Estronomicon Christmas Special 2010

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THE OFFICIAL SD EZINE Introduction by Steve Upham A Present for Santa by Derek John The Fate of Mickey Carr by Charlotte Bond Ice Cold in Aspic by Mark Howard Jones Santa Claus is Coming by Mark Iles Jack in the Box by Carl Barker An Empty Ceremony... by Michael R. Colangelo Sleigh Ride by Sarah Ann Watts Let The Children's Cheerful Noise by Neil Williams A' Cheud Cheum (The First Foot) by Johnny Mains Dreaming of a Black Christmas by Mark West Ecstasy by Bob Lock Silent Night by Stuart Young Thee Lord Ov Misrule by Sean Woodward Otterburn by Jan Edwards The Grotto by James Bennett Published by

Screaming Dreams The stories in this eZine are works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Cover Illustration Copyright Š Steve Upham 2010 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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can’t believe it’s Christmas already! Where did 2010 go? It’s been a busy year, that’s for sure. Five new SD books in print plus several conventions and events have come and gone over the past twelve months. I must apologize though for the lack of Estronomicon issues this year, but there simply hasn’t been enough time to keep up with everything. I hope to do better in 2011. Anyway, here’s the traditional Christmas issue of the eZine. Enjoy!




was eight years old and I believed in Santa all right because I knew that he hated me. Every year I would write countless pleading letters, all addressed to ‘Mr Santa Claus, The North Pole’ and every year just as surely, I would end Christmas Day in tears of bitter disappointment at the failure of the wished-for presents to materialise. It was the week before Christmas and me, and the three others in my gang: Dan, Kevin, and Paul, were standing in the freezing cold and staring into the window of Sheldon’s, the big department store on the main street. Set amongst the displays of biscuit boxes, plastic trees and fake snow was the object of our desire: The Raleigh Super Grifter, complete with Shimano gears and gold trim. Dan caressed his fingers down the glass as if vainly trying to grasp at the wonderful space-age bicycle whose price I calculated as equal to 70 yearsworth of our combined pocket monies. Kevin and Dan were brothers and their dad worked with my dad down at the steelworks. Paul’s dad had some terrible disease from working down the mines and sat all day in their lounge wheezing and breathing oxygen from a mask. We desired nothing else in this world more than that bicycle and so we decided to junk mail Santa. Every day we would post off as many letters as we could write between us, imploring him for a Super Grifter. We had even made a solemn Communist pact that if only one of us was good enough to receive the bike from Santa then the others could have an equal share on every other day. Come Boxing Day our downcast faces said it all. “What did you get?” The lads asked, half expecting me to unveil the Grifter with a bold ‘Tadaa!’ “The Tiger annual and a selection box,” I replied glumly, “And you?” “A jumper and Connect Four,” said Paul, while Kevin and Dan were sheepishly trying to hide their novelty Christmas socks. A bell rang brightly and Brian Richards came sailing past on a brand new Raleigh Grifter. “Hey suckers!” he shouted and raced past us into the distance. Brian’s dad was a solicitor in town and they lived in a huge detached house in the suburbs. Our street was nowhere near where he lived and it was obvious that he had come out here just to taunt us. -2-

DEREK JOHN Paul spat on the ground. “Imagine putting a bell on a Grifter! Why not a flippin’ shopping basket as well?” The following Christmas we had almost forgotten our collective letdowns and caught up in the buzz we found ourselves outside Sheldon’s window again, drooling over the latest Christmas display. Taking pride of place this year was the Commodore 64, complete with International Soccer and Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It was another season of bitter disappointment. I got an Action Man and it looked suspiciously second-hand to me with the previous owner’s biro scribbles on the box. But what sickened us most was returning to school in the New Year to find Brian Richards elevated to the most popular person in the playground. Crowds of kids were hustling around him begging him to let them come and play on his new Commodore 64. Grinning from ear to ear, he lorded it over them. “You, you and you,” he would say to the lucky ones in the assembled crowd, “come round after school.” And we heard that kids were even queuing-up to stare in the windows of his house just for a glimpse of the all-new computer games in action. Me and my gang spent most evenings throwing stones into the scummy depths of the canal, still wrapped-up in the post-Christmas gloom. “It’s not fucking fair!” wailed Dan, “We’ve all been good and yet we still get shite presents off Santa for Christmas. Let’s face it, he’s just a fucking Tory wanker and he hates poor people!” That was the year the steelworks closed down. Mum and dad fell out and he spent most of the day at the allotments. We always seemed to be running out of money and my school uniform had more patches on it than Worzel Gummidge. Christmas came round again, and this year in Sheldon’s window was an amazing robotic truck called Big-Trak, but I’d given up on Santa; let him give those wonderful presents to the Brian Richards of this world - I didn’t need his cast-off charity. In fact, slowly but surely, over the past year an idea for a glorious revenge had been fermenting in my mind. I gathered the gang together in my dad’s shed on the allotments. “Look at this!” I said, reaching down an old tin from the shelf. It was marked with a bright red skull and crossbones and a peeling label read ‘Paraquat’. Into some old film canisters I doled out a handful each to Dan, Kevin and -3-

DEREK JOHN Paul. “You know what we’re going to do?” I said, “When your mum and dads put out the mince-pie and glass of sherry for Santa on Christmas Eve, you’re going to sneak down and dissolve as much of this into the drink as you can.” Dan jumped around gleefully. “Fuck you Santa! We’ll show him! We’re gonna fucking do him in!” “It doesn’t matter whoever’s house he comes to first,” I said, “one sip and he’s a goner! Whatever happens we’ll get him good and proper! No more flippin’ Grifters and Commodore 64s for Brian Richards!” On Christmas Eve, once my parents had gone to bed, I sneaked downstairs and on the mantelpiece I found the mince-pies and sherry left out for Santa. I gently popped open my canister and dissolved a good slug of Paraquat in the glass and the leftovers I sprinkled over the mince-pie like icing sugar. I tiptoed back to my room and despite my best efforts I fell asleep. The following morning I woke early and the darkness had barely begun to lift. With a quickening excitement I saw that for the first time there were no presents by my bed - not that I wanted any of Santa’s second-hand crap anymore. There could only be one reason for Santa failing to show: one of us had managed to get him on his nightly round and I prayed that the glory of the kill would be mine. It was seven am and I could hear my mother’s soft footsteps pad down the stairs to put the turkey on. Then I heard a piercing scream from the lounge below. I smiled to myself; no doubt she had just found the contorted remains of the evil Laplander by the fireplace. Filled with malicious glee, I ran down the stairs in my pyjamas, ready to dance jigs around his bloated red-faced corpse. Copyright © Derek John 2010

FESTIVE WISHES FROM SCREAMING DREAMS! I would like to thank all the authors and artists who have supported Screaming Dreams with their work during 2010. Keep it coming in!


CHARLOTTE BOND "... dog will have his day" Hamlet - Act V, Scene I, 295


he grass was still green, but the bare branches of the trees raked the grey skies above. Tony took a deep breath of the wintry air, so different from the London smog his lungs were used to. Hills surrounded him on every side. Tony felt like the only human being for miles, and that probably wasn’t far from the truth in this remote part of Derbyshire. It wasn’t Zurich, but it would have to do. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, and a beggar was pretty much what he’d become when his company laid him off. ‘I’m so sorry about you having to cancel your skiing holiday,’ his mother had said on the phone a month ago. ‘But I have a great idea. Your father and I are booked into that little flat on the Algarve for Christmas. Why don’t you and Elaine come up and look after the place while we’re gone? It’s not much, but it will at least be a break for your both. What do you say?’ What I say is I’d rather gnaw my own arm off, Tony had thought bitterly. Do you think you’re helping? Rubbing my nose in it by getting me to house-sit your poky little barn-conversion while you’re sunning yourselves? Tony had made up some excuse and had thought that was the end of it. Then, like women do, his mother had bypassed his decline and gone straight to Elaine. Tony’s girlfriend had been thrilled at the idea of a country get-away. ‘How kind of your parents to let us stay there,’ Elaine had gushed. ‘And we can save money this year, maybe afford a proper holiday next year. I’m sure you’ll have a new job by then.’ Tony stood with his back to his parents’ empty house, blowing on his coffee. Tendrils of steam warmed his nose as he stared at the long, wide garden in front of him which tapered away to be lost in a mess of trees and brambles at the far end. Somewhere in that wilderness an unseen bird was singing him a country aria, but Tony’s black mood was unshaken. He glanced at his watch. Elaine would be another hour or so in the supermarket. Plenty of time to sit with the paper or maybe take advantage of his father’s new surround sound system and widescreen TV. As he turned to go back through the patio doors, a voice hailed him in a cheery Texan accent. ‘Hey there, little Anthony!’ Tony looked up to see Charlie Carr, his parents’ next-door neighbour, leaning over the fence. -5-

CHARLOTTE BOND ‘Charlie.’ Tony hoped his peremptory tone would dissuade further conversation but his hopes were disappointed. As Charlie rambled about the achievements of his five children, Tony let the voice descend into a background buzz. Sudden excited barking made Tony jump and spill his coffee down his shirt. ‘What the hell’s that?’ he demanded shakily. ‘Oh, don’t mind Sammy,’ said Charlie, bending down to pick up a little Beagle puppy. A shiver passed down Tony’s spine as the creature eyed him over the fence. Charlie laughed as the dog licked his chin while Tony swallowed down bile. The thought of letting a dog so near his face, its teeth so close to his throat, made him want to retch. ‘Didn’t feel right getting a new one after Mickey Carr ran away,’ Charlie continued amiably. ‘Always kinda hoped he’d come back. You remember Mickey Carr, don’t you, Anthony? My old Border Collie. Mind you, you can’t have been more than eight when he ran away.’ ‘I was ten,’ Tony said, his voice quavering. There was no way he would ever forget Mickey Carr. Charlie smiled sympathetically. ‘You were always a little scared of old Mickey, I remember, although I don’t know why. He was the soppiest thing.’ ‘I just hate dogs,’ Tony replied bluntly. It was true and it had all started with Mickey Carr. But he wasn’t going to let Charlie know that. It might lead to unwelcome questions about the fate of Mickey Carr. ‘Well,’ Charlie continued, ‘our little Sammy Carr is just a baby. He’s only just allowed out of the house yet.’ ‘Look, I have to go. I’ve got chores to do,’ Tony said hastily. Charlie raised an eyebrow. ‘Your parents left you chores? Like a little kid?’ ‘Yeah,’ replied Tony distractedly. He had fumed when he found the list pinned to the fridge. It was just like his mother to treat him like he was still ten. When Charlie had said his goodbyes and gone back inside, silence settled on the garden again. Another dog barked in the distance, a deeper, throatier baying than that of Sammy Carr. It stirred the already awakened primal fear within Tony. He hurried inside to get the garage keys. For the rest of the afternoon, Tony worked intensely in his parents’ garden, desperate to distract himself. He laid the last of the flagstones on the patio. He -6-

CHARLOTTE BOND dug up the weeds in his mother’s prize rose bed. It was exhausting work, the ground being hard and unyielding after weeks of frosts. Finally, he got out the rake and set about the leaves at the bottom of the garden. The compost heap had been covered over by brambles and sharp thorns raked his arms red as he cleared it. Pulling one knot of foliage aside, his heart leapt into his mouth. The grave! he thought wildly and backed away. He stood staring at the almost imperceptible mound of earth, the final resting place of Mickey Carr. It was bare except for a few limp weeds straining against the frozen soil. Tony clenched his hands together to stop them shaking. That simple patch of bare earth brought back so many memories. The pink gums that had drawn back to expose the flashing white teeth. Those huge paws, the claws digging into his shoulder. The feel of canine salvia dripping down his cheek and neck. Tony spun round at the sound of a car on the gravel driveway. For a moment, he saw through the eyes of a ten year old, staring wildly around in panic and fear of discovery. Then he recollected himself. Elaine must be back, he reasoned. Her cheery voice calling hello affirmed this. ‘I’m just in the garden,’ he called back. Tony made his way hesitantly back to the thicket to rearrange the brambles and cover the spot again. Now that he was closer, he couldn’t decide whether that was the grave. There were other bits of raised soil, all of them bare beneath the trees. He had not marked the grave with anything – why would he? It was never supposed to be found. Making his way back into the house, Tony glanced back at the garden. The December afternoon shadows were creeping across the grass and they seemed to be stretching out faster and chasing him from the far end of the garden. He picked up his pace. ‘Get anything nice?’ he asked absently as he wandered into the kitchen, closing the patio doors firmly behind him. Surrounded by bags, Elaine beamed then launched into a detailed description of all the food and Christmas decorations she had bought. Tony let her babble wash over him as the tap water flowed over his hands, filling the sink with gritty soil. The sun was setting. Looking out of the window, he stifled a gasp. On the -7-

CHARLOTTE BOND grass between the flowerbed and the overgrown thicket was a long smear of blood, just as there had been in that day in his childhood. His stomach churned. ‘It’s just a trick of the light.’ ‘What did you say?’ Tony ignored the question, staring at the garden. In a blink, the stain had vanished. He forced his heart to slow its crazed beating and turned to Elaine. ‘Lights. Er, I said, did you get any lights? Fairy lights, I mean. Didn’t you say you wanted some?’ ‘Oh yes – I got the most darling ones in the shape of little stars. Let’s put them up now.’ Tony dutifully followed Elaine into the living room. He held the star lights in place over the mantelpiece as she fixed them to the wall with blu-tack. He hid a malicious grin, thinking of his mother’s face when she came back to find oily blu-tack patches on her expensive silk wallpaper. Tony didn’t register the bang of a door outside closing, but he heard the blood-curdling call that came after it. It was not quite a bark, not quite a howl, but a chilling combination of the two. A brass carriage clock went flying as Tony leaped backwards, his face white. His eyes flicked around the room. Whilst the rationale part of his mind insisted that the noise came from outside, it had sounded so loud that for a moment he expected to see the creature stalking through the living room. ‘What’s the matter? It’s just a dog,’ Elaine said with a smile. ‘It’s some hound from hell, that’s what it is,’ he said hoarsely. ‘No, honey. It’s just a beagle. My aunt used to have one. They bark just like that.’ ‘It’ll be that damn creature from next door then,’ Tony spat. ‘I had forgotten that you didn’t like dogs,’ Elaine said sympathetically. She came with arms outstretched but he dodged away from her. ‘I had a bad experience as a kid, with the one next door.’ ‘That one?’ she asked, gesturing towards the window. The barking could still be heard intermittently but it was receding and taking Tony’s terror with it. ‘No, a different one. It was a long time ago. What does it matter? You hate spiders, it’s the same. Just leave it be.’ ‘Yes, but-’ Elaine begin then faltered when she saw the look Tony shot her. -8-

CHARLOTTE BOND ‘Well, maybe we should unpack the rest of the shopping. What time is it?’ Glancing at his wrist, Tony saw it was bare. ‘Damn. I must have lost my watch while gardening.’ ‘Is it the nice watch that my mother gave you for your birthday?’ Elaine frowned and Tony felt a lecture looming. ‘Yes, but the strap was obviously dodgy. I’ll go get it.’ Tony didn’t want to go back out into the encroaching night, but whatever terrors might lurk there suddenly seemed preferable to being in the same room as Elaine’s disapproval. After a year of going out, he was coming to the conclusion she wasn’t really his type. He would have finished with her months ago but after his redundancy he couldn’t afford his London flat on his own. Guess I’m just a gold digger, he thought with a grin. It swiftly fell from his face as he moved further from the pool of light, which spilled from the patio doors into the darkness. Unbidden, an old childhood nightmare surfaced in his mind. He was walking across this very garden. The sun was overhead but he walked in shadow. When he tried to go back, his body wouldn’t respond. His feet carried him unwillingly towards that spot where he had covered over Mickey Carr’s body. Only Mickey Carr’s body was not covered over any more. The soil he had so carefully shovelled over the dog was scattered across the grass. His feet followed it like a trail. Despite his screaming, his feet took him to the very edge of the grave. He looked down and Mickey Carr looked right back, just before Tony woke up. He shook himself. This was not the place for such childish imaginings. As he reached the brambles, he cursed for not thinking to bring a torch. The darkness was pitch under the shade of brambles and tree branches. But he did not think he could summon the courage to come back out here again if he returned to the house. Gritting his teeth, Tony leaned forward and parted the brambles. He gave his eyes a minute to adjust before scanning round for the telltale flash of the white dial. A gleam caught his eye and he saw the watch was lying on the grave itself. Tony was certain now that this small patch of earth covered the body of Mickey Carr. It was the exact spot he’d been drawn to in his dreams. How on earth did it get over there? he thought wildly. I never went near -9-

CHARLOTTE BOND the damn spot. His heart was pounding in his ears as he reached out. The brambles clawed at his shirt, tangling themselves in his hair. His fingers reached out, white tapers in the blackness. After several futile attempts to reach it, Tony lunged forward determinedly. Brambles gave way and his momentum ploughed his hand straight into the earth. He cried out and pulled back, soil spilling from his fingers clenched around the watch. He stared at the dirt. ‘I-It can’t be. It can’t be that… warm. The rest of soil is frozen. How can it be that loose and warm? What the hell?’ He rubbed his hand frantically on his shirt, desperate to remove the soil that clung to his skin. He turned and ran back to the house, slamming the patio doors behind him. He left grimy brown smears on the white PVC as he fumbled to turn the key. ‘What’s the matter, honey?’ Elaine came out of the living room. Her eyes widened when she saw the dirty smudges on his shirt and trousers. ‘There was…’ he started then hesitated. There was what? he thought. Some soil? Some warm soil? How crap an explanation is that? ‘Nothing,’ he mumbled, feeling ashamed of his fear. ‘Just got dirty getting the watch.’ Going to the sink, he ran the cold water tap and shoved his hands underneath. He wanted the water to suck out every modicum of heat that the soil had left on his skin. He glanced out the window. He expected to see the bloody trail on the grass, but the sun had set and the garden was a black void. ‘Are you okay, honey?’ Elaine asked. ‘I’m fine,’ Tony snapped. I’m so far from bloody fine it’s a joke, he thought vehemently. But what’s the use in telling her that? She’ll just think I’m a freaky coward who gets spooked by the dark. ‘I’m going for a bath, try and get this dirt out from under my fingernails,’ Tony said brusquely. ‘We could have a bath together,’ suggested Elaine enticingly, gazing at him from beneath her lashes. Before he could stop it, a sneer twisted Tony’s features. Elaine’s coyness fell from her. She stood shocked and staring. ‘I just want to be on my own,’ Tony muttered as he pushed past her. He poured some of his father’s designer bubble-bath beneath the running taps. It didn’t take long for the bath to fill up with foam and the room with - 10 -

CHARLOTTE BOND steam. Before he stripped off, he returned downstairs to pour himself a large glass of whiskey. In the kitchen, Elaine glanced his way as he ascended the stairs but he studiously avoided meeting her gaze. As he sank into the hot water, his tension seemed to float away with the grime. He laid his head back, closed his eyes, and forced his mind to pleasant thoughts. The burn of the alcohol on his tongue. The scent of sandalwood making his nostrils tingle. The football which would be on TV tonight. A relaxed smile was tugging at his lips when a baying from outside made his eyes snap open. This was no Beagle. It was a harsh, resonating bellow which would not have been out of place in a werewolf movie. Every muscle in Tony’s body seized up. He shivered in the hot water and stared unseeingly ahead. His mind’s eye pictured slavering jaws and bloody pink gums. The baying died away. The silence which replaced it seemed to hum in Tony’s ears. The heat and his racing pulse made him feel dizzy. He tried to mentally shake himself. He reached out and picked up the whisky glass, downing the contents in one slug. You just imagined it. Or it was that bloody Beagle next door again. Or that other dog you heard in the garden. Maybe a farmer’s dog on a farm, miles away. Sound carries in the country. Such thoughts raced frantically across his mind but brought no calm. Then the baying came again, much closer this time. Tony’s knuckles went white gripping the glass. It ceased, then came a third time, closer still. The damn thing could be in the garden, Tony thought fearfully. Still, could be a farmer’s dog got loose, jumped the fence. His eyes travelled to the open window through which the steam was curling into the dark night. He listened intently and a different yet equally sinister noise reached his ears. It was the sound of claws clattering on stone. It’s outside the house, he thought. It’s really out there. He listened to the clack-clack of the creature wandering up and down. Then the sound ceased and Tony held his breath. Maybe it’s gone, he thought hopefully. Maybe it’sHe heard a series of small thuds from outside the bathroom door as something climbed the stairs. Tony sank down in the bath, carelessly sloshing water over the side as a shadow fell across the gap at the bottom of door. The shadow remained motionless as the ripples in the bathwater slowly stilled. - 11 -

CHARLOTTE BOND Tony’s eyes never left that blackness which seemed like it might slide under the door any moment. He heard the creature sniff – short, questing breaths. Tony couldn’t prevent a small whimper escaping his throat. Then there came a scrabbling at the door, something trying to get in. The old door handle rattled as if it might fall off completely and the bolt was shivering itself loose under the attack. Tony started screaming and couldn’t stop. He threw his glass at the door, the fine cut-glass crystal shattering into sparkling shards. As the assault on the door grew more intense, he scuttled backwards in the bath, waves of foamy water spilling over the edge onto the floor. He threw his hands up over his face as the door slammed inwards, crashing back against the wall. Elaine rushed to his side, kneeling in the split water and reaching out to him. ‘Tony! Tony, it’s me. What happened? Have you hurt yourself? Why are you screaming?’ Tony’s eyes were fixed on the empty doorway. Where he had expected to see the looming face of a monstrous beast, there was just soft lighting and tinsel sparkling gently as it swayed in the breeze from the open window. ‘Noises. Baying, like some god-damn hell-hound or something.’ His words were punctuated by gasps as he gulped down air like a drowning man. Elaine frowned. ‘What, you mean that noise from outside just now? That’s what got you all worked up? I could barely even hear it, but you’re telling me it freaked you out enough to smash a glass against your parents’ bathroom door? I think you have a serious problem, Tony.’ His fear turning rapidly to angry embarrassment, Tony turned on her. ‘The only problem I have is you. What the hell are you doing bursting in on a man in the bath like that? You hammered like the devil for Christ’s sake! What were you trying to do? Scare the shit out of me? Because you bloody well succeeded in that, Elaine.’ ‘I was worried about you, that’s all, especially when I couldn’t open the door and could hear you yelling on the other side,’ she said. Her voice was timid, but there was a hard edge to it. ‘You’ve been so strange. I just wanted to come check on you.’ ‘Well you’re an idiot and you just made it all worse. Why don’t you just piss off and leave me alone?’ - 12 -

CHARLOTTE BOND ‘Fine, I will,’ snapped Elaine. She stood, towering over him. ‘You’ve been determined to be miserable ever since we arrived, so I’m going to leave you to it. I’m going to the pub we passed on the way here for a hot meal and better company. There is some cold chicken in the fridge. You can have that – if you’ve any room after all the whiskey,’ she added archly before turning and striding out of the bathroom. Tony heaved himself out of the bath, picking his way over shattered glass to get a towel. He regretted yelling at Elaine, but there was no way he was going to apologise. At least, not until he’d had another whiskey. By the time he was dressed and downstairs, both she and the car had gone. Hoping the world would seem brighter on a full stomach, Tony got the chicken out of the fridge and tore himself a chunk of bread. He took his ungainly sandwich into the living room and slumped down in his father’s armchair. He turned on the TV and stared at the flickering screen. The pictures were a blur, the voices an amorphous white noise. ‘It all happened over a decade ago. It wasn’t your fault,’ Tony said out loud, although there was no one but himself to convince. ‘Everything happened so fast. You were just a kid.’ His stock phrases for assuaging guilt did not work this time. In his mind, the incident replayed itself over and over. The dog had gone for him. He had raised the spade in his hand. He had pushed the dog aside. It had tumbled to the ground, then squirmed to get up. Then the snarling creature (he was pretty sure it was snarling, he could see it’s teeth anyway) had gone for him again and he had hit it with the spade. He had only meant to deter it, but fear had eaten up his mind. He had hit it again and again until it stopped struggling. He remembered the tang of blood in the air, the sight of fur and a tiny bit of skull smeared on the spade. Something thudded against the patio window. Tony jumped up, his nerves still twitching from earlier. His eyes were drawn to the strange lump which was slowly sliding down the window. Moving closer but still keeping his distance, Tony saw it was a clump of soil. As he watched, it fell off the window, landed on the patio and crumbled into pieces. For a moment he was stunned, then he muttered, ‘Damn kids.’ His mother had mentioned some rowdy teenagers messing around the other night and throwing things. He felt roused to action, pleased to have something he could - 13 -

CHARLOTTE BOND easily confront. He turned on all the downstairs lights as well as the outside floodlight. Grabbing a torch, he opened the patio door and stepped outside. He swept the powerful beam over the garden but everything was still. He listened hard, not only for the sound of youthful sniggers, but also for the clack-clack of claws on stone. He glanced at Charlie’s house to see the windows dark and empty. Then his attention was drawn to a rustling from the far end of the garden. Tony instantly directed the beam that way. His heart rattled fast against his ribcage as he saw a dark smear on the lawn. He blinked once, twice, but the stain remained. For a moment, he stood frozen to the spot. The night-time scene was so reminiscent of that hot July day when he had killed Mickey Carr. Yet as he stared harder, he saw that it was not a trail of blood but soil. He shook himself and cleared his throat. ‘What are you bloody kids doing to my father’s lawn? Didn’t your parents teach you any respect for other peoples’ property?’ His voice was weak but it carried commandingly across the lawn in the clear night. His only answer was a rustling from the far end of the garden. He strode purposefully across the grass. ‘Fine. Play silly buggers if you like, but I’m coming down there and if I catch you, I swear…’ Tony trailed off, uncertain what he could or would do. He expected to hear giggles and more rustling as the errant teenagers ran for it, but there was only the sound of his footfalls on the hard ground. He kept his torch trained on the trail of soil, following it up to a hole in the brambles. ‘You can run, but you can’t hide from me,’ he called out with more bravado than he felt. The hole in the dark undergrowth yawned like a hungry mouth. The primal part of his brain screamed at him to retreat, but the rational part made him extend his arm, force the brambles aside and step into the darkness. Instantly he was transported back to his ten-year-old self on the day he had killed Mickey Carr. He had stood over the hasty but surprisingly deep grave he had dug. He had paused to look down at the empty hole for just a moment before dragging the body of Mickey Carr from where he had hidden it in case his parents or Charlie came home. He had rolled the rapidly cooling lump of flesh into the grave and the dead eyes of Mickey Carr had stared up accusingly, - 14 -

CHARLOTTE BOND as if the creature could still see him from the other side of death. Now, he stared down into the same hole. The same empty hole. What the hell? he thought because his mouth was too dry to say the words aloud. The damn kids have dug him up. They’ve bloody dug him up and taken what was left of him. Why the hell have they done that? Dumbfounded, Tony turned to walk back to the house, thinking he ought to call someone but not sure who. He stopped dead when he saw what stood on the lawn. He wanted to vomit but fear contracted his throat. Those dead eyes looked up at him just as they had on that June day so many years ago. But rather than lying in the earth, Mickey Carr was standing on all fours. Tony dropped the torch in shock. Where it fell, the beam slanted upwards, still illuminating the horrendous cadaver which hypnotised Tony. The creature’s unforgiving eyes might still be there, but a lot of its skin wasn’t. Bits of flesh were falling from Mickey Carr even as he stood motionless. Tony’s eyes remained fixed on the dog’s. Stare it out, he thought. That’s what you do with dogs. Works with live ones, surely it will- He cut his thought off there, not wanting to admit that what he saw standing before him should be – or was – dead. Mickey Carr’s lip curled up into a snarl, revealing yellowed and broken teeth. Little white spots fell from its gums. Tony took it at first for saliva, but when they hit the ground and continued to squirm and wriggle, he realised they were maggots. Bile burned in his throat and his heart beat a frantic tattoo in chest. The dog growled, an uneven sound given the holes in its throat. It took a single menacing step towards Tony and that broke the hypnotic spell. Tony’s legs found their willpower again and carried him swiftly back to the house. Mickey Carr aimed a vicious snap at his calves as he passed then turned and lumbered ungainly after him. Tony’s legs felt as if they were filled with water. As he reached the patio window, he tripped over the frame and went sprawling onto the kitchen floor. In a moment he was up, turning and slamming the doors shut. They groaned in protest as they smashed home. With fumbling fingers, he twisted the key then leapt away as if the windows were electrified. Mickey Carr was making his slow but unerring way towards the house. Reaching the window, the dog prowled backwards and forwards on the patio. So close, separated only by a - 15 -

CHARLOTTE BOND sheet of glass, Tony could see every horrific detail of the walking corpse. Black, bloated organs were visible through the beast’s exposed rib cage. The black and white fur surrounding his muzzle was matted, patchy and stained by soil. Those far-too-intelligent eyes never left Tony and he shuddered uncontrollably beneath their malevolent gaze. Drawing on the last of his courage, Tony hurried towards the window. Grabbing handfuls of curtain, he wrenched them closed, blocking out the sight of Mickey Carr. The dog scrabbled at the window, yelping and snarling. Tony backed away, sinking into a chair where he watched the frenzied shadow against the fabric. After ten minutes, Mickey Carr stopped his onslaught and continued to prowl. Tony remained motionless. His eyes followed the stalking shadow as it wove right to left, left to right, out of sight for a moment, then back again. ‘Elaine will be home soon. Elaine will be home soon. It’ll all be alright then,’ he repeated like a mantra. He fell into a daze, muttering under his breath. It took a few moments before he realised that when the shadow had last vanished from sight on the right, it had not reappeared. He waited, holding his breath. He listened for any sound, however small that indicated the hound was still prowling outside. Hearing nothing, Tony tentatively rose. He walked slowly to the window, his hand trembling as he reached out. He licked his dry lips as he parted the curtains. His breath misted the glass as his eyes scanned the darkness outside. ‘Where are you, you bastard?’ Tony murmured with a frown. As if in answer, there came a loud crack and a snorting from the back door. Tony almost tore the curtains from the rails in fright. Horrific images flashing through his mind, he raced into the hallway to see Mickey Carr’s snout poking through his parents’ ancient cat-flap, left over from childhood pets who were long deceased. When the creature saw Tony, it snarled and redoubled its efforts to squeeze through. With one paw through already, it tried to force its head through as well. There was an unpleasant squelching sound before Mickey Carr’s head popped through the gap, minus his left ear which remained stuck to the cat-flap. Tony screamed and ran for the stairs. His foot on the first step, he heard a loud click followed by a crash. Glancing back, he saw that the dog’s struggles had jolted open the catch. The door had crashed open, taking Mickey Carr with it, smashing the creature’s head against the wall. The dog’s claws scrabbled for - 16 -

CHARLOTTE BOND purchase on the laminate floor as it tried to free itself from the cat-flap. Tony did not wait to see if it was successful. He took the stairs two at a time then cannoned through the first door he came to, eager to put any barrier between himself and the horror downstairs. He found himself in the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind him. He threw the small bolt across, but knew it was as useless as the latch on the backdoor had been. Cursing, Tony hurried to the drugs cabinet on the far wall. He emptied it, throwing bottles and packets everywhere, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. The thudding of Mickey Carr’s paws on the stairs made Tony freeze. Maybe if I stay really quiet, he’ll not find me, thought Tony. He was shaking uncontrollably. He heard the beast stop at the top of the stairs, heard its questing nose then heard it making its way straight for the bathroom door. A shadow fell across the gap at the bottom of the door. A black nose appeared in the thin gap, snuffling and spilling soil onto the tiles. Then the scratching began. Tony sank, sobbing, to the floor. ‘Please… please…’ he said over and over, but the relentless scratching never ceased. The whole door shook with the violence of the attack. The bolt rattled, ready to give at any moment. The hinges groaned, struggling against the onslaught. Tony bent over and threw up his whiskey. He retched until he could taste blood on his tongue, but his eyes never left the door. A claw broke through, gouging a small hole. The gap soon got bigger, and bigger. Tony wept and screamed. He leapt up and clawed at the window, trying to force himself out of the tiny gap just as Mickey Carr had tried to force his way in through the cat-flap. The beast’s head was through now and it stared at Tony as its front paws continued to tear the wood to pieces. When the creature finally broke through, landing awkwardly on the bathroom tiles, Tony grabbed the first thing to hand. A spark of hope flared when he saw it was a large pair of scissors. With a cry of triumph, Tony waved his weapon at Mickey Carr. The dog lunged for him and Tony slashed at the beast’s muzzle. Shying away at the last moment, the dog received only a gash in its cheek. Tony held Mickey Carr at bay for some time, but he began to grow tired while the cadaverous dog kept coming relentlessly. As Tony’s movements - 17 -

CHARLOTTE BOND became slower, the creature took advantage and succeeded in clamping its jaws around Tony’s ankle. Tony howled in agony. His attack on Mickey Carr turned into a frenzy. He stabbed and slashed, sending pieces of the beast’s flesh flying in all directions. Yet now Mickey Carr had a grip on Tony, he wasn’t letting go. As much as Tony kicked, swore and lunged for the creature, he found himself being inexorably dragged down the stairs and into the darkness outside. Sergeant Milner lit a cigarette, drawing gratefully on the thick smoke in place of the cold December air. He didn’t glance at his watch. It was too early in the morning, and that was all he needed to know. Instead, he glanced at the hole in the ground and the two bodies in there. He tried not to look at the scattering of soil which lay over the ground almost as if – which, he reasoned, was impossible – the grave had exploded open from the inside out. ‘Is it this fellow Tony- what’s-his-name? The missing one?’ he asked, addressing the constable next to him. ‘No sir, it can’t be the missing man. Look at the state of decomposition. This body’s been dead for a while. At a guess, I’d say at least as long as the dog. The coroner will be able to tell us. ‘The grave was open when we got here so my guess is that some kids probably dug it up then ran. The owners are away on holiday you see, sir. There’s something grim on the cat-flap too, sir, which we haven’t been able to identify yet.’ Sergeant Milner rubbed his eyes. He was tired and he was cold. He was supposed to be taking his wife Christmas shopping tomorrow in Sheffield, but the way he felt right now, all he wanted to do was crawl back into bed. ‘So what you’re telling me is that we not only have a missing man according to that hysterical young woman over there, but also an unidentified dead body as well?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ Sergeant Milner sighed. ‘It’s just not going to be my day today, Constable.’ Copyright © Charlotte Bond 2010 - 18 -



eyond the glass, large flakes of snow had begun to fall again, filling the street. He spotted several of the Magistrates' Republican Militia stomping past with snow on their shoulders and a disgruntled look on their faces. He often saw them going by. Thankfully none of them ever stopped to come into his shop. He supposed they never had time for what he sold, or for him. And for this he was eternally grateful. He had no intention of attracting their attention and was very happy to be ignored by them. He baited his trap for much more succulent prey. And he was often busy at this time of the year. The window was always filled with bright candies, sweetened lozenges and fragrant jellies and jams; nothing less than pure temptation behind glass, he liked to think. And the tender, sweet morsel standing in front of him now was more than enough to tempt the tempter. Her cherry lips, shining eyes and flushed cheeks nestled deliciously above her large scarf and below her small hat. In her mid-forties, he judged. Something special for the little ones? Yes, of course. Please step this way. Oh, a birthday? I have just the thing in the back. He could hear himself speaking the words already - they would emerge from his mouth in just a few seconds, he could feel it. And smiling, always smiling. Then the job would be done quickly and, hopefully, neatly. And he would have another perfect piece to add to his collection. And he'd close the shop early and get to work. His real work.

The back room of the shop was grey and utilitarian. It was in stark contrast to the brightly-coloured shop, which wore its decor like a smile. A false one, but an inviting one, nonetheless. This is where the preparation took place. With the door to the shop firmly closed he would begin his work. But he had to be careful. If he was caught, he'd find himself in one of the metal monstrosities known as the Royal Beasts - publicly pinioned, pierced and pulled to pieces for the pleasure of the puerile plebeians. He was an artist and, as such, deserved so much more than that. And he was careful; very careful. Each addition to his collection was - 19 -

MARK HOWARD JONES selected carefully. They had to fit. And they had to be alone. He always ensured that he took them at the end of the day, as the light was fading and an early closure of the shop could be easily passed off. From the 'preparation' room it was only a short descent to the cellar. This was where he was creating his masterpiece. Near the door stood a small table with a glass and a bottle. Next to them was a wind-up musical box that had been left to him by his father. But the cellar was dominated by a huge metal door with a secure latch. Set into the wall, it was at least nine feet high, giving the impression of formidable sturdiness. No-one had asked why a confectionery manufacturer in a small way of business had need for a freezer more suited to a large butcher's establishment. But then, if the money was right, people hardly asked any questions, he mused. Once the lever handle was clicked down, a hiss of cold air escaped from behind the enormous door. Two steps led up into the huge freezer. He stood at the door, gazing inside. At his feet, an enormous block of ice was set into the floor, extending nearly fifteen feet from where he stood. The rest of the freezer was empty. Stretched out before him, under the ice, were a row of bodies, like an arrangement of savoury treats arranged in aspic. A thrill of delight ran through him whenever he saw them. There lay a bull of a man, with broad shoulders and cranberry smeared across his brow. Next to him was an older woman whose sagging breasts and loose stomach nevertheless created a pleasantly curved counterpoint to the man's more angular body. The next object in his collection was faulty and he hoped one day to replace it. The young man, in his twenties he surmised, had not been very co-operative and there was something wrong with the eyes. It was his own fault, he had been clumsy. But if only the young fool hadn't struggled or turned towards him as the instrument came down.... It was a jarring note in an otherwise perfect sonata of frozen flesh. And tomorrow, once the preparations were complete, he would add another treasured tone. He would lay her on her bed of ice, already prepared, and then pour in enough water to cover her. Once the door was closed, freezing would be complete in a matter of hours and she would be sealed in her cold - 20 -

MARK HOWARD JONES coffin for good. She would make a wonderful addition to his collection; pleasingly plump and pretty. He always made sure the faces were lined up in a row. One of his greatest pleasures was to walk along the line of visages as if along a winding path. It was a pity they weren't still alive when he promenaded across their physiognomies, far too pompous and pleased with themselves even in death, but then you couldn't have everything, could you? He ensured that the triumphal Second Movement of Bernisiouce's 'The Plumped-Up Paragon' was playing on the old music box in the next room before slipping on his purple velvet slippers ready for his evening stroll, there and back again. How easily they had been trapped by their own desire; such weak little things, no matter what their size. No better than they deserved. Even during the messy preparation, which required strong muscles and a stronger stomach, pity was a feeling he had no truck with. These facile fools were the ones who had let the Magistrates into power; some had even helped them, no doubt. And that had cost him his wife and son, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pity was wasted on such feeble-minded cattle, he believed. He estimated that there was room in the freezer for another five examples. After that he would have reached the far wall of the tomb-like space and his work would finally be completed. Then he could look forward to a real sense of achievement at having delivered retribution upon those who so grievously wronged him, while having simultaneously created a wonderful and private work of art. And he could also look forward to years of pleasure as he promenaded across the pathway of foolish faces. As long as he could ignore the banging at his door. Copyright Š Mark Howard Jones 2010

Mark Howard Jones has had dozens of stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. His collection Songs From Spider Street is available from Screaming Dreams at : - 21 -



’ve put my stocking up by the chimney already, Daddy,” Clare said, breathlessly, grinning up at her father excited that it was Christmas night. “He must be on his way by now!” “No doubt honey.” Jim pretended to frown whilst smiling inwardly at the sight of his six-year-old daughter framed by the glittering lights of the Christmas tree. “You have been good this year, haven’t you?” he asked with a false frown. Clare’s grin widened. “Of course Daddy, I always am. Do you have to go to work tonight?” “Oh yes, it’s a busy time of the year. Goodnight, sweet heart.” “Goodnight, Daddy.” Clare watched as he strode over to the wall, pressed the hidden button and took the lift to the hidden cellar far below them, knowing that she wouldn’t see him until morning. Turning away she picked up her book and began reading The Night Before Christmas out loud yet again. The lift opened and Jim strode over to his chair, pausing only to pour a coffee from the percolator that had come on by timer. He activated his screen and logged on. “Colonel Hayward here. Any news?” The screen leapt into life and a young corporal looked back at him from planetary control. Constantly changing mini screens showing the moon, several planets and several City States framed the main picture. “Good evening, Colonel. We last heard from Halloween a couple of hours ago. We lost two ships in orbit earlier today and over forty men have been killed planet-side during the past twenty four hours.” “The men I can understand, but two ships?” “The Mares are getting better, sir.” Jim shuddered and thought back to when Halloween had been identified as a possible home for mankind. The survey vessels hadn’t found anything and the colony ships had been despatched within a year. The aliens hadn’t revealed themselves until after the colonists had landed. But he knew from previous experience that this wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other; mankind would have either successfully negotiated with them or exterminated them. It was Mankind’s way and always had been. Jim remembered his first day at the academy, Admiral Bailey looking down at them from his podium, saying: “Mankind needs colonies. It’s a harsh universe out there, people, get used to - 22 -

MARK ILES it. We either survive or we die; it’s as simple as that. If someone else has what we want then they either share it or we take it away from them. Look at it as if this is a school yard and at the moment we’re the bully. If we aren’t then someone else soon will be. From my experience the strongest, fastest and smartest person always wins. So get smart, people, Mankind’s survival depends on you.” Only with Halloween it hadn’t quite worked out that way. The aliens could read minds, influence them and also alter their bodies. They already had space travel but of a kind we hadn’t seen before. One night they revealed themselves and attacked our ships in orbit but luckily couldn’t get through the shields. At the same time they’d attacked the colonists. They’d picked up on our nightmares and adjusted their bodies accordingly and hell came to Halloween. Vampires and werewolves stalked mankind on those distant shores; Jack Frost crept out of the freezing mists and monsters of all kinds snuck up on the colonists and the soldiers who’d tried to defend them and simply tore them to pieces, often eating them alive in front of their friends or family. Dead comrades marched besides Mankind’s armies, grinning at them through rotting teeth before striking and horrified screams rent the night air. “Corporal, has there anything on deep space radar?” “No sir, not a thing.” “Let’s hope that it stays that way.” Jim couldn’t help thinking back to when the alien ships first started coming to Earth, they must have somehow tracked the trails back home. They were quickly picked up on radar of course but missile defences couldn’t seem to lock on. The manned point and shoot satellite defence systems with their rail guns and lasers had the most effect but now the alien’s armour was improving. The first attack on Earth had been a few years back, and Mankind suddenly found real monsters knocking on their night clad doors. Snowmen and pumpkin heads with candles burning brightly in their gaping mouths peeped through windows; witches haunted the night skies, slicing their victims from head to chest with long black fingernails or simply boiling their victims alive in large black steaming cauldrons; leaving the remains on street corners or in gardens for all to see. “Sir, I don’t understand why we just don’t nuke the fuck out of them.” Jim looked at the Corporal in astonishment. “Are you stupid or what? - 23 -

MARK ILES Perhaps you have a short memory, we tried that remember? We hit them from high orbit and what happened? They glassed San Francisco within days; literally. All that’s left now is a large circular glass shape that we just can’t figure out. What about Paris and Moscow? They used some kind of biological weapon on those cities that killed every single living thing. Nothing’s grown there since and everything that goes there dies. We’ve no idea how or why. We have no concept of what technology or weapons they use. The only thing we have up on them is our shield technology and they are starting to get through that too. But whilst we can just about protect our ships we can’t defend our whole planet; so it’s a standoff and the war goes on. Besides, the idea was to colonise Halloween, not to poison it.” “I still think... Hang on Colonel. Incoming enemy vessels, seventy contacts.” “Seventy? My god...” Jim’s face drained. “Engage them, now!” The outer defence ring has already done so sir, fifteen of them are down but the others got through.” “We only got fifteen? Christ man this is becoming a joke. Show me.” The main screen changed quickly and showed a brilliant half moonscape. Something shot from the dark side of it, leaving a trail of sparkles behind as it headed Earthwards. Jim’s eyes narrowed, fear and rage welled inside him as the image intensified and he watched Santa in his sleigh jiggle his leather reigns, slapping them against robotic silvered reindeer with mad red glowing eyes. He could see the sheen of the force fields surrounding the weird open vessel, keeping the atmosphere in whilst Santa leant back in his seat and laughed joyfully, his huge belly wobbling and long white beard dancing as he did so. It was only when you looked at his yellow satanic eyes gleaming with malice and long blackened teeth that you realised that hell was coming Earth’s way. “Orbital and Perimeter defence have taken out twelve more, sir.” “Is that really the best we can do?” The corporal looked at him miserably as the screen changed back. “It certainly looks that way, sir.” Clare woke up, she’d heard a sound. Trembling with excitement she folded back the duvet and crept from her bed, peeping through the bedroom door. Something, or someone, was coming down the chimney. - 24 -

MARK ILES Clutching her pink cotton dressing gown tightly with excitement she crept through to the lounge. She watched as a cloud of soot dropped into the fireplace. Claire’s breath caught in her throat as a pair of black boots appeared, then red trouser legs and finally, with a thud, Santa dropped onto the fireplace then stood panning the room with glowing yellow eyes whilst chuckling strangely to himself. Humming Christmas carols Santa dusted himself off and continued to survey the room, his golden eyes finally locking onto her. Clare could hardly breathe. Mouth dry she simply stared back. Then Santa’s brown hessian sack caught her eye. Something in it moved. That couldn’t be right. “Ho ho ho: Hello little girl. Come and see what I’ve got for you.” Santa sat on one of the dining chairs, grinned and slapped his thigh as he beckoned to her. Clare stepped forward hesitantly as he opened his sack. His grin widened as he pulled out a large teddy bear with black metal nails through its eyes, then he peered down into the sack and glanced back up at her, again beckoning with one finger whilst saying; “Little girl, don’t you want to see?” Clare couldn’t take her eyes off his teeth. Surely they weren’t supposed to look like that; black and grey, even broken in places. She could smell the stench of his hot fetid breath. His cat’s eyes glowed a brilliant yellow. This wasn’t right! Then the sack moved again, as if it were alive. Fearfully Clare edged closer and found her voice. “What’s that?” Santa reached into his sack and pulled out a baby that began to cry piercingly. His feral grin widened. “Come and see, little girl, this is for you.” He placed the baby on the floor and pushed it to one side with a black booted foot, then he pulled out long wide bladed knives that glistened in the candle light, running the blades against each other until their high pitched shrieking tore at her ears. Clare backed away, shaking her head in disbelief and began to scream. “What, don’t you like babies? But all human children love babies! What about a nice arm, or even a leg?” Santa pulled a bare foot from his sack and placed it on the floor, blood from the torn ankle pooling around it. Part of a hand fell from the sack and landed besides it. Santa stopped rummaging suddenly and peered closely at Clare. “What about a head?” he asked. Clare screamed louder and turned to run, then jumped as the sound of - 25 -

MARK ILES gunshots took her by surprise. Lifted from his chair and slammed against the wall Santa looked stunned for a moment. Then he snarled and tried to climb back to his feet. Jim grabbed his daughter and pushed her behind him. He rammed the shotgun into the Mare’s mouth and pulled the trigger, watching as Santa’s head exploded and the creature sagged to the floor. “My God, Dad, you’ve shot Santa!” “It’s not the real one Santa honey, only a bad elf. It’s a Mare from Halloween. The real Santa will be along later.” Burying her face in her father’s chest Clare burst into tears as her father clutched her to himself. Finally, as sirens grew in the distance she said; “I’m not being funny Dad, but I’m not really that keen on Santa anymore.” Jim held her close, stroking her hair and patting her shoulder. “That’s you and me both, honey. I have to admit, Christmas just isn’t what it used to be.” Copyright © Mark Iles 2010

Mark Iles has one non-fiction book published plus over a hundred articles, poems and short stories in a wide variety of genres; whilst his fiction firmly remains entrenched in SF, fantasy and horror. Working on his first novel Mark's currently completing his MA in Professional Writing, with Falmouth University. You can find Mark's website at :, his blog at : and on Twitter at :

ESTRONOMICON 2011 SUBMISSIONS Don’t forget that the eZine needs fresh submissions for the New Year, so get your stories in over the coming months, thanks! Please make sure your stories have a fantasy, sci-fi or horror theme, and the weirder the better! Save in RTF or DOC format (not DOCX) and send to the usual address, thanks.

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ack had never really liked his neighbours. They were always so very noisy around the festive season. Staying up all hours, laughing and joking with each other, they kept so many lights on that it seemed like constant day outside his bedroom window, despite the considerable distance between the two properties. Many was the night he would lie awake in his rickety wooden cot, listening to their laughter and insufferable good cheer with a pillow clamped firmly down around his ears, wishing for all the world that he could get at least one decent night’s rest during the long hard month of December. It wasn’t that Jack had any particular aversion to winter. In fact, he liked this time of year just fine. Long walks across snow-strewn landscapes were his favourite; that fresh biting crispness in the air which so enlivened the senses and those delightfully ornate patterns that ice was apt to form upon the window panes each morning. No, Jack had only one bone to pick with the year’s final four-week hurrah and that was Christmas itself. December Twenty-Fifth. That one unbearable day in the calendar during which, for no explicable reason other than tradition, man was required to put aside his troubles and make peace with his fellow man. It was unrealistic. A flim-flam sham of an out-dated Pagan holiday dressed up in tinsel and wrapping paper to celebrate the birth of a long-dead religious icon famous for cheap parlour tricks. Jack himself had pulled more than one disappearing act over the many years he had been alive, but you didn’t catch him going around pronouncing himself as the son of God. It just wasn’t cricket. No, Jack’s only religion was cynicism and through its eyes, he couldn’t help but see Christmas for the fatted capitalist cash-cow that it so evidently was in these modern times. The fact that his neighbours so personified this heinous annual crime was a source of constant gall to Jack. Over the years it had been the cold spark for more than one heated argument over the merits of festive cheer. Jack actively enjoyed bucking authority wherever possible and it was this overtly rebellious nature at the heart of his character that had seen him and his neighbours amass more than their fair share of crossed words over the years. This year was going to be different however. This year, Jack had a plan. Something so beautifully exquisite in its not-so-subtle irony that he had taken almost an entire year to formulate it. Deep within months of enforced hibernation his machinations had been exacting, the various cogs and gearings of his scheme being meticulously laid out inside his head like so many - 27 -

CARL BARKER overlapping blueprints until they ran like clockwork. It was said that revenge was a dish best-served cold and there was none quite so cold as Jack. Standing now at the border between his property and that of his neighbours, clad in an immaculately sharp pin-stripe suit, Jack ran through the plan one last time as his breath mingled with the chill night air. Through the high wire-mesh fence which hummed ominously with electrical charge, he could make out the twinkling multi-coloured lights of his neighbours’ abode away in the distance, taunting him with their merry dance. Between the fence and his objective lay a vast expanse of open ground knee-deep in freshly drifted snow, but Jack knew only too well the dangers of assuming that crossing that barren divide would be an easy task. Though cursed with an inexhaustible reserve of Christmas cheer, Jack’s neighbours were no idiots. Having been educated over the years that not everybody shared their resolute belief in goodwill to all men and women, they had been forced to move with the times; learning the hard way of the need for home security around the festive season. Jack had seen many previous assaults on his neighbours’ over-zealous security come to nothing, the would-be interlopers falling at the first hurdle as a result of what he liked to refer to as ‘a lack of proper preparation’. But Jack was sharper than most and had ice-water in his veins. Securing his bulging sack of ‘toys’ across both shoulder, Jack laid his hands upon the metal fence without fear, knowing full well that it would take more than 20,000 volts to make his hair stand any further on end than it already was, and leapt the fence in a single bound. Oh yes, Jack was both nimble and so very quick, having had the forethought to come armed with more than a simple candlestick. The undisturbed snow yielded a satisfying crunch underfoot as he landed on the far side of the fence. Ribbons of cold blue residual charge flickered around his fingertips but Jack shook them away like sprinklings of pixie dust as he trudged purposefully across the deserted landscape towards the buildings in the distance. After ten yards or so, he entered what he already knew from his geographical studies to be the beginning of the minefield; sickeningly gaudy baubles of gold and green half-buried in the snow which still glimmered like cat-eyes if you knew where to look. Jack stepped up his gait a little and began to dance a leisurely jig from one glittering mine to the next, throwing himself - 28 -

CARL BARKER into a lethal game of hopscotch with irreverent gusto. No sooner had he landed atop the first charge did the ground erupt beneath his toes, spraying up a momentary flash of earth and fire, which immediately froze beneath Jack’s withering touch to hang static and soundless in the air like a hand-drawn explosion. Within a few minutes of exquisitely nimble footwork, Jack found himself at the end of his first hurdle and turned back to view his handiwork. A menagerie of aspiring destruction lay dotted across his previous path like neutered rips in the fabric of reality. He grinned contentedly to himself before turning and continuing his journey towards the house, the path now running alongside a vast frozen lake. Having breached those first outer defences, Jack was under no illusion that things would become gradually tougher from here on in. He was entirely unsurprised when, moments later, a number of headlights appeared to his right. The stuttering to life of a throng of snowmobile engines signalled the approach of Elven militia, making their way across the ice from their barracks on the far side of the lake, armed to the teeth with Cracker-Head mortars and Happy-Guns. As the high-pitched chatter of merry Elven tongues assailed his ears, Jack reached into his bag and withdrew the first of his own special brand of seasonal treats: a bundle of TNT wrapped smartly up in a big red bow. With the timer already adjusted and the fuse quickly lit, Jack flung the sticks out into the darkness, sending them skittering across the ice in the direction of the oncoming beams. Listening intently, he was just able to pick out one particular shrill and squeaky voice cry “A present, for me? You shouldn’t have”, before the entire surface of the lake was noisily cracked open like an egg and a blast of hot air picked him up like a rag doll and threw him backwards onto the snow. Picking himself up and casually dusting off his ice-laden Armani threads with the back of his hand, Jack listened gleefully to the screams and desperate splashing sounds coming from the lake and giggled to himself. “Guess you should have learned how to swim, you pointy-eared freaks” he jeered into the blackness. The sound of Jingle-Klaxons now coming from the main building signalled to Jack that his presence was no longer a secret and, mindful of his tight schedule, he set off across the snow towards the centre of the compound again. - 29 -

CARL BARKER Soon reaching the first of the outlying workshops, Jack was able to find plenty of cover for the next hundred yards or so, easily dodging further mounted Elf patrols riding between the structures atop trained polar bears. Between the workshops and the main house lay the Grottos, a labyrinthine series of interconnecting passages of which Jack had been unable to obtain any reliable schematics. Checking his watch and gritting his teeth, he marched down into the entrance and soon found himself lost and alone in the catacombs, far from the uniform stamp of Elven jackboots. Down here in the Grottos the temperature was several degrees higher than the exterior and, not one for the heat, Jack soon found himself panting from his exertions. Pausing to catch his breath for a moment, he glanced up at the walls on either side, noting the oversized gouge marks which appeared to have been clawed into the brickwork in between crudely scrawled graffiti bearing legends such as ‘Rudolph Was Ere’ and ‘Red or Dead’. A low braying sound roused Jack abruptly from his survey and, turning, he jumped at the sight of a hideously contorted shape slowly approaching out of the darkness. The creature bore the limbs and torso of a human being but clip-clopped its way unsteadily forward on cloven hooves. Its head was still partly obscured by the shadows but Jack could soon make out razor-sharp antlers protruding from its skull and at the centre of its face, a dull red glow which faintly throbbed and pulsated like an angry third eye. Jack began to back away, not daring to take his eyes from the beast as it stepped into the light and throwing its head back, let out another guttural bray which revealed twin layers of uneven yellowed teeth. Half-man, half reindeer, it stood mere feet from him now, its breath coming in short staccato snorts as it began to paw the ground impatiently and eye Jack with unbridled hunger. As the genetic aberration lunged forward at him, Jack withdrew a can of mace from his bag, brandished it at the creature and confidently squirted a stream of chemical corrosive into its snapping jaws. Caught unawares, the beast careered blindly into the wall and fell to the ground, stunned. Jack left it nursing a now even redder nose and headed up out of the Grotto, ignoring the pitiful braying sounds which gurgled softly behind him. Using C4 to blow a neat hole in the white-picket fence of the garden, Jack picked his way across the main patio towards the doorstep and was just - 30 -

CARL BARKER circumnavigating a motion-sensing gnome when an ice-cold hand grabbed him by the lapel and hauled him backwards onto his arse. Jack landed awkwardly on top of an ornamental penguin and, letting out a short yelp, he glared up the carrot-nosed Snow-Sentry standing over him. “Where do you think you’re going chum?” boomed the Snowman, brandishing a rather nasty-looking pair of Nunchucks in its hands. “I’m collecting” said Jack with a sly wink, wiping blue blood from the corner of his mouth. “Penny for the Guy?” “That was last month!” bellowed the towering guard, beginning to swing the Nunchucks in a tight arc as it stomped menacingly forward. “Oh come on” Jack persisted. “There’s always room for a bonfire.” With that he delved into his bag of tricks once more and withdrew an aerosol can and lighter, pointing them in the direction of the now horrified Snowman. “Give you a light?” Jack quipped as he depressed the aerosol can and ignited the resultant jet of gas into a pillar of blue flame which hit the Sentry square in the chest and immediately melted a wide hole through him. The Snowman roared in anger, flailing the Nunchucks ineffectually as he gradually melted away to nothing, dissolving into a soggy puddle at Jack’s feet. After thirty seconds, Jack shut off the gas and beamed approvingly down at the mouldy and singed remains of a scarf at his feet, before stepping smartly up onto the porch and ringing the bell. The door swung open halfway through the third bar of ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ and Jack found himself gazing at the nubile young body of a brunette cheerleader type in a skimpy red bikini who regarded him with a mildly bored look on her face. “So like, have you got the pizza already or what?” she asked impatiently, taking no notice whatsoever of the numerous scenes of carnage and destruction now lighting up the night sky in Jack’s wake. The sawn-off was out of the bag in a flash, and pressing the muzzle firmly between her pert breasts, Jack leaned forward with a business-like look in his ice-blue eyes. “Where’s the fat man?” he hissed menacingly, enjoying the way the girl’s nipples hardened beneath his breath as he did so. Closing the door behind quietly behind him, Jack tightly took hold of the - 31 -

CARL BARKER girl’s ponytail in one cold hand and, keeping the shotgun dug uncomfortably into the small of her back, he allowed the brunette to lead him up to the first floor bathroom where he found his irksome neighbour engaged in a game of hunt the soap with a pair of buxom blonde twins in the Jacuzzi. The jolly fellow with the big white beard was just enquiring as to whether his house guests had been good little girls this year when Jack violently kicked in the door, spraying a shower of splinters across the room and stood over the hot-tub with the presence of an executioner. Staring down the twin barrels of the sawn-off shotgun, Jack’s somewhat surprised neighbour allowed the smouldering cigar to drop from the corner of his mouth as he gaped up at his visitor. “Frost! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he enquired angrily as the bubble-coated twins cowered behind his copious girth. “You can’t just come in here like this. Don’t you know who I am?” Jack responded by cuffing the old man sharply across the jaw with the butt of his weapon and watched him belly flop back into the water, sending a fresh spray of bubbles all over the room. “Sure I do Kringle,” he replied. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve decided to cut you out and fill in for the rest of the season.” Enraged, the old man staggered to his feet, soapy water draining from his beard and tinsel-motif boxer shorts as he snarled at Jack through bared teeth. “You haven’t got the balls to pull that trigger ice-man” he chuckled, placing both hands on his hips defiantly. “I just have to click my fingers and there’ll be a team of Elven commandos storming this bathroom before you can say ‘Happy New Year’.” Jack laid the gun casually back against his shoulder and ran his free hand through his icicle spiked hair. “Who said anything about shooting you?” he asked with a smile, thrusting his hand down into the hot-tub between his neighbour’s legs. Within seconds, the water around Jack’s arm solidified, icy fingers stretching out and wrapping themselves around the fat man’s legs like tangleroot. Jack watched in amusement as layers of ice first covered the surface of the Jacuzzi and then began to crawl rapidly up his neighbour’s tree-trunk thighs. Crystals rapidly flowered in the old man’s snowy white beard as he glowered silently at Jack, his jaw already frozen shut with cold. His skin first - 32 -

CARL BARKER paled then turned an unhealthy shade of blue, cracking open in several places to reveal frostbitten flesh poking out from beneath, as he was rapidly transformed into an overweight human popsicle. The cheerleading squad, having already escaped from the tub, ran screaming from the room leaving Jack to cackle manically as he finished his work. Finally dislodging his arm from the Jacuzzi, Jack stood up and leant against the door frame, evaluating his latest sculpture with a smirk. “So long Santa,” he giggled as he headed out the door in the direction of the stairs. Downstairs, he found the keys to the Sleigh lying on the breakfast bar beside a plate of freshly baked minced pies. Scooping the keys up in one hand and popping one of the delicious pies into his mouth with the other, he headed out into the garage, whistling as he did so. The Sleigh was a beauty; the latest model with all the accessories and seats that reclined all the way back. As the automatic garage doors slowly retracted up into the ceiling to reveal the starry sky beyond, Jack slipped behind the reins and lay back against the plush leather, allowing thought of the fame and fortune that awaited him on his new career path to enter his head. ‘Your table is ready Mr Frost’ - ‘So glad you come to our fund-raiser Mr Frost’ - ‘Ooh Jack baby, that’s the biggest icicle I’ve ever seen!’ The clunk of the door-motor roused him from his daydreams and turning, he suddenly noticed the large present box on the seat beside him. Wrapped in reflective silver and gold paper, the box was adorned with the same garish coloured bows as everything else round here was, but it was the name-tag on the top of the gift which caught his attention. Holding it up in the moonlight, he re-read the words again to be sure. ‘TO JACK, LOVE SANTA.’ Suddenly unsure of himself, Jack tentatively laid a hand across the top of the present as a vast shadow fell across his seat and obscured the words. Turning, he stared hard at the hulking apparition which now stood beside his seat. Clad in a familiar red and white suit which bulged beneath a shiny black belt with a brass buckle, the thing that should have been Santa Claus but wasn’t leered in at Jack with blazing yellow eyes and let out an unearthly hollow - 33 -

CARL BARKER chuckle which shook the whole frame of the sleigh. In place of a snowy white beard there was only an impenetrable blackness. Beneath that cheerful red hat two yellow eyes burned with such hatred as Jack had never seen. “You can’t be here” he whined in a terrified voice, refusing to believe what he saw before him. “You’re dead fat man. I killed you!” One oversized fist darted forward and locked around Jack’s scrawny throat, choking any remaining words out of him and crushing his larynx like papiermâché. Jack desperately strained for air as he was lifted clean out of the driver’s seat and held aloft by the thing in the red suit. “Now Jack” thundered the creature mockingly. “You of all people should know that you can never kill the Spirit of Christmas.” An unpleasant rustling sound came from the passenger seat and glancing down, Jack stared wide-eyed at several layers of bows uncoiling themselves from around his present and snaking out towards him. The box flipped open to reveal an abyssal maw lined with teeth and as the gaily covered tentacles of ribbon wrapped around poor Jack Frost’s body and dragged him down into the box, three words rang in his head like a death-knell: ‘Ho Ho Ho’. Copyright © Carl Barker 2010

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n the morning, she woke to find that the winter frost had come so that the ground had grown too hard to dig into. The long grasses in the field had grown stiff and heavy so that they tilted in one direction and reminded Rose of some forlorn giant’s haircut. The van’s windshield was frosted too – and she loathed to leave the warmth of her sleeping bag to scrape it clear. Instead, she woke Doug up. He was still snoring beside her. He cursed her gently but did his duty. He rummaged the van for an old cassette tape before hopping from the van into the cold and going to work on the ice that had formed. While he was outside, she checked and loaded her camera with film. She paused only once to look at the digging spades they’d brought with them. The shovels had seemed so useful yesterday, only to be so useless today. Doug came back inside shivering to put more clothes on. She caught him staring at their digging implements too. She could tell that he desperately wanted to forget the whole thing and just go home. “Let’s go,” she told him. “I’m still taking pictures.” He sat down cross-legged on his sleeping bag. “You’re going to take pictures of a patch of frozen grass, Rose. What’s the point of that?” He was right. She was going to take pictures of a patch of frozen grass. She was going to take pictures of that little corner of the field where they’d buried Suzie. Then she was going to get them developed. Maybe she’d even write ‘Suzie – 1987’ on the back of each of them with a Sharpie and then tape them up on the refrigerator door back at the apartment. But she left without arguing the point with him, or telling him any of that. If he wanted to stay haunted that was his problem, after all. She made her way along the edge of the field. The crunch of her boots against the stiff ground was the only sound to accompany her. Every place here looked the same, but they’d marked the grave with the skull of Doug’s dog. Sparky had died that night too. It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time. She knew if she walked far enough that she would find the double grave, eventually. But she didn’t find it. What she found instead was an open grave with the - 35 -

MICHAEL R. COLANGELO white-laced, upturned dirt ensorcelled in morning frost just like everything else. The burned dog skull was missing and so was Suzie. She was gone – but where? She couldn’t take pictures. Not of this. Had it been someone else’s handiwork? The digging looked fresh, but the frost meant that it didn’t happen in the morning. That only left the night before. They’d gone to sleep pretty early because there was nothing else to do. Maybe Doug had gotten up and snuck down to the grave for a midnight showing. Her eyes wandered along a fence that lined the field up towards a dilapidated farmhouse overlooking everything from the top of a ridge. The new possibility was that someone actually lived there and had done this. There was only one way to find out, and she had to find out. She left the grave and made her way up the hill towards the farmhouse. If there were people inside, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was going to ask them. Maybe she would ask them nothing and just go up there and take pictures of the house and of them. But she got closer and realized that the place was much more ramshackle than it had appeared from far away. The front door was missing and most of its windows had been smashed out. The exterior of the place was marred with graffiti and its structure was crumbling. She pressed inside with her camera at the ready. The interior of the home was derelict and empty. There was some smashed furniture, and old garbage littered the floor. Nothing of interest at all, except for a ring of mismatched bones placed out along the floor in a very distinctive pattern. The bones looked to be from a jumble of different animals – mice, squirrels, cats and dogs mostly. They’d been placed deliberately to form the outline of a man-sized figure. It was like a chalk drawing in a police procedural on television. It wasn’t the work of partying teenagers or common vandals, she was certain of that. It was someone else then. She took pictures of everything. The flash on her camera repeated like machine gun fire and seemed to shatter the still quiet of the empty place without making any noise. And shatter it did, because amidst the bright pop of the flashes was when - 36 -

MICHAEL R. COLANGELO she noticed the derelict that was standing in the dark. He was watching her every action. At least he looked like a derelict, with his unkempt hair and matted beard. He wore a mismatch of shabby, layered clothing. A necklace of delicate bones around his neck hinted strongly that he was the artist behind the pattern on the floor. They stared at one another for a while, and finally she found the nerve to speak to him. “I’m looking for a friend. A pretty girl with brown hair.” He shambled across the floor and began to rummage through an old junked cupboard that was stuffed with trash. “Can I take your picture?” He didn’t respond to that, either. So she started taking pictures of him. Eventually, he seemed to find what he was looking for. He held it clasped to his chest and brought it to her. It was a soiled handbag. The stiffened leather sides and dirt clots clinging to it suggested that it had been recently exhumed from the earth. Inside was the locket that Doug had secretly given Suzie to start the whole mess off the year before. There was also one of Rose’s photographs – the three of them and Doug’s dog at some roadside vegetable stand from one of their many trips together. In the picture, someone had taken a black marker to Suzie and the dog. They’d carefully blacked out Suzie’s head and the dog’s body, specifically. She put the objects back inside the handbag and gave them back to him. She didn’t need such relics, only to see them. He shuffled back to the cabinet to stuff the handbag back with the other junk. Then he laughed. The sound of his voice was strong and vital like a young man’s voice. “Gone. She left this morning. She’s gone and taken the dog for a walk.” She left and made her way down the hill and across the field again. When she got to the van, the back doors had been thrown wide open. She didn’t remember leaving them like that. What she discovered was Doug. He lay in a dead twisted pile atop their blood-soaked sleeping bags. An animal had torn out his throat. Someone or something had placed him - 37 -

MICHAEL R. COLANGELO in an aroused state, which appeared to linger even in death. They’d killed him recently too. She could tell by the steam that rose off the gaping wounds of his body. Carefully, without touching the threshold of the van interior, she managed to grab hold of his finger and tug loose his class ring. She then closed the van doors and made her way back towards the farmhouse. The bones could fix this too. Copyright Š Michael R. Colangelo 2010

SD BOOK TITLES FOR 2010 Against the Darkness by John Llewellyn Probert The Gemini Factor by Paul Kane Yuppieville by Tony Richards Songs from Spider Street by Mark Howard Jones The Empathy Effect by Bob Lock

All available to order from : Keep watching for new titles coming in 2011 (details to be revealed soon!)

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wake to a pink light in my room – the promise of ‘dawn’. My mother glides in; smoothes back my hair and smiles. She draws back the curtain and I look out on a beach, fringed with palm trees. I shake my head, ‘No.’ ‘Surprise’ registers on my mother’s face. ‘No?’ she says gently. I flinch, feeling a dull ache in my temples. ‘I’m sorry.’ The pain recedes like memory. My apology is accepted. She turns up the lighting in my room and draws closer. ‘What would you like?’ I keep still while she makes some minute adjustment, placing her cold fingers at the nape of my neck. ‘Is that better?’ I nod. There are times when it is best to say nothing. Words, as they tell us so often, should be chosen carefully. ‘If you can’t think of anything nice to say, say nothing.’ That’s usually a safe strategy but I think I’ve used it too often. They like you to engage. From the look my mother is giving me, I can tell she is suspicious. She can read me like a book and I can’t take the risk. Not today. So I sit up in bed and say, ‘Please can I change the view? Something seasonal, with snow maybe?’ Then I go for ‘innocence’. ‘Father Christmas and his sleigh.’ My mother beams at me. They like the old tale of Father Christmas – he rewards good children. Those who are tagged like me and always do as they are told. My mother begins to hum, ‘Rudolf the red nosed reindeer.’ Trust me; you don’t want to hear an android sing. There’s a metallic quality that scrapes at the nerves like a broken fingernail. But I’ve learned my programming well. I switch on a ‘girlish’ smile. You learn early they watch the mouth not the eyes. At least, if you know what’s good for you, you learn and remember. So I eat a festive breakfast of mince pies and orange juice and remember to register ‘appreciation’. It’s all synthetic anyway. The food tastes nothing like it looks and it is always the same – like the screen that covers the window. But today is special, today we are ‘going out’ and I am anxious not to miss the treat. So I dress in the bright holiday clothes selected for me and refrain from teasing mother over style as I usually would. At the last moment, I remember to query the necklace – too much ‘submission’ will set alarm bells ringing. As it is my mother registers a little more ‘affection’ than usual as she hands me my school bag and says, ‘Be careful, darling.’ There is something behind her eyes that warns me so I hug her with a nicely judged shade of - 39 -

SARAH ANN WATTS ‘enthusiasm’ and say, ‘You don’t have to worry over me.’ She ‘blushes’ at the lie and I feel my own cheeks tinged with pink but hey, it is cold outside and I am full of holiday spirit. The mince pie was laced with it. I glance at my bright eyes in the mirror and reach for my make up, shading out guilt with a steady hand. The stuff the boy gave me at school, that I hid in the bathroom, has done what he said it would. It blocks ‘emotion’. So far the deception is working and I almost begin to believe that this may work. Outside, I pause to show ‘delight’ at the vision of the sleigh and Santa’s reindeer. As always, the car is waiting - tinted windows so we can’t see out. The driver closes the door on me and clicks on the screen showing the carefully selected program of entertainment and topical news judged ‘suitable’. Normally the orange juice would work and I would watch it all, letting the world slide by but today I tune out. I’m waiting to see if the boy will keep his promise and meet me. They’re less keen on the tales where the girl seeks her own destiny. I can’t remember any. It’s very different outside. Grey streets under grey skies and faces in doorways. A splash of colour on the news screens showing today’s approved Version of Events but no one is looking. The ‘untagged’ have their own VOE feeds and don’t need to. Life is simple when you have no choice. Finally we come to the gate and cross the terrain that leads to the school. It’s always a different route and always a different view. Today I see the world as it really is. When the car stops at the lights there is a face in the crowd I know. The door opens, I jump out and run. I don’t get far. They cut my feed and without vision I am blind. Hands reach out to me but I can no longer see or hear anything. I scream, striking out, hurting someone I don’t know. Mother’s voice echoes in my head calming me. ‘It’s all right, darling. You know you can’t get lost. Not when mother is watching you.’ I hear blows falling and a voice cries out my name and one word, ‘Remember’. But already it is too late. They have found me and they will take me home. Today will never have happened. At night, after my bath, mother tucks me in and she smoothes back my hair. I shiver at the touch of her hand on my neck. ‘You know we’ll always keep you safe.’ She kisses me with cold lips and for a moment I cling to her. She is all I’ve - 40 -

SARAH ANN WATTS ever known. Then as the lights dim I lie back in the dark and I remember – a sleigh ride in the snow and coming home. Copyright Š Sarah Ann Watts 2010

Sarah Ann Watts writes science fiction, fantasy and romance. Her work has appeared in Bewildering Stories, The Future Fire, Neon, Twisted Tongue. Ink, Sweat and Tears, Every Day Fiction, The Ranfurly Review, Static Movement, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Everyday Weirdness, Andromeda Spaceways and the anthologies, 100 Stories for Haiti and A Brush of Wings. She lives in Hull, East Yorkshire and is currently working on a novel. Find her online at :

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- 41 -



e felt the draught as the door was slammed in his face and watched the tacky plastic holly wreath pinned there swing back and forth. “And a Merry Christmas to you too,” he said pocketing the wad of notes that had just been handed to him. He thought about adding a Bah humbug! A smirk played across his lips. As long as they kept up the payments he would keep it civil. His name was Reginald Arthur Turner, but he was known as Reggie to friend and enemy alike. Only where business was concerned did he insist they call him Mister Turner; it put some distance between himself and his customers. They could hate him all they liked. It was just business, nothing more. He fulfilled a need. He was nothing more than a facilitator with an eight hundred percent interest rate on repayments. But he was all they had. No real bank would touch them. He chuckled to himself as he added another tick to the small pocket notebook. That was the last of them here. He glanced down at his watch; the sickly glow of the hands revealed it had just turned seven. It was always a good time to catch them in. They’d be more concerned with their tea getting cold or missing out on their favourite soap to stand at the door giving him grief. And a cold night like this worked even better. Though most seemed more affronted at having such demands made on them so near to the Festive period. It was only the twenty second of December and there was nothing special about it. Other than it being a Wednesday; and Wednesday was always collection day. It wasn’t as if he was knocking on doors during the Queen’s speech. He turned from the door and felt the icy wind bite his cheek. Through flurries of snow the city lights shimmered in the distance like the embers of a dying fire. How enticing it looked from up here. How warm. Below him the grey low-rise apartment blocks huddled at the foot of the one remaining tower block. Its twin had already been demolished. The empty L shaped imprint of the building now corralled behind a high fence that still bore the tattered images of the promised redevelopment that was to replace it. Here everything was dressed in monotone shades. Even the snow couldn’t escape its taint, it settled like an ash shroud over the whole estate. Only a handful of families still lived in the remaining tower, the majority had been re-housed in preparation for its own, now indefinitely postponed, demolition. It was only the most stubborn or the very unlucky that remained. He wrinkled up his nose, as the scent of something burning reached him on - 42 -

NEIL WILLIAMS the bitter breeze. It wasn’t that evocative smell of winter bonfires that tugged at the memories of boyhood. No; this had a pungent, acrid taste to it that caught in his throat and disturbed thoughts closer to the surface. He glanced across to the adjacent flats and counted up three floors towards the top of the building. There were no lights up there and the darkness on the balcony seemed to bleed out onto the side of the building, a dirty stain that feathered across the spalled concrete like a rash. You’d think they would have cleaned that up, he thought to himself as he followed the smoke stained trail back to its source on the twelfth floor. Here steel shuttered doors and windows glinted coldly like bared teeth through concrete lips. Nobody lived on the top two floors anymore. Not since the fire. And this is as close as I’m likely to get, thank god, he didn’t welcome being reminded of it. Was it only a year ago? He tried to recall her face. She had been pretty enough a petite blonde, though probably not a natural one. She can’t have been more than twenty-five years of age, living with her three small children and her sometime boyfriend. It was after he’d walked out on her that she’d started to struggle with the repayments. But there were other ways to repay her debt. And not just for his gratification alone. If she’d accepted his proposal she could have made some very good money indeed. After all, he knew people who knew people. She certainly didn’t have to do what she did. He saw it on the evening news. The tower block surrounded by fire engines while a pall of black smoke drifted away into the winter air. She’d torched her flat while the children slept. Smoke inhalation did for all of them before the fire took hold. He went to ground for a few weeks after that; he figured that the police would find something that would connect him to her. But that knock on the door never came. He always had the good sense to keep any paper trails to a minimum. The burning smell swiftly dissipated. He tested the air again, but there was no trace of it at all, only the cold wind seared his nostrils. Had he imagined it? Was it some manifestation of a guilty conscience? He didn’t think so. That stupid bitch died owing him three grand. A movement below caught his attention as he sauntered back towards the lift. There was a flash of torchlight and three small figures, wrapped up against - 43 -

NEIL WILLIAMS the cold, appeared from the shadows at the corner of the tower and traversed the snow-dusted car park. This wasn’t the usual motley bunch of bored teenagers that hung about the place. It was too cold for them; even the smackheads who normally found refuge in the stairwell had migrated elsewhere for their fix. The eldest couldn’t have been more than five or six. Over his shoulder he carried what appeared to be an old broom handle with a torch tied to the end of it. A makeshift lantern that threw weird angular shadows about them as it swung from side to side as they walked. All of them carried sheets of paper before them that fluttered in mittened hands. “Just keep away from the motor, little bastards,” he wheezed, fogging the cold air before him. They passed the Jag, he’d left, parked diagonally across the two bays nearest to the entrance and disappeared into the foyer below. He almost laughed aloud at the sound that was carried up to him on the breeze. In high silvery voices they were singing. Carol singers. Here of all places. As they entered the building the concrete structure seemed to amplify their voices. He couldn’t imagine them getting much of a reception from the residents; at least not after he’d just finished doing his rounds. He reached into his pocket felt a handful of jingling coins. If they were still down there when he came out, he’d toss a few coppers their way. I blame the parents, he thought. Even here, especially here; who would let three small kiddies wander about like that? He was still shaking his head in disbelief as he reached the lift and punched the up button. He waited. Several floors below the children were singing ‘Silent Night’. He started to whistle along as he stared at his distorted reflection in the metal doors. ‘Come on,’ he broke off his musical accompaniment when the lift showed no sign of arriving. Daubed paint obscured the display that would have told him which floor it presently resided on. He pressed the down button. Both were now illuminated but there was still no indication that the lift was approaching. Had it broken down? If so, he might count himself lucky not to have been caught in it. He couldn’t wait much longer. Already he could feel the insidious cold creeping through his winter clothes. - 44 -

NEIL WILLIAMS They had progressed onto ‘Little Donkey’ as he turned towards the fire door that led out to the stairwell. Again they seemed to be getting louder though he could not tell where the singing emanated from. It seemed to come from all directions, echoing through the austere emptiness of the tower block. The heavy door gave a soft sucking sound as he pulled it open. He stood for a moment on the threshold. All manner of stale odours rose up to greet him; the stench of urine and vomit were unmistakeable. How far, he wondered, would he get before he needed to take draw another breath? It was dark in the stairwell, the lights were on but all had been spray painted over. Graffiti covered every surface, grotesque faces stared from the concrete steps and shadowy figures adorned the walls like cave paintings or hieroglyphics. But what they reminded him of the most were shadows left on buildings by the victims of an atomic blast. Everything was bathed in a suffocating reddish glow. If the intention had been to unnerve, it worked a treat. Reggie stepped forward and looked down the stairwell into what he supposed would be yet more darkness. There was a light. Through the narrow gap he could see the torch the children carried swaying back and forth. The group had congregated at the foot of the stairs and their singing rose up to meet him like smoke up a chimney. The analogy seemed too apt, for again he was sure he could smell something burning; though this did help to disguise the other unpleasant odours. Why on Earth were they waiting down there? He imagined they’d be knocking on doors and begging money. He started down the stairs as swiftly as he dared. He tried to drive all thoughts of his surroundings away as he was really starting to spook himself. A he descended towards the singing he reached into his pocket and brought out a handful of loose change. He brought his hand up, trying to see in the dim light, and picked out a few coins. One slipped through his fingers, he grasped for it. But could do little more than watch as it went spinning, glinting into the darkness. The cacophony that accompanied it down the steps was unbearable. If the children weren’t aware of his presence before, they certainly were now. He remained frozen to the spot as the sound finally faded to a rattle as coin came to rest. He listened, holding his breath. It was now completely silent. The singing had stopped. He surreptitiously peered over the railing to where the group were - 45 -

NEIL WILLIAMS huddled under their lantern. He had only a couple more floors to go and could see them clearly now. There were the three small children standing together each wearing the same style of coat with a fur-trimmed hood. None of them turned to face him, but continued to stare at the sheets of paper they held before them. He could see by the circle of light that the sheets were completely blank. Something is very wrong here. He felt a strange urge to flee back up the stairs. But they’re just little kids. He slowly leaned over the railing. He wanted, no, needed a better look. He had to confirm or assuage his fears. He thought about breaking the silence with some foolish comment about it being past their bedtimes. But the words never came close to being spoken as all three children tilted their heads up to face him. This wasn’t funny. What were they playing at? It was a bit late in the year for Trick or Treat. Each child appeared to be wearing similar papier mâché masks. They all stood stock still, their faces as serene and featureless as showroom dummies; the eyes and mouths little more than vacant slits. But there was something that told him these were not masks. They had a quality that reminded him of paper that had been burnt to ash yet remained somehow complete. Though the slightest hint of a breeze might cause it to crumble away to reveal... what? He found that he was already stumbling back up the steps before he’d made the decision to do so. The children made no attempt to pursue but remained where they were. After a few faltering steps he turned and ran. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the seventh floor. He staggered out of the stairwell and slumped against the cold grey wall. He fought to catch his breath as the fire door hissed slowly shut on his nightmare. What the fuck had he just witnessed? He slid along the wall and peered through the narrow window in the door. There was nothing there. He stepped away and started to consider his options. He frantically searched through the pockets of his coat, only to establish he’d left his phone in the car. This has to be some kind of joke. But who would do such a thing? Reggie ran through a roll call of potential suspects. Sure I’ve got enemies, but using little kids like that was just sick. - 46 -

NEIL WILLIAMS He looked about him. There was something he’d noticed earlier that suddenly made more sense now. It was still early evening and the whole block was as quiet as the grave. That just wasn’t normal. Some pissed off tenant then. Well they’ll pay big time for this little prank. There was a loud ping that shocked him back into his current predicament. He staggered from the source of the noise then turned to face it. Metal doors slid quietly apart and revealed the brightly lit polished interior of the lift. He unthinkingly made as if to enter then paused. He considered what might be waiting for him on the ground floor. But they’re just kids. Taking a rational viewpoint he was able to get a grip on the state of desperation that threatened to consume him. He stepped forcefully into the lift and jabbed the button marked with a ‘G’. The doors closed effortlessly; leaving him staring at his own distorted shabby reflection. When the doors opened again he’d run straight for the car. He wouldn’t look at anything else. If anyone got in the way, he’d shove them aside. He wouldn’t look back. He shuffled his feet, trying to find a suitable stance so he could be out at a run the moment the door opened. The lift set off with a jerk. He felt a sensation travel up from the balls of his feet and immediately knew something wasn’t quite right. He glanced up at the digital counter over the door. 8, 9, 10... The lift was going up. He looked around bewildered and stabbed at the control panel. But the ground floor button was already illuminated. And so was the button to the twelfth floor. Somebody else must have summoned it. He was left with no option but to ride it out. 11, 12... His eyes never left the display as it counted upwards. He felt the lift finally ease to a halt. There was a moment’s pause then the chime again as the doors rolled back. They revealed a narrow corridor of light that spilled out from the lift onto the tarnished, chewing gum speckled floor. The shadows that flanked this narrow promontory proved impenetrable. He stepped to one side and peered out into the oppressive dark and was relieved to find that there was no sign of anybody out there. He felt a strong compulsion to step out and have a proper look around. But he wasn’t going to allow anything, his own curiosity - 47 -

NEIL WILLIAMS notwithstanding, to prise him from the shelter of the lift. He pressed the button again and waited for the doors to close. He sniffed at the air as again that noisome scent assailed him. It seemed so much stronger up here. What was it, burnt plastic or tyres? He recalled an occasion when his now ex-wife had carelessly cremated the Sunday roast, it didn’t seem too far removed from that. He leaned forward to take in one final look at the deserted floor before he left. A sudden movement to his immediate right caused him to throw himself back against the side of the lift. A figure darted forwards out of the darkness and slipped through the doors as they started to close. He raised one hand up to his face ready to defend himself. Then he instantly relaxed and feigned a coughing fit to somehow explain is odd posture. It was just a girl. Her bowed head was hidden under a tatty hooded fleece. Arms folded against the cold. She really wasn’t dressed appropriately for this kind of weather. He regained his composure as the doors slid shut and he watched her reflection as she settled into the furthest corner from him. He’d probably given her as big a fright as she him. “Going down?” he asked her reflection. He didn’t turn to face her, he felt his cheeks redden and he regret the flippancy of his query. She gave no reply but he thought he saw a slight nod of her head. He pressed the button again; once more for good measure. “I didn’t know anyone still lived up here,” he said feeling the flutter in his gut as the lift began its descent. Again she didn’t respond. But it didn’t matter, he felt oddly comforted just to be sharing the lift with someone else. Again he watched the display as it counted down the floors. But then he found his gaze settle on the girl’s distorted reflection in the doors. As the display counted down the final few floors the girl, who until then had kept her face directed towards the floor, slowly raised her head and looked at him. He felt his spine stiffen, the hairs at the nape of his neck bristled. Over the clanking of the lift’s mechanism there rose the voices of children. But he did not hear them. Not at first. He just stared straight into the metal doors. His own reflection though twisted out of shape retained the colour he expected to find. The girl’s face, however, looked unnaturally pale. Seemingly chalk-like compared with his complexion that looked flushed by the recent, unwelcome exertion. It might have been a mask but he knew that it wasn’t. He forced - 48 -

NEIL WILLIAMS himself not to look back and counted along as the lift approached its destination. 3, 2, 1... Reggie could hear them singing ‘We Three Kings’ and he knew they were waiting for him. Keep to the plan and just get to the car, he thought, he let his hand slide down to his thigh and felt the keys in his trouser pocket. Don’t look back, don’t look down. Just run. The lift made the pinging sound as it touched down and the doors started to slide apart. He stepped forward and instantly hesitated aware of the three small figures crowding his only exit; their singing swept into the confined space like a wave. In that moment’s hesitation he felt something hard grasp at his trailing arm. Don’t turn round. It was too late. He instinctively turned to free himself and looked into the face of the girl. Even as the scream welled up in him, he thought he recognised something in the features of that mottled, brittle face. The thing attempted a smile and its countenance collapsed into flakes of ash that exposed the skull beneath. His scream, when it finally came, was lost amongst the joyous singing of children. Copyright © Neil Williams 2010

Neil lives in Cheshire with his wife and young daughter. He has written a number of short stories, more of which will hopefully be published soon.

COVER ARTWORK COMMISSIONS I am currently seeking more book cover artwork commissions (and/or interior illustrations) for 2011. So if you have any projects you would like to consider my work for then please do get in touch, thanks! You can view samples of my work in the gallery sections at SD.

- 49 -



ergus and Sheila Grieve sat silently at their worn kitchen table, Fergus staring into space, his yellowed and coarse fingers trembling slightly as they held a Star cigarette. Sheila had both hands clasped tightly around a cup of tea, long gone cold. Outside, the rain continued to pour, washing away the last of the snow that had covered the county since three days before Christmas. Their only daughter, Shona, lay in bed upstairs sick with a heavy fever and dipping in and out of consciousness. Shona had been playing on Christmas Eve down by Coulters Pond, a good half mile away from the cottage. She and a few friends had got together just after lunch; spirits were high and bellies were full of sliced beef, potatoes and thick gravy. Coulters Pond had frozen over. The surrounding landscape was completely white as snow had been falling for the last four days or so. Excitement rippled through the children for what the morrow would bring. After the chore of going to church and congregating with the rest of the community was over and done with, there would be presents and a good meal, surrounded by loving family. The children were playing a crude version of curling, finding the flattest stones they could from the dykes that seemed to marked out every field in the county and which had been made by generation upon generation before them. Shona’s stone had overshot the crudely daubed markers and skimmed over to the farthest end of the pond. Innocently, she slip-walked her way towards the stone, not thinking as the ice began to creak mournfully under her slender girl’s weight. One of her friends, Albert, shouted to Shona to be careful, and she turned her head and smiled, then fell through the ice. Shona would surely have drowned right then and there if it hadn’t been for her quick thinking. She had managed to grab onto a thick tree root that snaked from the water’s edge and disappeared into the murky depths of the pond. With her already feeble strength ebbing quickly, she dragged herself free of the water as the intense chill started to numb her mind, and she lay there on the snow-covered grass, breathing deeply in great whoops, and listening to the panicked cries of her friends as they scrambled their way back to the edge of the pond where they knew it was safe and made their way towards her.

- 50 -

JOHNNY MAINS Fergus had been up on the roof of the barn, clearing away the heavy snow that had settled on it. The roof would need replacing at some point, as it was slowly starting to go, but doing it in the freezing winter was never going to be an option. He paused for a quick break, lighting a Star cigarette and looking over the white expanse - and at the small dots that were scurrying towards the cottage. As those small dots grew bigger, their cries and calls drifted towards him. Fergus climbed down the ladder and hurried along the driveway and out onto the road and then he saw that the farmer from the next holding, Robert Miall, had Shona in his arms, covered in a thick heavy blanket, her face deathly white and her hair sopping wet. Robert had been the first adult on the scene, his place only being a minute’s run from the pond. He had always said that one day a child would go through the ice, and as he lifted the girl from the grass, would have thought she was already dead if it hadn’t been for the shivering that rippled through her body. Her eyes had rolled into the backs of their sockets, and her breathing was shallow, too shallow. Even for an uneducated man such as himself, Robert knew that Shona wouldn’t live to see the birthday of Christ if she didn’t get warmth quickly. Handing her over, Robert stood there, circled by Shona’s friends, as Fergus ran back up the path and stormed into the house, roaring his wife’s name. She was upstairs, scrubbing the floorboards, and the sheer fear in her husband’s voice froze her to the core. She flew down the stairs and found Fergus in the sitting-room, tearing the sodden clothes off his child, revealing blue-tinged skin. ‘A fresh blanket, woman,’ he almost shrieked, his voice teetering on the edge of hysteria. His eyes blazed with unearthly panic and tears streamed down his face, the coarse grey stubble glistening with them. Sheila took an uneasy step backwards. When her foot touched the stone floor it as if it was sinking into one of the peat bogs that were dotted around the steading. Her heart had slowed almost to a stop; her throat was closing up, rasping with each fractured breath that she managed to force into her lungs. ‘SHELIA!’ screamed Fergus. ‘DO YOU WANT HER TO DIE?’ Those agony-drenched words spurred her into action and she raced back up the stairs to the bedroom and pulled off the heavy sheep-skin blanket that lay on top of their bed. Flying out of the room, she threw the rug down the stairs and collapsed at the top of them, covered her face with her work-cracked - 51 -

JOHNNY MAINS hands and began wailing. Fergus wrapped his daughter in the sheepskin and took her through to the kitchen, the warmest room in the house. He rubbed the wool into her skin, hoping that the friction would spark some warmth. The girl moaned and opened her eyes. Fergus felt a presence come into the room and turned his head to see Robert, cap in hand, shifting uncertainly towards him. ‘She was only in the water for a couple of seconds,’ the farmer said, his voice trembling with emotion. ‘She managed to get out on her own. She’s a fighter, Fergus.’ Fergus stared at the farmer, then down at his little girl. Christmas Day came and went, church forgotten, both parents spending every waking moment by their child’s bedside. The doctor, who had spent the day before with his elderly uncle from Oxford was summoned as soon as he arrived back home, but turned up at the house breathing gin fumes everywhere. After a quick examination, he apologetically lifted his eyes to meet those of Fergus and shook his head. But Shona was a fighter. She slipped in and out of consciousness, and in the days that followed, though she became no better, mercifully her condition didn’t get any worse. Days crawled by, and after family, friends and concerned neighbours had all paid their visits, Fergus and Sheila were left alone in the vast limbo of uncertainty. Soon, every waking moment by the bedside became once an hour to check on the girl, whose fever in the last day at last seemed to be receding. The clock chimed from the room next door. Fergus smoked the last of his cigarette and stubbed it in the near-full ashtray. ‘Happy New Year,’ he offered. Sheila looked up, her eyes haunted. ‘Wha-?’ she said, her thoughts on some time, any time, before Shona had fallen through the ice. She felt as if she was losing all of her memories of any happiness. ‘It’s New Year’s Day. Let’s pray that it brings fresh hope, eh?’ It was the first sign of warmth Fergus has shown to his wife since the accident, and Sheila grabbed at it, dug her fingers into it and burst into a relieved flood of tears. He - 52 -

JOHNNY MAINS got up and walked towards her, and knelt down, holding her, and relished her touch as she buried her head into his shoulder, her hot tears soaking into the rough fabric of his shirt. ‘I love you so much Fer-‘ she began. Three large bangs on the door interrupted her. The pair looked at each other, puzzlement in their eyes. Fergus got up from his kneeling position, his joints cracking, and walked towards the door and opened it. ‘Happy New Year,’ the visitor announced through the rain. ‘I come as your first foot.’ Fergus glanced at his wife, whose brow had crunched up in confusion. Both of them knew that to have a woman as your first foot was considered to be bad luck. But politeness overcame any local superstition and Sheila rose from her chair, brushing her hair back and smoothing down her heavily stained apron. ‘By all means,’ she said. ‘Come in.’ The visitor stepped through the doorway, and pulled back the wet hood that covered her features. She had long, red hair and eyes that were an almost unnatural green, framed in one of the most beautiful faces both Sheila and Fergus had ever seen. Fergus shut the door behind her, and offered her his chair. The visitor seemed to glide into. Her hand slipped inside her cloak and brought out a small parcel of brown paper. Opening it, she revealed a lump of coal. She gently took the coal and placed it on the table and then wiped her stained fingers on the outside of the paper. ‘To bring you luck,’ she said, ‘for the oncoming year.’ Fergus smiled his thanks and asked if the visitor would like a whisky. ‘Yes, that would be most kind of you.’ Her accent was a Highland one, a stranger in strange parts. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take off your cloak to dry?’ Sheila asked. ‘No, I’ll be fine.’ Sheila crossed over to the dresser that hugged the back wall and pulled down the bottle of whisky and three coarsely-made earthenware mugs. Placing them on the table she poured out generous drams, giving one each to her husband and their guest, then sat back down, staring at the newcomer thoughtfully. - 53 -

JOHNNY MAINS ‘We never got your name,’ she gently enquired, never taking her eyes off the newcomer. ‘My name is Morag Ionradh, and I come from Bánlíoch Bás near Loch Tinn. And before you ask what brings me down here,’ Morag smiled at them as the husband and wife sneaked a glance at each other. ‘My husband recently died and his friend, your landlord invited me to spend the winter here. I’m living in the old gamekeeper’s cottage out by the lake.’ ‘I didn’t even know it was inhabited,’ Fergus said, realizing it was over two months since he had even ventured down that way. ‘And…since it was New Year’s and I didn’t particularly want to spend it alone, I went for a wander – walked past the first house I came to, as it appeared way to raucous, arrived at yours.’ Morag looked at them intently, and raised her mug to them both, then took a swig. ‘Are you enjoying your time here?’ Sheila asked coldly. Fergus noticed the instant dislike that radiated from her wife and went to hush her with a stern glance, but the look on Sheila’s face was frightening. It wasn’t a look that he had ever seen before. ‘Immensely. I’m getting a lot done on this visit.’ Morag smiled, her eyes flashing. Sheila rose abruptly, her chair falling onto the stone floor. ‘I would like you to leave, please.’ She pointed to the door. ‘Woman, what are you doing? Have ye gone mad?’ Fergus stood up. ‘You sit down NOW Fergus.’ The steel Sheila’s voice was unmistakable, and Fergus looked at her, the first prickling of fear tickled the back of his neck. ‘It’s fine, I’ll leave,’ Morag said, draining the last of her whisky. She offered her hand to Fergus. As he reached out to take it, Sheila’s face crumpled. ‘I never seem to be able to get anything past a good honest woman,’ Morag grinned. His hand grasped the visitor’s and a white blast of heat ran through his body making him heave for breath. A hellish vision burst before him; that of his daughter upstairs, a black fog descending over her, covering her, eating her, taking every little bit of life she had for its own. He let go of Morag’s burning hand as Sheila ran out of the room, and thundered up the flight of stairs. ‘I don’t understand,’ he moaned, falling to the floor as Morag covered her head again with her hood. She bowed her head and when she looked up with - 54 -

JOHNNY MAINS black eyes and granite skin, Fergus’ sanity snapped. Morag grinned, and walked through the heavy wooden door and out into the rain-lashed night. Sheila’s ungodly scream filled the house. The piece of coal that Death had brought to the household combusted and burned through the table in seconds. It dropped onto the stone floor and rolled under the gibbering body of Fergus, setting his clothes alight. The fire lit up the valley, but Morag had moved on. She had a Doctor with a gin-sodden heart to visit. Copyright © Johnny Mains 2010


Convention Edition One of the next issues of the eZine will bring you a report and photos of both the World Horror Convention (held in Brighton), the FantasyCon event in Nottingham, plus a few other events. Re-live the adventure and don’t miss it all the embarrassing snapshots of your favourite authors and artists! The fantastic pen & ink cover artwork on this issue is by Russell Morgan.



Copyright Š Vincent Chong 2010

- 56 -



or me, Christmas was the most perfect time of year and since childhood, I’ve loved the cold and misty mornings, the bare trees and the excitement of things to come. This year though, I wasn’t so sure. I was walking to my mother-in-law’s house, her present under my arm, trying to regain those feelings. After all that had happened, I thought that wallowing in the nostalgia of Christmas spirit was just what I needed. It helped that today was Christmas Eve, my favourite day of the season. I loved the frosty smell in the air; I loved seeing people rushing around with arms full of presents, their cheeks red and their eyes bright. I’d gone into town from work, joining the bustling throng, to pick up a last present for my lovely wife. Of course, there were a stack of presents at home, hidden in my wardrobe, but I was always after that special gift - the one I wouldn’t know until I saw it, the one that would make Carrie’s eyes light up. Carrie didn’t share my enthusiasm and Christmas, for her, was just another time of year (and a waste of money). She bought me presents and tried to make an effort, but I was the one who put up the decorations and organised the cards and presents for our friends and relatives. Not that it bothered me, I enjoyed the season and there wasn’t much to sour it for me. What did add a sour note was my suspicion about her and Paul. Carrie worked in the marketing department of a local printing firm and loved her job. She was a very attractive woman and, apart from the odd acidic feeling of jealousy, it made me proud that so many men paid attention to her flowing red hair, curvy body and razor wit. Paul joined her company in the summer as her manager and they spent a lot of time together, going away for conferences and lectures. I should have seen it coming but they say that those closest are the blindest. I walked past Boots and smiled at the crowds of men around the perfume counter, trying to buy their presents from vague memories of scents and packaging. I shook my head; perfume was the present for the man who had no imagination and didn’t want to make his wife’s eyes light up. I carried on through the centre, side-stepping crowds of chattering, excited children and went through the main doors, towards the market. I am not a religious man but I made it a point, every year, to walk past the church. I loved to stand by the main door, watching my breath drift into the sky, listening to the choir practising for the mass that would come later that night. - 57 -

MARK WEST From my vantage point, I’d watch people walk by wearing hats and scarves and gloves, bundled up in large coats. Each year I would wish for it to snow I loved to hear the old Bing Crosby standard and it was a sentiment I echoed. Unlike this year, when here I am dreaming of a black Christmas. Carrie and I hadn’t slept together since August and I kept asking if everything was alright, if it was me, but she swept my concerns under the carpet. Each time, I watched her eyes for a glimpse of pity, but I never saw it there. Abby, my mother-in-law, lived in Hawthorne Crescent, a line of sturdy houses built in the thirties that surrounded a small green. Someone had put Christmas lights on the Hawthorne tree in the centre of it and they sparkled in the dusk light. I walked by houses whose windows were illuminated with electric candles and wreathed in multi-coloured tinsel and fake snow. Plastic mouldings of Father Christmas and his elves and reindeers hung from the doors, proclaiming seasons greetings to one and all. I came to Abby’s house, opened the gate and walked up the path to the front door. I knocked, smiling as the plastic Santa rocked to and fro. The door opened and the smell of Christmas cake wafted over me. Someone, maybe on the Tv or radio, was singing but I couldn’t make out the carol. “Kevin,” she said, “what a surprise. I thought you two were going away for Christmas?” I put her present on the step. “We are, later on, but I had to bring your present, didn’t I?” She looked puzzled but what could I say? How could I spoil her festive season by telling her that her precious daughter, my loving wife, had cuckolded me? I’d found out today, because Paul was too eager. I’d come home, to drop off Carrie’s surprise gift and saw a rose on the staircase. A pair of underpants were lying on the landing and slowly, with my stomach churning, I walked up stairs and made my way to the bedroom. I picked up her present and handed it to her. She wiped her hands on her apron, smiled at me and took the box. “How lovely,” she said. She put it on the telephone table, just inside the front door and gently pulled away the wrapping paper, that I’d spent so long on. She folded it, put it - 58 -

MARK WEST on the floor and opened the flaps of the box, peering in. When she screamed, she knocked the box onto the floor and, as she pressed her hands to her temples, she reminded me of Carrie. She had stood in our kitchen, screaming, when I confronted her with the head of her lover. As I put his head in the sink and pulled the carving knife out of my jacket, she didn’t move - she just continued to scream, rooted to the spot. Most of the time I couldn’t understand what Carrie was saying because she was sobbing so much. But I got her to tell me everything, slicing into her skin every now and again, to encourage the memory. By the time she’d finished, she was sitting on the floor in a big pool of her own blood. “But I love you, Kevin,” she said, looking at me with pleading in her eyes. “I know,” I said softly and cut off her head. Abby fell to her knees, screaming and I looked down at her and smiled. “Merry Christmas,” I said and headed back home, to wrap up my presents of Carrie for our other friends and relatives. Copyright © Mark West 2000 Originally published at the Terror Tales website, December 2000 and in Mark’s collection “Strange Tales”, 2003

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all me old-fashioned, but I couldn’t bring myself to have my eyes cloned and replaced with functional ones. It was more a matter of fear than any underlying sense of fashion—whether it be new fashion or old—or even just the inconvenience of the operation, I was too scared. Although the surgeons assured me it wouldn’t hurt—and I’d even spoken to formerly blind people about the operation—I couldn’t go through with it. I’ve avoided potential pain whenever possible. And so I’ve chosen to live my life in darkness. However, I never imagined that such a choice would lead me here, six months after the first transmission of Ecstasy, to where I must be one of the few people left alive on planet Earth. Exactly why I am dictating this? Who knows? It’s been weeks since I’ve spoken to another living soul, but I presume some fortunate—or unfortunate, whichever view point you take—people out there who have a similar affliction to mine are now stumbling around this planet in the hope of finding companionship. But I digress. I’ll continue this verbal diary, this pitiful recording that might never be seen or heard by another human being. We’re now entering 2068. London at this time of year is normally a cacophony of celebratory sounds. Stores would compete with each other using Christmas tunes and jolly Santa Clauses, each trying to cajole more customers into premises already bursting at the seams. The excited chatter of families doing last minute shopping, the gasps and happy laughter of the children drowning out even the background hum of the automatic walkways and the deeper growling of the huge transporters bringing in more and more potential shoppers from the suburbs would usually fill the air. I enjoyed sitting in the late winter sunshine, listening to the sounds of life around me. A tapestry woven from threads of music, laughter, hums and whines. A blanket that somehow cocooned me with its assurance of life and renewal—now all gone. Oh the city is far from silent, birds chatter; feral cats and dogs bicker and snarl—although they keep a safe distance from me now—my faithful sonic guide-stick emits a sound which displeases them. Every so often I even hear the steady cadence of a functioning walkway. However, I refrain from using them. The thought of the corpses piled up at their end, decomposing or being eaten by animals makes me shudder. Even so, I hardly ever stumble over cadavers anymore. The - 60 -

BOB LOCK passage of time has taken its toll—well, upon those who were out in the open at least. When I go ‘shopping’ it’s another thing. The supermarket I frequent is still ripe with the stench of decomposition. I know it isn’t just the aged fruit, vegetables and meat. The dead shoppers and staff contribute still. Now I only take canned food. I wonder what will succumb to time’s endless march first, the provisions or me? Ecstasy. Strange that the Global Health Foundation chose such a name, for upon hearing it I remembered a drug which had been prevalent in the early 20th century. A drug meant to induce a general sense of openness, empathy, euphoria, and well-being. Very much what the GHF aimed for with their holo-vision transmissions. However, just as the original drug had unwanted side-effects, so did the GHF electronic version. But to be fair to them they weren’t to know that although the original transmission was a benefit to mankind—was benign and did have the possibility of ending drug addiction, social disorder, aggression, even warfare—it had already been infiltrated and corrupted by an Eastern Bloc Mafia which hoped to subliminally addict a worldwide audience to their product. This is what I gleaned before all media stopped. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, two days after the system became live. The Earth’s satellite umbrella transmitted the holo-images to every corner of the globe. Even to places where receivers were unobtainable. Images were bounced off clouds, sides of mountains, any surface available, but then they received an update of the Ecstasy software. The embedded Trojanvirus took twenty minutes to propagate. An hour later much of the Earth’s population was deeply enthralled by what they saw. Everyone who witnessed the projection was enraptured, captivated, and unable to look away. Traffic stopped, usually violently. People at home sat staring at their receivers and never left their seats again. A glance was enough. They just sat and sat until they died of dehydration or starvation. Those outside succumbed even quicker. The elements played their part. People died from exposure, accidents and again—starvation. Warnings were given out. Too little and too late. Somehow I missed all of those warnings. It was the silence of the morning of 2nd July 2067 that alerted me to the problem. Leaving my apartment I almost fell down the stairs, tripping over a child who sat there with a small receiver in her hand. Outside, I stumbled and bumped into hundreds of silent people. I apologised profusely but received no reply. Each and everyone were ensnared in their own - 61 -

BOB LOCK particular heaven. I remember a baby crying. It was probably a very young one with the limited vision that all newborn have and therefore untouched by the malevolent transmissions. Although I tried as hard as I could, my search for the child was fruitless. By the next morning the crying had stopped. Perhaps other survivors exist. The blind, anyone who was out of visual range, the newly-born found by someone luckier than me. As power-plants ran down or satellite systems failed to update and all the other factors that swaddled humanity—and ultimately destroyed them—stuttered, floundered and stopped. The transmissions of Ecstasy ended. I hope those unaffected by this false panacea congregate and somehow make sense of all that’s happened. However, I doubt I shall ever meet them. London whispers to me. Papers, leaves, plastic bottles tell me a secret. Ecstasy is being alive, even in times of adversity, for when your time is over, it is over. Heaven is not in a pill, an electronic signal, a false state of mind induced by clever manipulation. It’s in a child’s smile. The gasp of awe at the Christmas lights. The smell of a milky-breathed burp and the touch of a baby’s hand upon your face. Copyright © Bob Lock 2010 Bob Lock is a Gower-born Welshman who spends his retirement writing short stories and the occasional novel. His work includes a dark fantasy novel, Flames of Herakleitos, a SF novella, A Cloud Of Madness and works in anthologies such as Cold Cuts 1&2, Cone Zero, Cern Zoo and Null Immortalis.

THE EMPATHY EFFECT Find out more about Bob’s latest novella at Screaming Dreams

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’m not here. They don’t take the hint, knocking at the door again. Go away. The thought crashes through my head, not so much a request as a plea. I can’t cope with this. Not now. Still they refuse to leave, the sharp rapping of metal sounding like a chisel chipping at bone, carving away at a skull, sculpting it into something new, something strange. Behind the rapping I hear the giggles, high-pitched undulations of mirth rippling through the night as though malice had been transformed to sound and now sought to wrap itself about my eardrums, tormenting me. Leave me alone. I’m not here. The curtains are drawn, the lights on the lowest setting of the dimmer switch. Television is off, as is the radio, the computer, anything that might make a sound, that could suggest that someone is home. All human comforts denied, all luxuries eliminated. Even the central heating lies dormant; the walls are thin, the hum of the boiler might carry out into the darkness. I shiver as the winter chill gnaws at me, the cold creeping into my bones binding with me on a level that far surpasses the physical. On the table lie a handful of Christmas cards, still in their envelopes, the edges jagged white wounds where I opened them purely to avoid hurting the feelings of the people who gave them to me. Most of my co-workers are waiting to see if I give out Christmas cards this year before they force any upon me, they know my natural antipathy towards the season is even stronger than usual and wish to avoid any emotional outbursts. Others, less sensitive, or perhaps more optimistic in the healing spirit of the holiday, have already given me brightly coloured pieces of cardboard filled with drippy platitudes and bad jokes. I read the cards, forced a smile and said thank you even as I shoved them back into their envelopes wishing my colleagues had possessed the sense not to give me them to me. Surely they know it will only open old wounds, surely they can’t have forgotten what happened to me last year? Outside the front door whispers flicker back and forth. I strain my ears, trying to make out words but all I hear are sibilants sliding through the gloom. The letterbox of my neighbour’s house snaps open and shut in two quick - 63 -

STUART YOUNG metallic bites. Both my neighbour and I have our main doors on the side of our houses facing each other across an alley that serves as a front path for both houses. All my callers have to do is turn on their heels and they have a new target. I wonder whether I should look outside to see what‘s happening. I tell myself there is no reason for the risk but I feel compelled to look. The owners of the giggles and the whispers will be facing my neighbour’s house now, looking away from me. Besides, even if they turn back to my house they won’t be able to see me spying through the peephole. But the peephole is small, its view distorted, especially in the dark. Can I trust what I see through it? The only window looking out on that side is high above the door, I will have to climb the stairs to see out. And as soon as I draw level with the glass other people will be able to see in. My visibility will be determined by which is stronger, the lights lining the pavement or the dimmed lights in my front room. If the former I will be safe, cloaked in darkness, if the latter I will be bathed in a faint glow, a spectre looming out of the shadows. The callers will be the ones hidden by the night, invisible both to me and to anyone looking in from the street. If they turn and look up they will know that I am home. They will try again. They will knock upon my door once more. I wait. Silent. My body a mass of tense muscle. More whispers, a huddle of conspiracy. Then footsteps move through the shadows along the side of the house, back onto the brightly lit street. I am safe. For now. I settle back into my uncomfortable armchair, trying to relax. Springs jut through the upholstery, digging into my back muscles, doing their best to burrow through to the nerves that lie beneath. I try to drink in the quiet, to let it calm my nerves, soothe my spirit. But through the thin walls I can hear my other neighbour, the sounds of domestic activity bleeding through the adjoining houses from her living room into mine. The mindless burble of early evening television, the scraping of cutlery across a plate, merry prattling into the phone as she laughs with one of her girlfriends over who she kissed under the mistletoe at the office party. As I passed her house earlier this evening I glanced through the window to see her living room had been replaced by Santa’s grotto; lights dangling across a Christmas tree, the tree squatting like a mother hen over gaudily wrapped presents waiting for - 64 -

STUART YOUNG them to hatch, shelves and tables all covered in cheerful Christmas cards some of them so filled with joy that they burst into song whenever anyone opened them. Her Christmas is going far better than mine. I resent her happiness, wishing I could share in it or at least ignore it so that it didn’t highlight the misery that comprised my life. But at least she has the decency to keep her festive cheer confined within her house. Other neighbours have festooned their homes with lights and baubles and flashing signs wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Holly wreaths hang from front doors as though every home in the street has suffered a bereavement. Fake snowmen lurk in front gardens, their plastic bodies impervious to changes in the climate, mocking the frost that spreads during the night before dying beneath the next day’s sunlight. One neighbour even has a fluorescent model of Father Christmas and his sleigh upon his roof giving the unfortunate impression that the Christmas lights strewn abut his house are luminescent turds excreted by Rudolph and his fellow reindeer. The enforced jollity of the season irritates me, makes me want to rant and rage at the insincere bonhomie everyone projects, fake as the decorations adorning the street. Christmas ceased to work its charms upon me long ago. Christmas was never fun for me, not even a as a child. Relatives would drink too much and old grudges would be exhumed. Every year without exception at least one person would be guaranteed to end up in tears. On a good year that person wouldn’t be me. One Christmas when I was nine my uncle decided to show off his pool skills on the table I had been given. While everyone else dozed in the front room he swaggered around the table, reeking of booze, performing simple trick shots, refusing to let me have a try despite the pool table being my present, instead butting me with his hips as he leaned over to take a shot or cuffing me around the head with the end of the cue. In retrospect they were only gentle taps, but at the time I was terrified by the lacquered wood wielded by the drunken giant, fearing that each new blow would be the one that shattered my fragile skull. I spent the evening locked in my room, tears streaming down my face, wishing he were dead. That wasn’t even my worse Christmas. Compared to some of the others I look back on that one almost with affection. And all of them, no matter how - 65 -

STUART YOUNG bad, are better than what happened last year. I had been sitting at home trying to unwind after a soul-destroying day at work. Prices had been misquoted on a big order, to even hope of recouping the losses meant no Christmas bonus for any of the office staff and nervous rumours of redundancies raced from desk to desk, everyone fearing a P45 in their Christmas stocking. By they time I got home both my throat and my nerves were raw from a shouting match with my boss when he tried to shift the blame onto me. My muscles twisted about my skeleton, squeezing tight. All I wanted to do was shut down, let my brain and body float free, drifting on a wave of inane sitcoms. Outside -- the faint rap of metal as someone knocked on my neighbour’s door then screechy prepubescent voices racing through the first two lines of a Christmas carol. A few muffled murmurs then what sounded like the chink of coins changing hands. I hunched down in my armchair hoping that the carol singers couldn’t hear the television through the door. They did, knocking enthusiastically, the quick excited taps clattering like castanets. My teeth clenched. Just because my neighbour was a soft touch didn’t mean I was. Particularly after the day I’d had. Another series of raps and then they give up, heading out of the gloom by the sides of the two houses and back out into the illumination of the lampposts and fairy lights. I settled down, stewing in my bitterness. Two more groups of carol singers came later. Both got money and season’s greetings from my neighbour and the cold shoulder from me. Then I heard my neighbour’s door slam shut and the distinctive begrudging growl of his car. A vague memory stirred of bumping into each other outside our respective front doors, both of us clasping our shopping; his festive, with rolls of wrapping paper and tinsel snakes, mine just regular groceries. Amongst the inane chitchat he had told me that he was going to visit his girlfriend that night. So now any carol singers who ventured into the alleyway between the houses would be unsuccessful no matter which door they knocked upon. Half an hour after my neighbour left came the infernal rapping. I ignored it, focusing instead on the quietly murmuring television, coming up with better jokes than the sitcom writers. - 66 -

STUART YOUNG The knocking continued. I scowled, refusing to break eye contact with the television. The puerile jokes and the canned laughter no longer registered. A single thought filled my head, radiating from me, blazing out of the house and into the alleyway. I’m not here. A pause. Stretching, chasing the second hand around the clock, filling the night. I relaxed, the message had got through. Another knock at the door. No. The glowing screen of the television was all that existed. Anything outside of it was just an illusion. Me, the carol singers, the rest of humanity, it was all just a twisted fantasy dreamt up by a delirious god. Finally the knocking at the door faded. I waited. Nothing. No more sounds, no more intrusions. I was left to what little peace I could find that evening. Rubbish on the television that annoyed more than it entertained and then a restless night, lying in bed, wide awake, staring into the darkness, the night an endless void. The next morning; exhausted, irritable, late for work. Dashing out the door with car keys jangling in my hand and a slice of toast dangling from my mouth. Then stopping dead, both keys and toast tumbling to the ground A corpse lay stretched out on my doorstep. Later, amidst the flashing blue lights and police cordons, the story was pieced together. Matt Taylor, on his way home from a Christmas party, accosted by muggers. Maybe he tried to fight them off, maybe they decided that merely taking his money wasn’t enough fun, but regardless of the cause a knife slashed across his throat, flesh gaped wide, blood gushed forth like the reddest of wines. The muggers fled and Matt staggered to the nearest sanctuary, the nearest house where he might find help. Mine. He banged on my door, desperate, blood flooding out of him, knowing that unless someone helped him he had minutes, perhaps only seconds, left to live. Even if anyone passed by on the street they wouldn’t see him, he was invisible, lost in the shadows. His only chance was that I opened the door. And I ignored him. Let him bleed to death while I watched a crappy sitcom that I didn’t even enjoy. I entered the New Year as a recluse, too ashamed to spend time with others - 67 -

STUART YOUNG yet afraid that my withdrawal from society might somehow lead to yet more tragedy. I couldn’t face the supermarket; empty beer cans, boxes of chocolates, mince pies and other Christmas supplies swelled my waste bin. My waistline expanded but although I filled myself with fat and sugar still I felt empty. Alone I don’t think I could have survived. But my friends rallied round me, pulling me from my despair, beating the guilt into submission. As time passed the pain lessened and I could function again. And then next Christmas came and with it the knocking at the door. The first time it happened I felt my soul cringe, the sudden reminder of my weakness and misanthropy too much to bear. I wanted to run and hide, to lock myself away from the world forever. But I couldn’t. Not after what had happened the previous year. Slowly I edged towards the door, each step a battle with my fears. My hand shook as I reached for the door handle. I tried to distract myself from my nerves by wondering how much money I should give the carol singers but then the door was open and I found myself staring at Matt Taylor’s ghost. Pale. Throat slit. Eyes accusing. I slammed the door shut, fumbled the chain into place. Stared fearfully through the peephole to find nothing but darkness. Nerves. That’s what I told myself. Just nerves. But when he returned the following night I knew it was something more. His features were too clear, his expression too vivid to be a trick of the imagination. And I only ever saw him on my doorstep. Every night he visits me. Never moving, never speaking. Just standing there. Staring. My resolve to fling open my door to all comers this yuletide quickly crumbles. The door remains firmly shut. Except to Matt. Something compels me to answer whenever he comes calling. Guilt? Curiosity? Whatever it is I have no control over it. Matt becomes my only visitor; the one I dread, the one I crave. Only he can enter my home. If he so wishes. He doesn’t. He just stands on the doorstep, glaring at me as if there’s something he expects of me. He never tells me what it is, never offers the slightest hint, the tiniest clue. So he just stands there, waiting. Night after night after night. - 68 -

STUART YOUNG My job becomes a distraction; somewhere I go to think about Matt and what he might want. Fidgeting behind my desk, unshaven, ignoring phone calls, not bothering to even turn on my computer. My boss calls me into his office for a dressing-down. I nearly don’t bother following him. What does Matt want? Unwanted Christmas cards pile up on my desk. What does Matt want? Tinsel drapes around the office. What does Matt want? No one kisses me beneath the mistletoe. WHAT DOES MATT WANT? Then, during today’s lunch break, the answer hits me. I know exactly what Matt wants and why he wants it. It’s so obvious, I should have seen it before. Maybe I did and just didn’t want to admit it. Now I do. I even want to do it. Not for the same reasons as Matt but that doesn’t matter. Motives are irrelevant, only the end result means anything. I get what I need on the way home. Carrying out the task is simple, it only takes a couple of minutes. Now I’ve done what he wants Matt finally enters my home. He stands in front of my armchair staring down at me. The accusation in his eyes falters, unsure if this is what he really wants. Too late now. For both of us. The empty bottle of sleeping pills rests beside my hand. Tiredness draws over me like a comfortable blanket. Vision blurs, limbs go heavy. Slowly, gently, I feel my soul start to ease free of my body. In the distance I hear childish giggles as someone knocks at my door. Go away. The thought rolls sluggishly across my mind. Go away. I’m not here. Copyright © Stuart Young 2010

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erry met we three were, like some whispered, December observation of Shakespeare's. Not in the wilds of Scotland, but here in the southern, icicle wrapped enclave of Somerset. The woods were exceptionally snowbound this winter. I would have liked to say they were easy to access, that some farmer, ever wary of his flock had trod a path through the knee-deep drifts to the small copse already. But this was not the case. The undulating landscape of this land had meant only a few tracks had been left by early-morning, weather-resilient dog walkers. Soon these marks in the soft snow would become miniature crevasses of ice, turn to glassy horseshoes of heel prints. To make the journey unnoticed to this place, in view of the Tor, nestled in this snowy wilderness required subterfuge that was second nature aligned on this occasion with the tight binding of circumstance and mystery, the twisting, gravity-defying litany of synchronicity which coaxed the very air of this world into giving me flight. I had always exercised caution in the use of these talents, careful to keep from the fearful eyes of humans. There were times however when events demanded swift reaction, when something happened on this world which would unbalance the very threads of being that held it's delicate balance together. On those occasions, wether it was the ripping of the space-time continuum that the Manhattan Project had caused or this act of vandalism that tore at the power grid of leylines I would use my talents to swift and often deadly effect. As I gazed at the decimated, shredded outline of the once wind-sculpted and stark Glastonbury Thorn another broke the thoughts that had led me to this place. "So N'Tarran, I see you've left no footprints this time." Isak always talked like this, as if with one deft flick of his collar he could snub the most eloquent of technological talents. He had taken to high collars this season it seemed, perhaps aware that it would be a long time before his cloak and staff became popular fashion again amongst the people of St Petersburg. It was a measure of flamboyance which would not seem out of place in the crystal and cauldron trappings of the High Street. "And you waste no energy in style nor taste I can see". There he was again, - 70 -

SEAN WOODWARD ever ready to find fault in some small nuance of attire or exchange. Of course, I had no thought for the manner of this century's men, I walked in their shadows, often right in their midst without being seen, without standing out in their blizzard storm clouds of being. But it was my turn. "And you think those tattoos will save you, my little Russian suki? Cathedrals and stars of ink mean nothing to me!" I snarled and spat the word suki at him. Isak slowly pushed up the coat sleeve of his right arm. So he had some new additions. The cobwebs were interesting, the towers looked a little flamboyant, their exact colour hard to discern even in the blue hue of moonlight. Using the vision of my native Breed eyes I could see the bright outlines of Templargrams etched amongst the ink. "So you've noticed them have you? These were made by a priest in the very caves of St Sergius. You know the place, da ?" "Da. I know. Very clever. And did that holy man tattoo the breasts of your pretty wife too?" "Would you like to see N'tarran?". She stepped out from behind her husband. She was wrapped in her own high collar of black fur, covering her, revealing little but her shining latex leggings and boots. Her protection was harder to judge. I adjusted my vision once more, using the full range of my Breed sight. Beyond the side buckles of her boots, beyond the curve of her hips and the swing of her buttocks, beyond all her nakedness revealed to my sight lay the answer. A necklace of Bloodcrystals. I had heard of these amongst the Nav people on the world of Ision7, but never here on Old Earth. My initial desire was now tempered with curiosity. "Dobroi nochi Klara Kaplan" "Come, you do not need to feign our language. We know you have spoken many of this world's tongues during your imprisonment here". I would have risen high above them at that. Would have pulled the air from the western horizon, dragged deep flurries of snow with it and dumped it on the pair of them. But then they would know how their words stung. They would know there was truth in them, and with that some small essence of victory would be theirs. I had not come to this snowbound place just to confirm their suspicions about me. "Imprisonment? by the blessed oracle Kuanji! My Nightship waits in the - 71 -

SEAN WOODWARD stars, it can return to me any time I wish." "Like the time you called it to Bethlehem?" she asked. "Not very successful was it? Or maybe you think it was more successful at Tunguska? You certainly made an impact there!" So she was determined to anger me. Not only was I trapped on this accursed planet, but my one attempt to leave had helped that damned baby Nazarene. Did they call me to this hillside, in this very month as some elaborate insult? Were these two determined to feel my might. Perhaps this was their intention, perhaps they wanted to see how good their protection was. Was that it? "So let the Magi thank me! The Pope can thank me. Let every blind, thoughtless, sheep of a human being thank me. I gave them their pathetic saviour. I gave them every excuse they needed!" I stressed the "I" part heavily, making sure they realised the irony of my words. If the truth was known I had contributed a little more to those fools than they realised. Drinking of blood for starters. Why did they never realise where that had come from? "Pity you can't walk in to the Vatican yourself and tell them isn't it. Pity you can't walk on any holy land." She was really starting to annoy me now. "Holy land? What is that ?" "We have the journals of Zen'Diq." Isak spoke once more as his wife fell silent. "We know what happened in Ethiopia. We know a way to fix it too". This would be interesting. For centuries I have tried to undo that Djinn magick. I have sat at the feet of masters consumed with hashish, spun with dervishes on the edge of the desert, followed the camel trains through Petra, trying to find a way to break that curse. It's not that I've had any burning ambition to take part at midnight mass or walk amongst their congregations. No. Once I had worn the pale tabard of a warrior monk, once I was able to visit the preceptors of the order, search amongst their secret treasures, their occult relics. The rumours were always the same. A great treasure, a great otherworldly treasure. Somewhere in one of those depositories lay the means to communicate with my Nightship. Somewhere even now, smothered in the snows of history, buried on holy ground lay the means of my escape. "You can't fix what isn't broken. You wouldn't be the first to offer me what you cannot give" "As I have said, come closer. Come closer and you will see." said Klara. - 72 -

SEAN WOODWARD I looked to the north. A few birds had taken flight in the respite of the snowstorm, huddled in formation, heading for the weather's edge. Looking back to where Isak and Klara stood, I could see a small ring of stones around them, peeking out of the white. Behind them a tree was covered in tattered ribbons, makeshift totems of twigs and small pieces of white paper with wishes scrawled upon them. One religion for another. These humans were the architects of their own slavery. I looked at Klara. She was a elegant counterpoint to Isak's own sophistication. Looking closer as she turned her back on me and walked towards the tree, an opening in the black fur coat was visible across her shoulder, showing bare flesh and a shiny black sleeve stretching down her arm to her hand. It was torn with the neat precision that a designer uses when he's working on a new collection. Trying to make something new that looks old. Bare flesh exposed. The temptation to brush Isak aside and lift her up in the air with me was intense. I could feel the way her body moved as she walked, the fur coat hugging her hips and I was ready to test their protections. She snapped a scarlet icicle from the tree. It was like time stopped at that moment. Isak stood still. Another flurry of snow started to engulf the hillside. All my thoughts of taking her to my side, to the dusty box of my crypt where we would writhe in naked ecstasy suddenly subsided. All the tides of lust that had tugged at me suddenly froze. My ears filled with the ringing of glass bells, the chanting of words of power. My nostrils filled with the scent of torches. "From hill and dale, from tor to low, we follow the Lord of Misrule". Her words were sing-song like. She was dancing now, around the perimeter of the stone circle, the icicle in her hand alight with blue tracings of magick. As she completed the circuit Isak bent down and pulled a black mask from a bag at his feet. "Show us the fire, show us the air show us the earth and the water of life the Oss is going to die, the sun and moon its eye wife becomes bitch, Daughter becomes witch Open your doors and windows Show us the Lord of no laws"

- 73 -

SEAN WOODWARD Klara joined him, speaking the words in unison, grasping his hand. As she did so blue fire traced the outlines of his tattoo cathedrals, jumped across her hand and formed an elaborate tracery across the whole of her leggings and arm. "This is nothing new" I said, frankly unimpressed with their evocation and winter rites. It was unusual for them to be concerning themselves with Celtic traditions. They usually followed the esoteric branches of St Sergius' meditations or the ways of the Gamayun. "Soon the Lord of Misrule will be here and you will understand," said Isak. They were embracing now. It was hard to tell if this was part of the ritual or they were simply feeling the cold. His words were so typical of the hundreds who had promised a solution to my particular problem. Most of them had merely sated my thirst for blood. It might be a little harder with these two, but this was quickly becoming my favoured outcome for our meeting. Perhaps it was time to reach that conclusion. I walked closer towards them, watching the snows thaw around the stones as they too pulsed with the blue elder magick. In a few short steps the copse within the circle had become clear of snow and dry. Well that was useful. These shoes were Trickers 1829 after all. Isak was not the only one who appreciated style. "For thirty days, like mummer's plays, the world is turned about". It was Klara. She had separated from Isak and was now in distinctive oracular mode. She even had that glazed, far-off look associated with so many of Delphi's daughters. "I call the name of the Misrule Lord, I shout his name aloud N'tarran, N'tarran, N'tarran". The stones all pulsed together, blue light erupted in an expansion from each one until the clearing of the circle was filled with icy light. Towards the east, a burning disk of golden light began its ascent. Just as the realisation of dawn came to me the elder light wrapped itself about me, ripping at my flesh, searing my thoughts. When I awoke my Russian visitors had gone. The clearing was still dry, with crisp white snow beyond. That was not my first thought though. For it was daylight! Daylight and I was not consumed by pain. I stood and held out my hands, Everything was where it should be. OK, this was strange. Strange but still manageable. Beyond my hands something was on the ground. I refocussed, bent down and picked up a small white card. Turning it over it was - 74 -

SEAN WOODWARD embossed with fine letterpress words. The words were laid out over three lines and read 'Office of the Lord of Misrule, Trinity College, Cambridge". II Now I was curious! The snow around glistened in the early morning light. It was a scene I had not witnessed for centuries, deprived by the Djinn magick of that accursed Zend'Diq. I had many questions - how had Isak and Klara achieved this? How had they come by some ancient English folklore magic when their main areas of interest were Slavic? Was this some cultural exchange of The Cabal? I knew they had British members. Mortimer Cotton for example, his position in British Intelligence would probably have exposed him to the Kaplans in a professional capacity as well as conspiratorial. But it was unlikely The Cabal would have sanctioned what they had just done, giving me extra freedom like this. Time was of the essence however, as Klara's first haunting refrain stayed in my mind. Thirty days was all the reprieve I had and the card mentioned an address in Cambridge. I would have savoured the time spent on the journey otherwise, have passed idly through the city of London,through the streets of Bloomsbury, dined at the Savoy, partaken of the few remaining excesses of Soho. But not on this day, today I felt like turning this petty planet upsidedown, shaking the people until the clowns fell out and mayhem ruled. I turned my mind to the tg-field, amplified as it was here by the leylines and proximity of the Tor. It only took a moment to align with the tg-field of Cambridge and then I was there, standing before the ornate entrance to Trinity College. Beneath the eroded statue of Henry VIII a large Christmas tree covered in purple dressings had been hung upside down. The streets themselves told the stories of all the people who had trod upon them, like tracking animals through the tundra, like watching the trails of ants. It was pathetic the way they continued to perambulate, such a signifier of a subservient species. On the wall I could see a small sign - "permit holders only, unauthorised vehicles may be cleared". On this occasion my chauffeur would not have to concern himself with where to park my blacked-out, light-proof Range Rover. Above this sign was another, newer one, gold script on crisp black background. - 75 -

SEAN WOODWARD "The Abbot of Unreason invites all to the Grand Christmas Carnivale of the Lord of Misrule, masks obligatory. Follow the signs". At the bottom was an arrow pointing inside to the courtyard beyond. As I walked through the stone archway, adopting the human mode of transport, I was presented by the unusual scene of a cat and a fox chasing each other through the snowy square and round and round the Gazebo whilst a monk of some perverse persuasion bent in two with laughter. He literally howled as the two animals became a blur in the white snow. "Exquisite! Simply exquisite," he roared, turning to face me as I approached him. Suddenly he fell to one knee, bowed his head even more and mumbled. "Your Lordship, a thousand pardons, had I known you were arriving today I would have filled the quadrant with animals." I smiled. He seemed genuinely concerned, perhaps even fearful that I would reprimand him in some way. "The preparations for your Carnivale are nearly finished, please come inspect our fine work." He motioned for me to follow him and ran to the covered section of the courtyard. Beneath the old vaulting doors could be seen open. He ran ahead of me, straight in to the rooms of a first year. Moments later I could hear raised voices from within. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing? My dearest aunt Stephanie gave me that chair, put it back this instant. I shall e speaking with the Dean, don't think I don't know who you are Mr Aleister Newton-Deek" But it was to no avail, the chair was soon in the courtyard and the man, whose name I too know knew was off to the next room, re-arranging the furniture as he went. He was oblivious to the cries and threats that met him, stopping only at his whim, as we came to the far side of that portion of the square. "I expect you'll be wanting nourishment my lord?" he asked. Before I had chance to answer he had placed a tankard in my hand. With a flourish he produced one for himself and began drinking. Even in the cold he was starting to sweat and brushed his free hand across a bad forehead. I drunk the tankard empty and returned it to him. "I'm looking for the Office of the Lord of Misrule" I said, taking the card from a deep pocket. "Of course you are" he replied, by now reaching the far gateway to the courtyard which led through into one of the smaller squares. - 76 -

SEAN WOODWARD A couple, hand in arm were approaching. "Excellent," he muttered to himself. He stooped and hesitated, as if to collect some snow from the ground, to scoop out a helping from the huge mounds of ice-cream White. Instead he produced a 1943 Mauser pistol. I knew the year as I had once owned a similar model as a backup to my tested Luger. I could see the look of horror on the girl's face, the young man about to wrestle Mr Newton-Dee to the ground. In an instant a firecracker bang ejected a small flag from the barrel on which was written a joke - what's white and goes up? A confused snowflake!". "Not bloody funny sir, not bloody funny at all". The young man screamed as he quickly dragged his girlfriend, huge designer handbag and all, away from the scene. "There's the cracker, now for the crown" and he pulled paper hats from his pocket and running towards me unrolled one onto my head with deft aptitude. "Good. Now you are the Lord and I your faithful abbot. We should drink more, wench more and be the merrier for it" he extolled. I was beginning to find the whole situation disturbing. It was not just the crazy antics of the madman but the ease with which he had made me his co-conspirator, with which he had fearlessly drawn me into his antics without seeming to fear me for a moment. That I had allowed him to do this, when normally I would have ripped his throat out by now and savoured the taste of his blood was too strange to fathom. I adjusted my gaze, taking in the surroundings with my Breed vision, looking for anything that would explain the strangeness of the events. What had Kara and Isaac done to me? What strange Magick was it that had lessened my usual guards? I looked around at where Mr Netwon-Dee was disappearing into one of the ground floor buildings. With Breedvision I could see the feint blue tracings of elder magick wrapped around his form. They were like the burning smoke trails from interstellar tg-engines, ignited in the last throes of dying stars. On my homeworld the Breed had mastered those propulsion systems and led wave after wave of Nightships against the races of The Rim. Our empire of blood and fire had stretched across the cosmos, transforming worlds. I saw the same traces around my own form. So that was the link, him and I, joined by elder starfire,for thirty days, no doubt.

- 77 -

SEAN WOODWARD III "More drink I think, my lord" said Mr Newton-Dee passing me another large tankard overflowing with beer from a large table in the centre of the room, covered with all the makings of a traditional Christmas feast. I partook of the alcohol and for the first time began to feel it's effects upon my metabolism. Now this was so something new. For once my thoughts began to slow, to drift from the ever-vigilant observation of my surroundings. Objects became fuzzy in my near-crystal vision. Not like the motion-blur time-freeze of my everyday cross-town vision, but something more elusive, a dulling of this recently brightened world. My gaze drifted around the room, slowly focusing on the floor and the circle painted in black and red on the bare, walked-in floorboards themselves. It was an ancient Solomonic pentacle. I could discern the drawings of holly and ivy, the latin words of winter and runes scribbled into it's circumference as it disappeared under the dining table. "nothing but a vessel for waylaying strangers, my lord" ventured Mr Newton-Dee, smiling as he said 'strangers'. In that instant my eyes started to grow heavy and I found I could no longer stand, let alone focus. Mr NewtonDee guided my hand, and with it my body, in to the high-backed striped armchair by the feasting table. As I slumped further into the drunken stupor, for that was all that it could be, I heard his voice drifting off into the snows of unconsciousness that blew around me. "Step up, step up, come take your audience with the Lord of Misrule, come bow before His Highness, come see the royal visage, come touch the royal...." his voice trailed off and with it all the questions I needed answering, all the cares that I had borne through the centuries, all reason itself, lost in the winter white. Copyright Š Sean Woodward 2010

- 78 -



andy never did know why they did it. She did know it was her job to do something about it; even when that something was another night of subzero river-watching. “Winter Solstice means a full moon,” she whispered. “They’ll be out tonight.” “Still think we’re wasting our time. The hunting ban’s been law for a week now and no sign of them. Come on Sandy. There’s a Christmas bash down the Boatman tonight.” Kate pulled her scarf higher over her mouth, and hunched against the wind blasting over the water. “Can’t we turn in now?” “Another half hour. Yeah? Carl was told the White boys had something in planning.” “Then why isn’t Carl here if he’s so sure.” “He’s covering the stretch down by the barge basin... Just another half hour. I’d just love to get Whitey sent down.” “Bastards,” Kate agreed. “Fascists.” Fascist meaning anyone that doesn’t have every ‘Pistols’ lyric down pat, Sandy thought. She’s so full of it. But make nice. There’s a long night ahead. A faint yelp from the Otter Hounds filtered down stream. She peered along the bank, past the Wall’s oldest urban art. Graeme’s ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ with Ratty and Mole, and Otter’s child, little Portly. “Here they come, Kate. Go get Carl.” “What do I tell him?” “To meet us here, dummy. Right where you’ve defaced the Piper with your stupid tag, moron.” Kate flipped her two fingers. Sandy lodged the slip of paper between the raised digits. “Carl’s mobile number if he’s not in the pub. Don’t lose it.” Sandy yanked a rag ball and a small bottle from her coat and with coldnumbed hands fumbled the screw-top. She sniffed the cap, gagging at concentrated aniseed and rabbit shit stench hit the back of her throat. When Carl claimed this mix would screw up any canine nose? She could well believe it. She scrunched liquid through the bundled cloth. The hounds were close. She could hear reeds snapping beneath their paws, and the harsh rasp of their breath. Crouching low she ran back the way she had come dragging her aniseed-soaked rag-bundle. She would never outrun them, but the name of this game was chaos. Which - 79 -

JAN EDWARDS caught up with her in under ten strides. The first hound took the bait. String biting into Sandy’s hand as the bundle was grabbed and shaken. More hounds piled into the scrum. Sandy struggled free, and ran, until a hound barrelled into the back of her knees. Hands and voices became part of a single motion; dragging dogs away from her, and her from dogs; voices cussing her and hounds indiscriminately. She pulled free and ran. The dogs reclaimed her before she had moved five paces. Voices and violence. Men and hounds. She could barely distinguish each from the other in her adrenalin funk. Fight, followed flight, followed fright. “Who the fuck are you?” A face – scant inches from her own. “Well?” “Act if parliament you bastard. 14th of December. A whole bloody week.” “Oh bloody hell. It’s one of Reeder’s crusty hunt-sab pals.” His hand closed a little more on her throat, holding her immobile, her feet barely touching mud. “Fuck you,” she whispered. She would have gobbed in his eye, but all moisture had deserted her mouth and threatened to void her bladder. She tensed. I might be scared but damned if I’ll give these bastards the satisfaction of knowing I peed my knickers on their account. She knew that voice. Tony White was a grade ‘A’ psycho-bastard. The hunt sabs had him linked with dog fighting, cock fighting, badger baiting. Name it and White and his low-life brother would be there. “What now?” Her captor adjusted his grip as he turned, and Sandy stretched one foot to the ground, calculating how she could wrench free. “I can think of a few things,” said White. “But we can’t...” “Can’t what?” White grabbed Sandy and heaved her to the water’s edge. “Our little hunt saboteur likes otters so bloody much? Time she joined ’em.” She pulled back, digging her heels into the reeds, screaming, “Kate! Kate! –Katy?” She bit down hard on White’s hand clamped over her lips. His fist crashed at the side of her head. The blackness was complete. Only faint echoes in the furthest corner of her head stayed with her; of shouting and barking into the long, long, quiet. - 80 -

JAN EDWARDS “Who’s this woman?” Laura asked. “Yeah. Who is she, Benny-boy?” Jamie asked, lowering three fresh pints onto the table. “Sounds like a right nutter.” “Just this girl,” Ben replied. “Met her by the River-Park gates.” “And?” “We got chatting, and she sort of asked me to meet her there. So I said-- yeah. Sort of.” “Did you get her name?” Jamie asked, bellowing against Noddy Holder’s annual ‘Merry Christmas’ battle cry suddenly blasting from The Boatman’s creaky sound-system. “Er… Not yet.” Laura choked her pint, spilling a mouthful back into the glass. “You need a bloody keeper.” She wiped her lip. “You know there’ll be ten scallies waiting?” “She’s alright, Laura.” Ben snapped. “Come with me if you’re that worried.” “Me? You’re mad. It’s bloody freezing out there.” “The exercise ’ll be good for us.” “So they say. Until you catch pneumonia.” Laura shook her head. “I presume she’s a looker?” Ben spread his hands. How to describe a woman he had only ever dreamed of? “…Stunning.” “Thinking with your dick, as usual.” “Well fuck you.” She sat back in her seat and laughed. “Oooh. Shirty, much. Okay Half an hour tops and we move on to the Revolution Club.” Standing on the river bank an hour later Ben suspected they had a point. Maybe she had been stringing me along? Maybe she was hiding somewhere, waiting to roll me for my wallet. Standing behind that curtain of willow low enough to sweep frost-rime from the reeds, just staring at the river, he had to believe. She’ll be here. She had said so—promised. ‘‘Otters. In our river. I’ve seen one... But there’s something more... I’ll be waiting… By the Wall. By the ‘Piper’s stupid tag.’’ How could she not be here? “She’s having you on.” Jamie pointed at the Piper above them; the little otter - 81 -

JAN EDWARDS Portly still at his feet. “Once mere graffiti. But now? Ta Da. Our very own landmark Urban Art. Retouched courtesy of the EU Arts Fund. There’s your otter, mate. You’ve been had.” “No. She’ll be here. She seemed so... passionate about this otter stuff. She’ll be here.” He stamped his feet, hoping to return some vestige of feeling. The blows vibrated through the earth, dull, subterranean, thump, thumping, and he winced, certain the noise would wreck all chance of otter-spotting. She’ll be here. She will be here. “It’s gone eleven, Benny. The Boatman’s shut but The Revolution’s open till one,” Jamie said. “C’mon.” Laura touched Ben’s arm. “S’right. She’s not coming mate. It looks like she’s stood you up. “C’mon guys. It’s not even half past yet.” “Five minutes,” she mumbled through the Parka zipped past her nose. “Fifteen?” “Five. No more.” “Shh!” Ben held up one hand and leaned forward, as if being that few inches further made all the difference. “Hear that?” “Hear what?” Jamie muttered. “Sort of whistling noise?” Ben said. “Could be her. C’mon. Ten more minutes? I’ll buy the first round. First two rounds.” Jamie held up both hands, and grinned. “Okay. Consider my arm duly twisted. Just…” They all heard it. Not the gentle slap of rising fish. This was the unmistakable sploosh of a heavy object entering the very deepest of deep water. Ripples, luminescent with the moon, eddied toward the far bank. Shadows moved upstream. Two figures lurching through the reeds, muted conversation seeping toward the watchers across cold water. Their words were indistincttheir tone unmistakably hostile. Laura pulled the boys back into the willows, knowing they were not looking at friends. “Sounds like they’re spoiling for one,” Ben muttered. “Someone’s getting a bollocking,” Jamie replied. Laura slapped them both quiet. More shapes in felt hats and bulky oiled jackets had appeared; their hounds strained at leashes, tails wafting and paws - 82 -

JAN EDWARDS scrabbling toward the water’s edge. “Hunting?” Ben whispered. “That’s illegal.” He rummaged for his mobile. Getting a decent picture in this light was slim but some squealing bravado at the back of his brain made him try. He held his opened mobile out beyond the willow barrier; its screen glaring lightning-bright. Jamie hauled him back before he could zap a second shot. “What the hell are you doing, man?” Ben shrugged him aside, scrolling rapidly through the images. He’d expected a shadow or two at the very least, but the phone’s last image was dull grey/black nothingness. Pushing through the willow he scuttled to where men and dogs had gathered. With Jamie and Laura just paces behind he searched as far as the river bend. “We should call the police,” Laura said. “For what? We heard water splashing by a river? Oh yeah. I can see them pouring down in van-loads. There isn’t anything to show them. I bet even Ben’s woman’s got scared off.’ Jamie grabbed her hand. ‘Let’s go. I need that pint.” Ben searched the bank at first light. Fresh layers of frost had turned the grass and path a uniform undisturbed white. He looked up at the Wall, bright in the early sun despite its age. A few tags had already appeared; shiny-new and harsh. He could make out one other that had faded into near oblivion. A curling ‘K’, just visible below Otter-Portly’s sleeping form. Swishing water made him turn. A pair of dark otter eyes regarded him from the river – then nothing but a lone trail of bubbles. Copyright © Jan Edwards 2010 This ghost story (of sorts) was written originally for a Conservation anthology. It marks the 30th anniversary (in 2008) of the ban on Otter hunting which came into effect on 14th Dec 1978.

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JAMES BENNETT For Carla, true survivor and excellent friend.


t was the night before Christmas and all was hell. Ever since Max had left her, giving up after weeks of rows, Phoebe had faced the unenviable task of full-time work and full-time, single-handed parenting. Making her way through the Rosewood Mall, shopping bags bumping against her legs and hand clutched tightly by Bobby, her son, Phoebe wondered just how worse things could get. If Max wasn’t such a bad drunk, then she might have enlisted his aid, even had him round for Christmas Dinner – for Bobby’s sake, if not her own – but the truth was his inebriated presence was more than she could stand. How fucked up was that? She would rather suffer the nine to five, the non-stop sprint of school runs, deadlines, and last minute shopping than share a couple of hours with the man she used to love. The man she had married, for Christ’s sake. Phoebe resolved to put all these thoughts out of her head – it was Christmas Eve, after all – but it wasn’t easy, especially when work constraints had not allowed her to buy any presents until tonight, especially when Bobby, the archetypal six-year-old, was a snot-dripping elf at her side. “Wanna go home, mummy. Wanna go home.” “Not long now, honey. Just a couple more shops and then we’ll go grab some dinner, yeah?” Bobby let out a protracted whine, as though she had just announced that there would be no dinner at all, not tonight, not tomorrow, not ever. “Wanna go home now.” Phoebe gave a deep inward sigh. Patience. “Hang on for me, Bobby. I’ll make you your favourite, fish fingers and beans. Yummy.” But the archetypal six-year-old was not to be appeased. A look came over his face, a look that reminded her of Max, a scowl he’d turned on her during their rows, a scowl that told her: even if you’re right, you’re wrong. A look that said no to everything. It hurt her to see it reborn here, on a young and snotty face, a storm brewing under white-blond curls. “Bobby…” Patience straining, she fought to keep her hand at her side. She was not her mother, she placed no value in hands-on discipline, would only administer a - 84 -

JAMES BENNETT slap when she felt that it was absolutely necessary. And what with the PC brigade, you couldn’t be too careful these days. A quick glance around assured her that no one had seen her jerk, witnessed her struggle with her temper. Manchester flowed on past her, mind on its shopping, blind to her ire. Biting her lip, she swallowed her annoyance, tried to reason with her pouting progeny. She put down her bags and knelt to face him, but Bobby’s attention was already elsewhere, his gaze drifting over her shoulder, his tantrum completely forgotten. He let out his breath in an awe-filled coo. “Look, mummy. Look.” She turned to follow his line of sight and that was when she saw the grotto, a sprawling structure of canvas and wood taking up one of the Rosewood’s many plazas. A picket fence, a border for sweeps of polystyrene snow, bordered the grotto’s festive cheer. Strings of lights decorated the green tarpaulin that made up its shell, rough billows bunched behind the wooden facade. That facade resembled a cottage, a house from a fairy tale, all candy canes, cotton wool and icicles. Here and there, painted sprites danced on windowsill and chimneystack. Before the arched entrance to the grotto, a bulb-ringed mouth that led into gloom, there stood a sleigh, pulled by a team of model reindeer. A sack rested on the back of the sleigh, its bulk piled impossibly high, its lip bursting with cardboard presents. Somewhere, a smoke machine pumped out fog, adding to the overall magical impression. Well, magical for Bobby, at least. For Phoebe, the grotto seemed gauche and cheap, a brazen beast poised to feast on juvenile wonder. The grin of the plastic Santa inviting all and sundry inside struck her as nothing less than licentious, the sign he held a fluorescent lie: Children, don’t just write a letter this year Meet Santa in his magic grotto! A free gift for every child Parents, when you can’t describe the look on their face, that’s a gift in itself! £5 entrance fee

- 85 -

JAMES BENNETT Phoebe shook her head at the falsehood. Under it were the opening times, twelve to nine Monday to Saturday. Reading the sign, she felt a sudden, unbidden aversion. There was something she didn’t like about the grotto, something that she couldn’t put her finger on. That sense of wrongness placed her hands on Bobby’s shoulders, shaking them to reclaim his attention. Bright-eyed, he looked at her, his mouth opening to protest. She attempted to cut him off at the pass. “Honey, we don’t have time. My parking ticket runs out at seven. Plus we still have to buy Aunt Joan’s present and…” Little Bobby started to cry. Before she had a chance to play consoler, she heard a man speak at her back. “Hello, Phoebe. Long time, no see.” Startled, she shot to her feet, spinning on her heel. Her cheeks turned red when she saw who it was – none other than Ryan Hall, her old university pal. Old pal and one-time lover. Awkwardly, she managed a smile, and clutching Bobby’s hand for comfort, pulled her son close to her side. Bobby whined and tugged, but Phoebe did her best to ignore him. “Oh, God, hi. Ryan.” Her smile felt glued to her face. “How have you been?” But his smile waned as he looked at her. “Good. I’ve been…good.” He moved a step toward her. “Jesus, Phoebes. Are you alright?” The bruise. She had forgotten all about it. The blue-black evidence of Max’s temper was still a fading ring around her eye, an ugly autograph, a signature that had ended their relationship. Apologies could not erase it, and as her free hand covered her face, Phoebe knew that the motion had spoken volumes. What could she say? In their brief time together – in the days that she thought of as the Golden Age – she and Ryan had been quite close. And he looked so good, standing there in his sweater and jeans, a touch of grey in his hair, sure, but handsome as ever nonetheless. She had never lied to him before – why start now? She lowered her hand, offering a weary shrug. She could hardly tell him she’d fallen down the stairs… “I’m…surviving.” No need to tell him everything. “It hasn’t been the best of years.” At her side, Bobby whimpered, tugging at her dress. “Yeah. I heard about you and Max,” Ryan said. “I’m really sorry it didn’t - 86 -

JAMES BENNETT work out. Are you…?” Tug. Tug. “We haven’t talked about divorce… yet.” Tug. “Oh, Phoebe. I’m -” He moved toward her and she let him embrace her. Aftershave filled her nostrils, Calvin Klein flinging her mind backwards in time, to nights in bars and rented rooms, to disco lights and dirty sheets, to the highs and lows of student life. To dreams. To youth. To hope. Just don’t say ‘what could have been’… Carefully, she pushed him away. His smile had returned, a little sad now. “Anyway, how about you?” She couldn’t stand his sympathy, shining in his eyes. “Tell me all your news.” They spoke for a while, skirting around the real issue. Ryan had set up his own business, a small printing firm in Leeds that was doing quite well despite the recession. There had been a couple of long-term girlfriends, but no one had dragged him up the aisle, he’d never managed to find ‘the one’ (he laughed). Life was ok – could be better, could be worse. When you’re single and forty, you’re allowed to feel a little jaded (another, slightly cynical, laugh). There were one or two uncomfortable silences, nothing that could hurt. It was only when Ryan asked her for a drink that Phoebe realised Bobby was gone. Her giddiness at Ryan’s flirtation dried up the minute she looked at her hand and saw that it was empty. How long had they stood there, wrapped up in their private world, blind to the crowds rushing by on all sides? However long it had been, it was long enough for Bobby to make his escape. Frantically, she searched about her, scanning the boutiques and stalls. With a pang of dread, she scoured the escalators, helpless not to think of the worst. Ryan joined her, murmuring anxious words of calm – kid’s got to be around here somewhere – but Phoebe barely heard him. Panic welled inside her guts, wrapped its fingers around her throat. Then her gaze fell on the grotto. Those garish paintings of dancing sprites. That bulb-ringed mouth leading into gloom. Look, mummy. Look. Phoebe relaxed, even as her anger grew. “Wait here a minute.” She placed a hand on Ryan’s arm, and even through - 87 -

JAMES BENNETT her irritation, felt a thrill at his gym-toned flesh. “I think I know where Bobby was headed…” With this, she offered an apologetic smile, and strode off in the direction of the grotto. Ryan hung around obediently, an anxious figure surrounded by bags. At the entrance to the grotto, Phoebe paused. It wasn’t so much the red-lit throat leading into shadow as that niggling sense of wrongness, prickling under her skin. That Bobby had entered this place, she had no doubt, having seen the lights reflected in his eyes, the twinkling hues of fascination. Still, she paused, taking in the gaudy scene. Thin green wires seem to snake everywhere, feeding a plethora of bulbs. The plastic Santa grinned at her, an expression more suited to greed than giving. Behind him stood the model reindeer, the sleigh loaded with the towering sack. Close up, the sack seemed badly packed, all twisted angles and awkward curves, like someone had just put out the rubbish, rather than Santa’s festive bounty. The sprites leered down, mischief upon their faces. Then it hit her – the reason behind her unease. The reason behind that sense of wrongness. Despite the sign that claimed the grotto was open, there was not a customer in sight. Excited children should line the fence, directed by adults waiting their turn. And where was the grotto’s attendant? Surely, someone, probably in fancy dress, should stand here collecting the fee. Shoppers bustled past on all sides, but none of them seemed keen on stopping. Suddenly, Phoebe felt all alone. All alone and foolish. When she turned to offer a feeble smile, she caught Ryan looking at his watch. He glanced up at her, instantly sheepish, and clearly misreading her gaze, waved a hand to usher her on. Go on. That gesture said. Go on. I’m sure it’s all right. Helpless in the face of it, Phoebe could only take his advice, and walked on into the grotto. Inside, she found herself in a narrow crimson cave, a canvas tunnel curving before her. On nervous feet, she followed it, encouraged by a cheerful sign pointing the way to Santa’s workshop. Make a wish kids Santa will make all your dreams come true! “Bobby? Bobby, honey, are you in here?” Her voice echoed down the tunnel, her returning words hinting at a much larger space than the one she occupied. - 88 -

JAMES BENNETT There was no reply. Those fingers closed around her throat again, hurrying her steps. “Bobby?” She turned a corner, yelping as she ran into an elf, his arms lifting a trumpet to his mouth. A sudden blast of Jingle Bells filled her ears, and she stumbled into the wall opposite, hands pressed to her head. Collecting herself, she scowled at the mechanical intruder, his eyes flashing in a cartoon face, all outsized grin and elongated nose. His pointy ears, stripy costume and feathered cap looked scratched and dull in the rouge ambience, the paint peeling from old plastic. Only too glad to leave him behind, Phoebe continued down the passageway. The crimson tunnel twisted and turned, but never seemed to lead anywhere. How big was this place? She passed further animatronics – a reindeer with a flashing nose, a clown juggling sparkling gifts, a snowman spinning on a cotton-wool lawn. Each one turned to follow her progress as she delved deeper into the maze, searching for the heart of the grotto. There were no more signs, just thin green wires, snaking over the ceiling and walls, a rambling vine of electrics. Phoebe had no choice but to follow them, trying to ignore her increasing pace. Soon, she was jogging, trotting around corner after corner. Phoebe no longer called out to her son, exertion rendering her dumb. Sweat made her blouse cling to her breasts, a cold film of growing fear. Just how far have I come? She chided herself for being scared. Clearly, her fraught emotions, her panic at losing sight of her son, conspired to create illusions. At the same time, she kicked herself for not bringing Ryan into the maze – a male comfort, if nothing else – for surely that was what she now faced: some kind of festive labyrinth, a joke played upon the unwitting. Under all this, she knew that somewhere in the past ten minutes (ten minutes in these tunnels, really?) wrongness had become badness, and like any mother who’d lost a child, her fears slowly centred less on herself, more on what had happened to Bobby. With perverts on the news every day, she did not even want to think about it. Where was he? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Panting, she paused to draw breath, tried to calm her racing nerves. Tried to stem a flood of self-reproach, knowing that however much she blamed herself for letting go of Bobby’s hand, none of it would do her any good. But why oh why did Ryan have to choose that moment to appear? Near sobbing, Phoebe staggered around another corner, her hair hanging damp in her face. - 89 -

JAMES BENNETT When she looked up, she found she had reached the heart of the grotto, and relief blossomed in her burning breast. It did not last very long. As she saw the man lying on the floor, a huddled shape a few feet away, her fear boiled over into a scream. The man wore a large red suit, the padded edges trimmed with white, and in her shock, it took her a moment to place the traditional costume. His face and head were hideously bare, a grotesque mask of putrefaction, skin stretched tightly over his skull, drained of life and colour. His teeth and eyes shone in the glow of the broad domed space, dull pearls in an ocean of red. Gagging, Phoebe forced her fist into her mouth, taking in the rest of the chamber. She picked out each detail in horrified snapshots, her stunned mind absorbing the scene. Several children stood around the wall, motionless at the edge of the space. She counted them – four, five, six, seven – noticing that the last one was Bobby. All of the children were deep in sleep, their little chests rising and falling, but something stopped Phoebe from moving towards them, and the next moment she saw what it was. A thick gel covered each child, some swampy muck that glued them to the wall. Thin green wires snaked everywhere, some coiling on the floor in low heaps, others trailing over the walls, and as she stood there, frozen with fear, she saw that some of the wires were moving, gently sliding this way and that, pulsing with more than electricity. Vomit rose hot in her throat. The wires gathered around each child, bunching around their dreaming heads. Even from a distance, she could see how the tendrils covered their faces, slithering into nostril and mouth, sliding their way behind eyelid… With a moan, Phoebe retched, leaning on the wall for support. Vomit splattered the toes of her high heels. What the hell was happening here? A soft grunt interrupted her dread. Cold instinct drew her gaze again to the wires – what she could only think of as veins – and she traced them in the opposite direction, towards the shadowed rear of the chamber. There, on a low dais, rested Santa’s wooden throne, a faux baroque chunk of furniture, painted red and gold. On the throne, almost engulfing it, rested a huge, spatulate head. Phoebe saw a glut of eyes – six pairs set one above the other, cruel orbs in a broad flat skull. That skull was glossy and green, fanning out in wide blades - 90 -

JAMES BENNETT of bone. The thing was both insect and plant. The slightly raised area that made up its face narrowed toward two flickering maxillae, maxillae that dripped with the same thick ooze that had only just recently covered her son. Bizarrely, the thing sported a floppy red hat, large white bobble dangling on the end. A drool-drenched and bushy beard hung on elastic from the thing’s maw. But whatever it was, it wasn’t fooling anyone. Its hulking form throbbed in the shadows, its segmented bulk somehow stretching back from the throne, so the creature seemed to be poking through it, pressing against some gossamer skein. Gripped by terror, Phoebe could barely look at the beast. She looked beyond it, into the haze surrounding the throne, her gaze drawn toward that (otherspace) see-through world of pink vegetation, slick black rock and heavylooking, bristling vines. And rising from the thick morass, the flanks of some vast, silver machine. With the slow awareness of the shocked, Phoebe knew that she gazed beyond her world, beyond her universe of nine to five, school runs, deadlines, and last minute shopping, and into somewhere alien and strange. Simultaneously, she felt the thing’s mind touch her own, sensed their thoughts curdling together. In its way, the monster was as shocked as she was. Its confusion bored into her skull like a drill. Why come lair why come why? You from not otherspace. You not bow why not bow before a god? Phoebe screamed. Long we come over long we come through. No stars distance no. No space time no time space. Scent of dreams human sweet. Hunting dreams hungry all. Phoebe screamed. The thing grunted, shaking its beard and mane of bone. The veins on the floor pulsed, and Phoebe saw how they entered its flesh, writhing tongues that fed on – Feed feed feed feed… Dreams. In disgust, Phoebe staggered backwards, shaking her head. She could not accept this, could not credit the scene before her as anything but hallucination, some sick mirage brought on by stress. If only Ryan was with her – shit, she would feel grateful for Max right now – then he might snap her out of the nightmare, bring her crashing back to herself. Then something else took over. She shook the alien words from her head, shrugged off their clumsy translation, broke the psychic link. The sight of her - 91 -

JAMES BENNETT son, glued to the chamber wall, cut through her numbness. Adrenaline pushed her toward him, her hands outstretched, even as the thing burbled and hissed, an array of eyes watching her move across the murky space. Teeth gritted, Phoebe tore at the gunk around him, pulling the veins free from his head. They came loose with a loud sucking sound, flailing before her, spraying green muck. She pulled harder, fighting queasiness in her guts. She yanked tendrils from nostrils and mouth, blood dripping from Bobby’s chin. With a desperate tug, he fell forward into her arms, groaning softly. Eyelids fluttering, he stared blearily up at her. His voice had never sounded so sweet. “Mummy...?” Even in that awful place, Phoebe managed to muster a smile. He was still the archetypal six-year-old. She kissed his brow, and cradling him in trembling arms, stumbled back towards the tunnel. The monster on the throne shrieked. It pushed forward, pressing its bulk against the skein, the rippling, translucent door that kept its world apart from hers. At the mouth of the tunnel, her conscience kicked in. She put Bobby down gently. He tottered on unsteady feet, whimpering at the thing on the throne. “We'll be out of here in no time,” she told him. “Fish fingers and beans, right?” Again, the monster shrieked. She hurried back across the floor, stepping over the coiled veins, and tore at the slime on the wall. The thing heaved forwards, the bobble on its hat swinging absurdly. The skein slowly began to buckle, shards of light whirling into the chamber. Burdened with two rousing children, Phoebe had no way to defend herself. A slick tendril lashed through the air, whipping around her throat before she had a chance to scream. She found herself wrenched away from the wall, and used what little strength she had left to push the two children toward the tunnel where Bobby stood, bawling in fright. “Run” she gasped at them, “Run,” and felt a thrill of satisfaction when she saw them stagger in that direction. Phoebe yelled as the tendril stroked her face, stale fluid filling her mouth. The thing dragged her toward the throne, its spatulate head bucking in rage. The back of her heels struck the dais, her shoes falling off with a clunk. Then its breath was hot on her cheek. The lash tightened around her throat and there - 92 -

JAMES BENNETT came an agonising sting. The tip of the tendril wormed into her ear. The world shattered, wheeling away from her. Crazed images filled her head, a flood of data assailing her brain. She saw planets that she could not name, egg-shaped vessels shooting through the void. Pink leaves bloomed to enfold her, nibbling her with tiny teeth. Nodes opened in a network of stalks, moist channels eager to kiss her, suck her secrets out of her head. Abruptly, she knew the thing by name, shared the depthless hunger of the Grull. The mad, blind species groped their way through space and time, slithering through the cracks in dimensions, widening them to set their traps. They set them where the dreams were richest, a life source of scented fugues luring the creatures on across worlds… Phoebe hollered at her violation, the grunting Grull raping her mind. Images crashed in the other direction, the link between them equally shared. She saw herself in a smoky bar, leaning on Ryan’s shoulder. She saw herself walking up the aisle, smiling at Max who stood at the altar. She remembered the tang of whiskey on his breath, their first married kiss a taste of things to come. She saw herself crouched by the living room wall, clutching her damaged face, Max shouting somewhere above her. Her sobs were a song of broken promises, tired rage, lost hope... The Grull squealed and suddenly released her. She tumbled to the chamber floor, breaking her fall with outstretched hands. She rolled quickly onto her back; spat her fury into its face. “You don’t want my dreams, motherfucker...” Then she was up and running. She spared a thought for the children on the wall, but the thing on the throne was pushing through, and she knew she could not help them now, could only doom herself. The knowledge squeezed her thumping heart, but once again, instinct took over. Without another glance at the throne, Phoebe turned and fled from the chamber, the Grull shrieking mayhem behind her. The dim red throat of the tunnel swallowed her. As she ran, she scanned ahead, searching for the children she’d saved, her fears orbiting around her son. She navigated corner after corner, lost again in the canvas maze, alien rage resounding at her back. The thin green wires were all in motion, rippling over the ceiling and walls. The canvas itself was in motion, the material like some kind of skin, leathery and veined. - 93 -

JAMES BENNETT No, not skin – leaves... Recalling her vision of ravenous plants, Phoebe broke into a sprint, her heart threatening to burst from her chest. Skidding around another corner, she barked in joy to see the three small forms directly ahead of her. Thank Christ… The children were fully awake now. She picked out Bobby’s white-blond curls, bronze under the dense light. The three of them cowered against the tunnel wall, their whimpers joined in a chorus of terror. Phoebe rushed forward to comfort them, to hush their whimpers and wipe away their tears. Adrenaline alone kept her moving, that and her refusal to absorb the bizarre drama taking place around her. Later, she told herself. If there is a later... Mind set on reaching the children, she didn’t see the reindeer until it rushed her. Nose flashing, antlers twirling, the animatronic beast charged out of an adjacent tunnel, rolling across the polished floor on small electric wheels. Another second and the reindeer would have crashed straight into her, but with her limbs tensed, her wits soaring to new heights of panic, Phoebe leapt aside with all the luck of a bullfighter. The reindeer spun to make another pass but its rigid wheels forbade the manoeuvre and the plastic invader fell over on its side. Through a split in its flank, Phoebe saw a complexity of cogs, sparks showering into the passageway. She was not about to hang around and investigate further. Grabbing Bobby and instructing the children to hold onto each other’s hands, Phoebe led them on down the tunnel, her pace slower now, caution offsetting her alarm, so she was not taken completely by surprise when more machines came for her. The elf, the clown and the snowman crowded the tunnel ahead, their movements graceless and jerky, their plastic faces frozen in joy. The elf appeared gleeful with spite. The clown’s lips seemed daubed in blood. The snowman’s nose swept toward her like an orange blade. Lights shone behind their eyes, the radiance of murder. As they approached, Phoebe glimpsed the thin green wires that trailed behind them, no doubt fuelling them with the same rank ichor she’d tasted in the grotto's heart. The elf brought his trumpet to his lips, regaling her fugitive band with a high-pitched, dissonant rendition of Santa Clause is Coming to Town.

- 94 -

JAMES BENNETT You better watch out You better not cry Better not pout I’m telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town… What the - ? The music rimed her skin with ice. Then the juggling clown lurched to a halt, garish grin tipped to one side, and hurled a brightly coloured ball in her direction. The missile whistled past her ear by inches and she yelled as it exploded further down the tunnel, a loud boom blooming in fire. The canvas at her back burst into flames, the glow pushing back the gloom, so she could see the machines in grim detail as they came for her. And that song had never sounded sinister before. He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows when you’re awake He knows if you’ve been bad or good So be good for goodness sake! Santa Claus is coming to town… But Santa was dead. At least in this place. Something had killed the myth of the season, something outlandish and utterly weird. A thing that was even more unlikely than the bearded fat guy who climbed down strangers’ chimneys on Christmas Eve. She did not expect the heat that rose in her, the sudden rush of anger. Maybe it was the boiling point of so many things – Max’s selfish and destructive boozing, his rough hands on her, leaving bruises, the shattered thing that had become her marriage. Maybe her anger had a simpler source, the little girl inside her outraged at this desecration, this pillage of a sacred time, a time that was all about giving and prayer, a time of gratitude, friendship and love. Whatever it was, Phoebe was not going to stand and wait for a juggling ball to strike her or the children. Seeing the machines’ clunky movements told her one thing. She was far more agile than they were. The smashed reindeer told her another. For all their grotesqueness, they were fragile, shaped to scare and able to harm, yes, but far from invincible. - 95 -

JAMES BENNETT She leapt towards them, her sweaty grip slipping on plastic. Grabbing the elf by the trumpet, she used all of her strength to pull it around, the machine sliding on wheels with no traction. Round and round she spun the grinning fiend, sparks fizzing from its glowing eyes. Then with a cry, she let the elf go, covered her head as it shot away from her, smashed into the snowman and clown. The three intruders exploded. Plastic cracked and started to melt. Cogs whirred uselessly. The tunnel was suddenly ablaze. And Phoebe was getting out of there. Another corner, breathless now, panting. Another corner with lungs burning, throat sore, leg muscles straining. Without looking back, Phoebe pulled the children on, encouraging them with soft, snatched words. Another corner. Another corner. Then she saw the light at the end of the tunnel, glimpsed the sheen of the mall beyond the red hell. At that moment, no sight was sweeter. Then she looked down at Bobby and knew that there was. One last push then, on and on, on and out‌ She passed the sign, the bright invitation to death. Make a wish kids Santa will make all your dreams come true! Phoebe burst from the entrance to the grotto, children in tow. Outside, a crowd had gathered, people gawping in shock at the grotto, making sure that they kept a safe distance. One look at their blur of faces, all wide eyes and open mouths, and Phoebe knew they had heard the explosions. A glance over her shoulder showed her the flames, orange tongues licking up from the tarpaulin, smoke coiling up to the glass roof of the mall, wreathing the nearby lifts, the second and the third floor, an inferno in the making. Something caught her eye, and she watched, horrified, as the tarpaulin itself started to move, sliding back over the ribs of the grotto. The fabric rippled, glossy and sleek, unfolding. In one frozen heartbeat, Phoebe grasped what it was she was seeing, and leapt again into action. She ran without looking, stumbling into the children, besmirched and sniffling at her side. To avoid trampling them, she threw her body to one side, smacked painfully into the back of the sleigh. The model reindeer shuddered - 96 -

JAMES BENNETT with the impact. The sack, piled impossibly high, shifted and shook, cardboard presents raining down. Phoebe cried out, pushing Bobby and the other children away from her, away from danger, away from the slowly toppling sack. The crowd aaahed as one, a pathetic, awe-filled warning. The sack crashed to the ground, spilling its contents all over the polystyrene lawn, its bulk smashing through the picket fence. The aaah became a chorus of screams and panicked shouts. When Phoebe turned, she saw the cause of their fright, saw what had caused all those strange angles and curves. Santa’s bounty was a bounty of death. Here, presumably, were the parents to the children in the grotto, lured to their doom by a candy cane cottage, flashing lights and simple innocence. Like the man in the maze, the heap of corpses looked withered and drained, sucked dry of life. Their skulls showed through their pallid flesh, teeth frozen in permanent grins, bulging eyes relating the pain of their demise. Thin green wires still trailed from them, entwining their torsos and limbs, the Grull drawing what nourishment it could from their quickened decay. Phoebe staggered backwards, her guts heaving. Her stomach was empty and all she managed was a series of retches. Bobby and the children followed her, bawling again. Whether they had seen their mother or father in the heap, she could not tell. She did not want to. She stumbled her way into the mall, the crowd parting to accept her, give her space in their arc of terror. No one spoke; no one asked her if she was all right. No one moved to help her. All eyes were on the grotto. The unfolding grotto. The tarpaulin fanned out, great unfurling wings of green. The fairytale facade drew back and Phoebe realised that even that was part of the trap, part of the sham. The grotto was horribly alive, pulsing with verdant puissance, soaked with poison potency. The leaves spread out, brushing the fronts of the nearest shops. Slick green wires, these ones thicker and root-like, writhed over the polished floor. Changing patterns adorned each leaf, vivid motifs that moved liquidly, slowly rearranging their shapes. Phoebe watched the cottage dissolve, the dancing sprites and icicled windows melting into a smear of hues. The bulbringed mouth was gone, the reindeer and sleigh collapsed, drawn into the encroaching foliage. Even the picket fence withdrew; curling up into what she now saw was some kind of plant, some lush, giant carnivorous tree, a weird - 97 -

JAMES BENNETT weed in the garden of the world. Around the base of the plant, the air rippled and fizzed, marking the place from where it had sprung, pushed its way through from (otherspace) somewhere else. Gigantic, ravenous, appallingly beautiful, the plant unfolded even as it burned, a few of its leaves aflame. Those flames were spreading quickly, and as the crowd fled screaming, Phoebe remained standing where she was, clutching Bobby’s hand, Bobby clutching the other children. Fearful yet awestruck, she wanted to watch the thing die. “Burn, you bastard. Burn.” The Grull reared up, a foul, twelve-eyed head weaving skyward on a thick, wavering stalk. Its mandibles shivered as the thing roared in pain, its needlelike teeth spraying slime, rank-smelling globs that splashed down on the mall floor. Up and up the Grull reared, jaws snapping, a vile stamen of grey and green. The glass roof of the mall cracked, and then its head was swinging down towards her, jaws parting in vengeance, leaves thrashing, meaning to flay the skin from her bones. “Phoebe, no!” Ryan Hall was at her side, pulling her out of harm’s way. The Grull’s jaws closed on nothing, and then the thing was moving back, retreating into the petals of flame, pain overwhelming its rage. Back in its own world it would heal or die – either way, it had lost its appetite for Manchester. The Grull would steal no more dreams from the Rosewood Mall. There came a flash, a loud whoosh of imploding air, and then the Grull was gone, nothing remaining to speak of its presence but a scorched area of floor tiles and several large puddles of slime. “Jesus Phoebe, are you alright?” Ryan had asked that question before, and only half an hour ago. That short span of time had changed everything and even as she turned to face him, pulling her sobbing son – once more the archetypal six-year-old – close to her side, she was surprised to find that Ryan still looked good to her, standing there in his sweater and jeans. More than good – lovely. As his eyes searched her smoke-stained face, she knew he was no longer seeing the bruised ring around her eye. He was seeing through it, seeing her. Hope sparked in her breast, hope for a life beyond Max, beyond rows, punches and drunken lies. A life that held more than just the nine to five, school runs, deadlines, and last - 98 -

JAMES BENNETT minute shopping. A life where she could be happy, a new start for Bobby and herself. As she fell into Ryan’s arms, she breathed in his aftershave, breathed in hope by Calvin Klein, and all she could do was weep. She was a survivor. There could be nothing worse ahead. In that stunned and breathless moment, she wished him all the joy in the world. “Merry fucking Christmas,” she said. Copyright © James Bennett 2010 James Bennett is a writer of Fantasy, Horror and the occasional contemporary fable. The Lambda Literary Institute (US) nominated his debut novel Unrequited, a dark love story, for Best Debut Fiction in 2007. Since then, he has had four nominations for a British Fantasy Award and this year won the Dead of Night Best Author Award from Screaming Dreams. He is currently working on a new novel and wishes all his readers, editors, family and friends a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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