove up a shallow incline towards the signpost he was startled to glimpse someone leap out in front of him. For a split second he saw a white blur of a face in the headlights. There was a scream. A moment later he realised it was the tyres of his car as he stamped his foot against the brake and it careered across the road. In an attempt to regain control, Peter pressed down on the accelerator and the car shot forwards, slithering towards the signpost. Only then did he realise just how near it was. Almost too late, he braked again, and there was a jolt as the engine stalled with a short-lived but violent shudder. Muttering an obscenity, Peter looked round for whoever had jumped out, his hand moving to lower the window so that he could shout out his anger. The fool could have caused a bad accident, he thought, incensed with indignation. He looked across the road as starlight glittered on the crests of snow that trailed his car like the frozen wake of a ship. Strangely, disturbingly perhaps, he could not make anyone out, though it was light enough to see if there was anyone there. But where? Opening the door, Peter stepped out onto the snow. The pale wastes of the moors stretched dimly before him as the snow crunched under his feet. Shivering as the cold became more intense, Peter wondered how anyone could have walked this far onto the moors, even along the road; it was miles from here even to the nearest farm. Cupping his hands about his mouth, he called out, but there was no reply, only the secretive sighs of the winds as they skimmed the moors with drifts of snow. There was not even an echo. His shouts were engulfed like a dying match in the depths of a well. Shivering, Peter stamped his feet on the ground as he wondered whether to search around for the man's footprints, though there were none in sight. Somehow the idea of making a search did not appeal to him. Was this because he was afraid that there weren't any there after all? But he knew this was ridiculous. If someone jumped out in front of his car there would be prints. And someone had jumped out, he was sure. - 141 -


DAVID RILEY Once more Peter called out, but there was no reply. This was useless, he knew. Perhaps he had been mistaken. It was dark and windy, and he was tired. It shouldn't surprise him, he supposed, that he mistook something, perhaps a shadow from the clouds, for a figure, though the stark white, featureless blue that he glimpsed had looked so like a face he could scarcely believe he had been wrong about it. Stepping back into his car, Peter turned the ignition. There was a weary, long-drawn whine, and a sickening feeling grew inside him. Gritting his teeth, he tried again, but there was no more response than before. Again he tried, and again. He clenched his fists. It was a waste of time, he knew it. What was wrong with his car he was not sure; he was no mechanic but a salesman. All he could suppose was that the sudden stall must have damaged it in some way. There was nothing for it, he knew. He would have to abandon his car and continue on foot. It couldn't be more than four miles from here to the end of the moors, he supposed with ill-felt optimism. He remembered where the road wound down from the moors at the end there was a village. Although little more than a couple of rows of terraced houses, a shop and a garage, he was sure he would be able to get some help to continue him on his way home, even if he was only enabled to phone for a taxi. Though even four miles in weather like this was a long way, he knew. It had not been as cold as this all winter, and the inside of his car was becoming icy already. Coming to a decision, he buttoned up his coat and climbed out. Only a few flakes of snow were falling now, but they were slowly beginning to come down in greater numbers, and he knew that another storm was on its way. He turned up his collar; it was no good worrying. The sooner he set off, the more chance he would have of reaching some sort of shelter before it got too deep. Gradually, the snow fell thicker and thicker, thousands of feathery flakes silently blotting out the sky with an alabaster veil. With undetectable rapidity, the drifts inside the road grew deeper, drawing his stumbling feet into their yielding depths. Had it not been so bitterly cold the exertion of tugging his feet from the snow and plodding on would have soon had him drenched with perspiration. As it was, his gasps drew the icy air deep into his lungs, scraping his throat. It seemed that he had been walking for hours; eventually he lost all track of time as the snow piled deeper and deeper on the ground and more fell down - 142 -


DAVID RILEY from the sky. Whenever he looked up through the obscuring flakes his eyes met the same hedgerow and willows and telegraph poles, until, in the end, he stopped looking up and walked on mechanically to conserve his strength. When, like someone gradually waking up from a fitful sleep, he finally came to pause and look around, it was to the bewilderingly alarming realisation that he could no longer recognise his surroundings. The road had gone, and there was only the endless snow stretching out into the fog-like gloom. The telegraph poles, the pylons and everything else he knew to surround him on the road, and which he now expected to see, were gone. When or how they disappeared, he did not know. Even as he looked his tracks were being blurred into oblivion by the snow still falling, and he knew that to attempt retracing them was a futile task. Yet what else could he do? To go on would gain nothing. The moors continued for scores of miles, and ended only in an equally barren and desolate range of hills. To make matters even worse, the moon, which had so far provided some sort of light, despite the incessant snow, was sinking swiftly and would shortly pass beyond the rim of the horizon. A greater gloom was already spreading across the wastes. As he stared indecisively into the void, he thought he saw something move. It was faint, almost furtive, on the edge of his sight. As he turned to face it, whatever it was seemed to draw away from him. He could not make out what it was; it was just a dim grey blur in the distance, like a grease smear dabbed across glass. He wiped his eyes, as if the smear was on them; they were beginning to sting as it was, with tiredness and strain. But it did no good. "Hello there!" he shouted. Startling him, the shape suddenly started to run away from him, and he could tell it was a man. He knew that for certain as he caught the vague impressions of out-jutting arms and legs as the figure clumsily clambered across the snow. "Wait!" Peter bellowed. "Don't run away! I'm lost! Can you help me?" But for all the good it did he might as well have cracked a whip at the man's heels. Couldn't he understand what he was shouting to him? "Wait!" Peter called out again, but the cold seemed to splinter in his throat as he set off in pursuit, and he had to stop running to cough. He wiped tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. This was no good, he knew it. He couldn't run in this stuff. He was exhausted. - 143 -


DAVID RILEY Looking up, he watched the wavering outline of the figure. As he stared through the darkness, he thought he could make out the vague impression of an open coat flapping in the wind about him. Choking back a further bout of coughing, Peter forced himself to start trudging on after the figure again, pace by pace, one step at a time. He glanced at his watch. It was twelve fifteen. By now his wife would be getting frantic about him. She would have phoned Townsend - they had his home number in their address book - and have found out just how long ago he set out. But thoughts of this type could not claim his attention for long: the cold was too bitter, and the aching tiredness of his arms and legs were far too insistent. A few moments later, wiping all remaining thoughts of his wife's concern from his mind, he saw a darkish, hulking shadow appear from the gloom of the distance, swallowing the smaller, shadow-like figure in its looming mass. As he hurried towards it, Peter could see the buttressed walls and high-peaked roof of a farmhouse slowly taking shape in front of him, its unlit windows gleaming like lead in the gloom. Was this where the man he'd been following lived? Cautiously, Peter stepped towards it across the blurred impression of a cobbled lane. Looking around, he couldn't see the figure anymore. When or where he had gone he did not know, unless he'd gone into the building. "Hello!" Peter shouted, but there was no reply. Dismissing the man from his mind, he struck a match and peered through one of the ground floor windows into the farm. Its glass was rimed with thick grey veins of frost that distorted and blurred the light as it shone across the back of an old armchair pushed up against the windowsill inside. The deep layer of mouldering dust on top of it showed how long the place had been empty. If nothing else, though, it could provide him with some sort of shelter for the night, he knew, somewhere where he could escape from the full bitterness of the cold. Stepping around the building, he found a barn and some fencing further on, and the rusting fragments of several farming implements. How long the place had been deserted was hard to tell, though it must have been for some considerable time. As he glanced across the roof, he was relieved to see that it looked reasonably intact and didn't appear to be in an imminent state of collapse. This was his only worry about it, since he knew that if he had an accident here he would have very little chance of getting any help. Even in - 144 -


DAVID RILEY summer he doubted if more than a few hikers ever ventured here. When he tried to push open the front door he found that it was locked either this, he thought, or the hinges had rusted solid. But this did not worry him much, since the wood was rotten and a good push would easily force it in. Stepping back a pace, he launched himself at it, hearing the wood give way beneath him. A moment later he swayed into the unlit hallway. Involuntarily, he coughed. There was a mustiness to the air that seemed to lie thick inside his mouth and throat like a layer of film. It was as if he had breathed in a mouthful of cobwebs. He spat on the tiled floor as he looked around at the back of the door. A rusted, finger-like bolt had been torn from the discoloured wood when he forced it open. He looked down the hallway in the guttering light of his match. At the opposite end there was another door that let out to the back of the house. This too was locked with a heavy, rusted, iron bolt. He wondered how whoever locked it up had got out. Then he shrugged, as the open door behind him let in the wind, circulating its cleaner air into the farm as he lit another match, its dim light revealing the blotched wallpaper on the walls, spotted with mould. Opening a door beside him into what he presumed to be the living room, he wondered if he could spend the night in a place like this. But the only alternative was the moors, and he knew there was really no choice. Not now. He looked across the room at the fireplace. There were a few small lumps of coal in the grate. Several more were heaped in a battered scuttle beside it. Some minutes later, using these and a copy of The Daily Telegraph, which was folded in his overcoat pocket, he managed to get a fire going. Drawing up one of the huge armchairs, he swept the rat-droppings off its mildewed seat and sat down on it, holding out his hands towards the minuscule flames that were slowly starting to writhe through the smoke that lingered about the coals. Now that he was at last reasonably comfortable, with some semblance of warmth gradually beginning to circulate from the fire, he wondered where the man he had been following had gone. It seemed strangely suspicious that he should have inexplicably appeared on the moors when he was lost and led him here, at the same time making sure that he did not get near enough to see him properly, before disappearing again. Was he some kind of hermit, perhaps? It wouldn't have surprised him to find an odd kind of crank or eccentric hiding here. A place like this probably attracted oddballs of that sort, he supposed. It - 145 -


DAVID RILEY was lonely enough. The only niggling thought that worried him, though, was the suspicion that both he and the idiot who ran out in front of his car and got him stranded here in the first place were one and the same. If they were, it was almost as if he had planned getting him here, though the idea seemed too fantastic for him to give it any serious consideration. There were too many coincidences, he thought. No one could plan out something like this and be sure of being able to carry it out as he intended, especially in weather like this. Drawing his legs onto the chair, Peter decided that the best thing now was to attempt to get some sleep so that he would be as fresh as possible in the morning. At first light, he would be able to set out across the moors and find his way back to the road. He was so exhausted it was not long before he finally slept. It was not a deep sleep, though, nor restful, since the chair was too cramped for any kind of real comfort on it. It was as he fitfully turned to rest his head on the other side, when he suddenly found himself listening to the creaking tread of someone approaching him across the bare floorboards in the room. Instantly, he was fully awake. Throwing himself from the armchair in alarm, he rolled onto his feet to face the intruder. His hands fumbled into his coat for the box of matches. The fire had died into a few crumbling ashes that cast off only a dim red light that barely reached the edges of the hearth. Finding a match, he struck it. As it flared up, he saw that the room was as empty as before. No one was here. No one except himself. Giving vent to a long drawn sigh of relief, Peter reached down beside the fireplace and tore up some more pages of The Telegraph, pushing them under the dying embers. It took only a few minutes before he managed to revive the fire once more and had added a few more lumps of coal to it, and he was able to look around the room more carefully in its light. The hall door was partially open, though he thought he'd closed it. Could someone have started to come in the room? The footsteps stopped, he remembered, as soon as he leapt off the chair. Unless, of course, the sounds had not been coming from the floorboards of this room but from one of the room upstairs. Perhaps the man he followed here had taken shelter in the house as well. Perhaps he lived here. Unsure whether he should try to find out if there was anyone else in the farmhouse with him, Peter got up and began to look around the room he was - 146 -


DAVID RILEY in. Noticing a small, glass-fronted, old-fashioned bookcase by one wall, squeezed up next to a web-draped ruin of a writing desk (where, no doubt, he imagined, the farmer used to sit when he did his accounts) Peter stepped towards it, wondering if there was anything still left in a fit condition amongst the books crammed in it. Now he was fully awake once more, he needed something to occupy his mind till he felt like sleep again. It was still only half past two, and there were hours yet to go till dawn. Too long to sit staring at the fire or the decaying shambles of the room. Kneeling beside the bookcase, he lit a further match and glanced along the titles of the books. Apart from a few agricultural works and a dog-eared Plain Man's Guide to Bookkeeping, the rest seemed to be printed in either Latin or German with heavy bindings, sometimes of leather, and sometimes reinforced with strips or bands of iron or copper. He pursed his lips as he attempted to read one or two of their titles out loud. Enchiridion, Crih Yussus Cathelas'ytca, Unaussprechlichen Kulten..." He frowned, as he carefully withdrew one of the obviously fragile volumes. Its wrinkled binding seemed almost glued to those on either side, and he had to push them in as he pulled it free. At last it rested in his hands, limp and clammy, with its peculiarly flesh-like binding lying stickily on them. It was much decayed, and he doubted if he would even be able to part its pages, much less read what was printed on them. Placing the book on the floor in front of the fire, where its light would enable him to see it properly, he gently prised its pages open. To his surprise, he found that it was a book on what appeared to be the occult or mythology. Which of the two he wasn't sure. Some of the heavy, crinkled pages were filled with elaborately detailed etchings. But they were too discoloured for him to be able to make them out properly, though he could tell they were intended to portray various kinds of grotesque creatures: hydras and griffins, he supposed, things of that nature. Whoever owned this house before it became derelict must have obviously been a deeper man than he would have normally expected to find living in these inhospitable parts. He sighed. For all its oddity, this didn't provide him with anything that could relieve the tedium of the long, bleak hours until dawn. He did not relish the idea of trying to wade through some eighteenth century treatise on demonology printed in Latin - even if the books had been in a fit condition to read at all. - 147 -


DAVID RILEY Returning to the bookcase in the hope of finding something more interesting, Peter glanced along its shelves once more, but without seeing anything he could possibly sit down and read. Looking instead at the writing desk, he saw that its lid had been broken in, and seemed to have been partly burned at some time. He tore off the rest of it and peered inside, twisting his lips as he made out the remains of a rat's mummified skeleton. Using a piece of wood broken from the lid, he pushed the fragile bones out of the way, to reveal a cardboard box of candles. At least these would help to brighten the place up once he'd got them lit. He shook his head, puzzled, as he took a few out and placed them on top of the bookcase. Every one of them was black. Black wax? Wasn't that the kind of thing they used in Satanic Masses? He wasn't too sure, since the only reading he'd ever done of the subject was confined to the newspapers and a couple of Sunday supplements. If he was right, though, it would tie in with the books and, to some extent, explain why the owner of the farm had come to such a lonely place. Where better to hold whatever rites they performed than deep in the deserted moors about here? Remembering the man who led him here, Peter wondered if he could have any connection with the last owner of the farm. Unless, of course, he was the owner himself, his mind so degenerated by whatever vile practices he'd been indulging in that he was almost insane. Peter frowned; although he'd assumed the man was probably no more than a harmless eccentric, this cast a darker, more worrying aspect upon him, and an aspect which he found peculiarly disturbing. Black Masses, besides a great many other things, involved blood sacrifices - or so he had always been led to believe. The idea of a deranged Satanist prowling about the place disquietened him as he looked about the ugly room, as the candles he'd lit cast wavering shadows about it. Wishing now that he had left the bookcase alone, Peter looked through the doorway into the hallway outside. Unlike before, the vast, empty darkness of the farm's cavernous interior seemed suddenly sentient with an aura of potential menace, the chill that the fire behind him had partly relieved perceptibly more pronounced as he listened above the cracklings of the burning coals to the minute creaks and groans of the house. This was no good, and he knew it. He had no other choice but to remain inside the house till morning. It would be certain suicide to go out now and - 148 -


DAVID RILEY attempt to find his way across the moors, especially with the coldest hours of the night yet to come. But he knew he couldn't rest if the possibility remained of someone entering the room he was in while he slept and attacking him. Closing the hallway door, he pushed one of the armchairs up against it. Just to make absolutely sure, he wedged a couple of the heavier books beneath its casters, testing it to his satisfaction afterwards. Reassured by this, he settled himself once more before the fire. Although he could not have felt less like sleep when he sat down, it was not long before sheer tiredness and the howling of the winds about the house lulled him as he stared at the fire. It was just as well, he thought drowsily, as the flames lost shape in his bleary sight. It was too long till daybreak to stay awake. Sleep would shorten it, he knew, as he drew his coat about himself and closed his eyes. Apart from the hushed lowing of the wind and the occasional creak of old, decaying timbers in the farm, it was silent. As he slept he dreamt: he was in a large, dark room, replete with silk covers and a huge, unlit chandelier. Lying on a couch, Peter seemed midway between wakefulness and sleep, a closed book lying on his lap. There was a knocking at the door behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he called out: "Come in," before returning his attention to the twisting flames in the fire. He heard the door open as someone stepped in, crossing the room quickly towards him. A sudden draft blew in with whoever had entered. Peter shivered at the sudden cold. "What do you want?" Peter asked. The chill embraced him, blotting out the heat from the fire completely. Feeling suddenly nervous, Peter turned to face whoever had entered the room. For a moment, though, he could not make anyone out. It was as if his eyes could not focus properly. A mist-like sheen obscured his sight. As the cold became more intense, numbing him, he stared into the myopic mist that was drawing about him. His lips strained into a disbelieving leer of fright as he made out the whitish, doll-like head that loomed through the shadows, its round eyes glimmering dull and yellow into his. In a fit of panic, Peter broke the paralysis that had gripped him, and flung his arms before his face, barring the vision from his sight. He cried out. Something cold - icy cold seemed to wrap itself about his throat, tightening. He was being choked, he - 149 -


DAVID RILEY realised. Gagging, he tried to get to his feet to fight the thing off. But he couldn't budge the weight that was pressed against him, forcing him back onto the couch. His eyes bulged as he stared unwillingly, but unavoidably, at the stark white face in front of him. It seemed unreal. Too round. Too blank. Too white. He barred his teeth as he fought to breathe. Although he could not feel anything tangible about his throat, his flesh was being crushed by whatever was holding him. The face, swimming through a mist of nausea, came nearer towards him. He saw a small, round mouth, its bleached lips puckered with cracks and wrinkles radiating from it. Nearer. Nearer. This couldn't be real. It wasn't happening to him. It couldn't be! It couldn’t! Peter fought against the pain in his throat as he reached up to tear whatever was grasping him away. It must be a nightmare, he thought to himself - a dream. Closing his eyes, as he strained to cry out and scream, he forced himself to resist the delirium that asphyxia was pounding through his bursting head. He screamed. Like a dagger blade drawn across glass, he heard it screech through the silence. The face touched his. In that instant the dream became darkness - cold, thoughtless, deathlike darkness, that seemed to go on and on and on... ...through eternity. A thin beam of cold sunlight, piercing the gloom of the living room, shone into Peter's eyes as he awoke. Clenching them shut against the glare, he adjusted his position on the floor as he groaned at the pain. An aching stiffness pulsed through his neck as he moved his head. Opening his eyes once more, he felt for the edge of the armchair, lifting himself onto it. The fire had gone out, and he felt frozen. Snow framed most of the grimy windows, glowing brilliantly white against the sunlight. Coughing harshly, Peter glanced at his watch. It was 9.15. He felt an instant sense of relief that the night had ended. Despite the seemingly interminable empty blackness following his dream, memory of it was still fresh in his mind - nauseatingly fresh. He felt at his throat, wincing as his fingers touched the bruised flesh around it. It seemed raw, as if he had really been attacked. Puzzled, he looked towards the hallway door. To his surprise, it was open. The armchair he'd pushed behind it had been moved halfway across the room; the books, wedged beneath its casters, had been torn apart by it. - 150 -


DAVID RILEY Shaking his head, Peter told himself that it couldn't be true. It couldn't. He would not allow himself to believe it was possible. Taking a grip on himself, Peter made his way to the hallway. His legs felt so weak they could scarcely support his weight, and he had to hold onto the various pieces of furniture in the room to stop himself from falling. But this was because of the cold, he told himself. All he needed was some fresh air and some exercise to get his circulation going again, and he would be all right. Taking a deep breath, Peter looked out through the open door across the farmyard towards the moors. It had stopped snowing now, and the smooth layers that had settled seemed to stretch out endlessly before him to the sky. The pain in his throat seemed to worsen suddenly, and he felt at it, carefully. Had someone really tried to choke him while he slept? He really felt as if someone had grabbed hold of him. It couldn't have felt any worse if someone had, he was sure. Nor could he have felt more drained than he did. He looked again at the hallway door. Someone must have pushed it open, he knew. No matter how much he might have preferred to ignore it, he could not truthfully believe he'd done it himself in his sleep. Peter glanced up the stairs that led from the hallway into darkness. Shuddering, he turned again to the farmyard, but he couldn't go out. Gritting his teeth in an attempt to control the sudden trembling that rippled through him, he returned to the living room. One of the black candles he lit during the night was still burning. Picking it up, he went back into the hallway. He knew he would have to find out if the man who led him here was upstairs. He knew he would have to find out. If he didn't, he'd never know if he might have been attacked or not during the night. Even though he knew he was probably letting his overwrought imagination get the better of him, Peter knew as well that he had to find out. Holding the candle before him, he went to the stairs, glanced up them once as the gloom dispersed before the candlelight, then slowly, carefully, he started to climb up, the bare, wooden steps groaning under his feet. At the top, he paused for a moment as he glanced along the landing. In the wall facing him a narrow window had been boarded up. Letting in no light, only the candle revealed the claustrophobic piles and drapes of webs that covered the mouldpocked walls, hanging in dim grey arches across the ceiling and obscuring it from sight. They seemed to muffle the sounds of his footsteps as he walked - 151 -


DAVID RILEY along the landing, making him think of the walls and ceiling of a padded cell that had fallen into decay. As he looked along the doors, he noticed an inverted crucifix nailed to one. Stained brown, it was surrounded with the faded impression of a pentacle, symbols and marks positioned between its points. Reaching for the door handle, Peter pushed it. There was a moment’s resistance, then the door swung open. Thick though the webs had seemed outside, they filled the room with even greater profusion, and even if the window inside had not been boarded up like the one on the landing, Peter doubted much light could have entered it. Cautiously, he stepped inside, wading through the dust-laden webs that were strung like nets across the floor. As he parted those in front of him, he noticed a bed. He frowned, feeling suddenly afraid. Someone was lying on the bed, though the webs surrounding it had not been disturbed for years. He sniffed the air suspiciously, slowly drawing towards the bed. He knew that whoever lay on it had to be dead, and was therefore prepared for what he considered to be the worst. But, as he came nearer and looked at the motionless body, he felt a sickening wave of horror sweep over him. Its rounded, grotesque doll-like head was puffed beneath its off-white flesh as it stared with yellowed eyes at the ceiling, its open mouth parted in what he could have only described as a look of repletion. "God, no!" Peter muttered, recognising the hideous vision from his dream. He spun round, kicking a chair by the wall. Acting on instinct, Peter put the candle on a table by the bed and took hold of the chair, kicking out one of its legs. The rotten wood splintered and gave way beneath his foot. Bending down, he tore off a jagged length of wood, brandishing it towards the abomination on the bed. Knowing that he would have to act fast, Peter raised the dagger-like weapon in the air and thrust it down at the swollen head. The repulsively pulpy flesh parted beneath it, and the sharp wood sank deep into the soft interior of the skull. As it did so, Peter saw a pale grey vapour begin to seep from its mouth. It passed through the air towards the doorway, growing denser as it did so. Releasing the chair leg, Peter looked back as a darkening mass began to form, blocking the door. A whimper of despair trickled from Peter's lips as he realised his mistake. The body on the bed had never moved - nor could it - it was only a husk. It was - 152 -


DAVID RILEY not this that lured him here and attacked him during the night. He screamed, collapsing to his knees as he stared at the blank white, doll-like head appearing in the doorway as the vapours condensed, its open, serrated, sucking mouth moving towards him. Copyright Š David Riley 2009

David A. Riley has an impressive publication history, with short stories appearing in everything from The Eleventh Pan Book of Horror Stories in 1970, to The Fifth Black Book of Horror in 2009. Terror on the Moors was originally published in 1974 by World of Horror magazine and will also be included in the 2010 collection The Lurkers in the Abyss, to be published by Midnight House.

Don’t forget to check out the Riley Books website : www.rileybooks.co.uk - 153 -


RHYS HUGHES

T

hey had been stuck indoors all week, Toby and Gerrold, and so they decided to go for a nice walk on Christmas Eve. But first they went to the pub for lunch and a few pints of ale. By the time they set off again the sky was clouding over and the path through the woods seemed less enticing than before. Toby stopped in his tracks and yawned. "I'm so tired!" "It's all the fresh air," said Gerrold. "Let's find somewhere to sit, shall we? How about over here?" "In the graveyard?" asked Gerrold. "Yes. That tombstone looks comfortable enough. The light will be fading in about an hour. After our rest we should turn back." They scuffed through loose earth to reach the tombstone. They removed their jackets to make cushions and dangled their legs. Toby yawned again and Gerrold followed his example. "Too much fresh air!" they chorused. Gerrold opened his knapsack and removed two plastic bags. The first contained four cans of ale, the second held a packet of tobacco, rolling papers, a box of filters and a lighter. They both yawned again. "I don't understand," began Toby. "What don't you understand?" pressed Gerrold. A can of ale hissed in his hand as he opened it. Before he could take a sip, he yawned. Toby yawned as well. Contagious. "Why fresh air should make a person yawn. Fresh, mind you. Fresh!" "It's what happens," explained Gerrold. "I know that. But why?" Gerrold shrugged. "Too much of a good thing is bad, maybe?" Toby yawned. "It goes against logic." "I suppose it does, but it's what people say all the time. 'The fresh air is making me tired!' It's just one of the paradoxes of life." "It implies that stale air makes you more active," pointed out Toby. "Yes it does," conceded Gerrold. "And where might you find the stalest air?" pressed Toby. Gerrold considered. "Inside a damaged submarine lying at the bottom of the sea full of suffocating men. Those doomed crews must be very active!" "Or inside the coffin of a person buried alive?" suggested Toby. "There too," said Gerrold. They glanced at the loose earth they had recently stepped on. Now they - 154 -


RHYS HUGHES realised there was a peculiar odour hanging over the graveyard, the smell of dampness, mould, severed worms, mothballs and diseased flesh. A burial had taken place not long ago. And there was a scraping noise, a subterranean rumble, faint but growing louder. "If fresh air makes you tired, stale air must make you more wakeful, more active, stronger," reiterated Toby, "so if you are accidentally buried alive, your physical power must increase as your air turns foul. Eventually you will become strong enough to burst out of your grave. It stands to reason, doesn't it?" The ground erupted in front of them. A pseudo-corpse stood there, rictus rage on its sallow features, splinters of shattered coffin on the shoulders of its musty suit, its entire frame shaking with malignant energy. "Run!" yelled Toby and Gerrold. After a few seconds they collapsed exhausted. "We're too tired to flee!" wailed Toby. "All the fresh air has sapped our vitality. The monster will catch us!" Gerrold shook his head with considerable effort. "No it won't. It's no longer surrounded by stale air and has lost its vitality too!" Toby looked back and saw that Gerrold had spoken the truth. The fake zombie was leaning against the tombstone for support, yawning madly. "But what's it doing?" shrieked Toby. "I left my tobacco behind!" lamented Gerrold. "It's rolling itself a cigarette!" The click of the lighter was audible. "When it cleans the fresh air out of its lungs it will be once more active enough to pursue us. We are finished! So much for Christmas this year!" sobbed Toby. "We have only one chance. We need to return to the tombstone and snatch back the two plastic bags. If we put them over our heads and start to asphyxiate we will regain enough energy to outdistance the grotesque fiend!" "Yes, let's do that!" croaked Toby. "On second thoughts, why bother? This is a very silly story." "Yes it is," confirmed Toby. Copyright Š Rhys Hughes 2009

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FESTIVE IMAGES

Snow Monsters : Steve Upham 2009

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Estronomicon Christmas Special 2009