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THE OFFICIAL SD EZINE Introduction by Steve Upham The Pathological Good Samaritan by N.W. Davies The Bone Fire by Alison Littlewood Man of Stone by Bob Lock The Place by Andrew Donegan Seven Years by Paul Edwards A New Set by Andrew Otewalt The Autopsy by Sierra Brown The Wrong Man by Graeme Stevenson Pestilence Takes a Cruise by Ross Warren Soulstone Shoals by Mark Howard Jones False Pilgrim by Frank Duffy

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 2009 All content remains the Copyright of each contributor and must NOT be re-used without permission from the original Copyright holder(s). Thank you. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

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STEVE UPHAM

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ell there wasn’t a Halloween issue of the eZine this year I’m afraid. I did try, I assure you, but sadly no authors had any ‘ween-themed tales ready for submission this time around. But I hope you enjoy the selection of stories in this issue. For any authors reading this, don’t forget I still need more story submissions for the Christmas Special, so get writing! They must have a Christmas or winter theme. Deadline is the first week of December. I am busy working on several projects in the background, as always, but you may not see many updates on the SD website for a while. I’ll add details to the What’s New page when I can though, so keep watching. A short intro this time. I didn’t receive any artwork submissions for this issue either, so you’ll have to put up with some of my own sketches instead! Just something to help break up the stories. Some images you may recognize as prelims or variations of existing work, while others are new ideas for future illustrations. Don’t forget that I would like to feature more artist showcase pages in the next few issues, so please submit your work. Artists should send a maximum of TEN images (800 pixels max wide or high, JPG format), details about each piece (title, year and any additional info), plus website or blog link. -1-


N.W. DAVIES

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arren Basil did not normally travel the route alongside the cemetery on his way home from work, but on Monday there were roadworks and a diversion. The traffic was heavy, bumper-to-bumper all the way, and he concentrated hard on the car in front. Nevertheless, he saw the old man walking slowly along the pavement, head down, apparently ignorant of the noise, the smell of exhaust fumes. Instinctively Warren knew there was something wrong, that the old man needed help, his help. He pulled his Ford Mondeo into the edge of the busy road on double yellow lines, ignoring the beeping and cursing of other motorists. Inconveniencing a few fellow road users paled in comparison to his need to help the obviously distressed old man. “You look cold and,” he sniffed as he stepped out of the car, “obviously in need of some care and attention. What’s your name?” The old man bent and retrieved a half-used cigarette from the pavement near the railings. There was lipstick on the filter but otherwise it was fine. He tucked it behind his ear and searched the ground for a match. “Can you hear me?” Warren raised his voice, speaking slowly and carefully. “What’s your name?” The old man turned a puzzled frown on the stranger interrupting his search and Warren, priding himself on his ability to ‘read’ faces, got his first clear view of the soul needing his help. The man was probably in his sixties, Warren estimated, thin, underfed, dressed in a faded dark suit beneath a beige raincoat that would once have been smart but now wore the scuffs and strains of ill use and lack of cleaning. A tidy grey beard covered a narrow, unimpressive chin above sunken cheeks and a sharp, bent ‘roman’ nose. “What do you want?” The man’s voice was quiet, rasping. For a fleeting moment Warren saw an intensity in the man’s blue eyes as they focussed on him, a clearness that belied the ageing exterior, before they flicked away, the brightness dying into lifeless blue-grey, the pupils jerking, shuddering, never still. “I said, what's your name? You look like you could do with some help.” “I’m fine. And I’ve no idea what my name is. What does it matter anyway? Now, go away.” Warren shook his head sadly. Didn’t know his own name? Obviously no -2-


N.W. DAVIES conception of his current condition. The man was blatantly ill and needed immediate help. He reached out and took a bony elbow in his hand. “Come on. I’ll get you to the hospital and they can check you over.” The man shook free, stumbled slightly, grabbed hold of the cemetery railings for support. The sleeve of his raincoat slipped down his arm revealing thin bones visible beneath dry skin that served as a canvas for some of the most intricate, swirling tattoos Warren had ever seen. He stared, unsettled by words that his limited classical education suspected were Latin, twisting in and out of the overall pattern. Here and there faces, almost but not quite human, peered out. Startled, he stepped back, convinced one of the faces had smiled at him, before the old man released the railing and the sleeve dropped, concealing the disturbing artwork. “This place is important,” rasped the old man. “I need to be here.” Warren, recovering quickly, convincing himself that his imagination was playing tricks on him, glanced over the man’s shoulder through the goldtopped railings to the cemetery beyond. “Here? You mean the cemetery?” “The cemetery is important. It’s my duty to be here. I can’t go home. I don’t even know where my home is anymore.” “But why is it so important? Is your family buried here? Your wife perhaps?” “Wife?” The old man’s eyes seemed to once again focus for the briefest of moments. “I never married. It would not have been fair.” Warren, despite his eagerness to get the old man to hospital, found himself intrigued. “Not fair? Why not fair?” The old man’s brow creased as he tried to conjure memories that resisted all efforts to reveal themselves. “I… I don’t know, I just know it wouldn’t have been fair.” With a surprising ease he sat down on the pavement, crossing his legs, reminding Warren of a yoga teacher he had once had, briefly. “I haven’t slept for such a long time.” The rasping voice grew heavy, weary. “I… I don’t know what would happen if I slept, but it would be bad. I know it would be bad.” Warren sighed, pity merging with the desire to help that his few friends described mockingly as obsessive. He had to get this old man to a hospital, to -3-


N.W. DAVIES Social Services. “Is there anybody I could call? Any family or friends who should know where you are?” The old man shook his head, eyes glistening with the threat of tears as he tried to remember, tried to understand. “I wasn’t always alone. Once there were others to share the burden, the responsibility. But they grew old and died. Now there is only me.” He looked up at the young stranger in front of him, the man who exuded pity and concern. Every instinct screamed that this man’s ignorance was dangerous, but he had no idea why. He had lost trust in his instincts, his feelings, unable to understand them, unable to remember where they came from. Instead he looked at his coat, his suit, his shoes, finding it less upsetting to concentrate on the tangible here and now. “I don’t remember the last time I changed my clothes. I seem to have always worn these.” A frustratingly vague memory of finer garments, of colourful robes and fine silks spiralled across his thoughts but was gone before he could focus. Warren sniffed again, wincing at the unpleasant, unwashed odour hanging almost visibly around the old man. He shook his head sadly. It was tragic see someone this confused, this alone. He reached down and once again took the old man’s elbow gently in his hand, urging him to stand, to come with him. The old man resisted the pulling hand for a moment and then wondered why. Perhaps the stranger was right? He was cold, had long ago forgotten what it felt like to be well fed or to sleep in a comfortable bed, and what was the reason for wandering up and down the cemetery railings anyway? Damned if he could remember. The old man felt a momentary panic, which folded into puzzled concern and, finally, confused acceptance. Somewhere there was a reason for the things he had done, but they no longer seemed important. At least, not important enough to bother remembering. On Tuesday evening, Warren stopped by the hospital to visit the old man. He was suffering from malnutrition, exposure and severe amnesia. The doctors were keeping him in for observation while Social Services attempted to track down his family. -4-


N.W. DAVIES Warren approved and felt proud of what he had done. On Wednesday evening, Warren went straight home, the old man all but forgotten as he watched for the next poor soul he could help. On Thursday morning, at 3am, having seen nothing of Grayador, the last surviving Wizard of the Binding, for more than 48 hours, the demons held at bay beneath the rotting corpses in the cemetery ground screamed and roared and spat their way out into the world of the living. Copyright Š Neil Davies 2009

N.W. Davies lives in the North West of England and writes horror and science fiction stories. He has a wife, two children and more debts than he cares to think about. Despite this he still writes stories. Find out more by visiting his website at : www.nwdavies.co.uk Hard Winter by N.W. Davies. A new ice age, an approaching glacier, and driven before it, unimaginable horror. The winter of twenty-one eighteen was a hard one. A new ice age approached and the movement of the glacier over Scotland, while slow, was constant and unstoppable. Norman and Chrissie Leonard believed they were safe for a while longer, in the almost deserted Liverpool town centre, but then Norman heard The Roar and discovered that man wasn't the only creature forced from its home by the ice. Get the ebook here : www.eternalpress.ca/hardwinter.html A paperback version is also available to order from : www.amazon.com

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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ALISON LITTLEWOOD

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arjorie shuffled the cards in arthritic fingers, almost dropping them. Elsie and Irene watched; they knew that any offer of help would end in a rebuke, and, most likely, the end of the game. They rather liked the game. Or rather, they liked sitting here, exchanging gossip about the village, and using the game as a reason to be together. Elsie in particular used it as an excuse to leave her sheltered accommodation for an afternoon. "It keeps my mind sharp, you know," she'd say, and the young lad on the door would nod uncertainly, as though he wasn't sure if that was a good thing. The subject for today's conversation was the village bonfire. Or rather, the end of the village bonfire, for this year's was to be the last. After this November people would have to go to Norton for the big fire on the common, holding their children's hands for fear they would get lost. "There's a lot of strange folk in Norton," said Marjorie, as she offered the pack to Irene. "It won't be safe. Not like here." "Or neighbourly," said Irene, drawing a card from the pack. "We won't even see each other, most like. Too many people." "I remember when everyone knew everybody," said Elsie. "There was us, and those boys from the hill. And the MacKenzies from the school lane. And the older ones from the green." "And we'd all run about in the grass," said Irene. "Do you remember how long it was? We played cowboys and Indians. And the grown-ups would stand there at the trestle, eating jacket potatoes and soup, and wondering if we were still there." It was a proper bonfire, they all agreed. They lamented again the development that was going to take it away from them. "Callaloo," said Irene, reading from her card. "You know, there are too many folk here as it is," said Marjorie. "With the new flats on the High Street. And those estates at the top of the hill. We're almost joined onto Littleham now. Where's it going to end, that's what I want to know? "It's not like a community anymore," said Elsie, nodding. "A Caribbean soup," said Irene. "A kind of bird found only above the Arctic Circle." The other two nodded and sighed. "I don't know what they're thinking of, bringing more in," said Marjorie. -7-


ALISON LITTLEWOOD "Comer-inners," said Elsie. Not that they're really in, of course. Not that we ask them to our bonfire. Or our dinner at the village hall. Or the tea dance. They turn up anyway, though." "Still," said Marjorie, "It's the bonfire that matters. There's been a bonfire on the back field since 1445." "Don't you mean sixteen-something?" asked Elsie. "That's when they tried to blow up Parliament." "No," said Marjorie sternly, "1445. Don't you know your history? They burned a witch there, way back when. And they've had one ever since. To keep the goodness in and the evil out." "Well, that's fitting." "It was wonderful," said Marjorie. "The whole community, gathered together. Purging the one for the strength of the whole. And the wind blew fine and strong, whipping the flames higher, throwing brilliant sparks up, up into the sky. They could smell it as far away as Norton. So they said." Elsie stared at her for a long moment. "A kind of button fastening used on a gentleman's tunic," said Irene, and they turned and stared at her instead. "Callaloo," she said, helpfully. "Oh, that," said Marjorie. "It's some sort of foreign food. We had that one last week." She passed the cards to Irene, who sighed and began to shuffle. "It's a bit cold for a bonfire, anyway," Irene said. "Can't be good for your arthritis, Marjorie." Marjorie frowned. "Tradition," she said stiffly, "Is what counts. We all know that." Elsie pulled a card from the pack. "Well, the old ways are the best," she said. "We all went to those bonfires as kiddies, do you remember? All of us, and everyone would bring something. Wood for the fire. Home made soup. Sparklers for the children. Parkin, that's what you called community. And we never had to worry about who owned the field, because it was ours. All of us." "Except it wasn't," said Marjorie. "No. Except it wasn't." Elsie coughed. "Now, she said. This is funny." "What's funny?" said Marjorie, as though nothing could possibly be funny at a time like this. -8-


ALISON LITTLEWOOD "This card," said Elsie. She began to read, enunciating each word. "Bonfire. From bone fire. From burning the remains of people's dinners, which were piled outside and burned to discourage rats." The other two let out a long ‘ooh'. "We could do with discouraging a few rats around here," said Marjorie. "Bål fyre," said Elsie. From the Scandinavian. A victory fire whereupon the bodies of one's enemies were piled up and burned." Marjorie let out a 'hmph'. "Of English origin," said Marjorie. "From Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who had three hundred people burned at the stake." "Goodness," said Irene. "That must have been a fire and a half." "Just another 'bone' fire," said Marjorie. "Not much to choose between them, then. Now, how about some scones?" And she rose to her feet. Just then there was a loud knock at the door. "Whoever could that be?" said Marjorie, and went to answer it. There were three little boys on the doorstep. One was balanced precariously on a silver thing on wheels. "Penny for the guy," the tallest said. "That's not a guy," said Marjorie. "That's a boy. He's not even dressed up." "Realistic, inhe." Marjorie glared at them. After a long moment, she fished in her apron pocket, and drew out a purse. Slowly, she snapped it open, still glaring. She drew out a coin and presented it with a flourish. "What's that?" he said. "A penny," she said. "For the guy." And she pursed her lips. "Toldya we shouldn't ‘ave bovvered," said the guy, jumping to his feet. "Bloomin' old bat." Marjorie stared as they walked off down her path, dragging the thing on wheels after them. She narrowed her eyes as the tallest spat into her flowerbeds. Then she closed the door with quiet dignity. "It has already begun," she said. Marjorie had on her largest duffel coat, her thickest scarf and her fur-lined leather gloves. Even so, she could feel the cold echoing through her knuckles as she set down a large flask of soup on the trestle table. She could see some of Irene's toffee apples, and Elsie had baked bread. -9-


ALISON LITTLEWOOD "Evenin' Ms Penrose," called a tall grey-haired fellow, who was bending over the woodpile with a long match. "Good evening, Mister MacKenzie," she called, pulling her coat tighter. She didn't hold with these new fangled ways of talking. 'Ms', indeed. "A fine evening. Cold, though. Time that fire was lit." "Working on it, Ms Penrose," called the man, and grinned. She remembered that grin. Those eyes too, still with the twinkles of light that had once peeped at her through the long grass. Then two plumes of steam appeared out of the darkness, closely followed by Irene and Elsie. They were huffing out their breath in clouds. Irene swung her arms around herself while Elsie patted her mittened hands together. "Did anyone bring parkin?" she asked. Marjorie nodded, and the others nodded back, as though all was right with the world. Just then loud squeals rang out into the night, and there was the thunder of many footsteps, the sound of children crashing through undergrowth. "They're so loud these days," said Elsie. "Have you noticed?" "Not like us," said Marjorie. "We knew how to behave." She nodded towards Mr MacKenzie. "Used to, anyway." The children ran around the embryonic fire, whooping. Then one boy patted his hand to his mouth, making a ‘woo-woo' sound. Irene smiled in spite of herself. "Don't laugh at them," Marjorie snapped. "D' you see who they are? That's the boy who spat in my dahlias. A penny not good enough, oh no, not for them. Comer-inners, that's who they are; from the estate at the top, I'll be bound. The new estate." The children fled into the grass, their kingdom for a night. Adults gathered around the growing fire, chatting, warming their hands, or just staring into its orange heart. Marjorie stared too, seeing the shapes that danced within it, feeling the red heat on her face, soothing her tired hands. She felt, rather than saw, Irene jump at her side as something cracked: there came the split and hiss of something giving up its centre to the flame. "Just like then," she said, dreamily. "Everyone there, together. Burning. Purging. Keeping the evil out, the goodness in. Flames, rising higher and higher..." She stared up into the night for a moment, seeing silver sparks - 10 -


ALISON LITTLEWOOD darting crazily into the sky. "Smells like a barbecue," someone said from the other side of Irene. "Are we having a barbecue?" Marjorie pointed towards the base of the fire where foil parcels glinted, already turning ashen at the base. Mr MacKenzie had poked jacket potatoes into the flames, to be scooped out later and eaten. "Be ready anon," she said, still in that dreamy tone of voice. "Be ready soon." Elsie drew in her breath as something else hissed in the centre of the fire. "Did you see that? It looked almost like..." She was silenced by a look from Marjorie. They stood together, shoulder to shoulder, as the flames burned higher. Then Mr MacKenzie called out, "Let's have sparklers." There was a murmur of approval. The adults peered into the overgrown grass around them. "Ben." One man cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted. "Ben." "Jamie," said another. "Come on, we're having sparklers." "Alice." "Sophie." "Tom." They waited. There was silence from the bonfire field. Only the sound of flames crackling. "They're playing hide and seek," said one. "Messing about," said another. "But where've they gone?" said one young mother, looking anxious. "Around and about, I dare say," said Marjorie. "They'll turn up eventually. Now, how about some nice soup?" She poured some for the woman then went for a sparkler. She bent, suddenly nimble, and lit it from the fire. She stood and twirled it, bouncing up and down. "Bone fire," she chanted, under her breath. "From burning people's dinners to get rid of rats." Elsie and Irene watched as she wrote out ‘Marjorie' with the sparkler. "BĂĽl fyre," said Elsie. "To burn your enemies on a pyre." "From Edmund Bonner," said Irene. "Who burned three hundred people at the stake." Marjorie stood still then, and watched as the sparkler sputtered, and faded, and died. "Keeping the badness out and the goodness in," she said. "But not - 11 -


ALISON LITTLEWOOD three hundred. Oh no, I don't think three hundred. Not nearly so many as that." And she stared up again, watching the flames dance, the sparks fly, the dark shapes hidden in the heart of the fire.

Text and Illustration Copyright © Alison Littlewood 2009

Alison Littlewood lives in West Yorkshire, England, with a man called Fergus, an unhealthy distrust of cats and a growing collection of books with the word 'Dark' in the title. She loves writing and dreaming, and feels uncomfortable unless she is working on a novel. She has contributed to Black Static, Dark Horizons, Murky Depths and Read By Dawn 3. Find out more about Alison’s work at : www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk

ESTRONOMICON CHRISTMAS SUBMISSIONS There’s still time to submit your work for the fave themed issue of the year - The Christmas Special. Please make sure your stories have a Christmas or winter theme. Send to the usual address.

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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BOB LOCK

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nly the swirling dead leaves were company for her as she tottered home much later than she had planned and in much more of a temper than she had imagined. The staccato clattering of her high heels only compounded the word that she couldn’t stop herself repeating, they re-enforced the mantra, and augmented it with percussion. ‘Bastard – bastard – bastard – bastard...’ she muttered with each footfall, until one of her heels broke and she almost fell flat on her face. She balanced precariously on one three-inch heel while struggling to remove the other shoe. The errant shoe finally gave up to her struggling and cursing and released her left foot. The heel fell off into the gutter. ‘Bastard!’ she shouted it this time, and then threw the heel-less shoe after its missing part. Now limping like a mad woman for a few paces she continued stomping her way home before finally kicking off the other shoe. Finally, with all control lost, she grabbed it up again and smashed it against a nearby garden wall. She was so intent on its destruction that she didn’t notice the limousine pull up behind her until the window wound down and a voice made her jump. ‘Are you ok?’ For a split second she thought it was Michael, he’d followed her from the restaurant and had the gall to actually ask her if she was all right. After his betrayal he still had the balls to ask that! She spun around with the ruined shoe held up like a weapon. ‘You sack of...’ she started to say and threw a hand up to her mouth when she realised it wasn’t him. ‘Oh, sorry, I thought it was someone else.’ ‘Are you ok?’ the man asked again from the car’s dark interior. She could see he was elderly, his face pale and gaunt in the subdued lighting of the dashboard. His cheekbones were large and protruding, his forehead an expanse of ashen alabaster. Of the two, she felt she should be asking him if he was ok. ‘I’m fine, just broke a heel that’s all. Kind of lost my temper, it’s been a pretty shitty evening.’ ‘Do you need a lift? The wind has picked up, I think it’s going to rain,’ the man said and as if by magic she felt the first drop patter down onto her head. Usually she wouldn’t have even considered taking a lift in a car with a stranger, but the man was old, the night was getting on and rain was in the air. She nodded. ‘I’d appreciate it. I live about two miles away near the school. You know it?’ - 14 -


BOB LOCK The passenger door clicked and opened. It had to be remote controlled from the dashboard. She was impressed. The waft of leather and expensive aftershave invited her in. ‘Yes, I know the old school. Please, get in.’ She accepted the invitation and smiled while the door closed and the man proffered his right hand. ‘The name’s Spencer Tracy.’ She took his hand. It was cold, hard, knobbles of bone grated beneath the skin’s surface. She was frightened to squeeze it in case she hurt him. ‘Spencer Tracy! Like the film star! I loved Bad Day at Black Rock.’ Tracy held onto her hand. ‘I preferred Inherit the Wind,’ he said as he leaned towards her and his left hand came up sharply and speared into her chest. She gasped, her breath taken away as his blade-like hand pierced her thin coat, dress and body. The ivory-coloured appendage clawed deep into her ribcage and before she could scream clutched her heart and squeezed. The night grew darker and the wind sighed in unison with her last breath as her head flopped forward onto the big car’s dashboard. Tracy’s hand remained in her chest cavity and the warmth of her blood gave it more and more flexibility as it drew in succour, as his body fed off her vitality, as the man gradually flung off his fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, his genetically altered musculature that was slowly turning him to stone. His genetic abnormality was momentarily forced into remission until the bone morphogenetic proteins once more succumbed to the mutated gene which would again attempt to change him into a human statue, would force him to go hunt for a respite, for a fix, for another infusion of blood. He withdrew his hand. Gory threads of congealing blood, fragments of flesh and bone fell from his fist as he flexed it and marvelled at its suppleness. It always amazed him how quickly his cursed body recovered. He looked at the girl’s corpse – and at how quickly his victim had begun to ossify. Tracy leapt effortlessly from the car and raced around to the passenger side, he had to remove her quickly before she petrified and he was left with a fossilized corpse on his front seat. It would be impossible to explain that – should he be unfortunate enough to be stopped on his way home. He tutted when he saw the small pool of blood that had collected on the special rubber matting he’d installed in the car, and after he had unceremoniously dumped the girl’s body on the pavement, next to her discarded shoes, he placed the palm of his hand into the quickly cooling blood. The dark liquid seeped into him effortlessly as if he was a sponge sucking up water. He jumped - 15 -


BOB LOCK back into the driver’s seat, took a quick look at his now young and virile face in the rear-view mirror and then started the car and pulled away. Only the swirling dead leaves were company for her as she lay in the gutter, but the staccato noise of her muscles hardening, cracking and creaking seemed to frighten even the wind away and the leaves slowly tumbled to a stop, became frozen in time as she became frozen in death. Copyright © Bob Lock 2009

Bob Lock is a Gower born Welshman, married with two grown-up children and two grand-children. After taking early retirement he now spends his time writing. Keep up with the latest news on his blog at : bob-lock.blogspot.com

Bob’s latest novella is available in paperback from : www.amazon.com Or get the eBook version at : www.smashwords.com/books/view/5046

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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ANDREW DONEGAN Everybody agreed the joint was a dead end... Talk about one-way tickets…

T

he first one opened illegally in an ethical climate fraught with divided opinion. There’s a word, begins with E, like amnesia but longer. Means the right to take life. Most commonly concerned terminally ill people. Those in constant pain, addicted to harmful amounts of drugs to dull their ongoing suffering; blind and bed-bound, senile and stinking. That’s a generally ignorant comprehension, mind, but Collins for a long time was a generally ignorant young man. That was until he suddenly came to his senses, realized what he was, and wanted nothing more to do with himself. Collins was young and healthy when he enrolled. After the laws were passed, you couldn’t just pop in on the spur of the moment anymore. You had to fill a form out and wait ten working days for the thumps-up. The process, likened to a blood-test, was nothing more than an overnight stay at a clinic. The success of each application largely depended on age. At 27, nobody doubted your intentions, but a teenager could never pull it off. The service was not open to people in prison. There was a small fee anybody could afford. One could even reverse the charge to a relative afterwards. Anonymity could not be promised this way, however. The biggest downside, most agreed, was the lack of a burial. It was believed almost anything could and would happen with the bodies except anything anybody knew about. There were no obituaries, but a monthly list of names was printed in a paper available by written request. Not many knew the mailing address. Suicide rates plummeted. Council estates were earmarked for the bulldozer. Organ prices dropped. The date drew closer. Just a couple of days to burn now. He still had his girl’s pushbike to get around on and say his goodbyes, if the chain could sweat it out for a one or two more journeys. Oddly, it was the brakes that went. Hardly anyone he spoke to during his final few evenings alive took much notice of him when he passed on advice or apologized for certain misgivings. They were used to it from him. The hardest goodbyes were to the people he didn’t love. Walking from place to place, he realized just how few people he actually knew in the world. - 18 -


ANDREW DONEGAN ‘Thanks,’ sealed the last word from his closet friend, with a firm handshake. No trying to persuade him otherwise like one or two others. He read Romans 7 during the long shuttle trip, seating himself within sight an attractive woman, and wasn’t surprised to find himself sharing a ward when they arrived with the only other three people present on that shuttle. The ground floor of a monolithic gothic megastructure was their new home now. There were many more shuttles in the car park. Off the occupants were led, then inside and processed like lemmings onto wards. It didn’t take long at all for the lethal injections to be administered. It was now early morning and he hadn’t slept a wink. ‘Hey,’ the person in the adjacent bed whispered. It was a nice-sounding woman’s voice. The attractive one. ‘Leave me alone. I’m dead.’ ‘C’mon... what’s your name? I’m Tammy.’ ‘Collins,’ he sighed, rolling over. ‘What is it?’ ‘Our blood type must be immune to the poison. It obviously hasn’t worked on us.’ He rubbed the dried speck of blood on his arm. ‘What time did we get the shot?’ ‘Why don’t you sit up? You can’t just lie there with a death-wish. I wonder what time it is...’ The other beds were still. Tammy went round checking, confirming each occupant dead one by one. By the time she got back, Collins played dead the same way he had as a child playing Cowboys and Indians: head tilted back, arms splayed, mouth wide open. She found it amusing, but not as funny as the loud fart from the other side of the windowless dorm. ‘I thought they were all dead...’ Tammy checked the door. Locked. Electric fob needed. No handle or glass pane or keyhole. No crack around the frame or underneath. The building from the outside had looked like a cathedral to her, but from the inside it looked like a painted bomb-shelter. Time passed. Lots of it. Collins didn’t try kicking his way out until thirst set in but the lock was too tough anyway. They shouted for help. They felt each other’s pulse. They laughed when someone burped. They discussed every possible scenario before - 19 -


ANDREW DONEGAN eventually talking about themselves. There were some similarities between them, but not many. He had tattoos: She didn’t. He was right-handed: She wasn’t. He had sisters and brothers: She didn’t. She could touch her elbow with her tongue: He could click his toes. The dorm seemed to chill. They pulled their beds up next to each other. They faced each other. They swore they would not resort to cannibalism. Someone would have to return soon. And someone did. A lonely old whitebearded night-porter guy with a baseball cap and sterling bracelets. ‘They’ve been doubling the dosage on your types since the latest results two months ago. Did you fill out the forms correctly? Formula needs more rework. I can send the pair of you packing at exactly the same time right now if you like, save you going though the rebooking phase. They’ll want to test you and change your mind, see. My way is better, too. It won’t just knock your lights out. You’ll have a recreational feeling.’ Once they were tucked up under the covers again, the night porter gave them capsules to be dissolved under their tongues. This was the pricey method, he told them, how the high-rolling professionals with gambling debts preferred to go. He had access to every drawer and cupboard in the building. ‘It’ll take about ten minutes,’ he said, leaving the room. ‘Cross your index and middle fingers together if you have a change of heart at the end. I have another ten minutes or so in which to bring you back.’ Locked in again, Collins and Tammy soon fell into a blissful embrace. Words were not needed. It was pointless trying. Their brains were racing too fast to pause and pluck a phrase from the voice-box. They seemed to be falling through the very fabric of the bed into a welcoming well of silky never-ending linen. They were very still, but it felt like they were tumbling over each other. Collins had a change of nerve as their world gently dulled, seizing a piece of his mind back just before he feared it would be too late, but Tammy wouldn’t let him cross his fingers. He kept trying, all in a bother, yelling Christian murder at the top of his lungs with no sound coming from his mouth, but Tammy was stronger than him in more ways than one and had linked both their fingers together, so it was impossible for him to throw the towel in. When he stopped struggling he realized he had fretted for nothing and was calm again, thankful to her for knowing this oblivion was what he really wanted. Her presence was what he had always needed. That certainty, by his side, - 20 -


ANDREW DONEGAN no matter what. Things would have been different a lot earlier, and for a lot longer, if only he had found that company, that comfort. Things, at the very end, for a short while, were different now. At least. At last. And in the place where they had gone to die they for the first time started to live. REAWOKEN, like toys with a change of batteries, all those who flocked to the place were forced to fight with each other in a spectacularly brilliant chamber dazzling with bleached blast-lighting. On the stark white floor their blood looked brilliantly crimson, almost neon. There were weapons on the walls. There were trapdoors beneath their feet. There were nasty surprises rigged to timers. The objective couldn’t be simpler: Slaughter another human being for yet another human being’s entertainment. Win or lose, everyone in the place was dead anyway. ‘You’re up,’ Collins was told by a disembodied voice over the intercom. ‘And if I don’t fight?’ ‘You’ll be raped by a machine. Refuse twice and you’ll be impregnated by it.’ Collins stepped naked into the arena. His opponent was none other than Tammy. She could hardly walk. Each step was only several inches long, as if her ankles had been tied together. Her face was a jellied mask of sedated howling pain. She dragged a heavy axe beside her. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said, ‘don’t refuse to fight.’ ‘Tammy…’ She tossed him the axe and collapsed to her knees before him, her hands on his hips. ‘Kill me quick, Col, please. If you love me you’ll kill me quick. Take my head off. Take my head off. Take my head off and then kill yourself.’ Movement behind him spurred him into action. There was no - 21 -


ANDREW DONEGAN time to consider. This was euthanasia! He lifted the axe high, lining his swing up, but he couldn’t do it. He could see himself lodging it in her shoulder or the side of her head; he would then have to wrench it free to repeat-swing the job, and that he just couldn’t do. Tammy looked up at him with her big wet eyes and pasty drained face, before orderlies dragged them both away. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Tammy.’ ‘I’m Collins.’ ‘Hi Collins.’ ‘You look tired.’ ‘I’m fine. How long was I out?’ ‘I don’t know. You were already asleep when I got on the shuttle.’ ‘Why did you sit next to me?’ She glanced around at all the empty seats. There were only three other people aboard. One of them sneezed. Another coughed. He shrugged. ‘You were talking in your sleep. Sounded like some kind of nightmare.’ ‘What did I say?’ ‘You said “hey there good-looking, park your butt here next to me”.’ She sat up. ‘I dreamt we were sent to an underground lab to be eaten by genetically-engineered monsters.’ ‘That’s weird.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I’ve just dozed off for five minutes, and I had a bad dream too. Probably caught it off you.’ ‘What did you dream?’ ‘It doesn’t matter, but I didn’t like it.’ Their eyes held. ‘What happened? In your life, I mean.’ ‘My house burned down.’ She drummed her fingers on his knee. ‘What about you?’ ‘I run a seven year old boy down on a pelican crossing.’ ‘You have the greyest eyes I’ve ever seen.’ You, he thought, have the bluest. ‘Why don’t you go back asleep? You can - 22 -


ANDREW DONEGAN lean on me if you want.’ ‘Can you wrap your arm around me? I’m a little cold.’ ‘Nee bother,’ Collins said, and through the window he glimpsed The Place peeking over the horizon, thunderhead-piercing Gaia spikes – or turrets – atop its externally-lit gothic curtain wall. ‘It is getting a bit chilly.’ Copyright © Andrew Donegan 2009

Andrew Donegan started writing when he was 16 to cope with the pressures of adolescence. At 30 he has now completed 12 novellas and won a short story competition judged by Nicholas Royle. His goal is to have at least one of his books published and available to rent in the local library. He enjoys watching comedy horror movies and listening to foreign symphonic metal. His hobbies are weightlifting, football, and synthesizers. Andrew is from Widnes.

BEST COLLECTION British Fantasy Awards 2009 Bull Running for Girls by Allyson Bird A selection of adventure/horror stories set in many locations, from the excitement and danger of bull running in Pamplona, to small town life in Madison County, U.S. Stories set amidst the bustle of Hong Kong, on The Silk Road in China and under a Hunter’s moon in Bordeaux. Then there are those which are much closer to home.

For more information about the book please visit the Screaming Dreams website.

£9.99 (+ postage) - 23 -


FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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PAUL EDWARDS

I

’m going home. It’s been seven years. Seven years of pain, hardship, guilt. I’m going back to the start, to where it all began.

Handing over my ticket, I board the train and search for a seat at the back. A small family watch me, and I note that the teenage girl is roughly the same age I was when… I rub my eyes. The girl smiles, but I can’t bring myself to smile back. Instead, I sit by a window and stare out at the snow-banked hills, the trees brittle with frost, the empty farmhouses, the black clouds fragmenting in the sky… She’s unreachable. A small room. Dr Brookes at his desk, frowning as I sit in tense, awkward silence. How you feeling? the doctor asks, peering over his glasses at me. What were you thinking, eh? “Nothing,” I whisper, softly, and I blink from my reverie and turn to see the girl’s still watching me, her head cocked a little, the shadows thrown by trees flickering across her face. Tests. Scans. X-rays. No discernible damage. We’ll monitor it, Dr Brookes said. Operate if necessary. Time passed, and I rarely thought about any of it. Only very recently, when things have got bad. My hair’s damp with sweat. I feel apprehensive, despite the fact that there will be no one at home to greet me. Daddy’s gone now. He died of a heart attack on my twenty-first birthday. I’m going to claim what’s mine, but I’m afraid. A part of me wanted this, to return, but not under these circumstances. I think of Daddy, and the person he was; the person I was before I fell ill. I don’t remember a thing. Who was it that said happiness paints white?

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PAUL EDWARDS An argument. The bitter taste of self-loathing. When I smashed that mirror, did I really see what I thought I saw in the glass scattered across the floor? And then, in blind rage, I tried to eat the glass, to end it all, but I only managed one shard before Daddy burst in, found me, dragged me off to the hospital. He spent nights and nights trying to reconstitute that old, silver-framed mirror. Eventually he gave up, tired, miserable, half-mad, and I watched him through the keyhole of my door hide the pieces under a floorboard in my room. Seven years. Seven years lost in a wilderness of my own making. Abusive relationships. Violent, black depressions. You can ever only see parts of yourself, the doctors said. Never the whole. The girl is talking to her brother, sharing a joke, laughing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that. My stop approaches. I stand, grip the seat in front, shuffle along the carriageway. The girl watches and whispers something to her brother. I only catch the tail end: “…in her own purity and innocence of heart.” I let myself in with my key. I slip into the hall, then edge slowly, inexorably, up the stairs. I’m inside my room now, and nothing here has changed. Everything is as I left it – a rocking horse in the corner, music box on the dresser, a pile of clothes folded neatly by the side of the bed. I crouch, then twist the screws in the floorboard until they’re free. I lift the floorboard, pick out the little red pouch amongst all the dust and dirt and dead woodlice. Then I loosen the drawstrings and tip the fragments out on to the floor. I piece them together slowly, like it’s a puzzle, fitting each segment of glass in its own rightful place. Shadows creep, lengthen. A large shard slots into the mirror, and I can almost see myself. A sigh escapes me, a sob, and then, frantically, I scrabble around for the last piece – but I know it’s not there. I stare at the image, at the hole where part of my face should be, and I touch - 26 -


PAUL EDWARDS and then rub my stomach. I charge downstairs. I rattle through the cutlery drawer. I take out the longest knife I can find. Then, upstairs again, I kneel and tremble beside the mirror. I grip the knife, grit my teeth. Plunge the knife deep into my belly. Red. Everything’s a terrible, searing red. The knife clatters to the floor. It has to be there, it has to be there, it has to be… I scream, bend over, tear pieces of myself out on to the floor. I can’t see it, I can’t see it, I can’t… Something sparkles, catches my eye. I lean right over, hands smearing jelly and gristle and blood, hair trailing in that dark, glutinous mess. Then I grip the fragment between thumb and forefinger and I scrabble over to that old, ruined mirror on the floor. The piece slots into place. I cock my head, cough blood. Darkness blurs the edges of my vision. I look…beautiful. Fourteen years old again. Frozen. Gorgeous. Complete. “Missed you,” I smile, then everything goes black. Copyright © Paul Edwards 2009

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

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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ANDREW OTEWALT

W

ell, they were on sale. They looked SO good. Soft, warm flannel. Yellow, the exact color of butter. It was the start of summer, and the winter bed sets were being cleared out for beach wear. So, I brought them home, and washed them and folded them and crammed them into the hall closet to wait for winter. Winter arrived, as it always does. About the third time I woke up in the night cold, I remembered I had the flannel sheets. I was late to work that day, because I changed the sheets. That night I slipped into bed, ready for a warm nights sleep. Indeed, it was warm. As if they were already body temperature. I don't know why people say they slept like a baby, have you ever taken care of a baby ? They wake up every 4 hours and cry and you have to feed them and change their stinky diapers. I slept like the dead. The flannel was soft and combed and little hairy. You know, those little hairs that make the inside feel a little like fur. Once I slid into bed, they held me in place. Every night, I slept better than the night before. Every morning, it seems like it was harder and harder to get up. The flannel sheets would seem so smooth at night, when I slipped in, and kinda grabby when I had to climb out in the morning. Odd as it seems, it was almost as if they gripped more the longer I had them. Once I was awake, they seemed fine. It was a long winter and I slept more and more. On weekends I found myself so tired that I was cancelling things to do, so I could just sleep. Spring arrived, as it always does. I waited for hot weather to change back to my cotton sheets. What a difference ! It was as if I had a different bed. Mid-summer, a distant aunt came to visit. We really didn't know each other, she wanted to move to this area and was only going to stay for a few days while she looked for a place. But, we liked each other right away, we drank coffee and talked until a very early morning hour. It was too hot for a blanket or quilt, so she used the flannel. This morning, when I awoke, she was caught tight. Wrapped up like a mummy. The sheets had her and wouldn't let go. I tried pulling, tried to unwrap her. I used my good kitchen scissors, and tried to cut her out. The sheets would stick to her even if I cut it into small squares. But, all in all, this is fine. I mean, I was lonely and I really hate to sleep alone. She always seems warm. As if she is always at body temperature. And she never rolls off her side of my bed. Copyright Š Andrew Otewalt 2009

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ANDREW OTEWALT Andrew Otewalt is busy with two pretty good kids, and is married to his best friend. He writes a little, reads a lot, and sometimes sails on San Francisco Bay! A New Set was inspired by an original idea from Marie Headley.

SPECIAL OFFER SIGNED SLIPCASED COPIES AVAILABLE (not many left, so be quick!)

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Table of Contents The Holidaymakers Changing Tack Photo-Call Those of Rhenea How the Buckie was Saved Clinically Dead Tomb of the Janissaries La Serenissima In the Land of the Rainbow Snake · Monkey Business · · · · · · · · ·

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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SIERRA BROWN

T

his month had seemed to completely swamp Doctor Adrien Miles’s work schedule. So many dead bodies, and only 24 hours in a day. The entire Hamilton county medical examiners office had begun to wonder why so many deaths were occurring lately. Doctor Miles had thought to himself that perhaps the planets were aligned in some way that made everyone go bat-shit crazy for thirty days or something. But alas, so goes the life of a medical examiner, you really never know what kind of firestorm you’ll get hit with next. The job was neither for the faint of heart, nor the lazy, and being neither, it fit him perfectly. He sat in the break room and ate lunch with his diener, Melissa. She was fresh out of grad school, but was proving to be quite an efficient assistant. He could tell she was going to be a fine pathologist one day. They both consumed chicken parmesan sandwiches atop a long stainless steel table not unlike the ones used in the autopsy room. There had been no conversation for at least the last ten minutes, apparently they both had worked up voracious appetites and were happily chewing away. Melissa finally broke the silence; “Thank god we’re nearly done for the day.” “Tell me about it, these past few weeks have had me exhausted. We need to get out of here early today or we’re going to start looking like corpses ourselves,” he replied. “Hate to tell you this, but you’re already halfway there” she joked. “Why thank you dear”, he said sarcastically, “I take no offense to being compared to the dead, they are often more interesting than the living.” “How true, and speaking of the living, I think our peaceful lunch is about to be disturbed.” They both turned to look and quickly developed frowns. Here was detective Strott, walking towards them, clearly intent on being heard immediately, lunchtime or not. Strott always seemed a little like he was on the verge of a heart attack, sort of red faced, sweating, and winded 24/7. “Doctor Miles”, he panted, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” “Right, well as you can see I’m having lunch. What’s the problem?” “We thought you had left for the day, and we’ve just brought in another stiff for you.” Christ, people can sound so ignorant sometimes, Adrien thought. You’ve ‘brought in a stiff for me?!’ Like it’s a gift on my fucking Christmas list? “Figures,” Adrien responded with irritation in his voice. “What’s the scoop - 32 -


SIERRA BROWN on this one?” “White male, John Doe, around thirty maybe, he was found just lying dead in the road.” “Hit and run?” “Doesn’t look like it. Seems like he just laid down in the damn road to take a nap and died! Some real weird shit, I tell ya.” “Well, as soon as they get the body settled in, we’ll deal with it.” “Thanks doc.” As Strott walked away Melissa got an exasperated look. “I knew today was too good to be true.” she said. “Of course. I suppose it’s back to the grindstone with us.” Adrien said as he cleared the table and began the long walk back to the morgue. The morgue was housed in a small building adjacent to the police station, a plain brick building far more impressive inside than out. The average person in town was totally unaware of what the building was actually used for, and the police preferred to keep it that way. They thought it cut down the risk of vandalism. Doctor Miles and Melissa walked through the front door, past the secretary Linda. She spent her days sitting in this small, yet comfortable office, tending to all the matters relating to the average citizens death. They regarded one another with a smile and wave, and continued through the second door into the only other room in the building besides the autopsy room. It was used for a lab, and also as a place to get prepped to enter the autopsy room, or clean up afterwards. They both began the process of scrubbing up to their elbows, and suiting up in full sterile scrubs, booties, and gloves. Melissa donned a surgical mask, but Adrien was accustomed to the stench of death. He did however, make sure to grab his chain mail glove he wore, to prevent nicking his left hand with the scalpel in his right. There was far too much risk these days of aids, hepatitis, and god knows what else to not take precautions. When they entered the main room, another of Dr. Miles’s dieners was there, and had just brought in the corpse. His name was Kyle, and had worked for Adrien for over a year now. His job was more or less to fetch the bodies after the death investigator at the scene had looked over it. The body bag lay on the autopsy table, still unzipped, like a giant package of meat waiting to be opened. - 33 -


SIERRA BROWN The main autopsy room was a large cold room with three tables in the middle. Rarely did Adrien have three autopsies going at once, but they were there just in case. The room was extremely bright and sterile looking. Everything was either bright white, or gleaming stainless steel. There were several drains in the floors for any bodily fluids that may come gushing out of a body at any time. At the side of each table was a smaller table for holding the tools of the trade, ranging from small scalpels to large bone saws, all polished to a perfect shine. There were also scales hanging from the ceiling, much like the ones you weigh your fruit in at the supermarket, only these were used for weighing dissected organs. It was certainly far from a pretty place to be, but for the small size and old age of the building, all agreed that they had done quite well in putting together a fine medical examiner’s office that any forensic pathologist could certainly appreciate. “Good luck with this one, Miles,” Kyle said “strangest scene I’ve been to in a while. “So I’ve heard. Would you mind giving us a hand here?” Adrien unzipped the black body bag, and was surprised to find the corpse still looking fairly decent, and not much odor at all, compared to some of the really gooey ones he had encountered. On the count of three, the two men lifted the body up, while Melissa carefully slipped the bag out from under it. She then took the liberty of cutting off the clothes the man was wearing, and placing those in a container. The hands had been wrapped in paper bags and zip ties. There wasn’t much need for it most likely, it didn’t seem like there was any assailant in this case, but it was standard procedure for the investigator to bag the hands to protect any trace evidence that might be left under a victims fingernails, or anywhere else on their hands. Adrien scanned, swabbed and scraped the body to look for any such evidence, or any strange marks. He found nothing obvious yet, but was glad to see that this one was still quite fresh. Lividity had barely even begun to set in, there was only a minimal amount of blood pooling in the bottom half of his body where he had been lying, and it was still a faint light purplish color, not the deep purple, almost black that you see in the later stages of lividity. He pushed open the corpse’s eyelids and found a severe case of petechial hemorrhaging. Bright red splotches had formed on the whites of the eyes from tiny blood vessels breaking inside. This was one thing Melissa never could get used to seeing, it was still really creepy - 34 -


SIERRA BROWN every time. Melissa fingerprinted each finger for identification purposes and set the prints aside in an envelope to send over to the police. This part made her happy the corpse was fresh, because if they’re too badly decomposed, the pathologist often has to pull the skin off the corpses hand and slip it onto their own like a glove to get a good print. The external examination was complete, and now it was time to go internal. “Kyle, I guess we can manage from here on without you. There’s no need for all three of us to be locked up in here all day.” Adrien said. “Thanks, Doctor Miles, are you sure??” Kyle asked. “Yea, go on home” Kyle headed to the lab to clean up and change clothes before leaving. Adrien made the first incision beginning at the right shoulder, just above the collarbone, and then brought the scalpel to the center of the corpse’s chest, and all the way down past the left of the navel to the pubic bone. He then cut along the left collarbone the same way, so that the two cuts made a perfect Y shaped incision. He did this with the quick skill and ease of a man who has cut open many, many bodies. He pulled back these two flaps of skin and flesh to expose the ribs and chest cavity. Melissa grabbed a large device that resembled a pair of long handled garden pruners and cut along the side of each rib, so that the ribs could be removed for the organs to be examined. This always made a loud cracking sound that severely disturbed anyone else around to witness an autopsy, but the two of them were used to it. They lifted out the chest plate, and Adrien took to removing each organ, weighing it, and dissecting it to look for any abnormalities. He did this with extreme precision, yet still it seemed his trained hands were moving quickly. While he was busy with the organs, Melissa was cutting across the back of the scalp, pulling the flap down over the body’s face to expose the skull underneath. She fired up the handheld motorized saw with its circular blade used for making clean, small cuts through the thick bone of the skull, and cut along the under side, and then the top until the entire piece could be removed. She used a tool that was like a small crowbar to pull the bone away from the membranous tissue and brain inside. It pulled away with a surprisingly loud popping sound, from the suction still attaching it. Meanwhile Doctor Miles was growing puzzled; he still hadn’t found anything to show any real cause of death. He examined the brain, the cranial - 35 -


SIERRA BROWN cavity, no inch of this body had been spared by the time he was finished, and still nothing. They had finally placed all the inspected organs into a bag, and laid it back inside the large cavity of the body. “Melissa dear, you take a break, I need to sit for a moment and think about this.’ He said “Sure thing, I’ll be out front.” Adrien sat in contemplation of what he could be missing. Sure, the cause of death was undetermined occasionally for every pathologist, but the circumstances surrounding this one were just too odd. He paced and he thought for who knows how long before Melissa walked back in. “Come up with any ideas yet?” “I wish I could say I have” “Hmm, maybe we ought to ask him” she said as she strolled over to the body, laying splayed open across the table. “What happened to you, John Doe? Tell us something, for pete’s sake.” Suddenly the corpse’s eyes shot open, causing her to reel backwards and nearly fall over a table of surgical instruments. She gasped and was truly terrified for more than a few seconds before remembering that occasionally a fresh corpse will still have involuntary movements of the hands, arms, legs, and even the eyelids. Adrien looked quite startled as well, but he had seen this kind of thing happen before. It was still scary every time, nonetheless. The two of them began to laugh at themselves but Melissa still found herself approaching the body very slowly, as if she thought it was going to jump up and grab her any moment. “Nothing to be scared of” Adrien assured her “but damn, was that creepy or what?” He reached down and closed the body’s eyes. “Wow, I need some fresh air after that, care to join me?” “Sure’ The two of them walked outside and found that it was already getting dark. They had been working for over 10 hours today. “I think maybe we ought to call it a night, I need to sleep on this one before I give up for good.” “Sounds like a good idea” Melissa said, “let’s go pack up for the night and get out of here, I’m starting to go crazy.” - 36 -


SIERRA BROWN When they went back inside, Adrien froze in his tracks. The corpse’s eyes were wide open again. He distinctly remembered closing them, and now here they were open again. Involuntary movement or not, this was just weird. He heard Melissa behind him swearing at the sight of it, and now found himself approaching the body extra slowly too. He reached over from a distance to close the eyes again, when they actually shot over and looked at him. In that split second, before Adrien could even move, the corpses arm jolted up and grabbed Adrien by the wrist. The force this thing was grabbing him with was tremendous, he knew it could easily crush his wristbone if it wanted to, and now Melissa was screaming “Oh shit, oh shit, Adrien!!!” She ran over and tried to pry the cold dead fingers from the doctors arm, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Then she saw it actually scanning the room, looking at her with those bloodied eyes, confirming this was much more than natural involuntary movements. Adrien was still struggling with the corpse, pulling away with all his might, but his strength was no match for this undead man. It sat straight up on the table, the bag of organs spilling out and hitting the floor like a sack of rotten potatoes. He finally wrenched his arm loose, and could already see the handprint beginning to bruise. He stumbled backwards, as he couldn’t take his eyes off what he was seeing. He knew he should run, he knew he should get Melissa out of here, but he was in such shock that he couldn’t do anything sensible. Melissa on the other hand, was attempting to take control. She ran to the janitors closet, and frantically searched for something she could use as a weapon. It became apparent that John Doe had gotten a hold of Adrien once more, because she could hear the two scuffling around from down the hall. It was amazing how quiet an altercation could be when one of the people was a cadaver. She finally found a small hatchet the groundskeeper had used last fall, and it looked sufficient enough to her. She went running back down the hall, eyes wild, hatchet waving, and began swinging viciously at the corpse as hard as she could while it continued to wrestle with Dr. Miles. It showed practically no response in its cold, dead eyes, as the hatchet left huge gashes in its soft flesh. In any other circumstance, blood would have been spraying all over the three of them, but fortunately, corpses don’t bleed much. As it fought with Adrien, the incision in its torso was starting to flap open, like two wings on the front of his chest, exposing a massive empty cavity inside its body. Melissa was getting - 37 -


SIERRA BROWN tired from swinging the hatchet over and over and she tossed it aside. Adrien had gotten the corpse in a headlock and was wondering what he should do next when it sank its teeth into his arm and bit out a mouthful of flesh. Adrien could already feel the warm blood running down his arm as he lost his grip. Melissa paled at the sight of it, and his fear was finally beginning to show when he screamed “How are we supposed to kill something that’s already fucking dead!!??” Any other time Melissa would have made some joke about how he needed to watch more zombie movies, but the fact is, seeing a corpse reanimate and attack you and your boss pretty much wipes anything you would “normally” think out of your mind. For the first time, John Doe seemed a bit distracted, maybe even occupied, chewing away at his little slice of Dr. Miles. Now is the time, they thought, to get the hell out of dodge. Melissa was directly in the corpse’s sights, while Adrien was to the side of him, crouched beside an examination table. He had sort of just landed there after it had bit him, and there was a huge pool of blood forming underneath him. They made eye contact under the table, and Adrien motioned towards the back door. The space behind them and the door was large, and with not much to hide behind, the only hope they had was that Dr. Miles was extremely tasty. Tasty enough to distract John Doe, anyway. Melissa started first, taking small soft steps, careful not to move too quickly. It was almost more terrifying that the corpse wasn’t looking at her at all, like it was just playing around with her. Adrien followed, only on a separate route for now, trying to stay down behind tables and desks. He wondered if in death, this man had the same amount of intelligence he had in life. He hoped not. He had finally nearly made it to the hall leading to the back emergency exit, and was waiting now for Melissa to continue on a bit further first. She looked at him and he mouthed “go on” and gave her a little hand wave. This single moment of distraction between the two of them was enough for John to take notice of, and he rushed Melissa, tackling her before she could reach the door. He slammed her head up against the brick wall of the hallway, and everything went black for her. Adrien had gotten up and was running towards Melissa, also toward the exit of this hellhole, but he was not fast enough. John Doe clotheslined him in his tracks and as he fell backwards he saw what was in the corpse’s hand. - 38 -


SIERRA BROWN John Doe was holding his scalpel, the very scalpel he had been dissected with just moments ago. Was this some kind of vendetta? It didn’t matter, Dr. Miles wasn’t about to be the next body autopsied in this room. He scrambled to get up off the floor, but the corpse pushed him back down with one of his cold, bare feet. Adrien wondered where such an inhuman strength could possibly come from, then decided he didn’t want to know the answer. Before he could react, the scalpel was slicing through his flesh, so sharp he couldn’t even feel it as first, but slowly the pain came creeping up, growing more intense every second. The wound stretched from his sternum to his abdomen, like a shoddy version of the Y-insicion he made during autopsies. Blood was gushing out at an alarming rate, and he knew he was doomed. He could barely move now, and thought that this must be what it feels like to have surgery with no anesthesia. The corpse picked him up and laid him on the table, ignoring or maybe not even hearing his cries of agony. John began slicing away at Adrien like a butcher methodically prepares cuts of meat. He first took a large chunk from Adrien’s side, starting at the side of his ribcage, down to his hipbone, then he took pieces from the tops of both thighs, and finally rolled him over and took each meaty cheek from his ass. When it had finished carving him, it feasted on his flesh, devouring every last bite as if this were the first meal it had ever eaten. Which in fact, it was. All the while Adrien was watching, still barely alive. By the time it had started in on his legs, he no longer really felt anything, he just wanted to die and get it over with. And soon enough he did. Melissa woke up in complete blackness. She was freezing cold and couldn’t see a thing. As the grogginess wore off, she immediately felt claustrophobia setting in. Where the hell was she, and how did she get here? It felt like she was in a cold metal coffin. When she began to kick and bang on the walls of it, she realized she lay inside one of the refrigerated drawers they used to store bodies. They latched from the outside and there was no way out from inside them. She panicked and screamed for help. No answer. She screamed for Adrien. Nothing. The last thing she remembered was trying to escape. Surely Dr. Miles hadn’t just left her, had he? Or was he trapped somewhere too? Or dead? There were too many questions with no reasonable answers. She lay there for what felt like hours, cold, terrified, and was beginning to have trouble breathing when she thought she heard the front door shutting. She reverted back to kicking and screaming for help when finally someone opened the vault door, - 39 -


SIERRA BROWN and slid her out, the light sending sharp pains through her head, which was already throbbing from the injury earlier. It was Kyle. “Jesus, Melissa, what the hell happened here? We’ve gotta call the cops right now.” The expression on his face was one of more shock than she was even feeling, and when she sat up and looked around, she understood why. There was blood spattered all over the examination room, and on the main table, lay a mangled mass of bones and meat that used to be Adrien. She stifled a scream in her throat, and noticed that all the autopsy tools were disheveled on their tables, and the drawers had been rummaged through, as if the corpse had been looking for just the right tools to use on them. “What are you doing here?” She asked “I lost my wallet, I thought maybe I left it here, and when no one answered the phone, I just came by. Melissa, what the fuck is going on?” She started to try and give Kyle a rundown of what happened, knowing he wouldn’t believe her anyway, when suddenly he got a pained expression. His eyes went wide, and he became very still, and a small squeaking exhale released from his throat before he fell backwards to the floor. Directly behind him loomed John Doe, with a large, bloody meat cleaver in one hand, and one of Adrien’s arms in the other. He had been eating it like a giant chicken leg before he cracked the back of Kyle’s skull in two with the cleaver. Melissa wished this could have happened in a building that supplied less dangerous tools, like maybe a salon, not a coroner’s office. The only good thing was that it could work to her advantage also. It was clear that hitting him with anything was pointless, so Melissa had a better idea. For now, she just had to get past him. She made a beeline back to the janitor’s closet. John Doe lunged at her, but she was expecting it, and dodged him just quick enough to send him staggering the wrong direction, which she took advantage of by shoving him further in that direction, causing him to trip and fall down on all fours. Ha, so this corpse is clumsy, she thought. Her instinct was to kick him in the balls while he was down, but decided that probably wouldn’t phase him. She wisely used this extra few seconds to get back to the janitors closet and shut herself inside to hopefully buy a few seconds more. She searched around until she found exactly what she was looking for, a handheld propane torch. Now for something flammable. The corpse was pounding wildly on the door now, - 40 -


SIERRA BROWN breaking his way in. She spotted a can of disinfectant on the top shelf. It wasn’t quite what she had hoped for, but it would have to do. There was only way out of this closet, and it was past John. She turned the nozzle and lit the propane torch, readied the spray can, and prayed to god this would work. Like a warrior, or a lunatic, she flung open the door and sprayed the chemicals into the torch’s flame, creating a makeshift flamethrower, and aimed it at the pissed off cadaver, dowsing him in flames. He seemed stunned, and fumbled backwards, like he suddenly didn’t know what to do next. Melissa ran out of the closet, and started backing towards the front office, still spreading a six foot flame out in front of her. The corpse still continued to follow her, but much slower now, and the stench of his burning flesh filled the air. He was stumbling around the room, on fire, knocking over bottles of chemicals, causing more small fires all over. It was getting to the point that Melissa knew she had to get out of here before this place went up in flames with her in it. After pausing to pick up the hatchet she had dropped earlier, just in case, she bolted towards the front office, then out through the front door, into the cold night, reminding her of the morgue vault she had just awoken in. Through the glass in the front door, she could see the flaming body still coming after her, though still moving slowly. This had to end now. She waited for him to come outside after her. At least outside there was somewhere to run. Finally he exited, still burning, while smoke bellowed up from the roof, and flames were becoming visible from outside the building. Abandoning her torch, she gripped the hatchet with both hands and relentlessly started chopping at his neck. God damn, this blade was dull, but she swung it hard and fast, and wouldn’t let up until he fell to the ground, his head barely hanging on by a thread, and she put one foot up on his chest and with one final chop, severed his head from his body. The thick black smoke coming off the body had been nearly suffocating her, and finally, she let the hatchet fall to the ground and walked away, exhausted. She found it ironic that right next door was the police station, yet the cops were oblivious while this bloodbath had occurred. Melissa sat in her lounge chair, sipping a mimosa as she gazed at the ocean. Her new bikini looked good on her, and she was going to spend all day in it. What she was not going to be doing was anymore autopsies. She had quit her job - 41 -


SIERRA BROWN right after being attacked by the walking dead, and was soon offered a large sum of cash to keep quiet about what had happened. The status of that incident went far beyond their local police, it involved government agencies that no one was even supposed to know existed. There was a huge cover up, made to look like the work of a deranged murderer, and thanks to that cover up, Melissa had a beach house in Key West, and would never have to work again. She felt guilty every day that she was the one to survive, what if she could have saved Adrien or Kyle? All the FBI psychologists had asked her if she felt guilt for killing John Doe, and she always responded with the same thing that Adrien had asked her; How do you kill something that’s already dead? Copyright © Sierra Brown 2009

Sierra Brown is currently just having a lot of fun with writing and trying to get her work read by anyone and everyone who might enjoy it. She is a twenty one year old student of forensic pathology, living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves reading horror and dark fiction, plus enjoys watching classic horror films. She also has a deep appreciation for heavy metal, mainly older thrash and death metal. Sierra draws inspiration from all sorts of things, whether it be from other writers, the weather, good music, or just her own crazy thoughts. Readers can visit her page at : www.myspace.com/sierrabrownhorror

WATCH FOR THE NEXT ISSUE FantasyCon Edition The following issue of the eZine will bring you a report and photos of the FantasyCon event, held in Nottingham, September 2009. Plus several short stories from the attending authors. Don’t miss it!

- 42 -


FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

- 43 -


GRAEME STEVENSON

I

can hear the rain pouring down outside. I’ve never seen her before, but I know her name is Cayleen. She has bled out across my lap. Her belly and chest were opened by the razor in my hand, but I never struck her. He did. There are another five people dead in the room behind me. I’ve never been in this house before. But he has. I also know that there’s a car sitting in the driveway with the engine running. I can’t hear it over the sound of the rain on the roof, but I know it’s there. Just like I know the car doesn’t belong to me. He stole it from an address in Park Street earlier this afternoon. These are the moments of my life. So far, I’ve had ninety-eight. I’m slowing down at the exit for Brooklyn. That’s roughly seven hundred miles from Cayleen’s house. There’s a sports bag in the trunk with six heads in it. I’m heading for 1353 Racine. He wants to add them to his collection. The steering wheel feels sticky in my hands and its vibration forms a ghost road in my mind. My moment is almost over, but I have time to appreciate the street lights swimming through a wet windshield. Another black wait is coming. These are the moments of my life. I’ve had one hundred and three. There is a police car outside. Flashlight beams dance against the bedroom window. My hands are sticky again, but now I’m holding a mass of something tangled in my left fist, with a weight swinging on the end. It takes me a moment to remember the saw in my other hand. The door is kicked in downstairs and I hear shouts of ‘Police!’ His car is parked behind a stand of trees a hundred yards away - I know he’ll never make it. These are the moments of my life. I’ve had one hundred and twenty. There’s a man staring down at me in a black gown. I can’t move my hands – they’ve been handcuffed behind my back. The man is a judge and I’m in Court 1 of the Supreme Court in Richmond. He’s just been sentenced to death by lethal injection. It would be foolish for me to protest my innocence. I didn’t do these terrible things – he did. But I still feel the guilt. I’ve had moments – one hundred and twenty-six of - 44 -


GRAEME STEVENSON them. I could have made a difference. I could have stopped him, if I’d been brave. I wasn’t brave though – God forgive me. My moments were all I ever had. My diamond moments. Stopping him would have meant stopping them. The black wait is almost upon me – I just have time to savour the feel of a well-cut suit and smell the polish in the air. This is the last moment of my life. I’m not sure it was worth it. Copyright © Graeme Stevenson 2009

Graeme Stevenson is a member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle. No further details are available about this author!

NOW AVAILABLE Launched at FantasyCon 2009

Different Skins by Gary McMahon Award-nominated author GARY McMAHON presents two disparate visions with a single aim: to scare you out of your skin. A wild, weird noir; a bleak and intense psychological nightmare. Which of these DIFFERENT SKINS would you choose to wear?

£7.99 (+ postage) : available from the Screaming Dreams website. - 45 -


FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

- 46 -


ROSS WARREN

P

estilence decided it was time for a holiday. Business for him was slow, modern medicine and extensive vaccination programs had left him twiddling his thumbs whilst his fellow Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Death, Starvation and War were as busy as they had ever been. Before he could talk himself out of it he booked three weeks on the Caribbean cruise ship Aurelius and set about packing a bag. This being Pestilence’s first vacation in a millennium he intended to spare no expense and took the most luxurious cabin available and booked to take all his meals at the Captain’s table. Prior to his arrival on board he took the human form of a tall, late forties man, handsome but with enough character in the face to be mysterious and interesting. All in all he felt he looked quite like a young Max Von Sydow. To complement his new visage he took great joy in constructing a detailed history for himself. He was Maximillian Stoker, a millionaire commodities broker out of London. To complete his new persona he arrived at the cruise liner in a chauffeur driven 1968 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith II with enough matching Luis Vuitton luggage for a family of six. ‘Good morning Sir,’ a chipper young porter said, hurrying towards the boot of the car. ‘I’ll take care of your baggage Sir.’ Pestilence thrust a twenty pound note into the porter’s hand and strode up the gangway, exuding just the right air of self importance. The porter busied himself loading the suitcases onto a luggage trolley. Placing the final, smallest, bag onto the top of the towering pile he felt his stomach clench and lurch. Staggering to the dockside he let forth a powerful gush of half digested scrambled eggs and plum tomatoes that had been the staff breakfast choice that morning. He looked down with a sense of detached amazement at the island of sick and stomach acids that floated in the choppy waters below. Pestilence was delighted with his suite. Brightly lit, spacious and luxuriously furnished with a Super-king size bed and soft leather sofas. Pestilence couldn’t resist spreading out on the bed to test the softness of the mattress and was snoring loudly within a minute of his head touching the pillow. While he slept soundly the holidaymakers in the adjoining berths were finding it considerably harder to relax. The neighbours to the left were Mr and Mrs Tony Monroe, semi-retired - 47 -


ROSS WARREN owners of a chain of do-it-yourself stores. Whilst Pestilence slept like a well fed lion, Tony was taking the opportunity for a quick shave before dinner. Being a task that he had undertaken untold times, in the forty two years since he had shaved for the first time at sixteen when the small, wispy amount of bum-fluff on his chin had barely warranted it, he allowed his mind to wander to thoughts of the holiday ahead. ‘A nice big steak for dinner and some expensive Merlot,’ he said to his reflection. ‘No expense spared on this trip, you’ve earned it.’ Pointing his razor at his mirror image he let go a small fart that eased out with a distinct whistle. ‘Ahh better out than in!’ he said with a hearty laugh. The laughter stopped abruptly when he felt the tell-tale warmth of what could only be diarrhoea begin to trickle out from his boxer shorts and down the backs of his legs. Acting on instinct he darted into the shower, eased out of his boxers and tossed them into the sink. Once he had the shower at an acceptable temperature he hosed the liquefied shit off himself and away down the plughole. The smell of faeces lingered in the static air of the small bathroom so Tony reached out to grab the string of the extractor fan. In stretching to do so he let rip an enormous fart, ejecting a turbo charged fountain of shit all over the tiled wall of the shower. He fell to the tiled floor of the bathroom and stared dumbfounded at the pebble dashed shower cubicle that now resembled a particularly un-artistic child’s brown mosaic. The occupant of the right-hand berth was one Paco Pasquale, world renowned pet stylist to the rich and famous. The Brazilian animal fanatic was dressing his own pet, a Pekinese by the name of Mr Booboo, ready for their tour of the ship. A regular of this particular cruise, it wasn’t so much the ship Paco wanted to see as the new additions to the crew. With Mr Booboo neatly dressed in his little sailor’s outfit and elasticated deck shoes, Paco reached down to fix on the sailor hat that would complete the ensemble and the pooch promptly upchucked onto his bare feet. Looking down on the mixture of warm regurgitated premium dog food and hair, Paco felt his own gorge rising and set off for the bathroom. He got barely a step before tripping over Mr Booboo and releasing a fountain of puke and bile out over the bed. As he lay sprawled on the floor, thanking the good lord there was nobody around to witness the embarrassing episode; Mr Booboo began to lick the dog vomit from between his toes. - 48 -


ROSS WARREN Pestilence awoke from his nap refreshed and eager to explore what delights awaited him on-board. Following a quick shower he dressed in a light-weight cotton shirt and khaki shorts and set off for a walk around the deck to build his appetite for dinner. Sometime during his slumber the ship had left port and he was treated to a pleasant sea breeze and a not altogether unpleasant aroma of fish and sea salt. Half way around his second circuit of the deck he stopped beside the pool and stretched out on a sun lounger to read the copy of The Da Vinci Code that he had brought along. So early into the cruise and with the ship only a third full, there were only a dozen or so holidaymakers enjoying the pool, mostly children. One of these children was Frank Bucket, a humungous boy of thirteen who, due to excessive hair growth, looked closer to thirty. Fat Frank was at this moment preparing to launch himself from the diving board and make his entrance into the pool. At which time half the chlorinated water of the pool was apt to make its exit. Frank edged to the end of the spring board and made to wave to the imaginary crowd he was picturing cheering him on, as he raised his hand he felt a crippling twinge in his bowels and involuntarily bent double. This caused him to over balance and he toppled into the water like a demolished building. From beneath the surface of the pool a mass of diarrhoea rose up like a brown version of a shark hunter’s chum. From the middle of this shit patch appeared the distraught face of Fat Frank, a few putrid lumps of faeces clinging to his face. Screams went around the pool as the other swimmers realised what had happened, three more shit themselves before they were able to pull themselves from the pool and a pair of newly-weds sunbathing opposite Pestilence, turned lovingly towards each other and sprayed vomit all over one another. Pestilence rose from his sun lounger, placed his bookmark into his book, and walked off to get ready for dinner at the captain’s table. Behind him the pool resembled a large bowl of Coco Pops. The main banquet hall was bustling with noise as Pestilence weaved through the tables in search of his seat. The volume of conversation was already beginning to irritate him so he was delighted to discover that the Captain’s table was situated within its own dining room. Pestilence’s seat was one of three still vacant at the round table of twelve. The remaining two places had the place names of Mr Tony Munroe and Mrs Diane Munroe. They had failed to appear by the time the starters arrived. - 49 -


ROSS WARREN Introductions were made around the table by the head waiter, giving the following roster of diners. At the head of the table was the Captain, to his left was his deputy and next came Mr and Mrs Reginald King, a pair of brash Texan oil millionaires. Following these were the Monroe’s empty settings, then Pestilence, introduced of course as Mr Maximillian Stoker. To his left was a single lady introduced simply as Lady Astor. The final four members of the party were Mr and Mrs McMahon and their twin teenage daughters who were perpetually engrossed in their mobile phones. Starters came and went without incident and as the main course was being served the First Mate rose from his seat to raise a toast to the Captain. ‘Ladies, Gentlemen and Honoured guests please raise your glasses in toast to your C…’ Before the word Captain could be completed a rumbling geyser of part digested prawn cocktail erupted from the First Mate’s mouth and splashed down onto the centrepiece of the table. Opposite him Lady Astor fainted at the sight of the steaming puddle, her seat toppled backwards and she landed on her back with a heavy thud. Her own recently enjoyed starter rose two feet into the air from her gaping mouth before gravity asserted itself and the masticated foodstuff coated her face like a Caul. Mr King took his wife’s hand and attempted to escape the mayhem. They had barely made it to the door when Mrs King sent a shower of puke all over the back of Mr King’s two thousand dollar suit. He paused as if contemplating something of inconceivable complexity and vomited all over the door. The Captain stood, removed his hat, and as befitted his social standing upon the liner, was discreetly sick into it. Pestilence barely noticed the commotion, he was tucking into his topside of beef, pausing only to take the occasional sip of a rather fine 1968 Châteaux Neuf du Pape. At the sound of their parents losing their own stomach contents the McMahon twins finally looked up from their mobile phones. Identical looks of bemusement appeared briefly on their faces before they were violently sick into each others laps, covering their mobile phones in a thick coating of vomit. Having finished his rather excellent dinner and wine, Pestilence decided a walk on the deck and the chance to enjoy a cigar was the order of the day. He exited the Captain’s dining room to find the main banquet hall in a state of chaos. Suppressing a chuckle he set off for the deck, a sea of vomit parting - 50 -


ROSS WARREN before him like the Red Sea ahead of Moses. Standing on the deck, lighting his fat cigar, he looked out at the sun setting on the horizon and said aloud to the peaceful serenity of the ocean. ‘Best. Holiday. Ever!’ Copyright © Ross Warren 2009

Ross Warren is married with a little boy of three. He lives in Cheltenham and can be found on the World Wide Web at : www.rosswarren.co.uk

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www.screamingdreams.com - 51 -


FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

- 52 -


MARK HOWARD JONES

"D

o you think that when God was nano-engineering the fly he added that buzz just to annoy higher life forms like us?" Peter frowned across the desk at his colleague. "Including yourself in that category now, are you?" He smirked and returned to his reading. A huge hardback book landed in the middle of his desk with a bang, disrupting his papers and splashing coffee onto the floor. "Hey, stop fucking about! We've got work to do. We've got a meeting with the sponsors on Friday, in case you'd forgotten," snarled Peter. Sean looked slightly sheepish at the failure of his childish bid to defuse the tension. He didn't really need the reminder. They both knew they had to come up with another 'big idea' or the Kino Retro festival was finished, along with their bank balances and their livelihood. Last year they had finally unearthed a thriller from the late 40s that had been partly scripted by the poet Dylan Thomas, featuring a very young Richard Burton in a supporting role; the actor's widow had even come over from Switzerland for the screening. The year before they'd persuaded 60s matinee idol Alan Craig to travel from his home in Portugal, looking very frail, for a retrospective of his work featuring some 'neglected gems'. Those had both been the centrepiece of the festivals, which had been big hits, but now they needed something on a par to maintain the interest of the funding bodies, the local authority and the repertory cinema that hosted the festival. None of them would wear the line that it was 'art for art's sake'; bums on seats and ticket money in the till was the only language they understood. "What about this?" queried Sean, as he dropped a weighty paperback in front of Peter. He picked it up and read the title, scrawled in red across a luridly hand-coloured black and white photograph of something with tentacles: 'Rising and Writhing - Capturing Cthulhu on celluloid: the films of Gordon Stewart' by Earlston Malek. Peter flicked through it despondently. After labouring through a few overwrought paragraphs he closed the book, put it down and pushed it away. Sean looked expectantly at him, frustrated by his blank expression. "Well?" "Well what?'" asked Peter with bafflement. Sean sighed: "Well, what about featuring Gordon Stewart's work?" "He's bloody American! The festival has to be about British films ... remember? Otherwise, we don't get the funding." - 53 -


MARK HOWARD JONES Sean looked downcast. "Well, Stewart made some of the films in this country; the ones in the Sixties." "Aye, probably only because he wanted to see how far Swinging London was swinging in his direction," sneered Peter. "No, we can't use him or his films." He reached into his desk drawer like a magician about to produce an animal for his audience's delight and came out with a crumpled copy of 'Film Focus' magazine. He held it up for Sean to see and pointed to the date February, 1977. Sean looked blank. "So?" "Well, we're supposed to be retro festival, aren't we? There's something .. or rather, someone ... in here that I think we might be able to use; I'm just not sure, that's all. See what you think." He put the magazine down, opened to the relevant page and slid it across to his partner. The colour spread discussed the problems that a film-maker Sinclair Harbilt had encountered in getting his films distributed in the United States. The name was new to Sean, but a quick scan of the article revealed that the director had an art school background and had begun work in the film industry as an editor, rising to direct his own animated fantasies some time in the late 1960s. "So you think he'd be right for the festival? But, you know, animation ..." "He made use of both stop-motion and marionettes - you can see the strings in some shots. And look at this production still; his puppets are more or less life-sized. He made a brilliant version of 'Great Expectations' in the late 70s. I remember seeing it as a kid. The critics loved it and I think it even made some money. It's the only film of his that's ever mentioned in film books," said Peter. Sean frowned. "Hey, yeah. I think I've seen that. It's got a sort of spikey, grey look to it? Really creepy." "That's it. Well, if you think that was creepy, you should see his shorter stuff - which is why he'll make the perfect subject to 'unearth' for the film festival. It's old enough now to be retro ... as well as looking really cool. If we can persuade him to get involved, this could be our biggest coup yet." Sean wasn't convinced. "But what'll be so special about this? I mean, he's not that famous and we need to be able to draw the crowds somehow." Peter grinned smugly at him. "Ah, but there's his lost film, 'Soulstone Shoals'. I'm sure the old bugger must have a copy of it stashed away - 54 -


MARK HOWARD JONES somewhere - and it's got one hell of a reputation. And it's feature length. A couple of festivals and a handful of private screenings and then nothing." "Why? Was it banned after that?" Peter waved the book in the air triumphantly. "No ... but if it had stuck its head above the parapet it would have been. The Whitehouse campaign had already got on its case. In this booklet from a few years later, Harbilt describes it as 'lost'. Yeah, I bet." Sean nodded. "Well, we've got nobody better, so it looks like old Sinclair is our man." The next few days were spent researching the director's works, with Peter digging through old film magazines and archives while Sean acquainted himself with the films themselves. He managed to borrow some old VHS copies of Harbilt's late 60s films from a film rental company and spent two afternoons trawling through Harbilt's skewed take on reality, rich with bitter observations and storylines that featured the relentless pursuit of the weak and disadvantaged. He winced at an image in "Blacksilversmith" where a man's head was peeled like a huge fruit, and the gigantic figure of Mr Punch in "Mr Churchill's Ear" was no less unsettling. The film that Sean found the most fascinating and disturbing was also the shortest. It lasted only eight minutes and was called "Head of Spiders". It featured Harbilt's trademark mix of live actors wandering through an animated landscape. The first three minutes showed a man enjoying some domestic peace and quiet in his flat. Intrigued by odd noises coming from next door, he puts his ear to a connecting door only to have his head 'sewn' there by a dozen swiftly-spun silk webs, leaving only his eyes visible. After a few seconds, hundreds of animated spiders pour from the man's other ear while he yelps and struggles. A faintly-heard echoing voice from inside his head seems to be issuing instructions to the animated arachnids, who form themselves into complex shapes on the floor of the man's flat, before dispersing themselves to cover the walls. The film ends with the camera closing in on the man's terrified face, as we hear his wife's key turn in the lock while the walls wait for her.

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MARK HOWARD JONES That night, Sean dreamed of being chased down a narrowing corridor of dreams by a giant Pulcinella, his truncheon smashing chunks of plaster from the walls just above his victim's head. As Sean tried to escape, the carpet began to flow around his ankles and then he ran headlong into Peter, relieved at first to have reached his strong body, then turning and trying to run as he saw Peter's face struggling and choking behind a mask of pearly white cobwebs. Sean awoke panting, trying not to wake the sleeping bulk of his lover. He rose carefully and made his way to the bathroom to wipe his sweating body. A week later, Peter's digging came up trumps. A telephone call from a friend at the British Film Institute told him that Sinclair Harbilt was not only still alive but was willing to meet them at 2.30pm that coming Friday. Sean noticed that his friend and colleague was on pins for the rest of the week. On the Friday, he'd rushed through lunch and sat scowling at Sean in the crowded pub; Sean took his time, deliberately twisting Peter's nerves up into a knot. During the short Tube journey to Harbilt's place, Peter sat opposite Sean, the heat making his back damp with sweat. He imagined Sean in bed, under him, as he sank his teeth into his pale flesh and clawed at him as he went on, harder and harder. He could almost hear his partner's gasps of pain, delight, while he watched as Sean, the real Sean, stared at the adverts above the carriage windows, clearly bored. The final reel of Peter's perfect sex fantasy spooled out as they reached their station and Sean rose to leave. On the platform, the hot wind flowing through the tunnels blew away the last wisps of his lustful imaginings. As they merged with the crush of people on the long stairway, Peter slipped his hand under Sean's t-shirt and rested his palm in the small of his back, savouring the smoothness of the skin. For a moment Sean imagined that the two of them were condemned to wander this subterranean maze forever, forbidden to look at each other, but he would always feel Peter's strong hand on his back; it would be a kind of heaven. The faded film director lived in an apartment above a rundown theatre on one of London's busiest streets. Two flights up, they walked along the grey concrete balcony until they found the correct number on the door and Peter knocked, discreetly but firmly. - 56 -


MARK HOWARD JONES The door opened almost at once, though the gloom hid whoever had opened it. After some seconds, the man shuffled forward and smiled at them. The first thing that struck them both about the man in the doorway was that his head seemed unusually long. From his scrubby grey hair to his bearded chin seemed an enormous distance. His face curved like a quarter moon, perhaps accentuated by his medium-length beard, which seemed to stick out from his face at an unusual angle. Peter noticed that his eyes were very dark. They were also lively for a man who, he guessed, correctly, must by now be in his mid-70s. He wondered what vitamins the old man took. Sean took an instant dislike to Harbilt. He felt there was something insistently fake about the man, almost sinister. "Ah, visitors. Mr Hughes and Mr Reardon, is it?" Even though the last was a question it obviously didn't require an answer, as Harbilt stepped back to allow them in. Past a small kitchen and bathroom lay the main apartment, small and cramped and filled with shelves that lined three walls and went on to cut the room in half. Light struggled in through long, grimy windows at the far end. "Tea or coffee, then?" When they'd both settled on coffee, the old man went off to the kitchen, Peter following behind to help. The walls of the small apartment were plastered with old film posters, from Hollywood horrors of the 1930s and 40s through Czech animation to 1980s exploitation rubbish. Sean looked them over with admiration. In the corner, behind stacks of video tapes and old books sat a lonely figure. Sean couldn't take his eyes off the man. Tottering in with the coffees, Harbilt noticed Sean. "You musn't mind old Magwitch - he hasn't done any villainy since 1978." Harbilt went into the corner, disturbing memorabilia and dust in equal measure, and returned with the huge marionette. "He, he. He's the only thing I've got left from 'Great Expectations'. That was the only film I had a real budget for, you know." The old man struggled to hold up the huge puppet before Peter stepped forward to help. Sean disliked the figure at once. Its hard, cruel eyes were sunk in a discoloured and revoltingly lifelike face. Its thuggish features seemed to hold a real menace and Sean wished the brute was still locked away safely in the prison hulk described by Dickens. - 57 -


MARK HOWARD JONES For politeness' sake, Sean felt he had to say something. "It's ... remarkable. Really, it is." Peter noticed that he looked off colour and quickly helped Harbilt to return Magwitch to his gloomy lair. Returning, he touched Sean on the arm. "You OK?" Sean nodded, ashamed to admit the cause of his unease. The three settled into ramshackle armchairs huddled around a surprisingly new TV set in one corner of the flat. After several minutes' general conversation about films in general and some of the posters, Peter finally got on to the subject of Harbilt's work. "We've both been watching a lot of your work recently. We run the Kino Retro festival, which runs every September at The Elizabethan, and we'll really like to feature your work." Harbilt smiled, evidently gratified. "Yes, Jenny at the BFI said you wanted to show some of my stuff. That's very flattering. But I'm surprised you even remember my work - I haven't made anything in years and you both seem far too young - and I don't have the best of reputations, do I?" Peter switched to full power. "Well, we certainly know your work. It's an incredibly impressive oeuvre and can only be rivalled by people like Jan Svankmajer or Jraj Herz. It's very dark, very surreal and seems to be just what our audience would appreciate. In fact, we can't believe how you managed to make films like that in this country at all." Harbilt looked between Peter and Sean, speaking equally to both of them in turn. "Something happens on the surface of the celluloid, you see; something unintentional. I have no idea what it is, but I know it's there. Any filmmaker will tell you this. Maybe it's something that's always around, looking for a home. In any event, the film becomes susceptible to outside influences somehow." Sean glanced across at Peter, giving him a 'what have you got me into' look. Peter turned away, nodding at Harbilt, hoping to encourage further meaningless revelations before springing his question on the old man. There was a crash as a pile of videos collapsed behind them. They all stopped and looked over. "Ooh, I must have knocked them when I was getting Magwitch out," sighed Harbilt wearily. "It's OK, I'll get them," offered Sean. At Harbilt's thanks he rose and started clearing up the mess, stacking the videos carefully. He found himself staring - 58 -


MARK HOWARD JONES into the eyes of the life-sized Magwitch. There was light in them that he felt just shouldn't be there for something that was made of wood, cloth and sawdust. He shuddered and stood up quickly. By the time he'd rejoined the others, Peter had already led Harbilt on to the subject of the long-lost masterpiece. He wasn't pulling any punches, either. "There were rumours of the film driving people to insanity during a screening at a film festival in France." Harbilt fixed a glittering gemstone eye on Peter. "Rumours?" Peter coughed. "Well ... reports in the French press, in fact." "Oh, the press. Well you can't believe everything they say, can you? Especially not if it's written in French." Harbilt seemed to think his xenophobic quip had won the day, so Peter decided to roll out his heavy artillery. "We've found a psychiatrist's evidence, given at the inquest of the French couple's death. He seems sure that it was your film that drove them to take their own lives." Harbilt stood, his fingers skittering through the grey hairs of his beard. He walked over to the window and peered out through the grimy panes. "I object to being put in a position where I have to explain what my film did or didn't do to people who may have had many other problems in their lives. As an artist I simply have to be true to my art; I can't concern myself about what my art might 'do' to people. And the opinion of a single Frenchman really doesn't interest me." Harbilt stood motionless and silent at the window. He hadn't asked them to leave, but Peter had the impression that the interview was over. Finally, Sean broke the silence. "Yes, I see. Of course, it would be a great help if we could see the film ourselves. The film archive doesn't have a copy, you see." Harbilt turned and peered down his long nose at Sean. "Impossible. The film is lost, probably destroyed. The cans went missing. You must know that." Peter felt there was no point pressing the matter further. "Yes, that's a great shame. Perhaps you have some stills from the film that we could use for an exhibition instead?" Harbilt seemed more amenable to this idea and disinterred a large photograph album from the piles of books littering the floor. He sat down and spent some minutes flicking through it before carefully removing a large still. - 59 -


MARK HOWARD JONES He handed it to Peter. "You must promise to take very good care of it and return it to me," he stressed. Peter nodded, disappointed to see that it was a production shot showing a younger Harbilt speaking to a pale young woman on set in front of an indistinct backdrop. It gave nothing away about the film at all. They all stood. "Well, Mr Harbilt, I'll start work on acquiring the films for your screenings at the festival. Perhaps I can ring you to make some further arrangements," gushed Peter, hoping to head off any more unpleasantness. Harbilt shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I don't have a phone. Nobody ever rings." "Perhaps that's because you don't have a phone," said Sean. Harbilt slowly broke into a smile, clearly trying to mask his dislike of Sean. "Yes. Well, goodbye." He ushered the pair to the door, slamming it before Peter could add anything by way of an apology. Peter strode ahead, turning his head only to hiss: "Oh, well fucking done. Really well done." Sean caught up with him. "Hey! Hey, what do you mean? What's the problem?" Peter stopped, stepping back to let an elderly couple pass. "You, you idiot! Baiting him like that. We need him on our side." "Look, I'm not just going to trail around behind you, playing the Bishop's bumboy, OK? I thought I might provoke him into saying something really interesting." Peter frowned, frustrated. "He DID say something really interesting. And I didn't need you to stir things up, thanks." Back at the office Sean quizzed Peter. "So what was so 'interesting'? What did Harbilt say?" "Well, all sorts of things; you heard. But that bit about the French couple. I think he' s hiding something - the fact that the film still exists, if you ask me. We need to go back and see him again. I'll have to think up some excuse." Harbilt was coming out of his front door when Peter and Sean turned up three days later. He seemed startled. "Oooh, what do you two want?" He tilted his long face mainly towards Peter. - 60 -


MARK HOWARD JONES Peter's easy smile was always his main weapon. "Sorry to turn up unannounced like this, Mr Harbilt. We've brought your contract for the Kino Retro festival." The older man seemed displeased at the news. "I was just on my way out. I can only spare a few minutes." Inside the apartment, he pored over the document. When he came to the part about his fee, his long face grew even longer. "Ooooh. I had hoped for a little more than that," he said, jabbing his finger at the offending figure. Again Peter switched on his smile. "Yes, I'm sorry, we'd like to have made it a little more. If there had been something more you could have offered us, the sponsor would have agreed to an enhanced fee. It's a great pity about 'Soulstone Shoals' ..." Sean hovered close by for moral support. Harbilt glared at Peter with his dark eyes. "Yes, a great pity." Harbilt grabbed a pen and defaced rather than signed the document, crumbling it as he pushed it back into Peter's hand. He ushered them both out. The instant he had locked the door to his flat, Harbilt's mood seemed to lift, the matter of money forgotten. "I'm just off to meet some old friends at the Horse and Groom. Care to join me?" Sean wasn't sure if the invitation was extended to both of them or just Peter. "No, thank you very much. We've got a lot of work to do to get the festival organised in time. But thank you for asking." Descending the stairs to the street, the old man tried to entice them once more. "I'll be reminiscing about old times - when Britain had a film industry. Are you sure you won't join me?" purred Harbilt. Peter smiled, shaking his head. "No. He's got choir practice," put in Sean, unnecessarily. The old man let his eyes settle on Sean for only a second before returning his gaze to Peter. "Well, I'm off, anyway. I've got a liver problem, you see." Peter took the bait. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realise. If we ..." Sean nudged him as Harbilt's words cut him off in mid flow: "Yes .. it's trying to keep me alive." The old man wandered off, his hacking laugh trailing behind him. Sean looked Peter up and down, as if he'd just seen him for the first time, then snorted in disbelief, shaking his head. "Ladies and Gentlemen, Peter Herbert Hughes ... the best straight man in the business. Really!"

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MARK HOWARD JONES The next day Peter stamped into the office and slammed his bag down on the old wooden chair, complaining about the stairs again. Sean stared at him coldly until Peter was forced to ask what it was he wanted to say. "Well, your chum called - Harbilt. He says his old distributor in France has found the first reel of 'Soulstone Shoals'! What a surprise, eh? The crafty old sod," sneered Sean. Peter's eyes widened. "That is fucking brilliant news. I hope it's still watchable, though; we can't afford to get it restored. Did he say when he could get it to us?" Sean held out a piece of paper to him. "We're supposed to meet him here, tonight at nine. He says he'll show it to us then." "Excellent. We're saved," said Peter. Sean grimaced; he couldn't help shivering. "I just hope you're right about this devious old bugger. If he lets us down, we're screwed. I think there's something fishy about him." Peter grinned at him. "Everything will be fine." They were both familiar with the small cinemas and screening rooms across London but neither of them knew this place. Peter fished the scrap of paper from his pocket and peered at it in the dim light. "Yes, this is definitely the place he said: Carlton Street. You're sure you copied it down correctly?" Sean gritted his teeth. "Yes." It was more of an alley than a proper street, with a few lock-up garages to the left and a huge rubbish skip overflowing with detritus at the far end. Someone had recently relieved themselves up against a wall and the pungent stream still flowed across the narrow pavement, forcing Peter and Sean to step onto the road. "There it is," said Sean, pointing ahead to a tiny marquee with 'The Carl_on' written in plastic letters that had lost their glitter. "It looks deserted." Peter tried the door, which had a 'Final Performance' poster pasted behind the reinforced glass. It was locked. He turned to look at Sean, raising his eyebrows in mock despair. Almost immediately they heard a key turn in the lock and the door creaked open unwillingly. Harbilt's grey head appeared in the crack. "Well, hello. You made it. Very good." As they stepped inside, Sean noticed that the old man seemed genuinely pleased to see them. No doubt he was just eager to show off his prize. There - 62 -


MARK HOWARD JONES can't be much joy in life for the poor old sod, thought Sean, so let him make the most of it. In contrast to the outside, the interior decor of the cinema seemed spick and span; there was even the faint suggestion of fresh paint in the air. Peter turned to indicate Sean. "We both know London's cinemas really well, but we've never seen this place before." Harbilt laughed. "Ah, no. Well, it used to be a 'cinema club', if you get my drift. I bought it back in the 70s and it's been my secret ever since. It's proved very convenient over the years, believe me." The old man led them through to a small viewing theatre with only around 30 seats. "Here, here. Front row seats. I'll go and sort the film out. I haven't seen this in a long time ... too long, in fact." Harbilt dimmed the lights as he left. Peter and Sean could hear him scrabbling about in the projection booth. "Well, here comes the moment of truth," muttered Sean, archly. The light beam from behind them flickered and a jumpy succession of badly-focused images shot on to the blank space of the screen. The image gradually settled, though the film had obviously been run through a projector many times; scratches, 'cigarette' burns at the top of the frame from time to time, lurches in the image that belied a slipped sprocket. It was obvious that this 'lost' film had been found by somebody before Harbilt's recent miraculous re-discovery. As Peter and Sean shuffled to get comfortable, there flew through the darkness a longshot, adhering to the screen like sickly illuminated mud. It showed a desolate shoreline painted in muted, glum colours; mothwing brown and worn sea grey. Within the beam of light, a female figure wanders along the shore, occasionally clambering over the large rocks that litter the dull ochre sands. She sings a repetitive song to herself, indistinct on the soundtrack. Coming to the wreck of a small boat, she stops her singing and bends to pick up a large stone that lies in a pool of weeded brine inside the shattered boat. Cut to a shot of the stone in her hands, pulsing and growing. A close-up of the girl's carefully carved wooden features as her pale lips open in a gasp. - 63 -


MARK HOWARD JONES A zoom inside the girl's head to see the visions that the stone reveals to her: a black shoreline with three tiny figures, screaming in terror as a gigantic mouthless marine mass lolls and rolls on top of them, finally rolling away to reveal a mulch of guts punctured with splinters of shattered bone; a point-of-view shot as a man swims through a burning sea, struggling to escape a blazing wreck, hair aflame as the fire takes his eyes and begins to crawl inside him, licking away his lungs; panning across a rocky seascape to light upon the figure of a mermaid, sitting upon a rock singing, and cut to a close-up of her smiling face and long hair before the camera arcs up to take in the immensity of the dark shape that shoots out of her head, flailing and spreading until it blacks out the screen. Zooming back, we once again see the face of the girl as she holds the stone and a look of delight spreads across her face. Peter was astonished and unsettled by the images; they went further than anything else he'd seen by Harbilt. "What do you think?" he whispered. Sean turned his head to him, nodding rhythmically like a simpleton. Peter began to laugh but a glassy look in his friend's eyes stopped him cold. "Sean. What's wrong? Are you ill?" Sean simply turned to stare back at the screen. Peter looked around in the gloom, hoping to spot Harbilt in the thrown light of the projector beam. Just then the sound level of the film dropped and the lights came up. The director was suddenly there, just a few seats away from them. "Is everything alright, Mr Hughes? Are you enjoying it?" Peter started to speak, then stopped. The words had come out wrong, sounding gluey and childish. He tried again. His tongue seemed dead in his mouth, with no feeling. A tingling sensation spread through his head, then suddenly his whole body seemed to burn and tingle. Peter tried to leave his seat but none of his limbs obeyed him any longer. "A little hot, are you?" asked Harbilt. He stood and walked closer, sitting down next to Peter. "That's the way it starts, yes. My puppets - you'll forgive me for referring to you that way but that's what you are - always feel a trifle too hot at the beginning. It'll pass; cold will be the main problem later, I understand." Unable to turn his head, Peter had to content himself with moving his eyes to their uttermost corners to see his tormentor. Theatrically, Harbilt pulled a - 64 -


MARK HOWARD JONES long pin from his waistcoat pocket and plunged it quickly into Peter's arm. He felt nothing. "That's good, very good," smiled Harbilt. "I don't suppose you've ever thought of yourself as a film star, have you? But that's what you'll be. It's a shame that everyone will think you're just a cleverly-crafted marionette, but there's always a downside to everything." Glancing up at the screen for a few moments, Harbilt mused: "It's remarkable the effect this film has. Ancient images plucked from deep inside the human soul; thieves of the self. Simply that, terrors that mankind has brought with it since before it knew who or what it was." In his hands glowed the soulstone, pulsing even more darkly and insistently than it had on the screen a few moments before. He stood over Peter now, uncomfortably close and obviously aware of the effect he was having. "I'll leave you something of yourself so that you can put real 'soul' into your performance." He ran his fingers down Peter's cheek, flicking away the involuntary tears, before glancing sideways at Sean's paralysed figure. "But your friend has to go. I found him insulting and unkind. Nothing for him." Peter forced his thoughts to move through the sludge filling his mind. He knew Harbilt was trying to kill them both; but why? The director droned on: "I'm very grateful to you and your friend for showing such an interest in my work. Now I'll be able to make another film; I'll be able to use your energies to capture more images in front of the cameras. I can finally return to my great love, the cinema. Thank you." The images on the screen - rolling flesh choking a floppy broken-boned woman in some grotesque sexual encounter - rose and fell in brightness as Peter's eyes were assaulted by their power. He felt soft tendrils dig inside him, drawing him out to where the obscene power of Harbilt's creation could grab and tear at him, devouring his being. He fought against the nausea; dignity was the only thing left to him. "That's right, Mr Hughes. I see you now understand that all my films are, in fact, documentaries that merely faithfully detail my actors' despair. I'm no storyteller ... can't seem to make it work." Caught off guard by his confession of failure, Harbilt smoothed down his rumpled waistcoat, hoping to find fresh composure in its pleats. "You were right about the French couple. They were certain they recognised a friend who had disappeared over a year previously; - 65 -


MARK HOWARD JONES they did, of course. But they could never prove anything ... I only work with puppets, after all." He looked over at Sean, as if to check something, before glancing back at Peter. "I'll leave you both now, so you can enjoy the rest of my lost masterpiece. That's what you wanted when you first came to see me, wasn' t it?" Peter knew it wasn't a question but a final damnation; a cigarette butt stubbed out in his eye, a final golden nail in his coffin. Harbilt moved out of his view. A few minutes later, from the door of the screening room, Peter heard the director's farewell: "You may starve but, if luck is on your side, you'll know nothing about it by the time that happens. Then you'll be ready to 'star' in my next film." Harbilt switched off the auditorium lights as he left, throwing Peter into panic. His own mind mocked him, fighting through the irrational haze to sneer at any idiot who was afraid of the dark, yet disregarded the fact that almost anything hiding in the blackness could do nothing worse to him than kill his body while trapping his soul inside it. He gulped in as much air as his lungs would allow, straining to turn towards Sean. Sliding around on the seat, halfway towards the floor, Peter turned just enough to see his lover's face. In the gloom Peter could still just see him; but he could also see into him and wished that he couldn't. He tried to turn away again but the awful fascination held him fast, haunted by the thousands of unborn thoughts drowning in the shining depths of his friend's glass eyes as his brain turned to sawdust. Copyright Š Mark Howard Jones 2009

Mark Howard Jones lives in Cardiff and has had stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. His eBook Against the Wall'is available to download free from the Screaming Dreams website. He is currently working on several book projects.

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FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

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FRANK DUFFY

S

ix miles from the town of Green Hill he climbed off his bicycle and stood beneath the road sign. There was no immediate reason for stopping, but as always Adam Hines was a casualty of his own curiosity. On either sides of the road the indeterminate shapes of the forest played shadow puppet games, pencil thin in the waspish twilight, branches staggered by the cold, the night. It made him think of Bethany; she was ten years-old and aching in the flimsy tracery of her nightgown, swirling amid the overhanging boughs and knots of their childhood jungle, dancing with gymnastic agility through the autumn downpour, a newborn imp coughed up and out from the earth in all her innocent glory. His Bethany, his sister, gone now. A narrow track led off into the darkness, its rutted surface glistening pinnacles of sculpted frost. A solitary leaf spiraled to the ground, crisp and yellow against the glittering turrets of hardened mud. He imagined black flakes, twisting particles caught on the wind as the long finger of a chimney emptied the contents of its fiery ovens. Memories such as these came so often these days he felt bloated by the sheer weight of their intention. Adam pedaled the bicycle slowly over the ground, its single headlight bouncing an erratic halo along the track in front of him. The chalky remnants of cottages sat amongst the dying trails of plants, hinting at the community that'd once existed here. Timber protruded through the skullcaps of rotten rooftops, walls sloughed earthwards, doorways exuded black shiftless forms as if people hovered there too hesitant to come and say hello to this itinerant traveler. Beneath the beams and jutting stonework, decaying and mouldering in the rooms and spaces of the past, he could sense the night compressing the darkness into the shapes and forms of windows and doors, making something new of them. It reminded him of the mountain town, that solemn rain-soaked encampment amongst the blunted crags dripping its sorrows on expectant heads, its white peaks scratching at the gray canopy of the sky. Perched up on hazardous slopes and wrought from the rock-face as if carved by the hands of giants, it had displayed all the friendliness of a plague ridden ghost town. It's inhabitants had been no better; soluble and breathless effigies of themselves, they'd chased him away within hours of his arrival. He'd tried not to think of them, but they often reared into the nonsensical surrealism of his dreams, mournful wraiths pursuing him through the dark corridors of his mind. - 68 -


FRANK DUFFY Hines pumped the bicycle and climbed an incline. Here the trees were taller, branches like arms, dangling. Thoughts of what this day meant to the people he was about to encounter in the town of Green Hill had put him in a solemn mood. He wasn't sure what to expect anymore. In the beginning it'd been easy. One town was much like the next, one village much like its predecessor. Only ever since the mountains Hines had come to recognize an increasing and growing hostility towards his presence. Wherever he'd stopped off the locals stood around gauging him, the elderly and the young alike shifting under the tattered awnings of shops in nervous gatherings, their brows narrowed in tune to the simple requests he made. Hines suspected knowledge of his expulsion from the mountain town had flown ahead of him, his escape perhaps channeled along the local gossip conduit in hope of preventing him visiting any more graveyards. Not that that would stop him. He was here because of Bethany and nothing as trivial as the ill perceived threats of idle provincials could possibly prevent him from honoring his sister's name. Hines tugged the bicycle round a bend in the track and plunged even further into the forest. He emerged from the forest onto a road several hundred meters from the town border. The lights of blocks lit vertical strips in the night, the interminable rise of a quartered moon ascending into the midst of gray tattered clouds above. On the other side of the road stood a bus shelter. A brief expulsion of light sparked from within, a flaring match flung out onto the road where it sizzled and died. The tip of a cigarette glowed in an orange circle, twitching in midair as if suspended by something other than the unseen mouth which held it. Hines made out the vague outlines of two figures pressed up against each other. Was that the hitch of a skirt he saw, the grope of fingers moving against the inward smoothness of its thigh, milk white flesh revealed, touched and stroked? He raised one pedal and thought to himself they were teenagers, illicit lovers from disapproving families out to steal an hour or so of clandestine passion. As he cycled up the road he began to think about the mountain town once more. There was nothing unusual about adolescents sneaking out and fumbling round in the drab interior of a bus shelter, but nevertheless a connection had formed because of them. This happened all the time, incongruous elements in a puzzle which continued to drag him back to that - 69 -


FRANK DUFFY joyless place cast up in the mountains. Two days before it'd been something entirely different. He'd almost cycled past the makeshift shrine before realizing it was there, hidden amongst the overgrown shrubbery of a junction, its little hill of rocks and stones gathered about a wooden cross. He remembered its wreathes of flowers, withering chrysanthemums in their many convolutions blown in loose formations about the shrine. If there were connecting lines, significant points where the meaning of these symbols converged, only God knew, and only God in his wisdom would tell him. The road took a bend and a long building with dim floodlights sat conspicuous in a clearing at the edge of the forest. A dirt lot with tractors and mechanical diggers guarded a chain-link fence, behind which patrolled a large mastiff. The dog didn't bark as he passed, merely approached the fence and sniffed at him with all the interest of the dutifully obliged. A portable cabin on a raised platform overlooked the dirt lot. He saw the heads of the people inside, balloon shapes nodding in what he assumed was concordance of some description. The door to the cabin opened and he saw a pair of legs waxing palely from the interior light thrown from the cabin. It could have been anybody, the daughter of a worker perhaps, or a visiting relative with children in tow, but it almost caused him to pull on the brakes in order to go back and see for himself. He stopped at a crossroads, deserted streets running beneath the parallel brotherhood of sodium arcs, welcoming him into the sanctity of the town. It did nothing to relieve him of the guilt he felt, the guilt of having abandoned his family to go cycling halfway across the country for what they judged to be a pilgrimage of madness and grief. But trying to explain to them what had really driven him away after the funeral was just as impossible to define as it was for them to comprehend. So he hadn't. Ahead traffic lights stuck on red flashed at invisible vehicles, the sounds of which could be heard on the other side of town. He knew from the maps in his rucksack that was where the cemetery lay. As if to check they were still there he patted the underside of the bag. The rigid fingers of steel tent pegs protruded through the worn material like the frozen digits of a dismantled automaton. He didn't know how much longer the tent would last. It'd seen him through some pretty tough weather over the last two months. Splashing out on a new one might seriously affect his journey back home. It might mean dumping the bicycle and taking the train instead, something he was averse to - 70 -


FRANK DUFFY doing. The train would mean getting home sooner than he'd planned. And he had no desire for any sort of confrontation with his family. Not yet. In all directions evidence of the forest he thought he'd left behind sprouted from the town in defiance of the structures which had usurped it. There were so many different species of trees he had lost count. It was as if the forest were challenging the concrete and the mortar, its yew and larch and cedar insidiously reclaiming the territory of its lost empire. Bethany would have loved it here, he thought, would have delighted at the prospect of climbing a tree right smack bang in the middle of this modern town. Maybe he would carve her name in the trunk of one, let the people of Green Hill know she was happy here. Cycling up the next street Hines thought the town a far cry from all those villages he'd visited on his journey, its blocks like mammoth electrical pyres advertising its relative normality. A taxi sped past, the driver honking its horn. Two young girls waved at him from the back seat, their smiling faces growing dim in the wafting exhaust smoke. Soon the blocks fell back into the enclaves of newly raised housing estates, narrow paths winding away between their tidy gardens. Every so often a light in an upstairs window would flicker into existence, a ripple in an otherwise undisturbed pattern. He had to remind himself not everyone would be out at the cemetery tonight. There were those who would have chosen to lock themselves away rather than face the mournful spectacle he would soon encounter. Their denial of collective remembrance was as now familiar to him as it was to his own family. Soon the houses became fewer in number, the forest once again emerging from the shadows in greater detail. The road twisted several times and then he saw the expected cordon of police vehicles forming a tight barrier at the opposite end. Hundreds of other vehicles lined the roadside, most of which had parked on errant clumps of muddied grass whilst others clung to the ruts and inclines of the surrounding woodland. Some motorists attempted to force their way out of the vehicular jungle, trapped between fleets of PKS buses, battling for supremacy like wasps trapped inside a bell-jar. He climbed off his bicycle, put one hand on the saddle and pushed it front of him. Voices floated out from the trees, their conversations hinting at the secrets which awaited him inside the cemetery. He came to a long line of flower stands with canopied boards around which - 71 -


FRANK DUFFY crowds of querulous families contested the extortionate prices. Adam took his wallet out and from the least crowded stall managed to select a lantern, paying a grim faced woman in dirt smeared coveralls who fixed her eyes on him a second longer than he would have liked. He held up the lantern for inspection just as a police car rolled along the edge of the pavement, the driver's window wound down to accommodate the face of the officer staring out at him. He looked closely at the lantern. It was the size of a shoe box and painted red, its walls made of transparent plastic. It had a hatch laced with fibrous strips of metal, opened and closed by aid of a tiny silver clasp. Inside the lantern was a circular tin dish from which a candle flourished its wick like a single strand of gossamer hair. He was barely conscious of the crowds pushing him towards the edge of the pavement. The lantern made him think of Christmas, of his entire family grouped on the balcony of their house for the traditional celebratory photograph. He touched his back pocket, feeling the crinkled outline of one of those exact same photographs. At the gates to the cemetery he watched as the crowds poured through its entrance and up the slopes of its exquisitely tended lawns. Thousands of candles and lanterns threw a shivering pale of fire across the gravestones, the summit lit in such a way as if littered with tiny bonfires. The reluctant townsfolk ascended the hill as a caravan of slow and weary mountaineers. He was sorry so many of them felt duty-bound to be here. It should have been a celebration, an evocation of their loved ones' lives, not a tiresome trek to pay their begrudging respects. He supposed he had no right to complain considering his own family were no better. He would liked to have thought his parents and his brothers were right this moment knelt at the grave of his grandparents, but that was hoping for too much. A bottle of pills and one dead child was a determiner from which there was no coming back. He began to climb the hill, wending his way through the crowds surging towards him. When he reached the summit he stood back to admire the view. The crescent moon had slipped behind the clouds, its importance a blur weakly infringing upon the fires of below. Monuments bobbed in the foreground, some looking like people solidifying in petrification of the scant moonlight. Tower blocks strutted above the tops of trees, antagonist defenders against the encroaching forest. - 72 -


FRANK DUFFY Was it chance that he'd arrived in Green Hill on All Saints Day? He didn't feel as if it was. His father had asked him why he needed to go traveling so soon after? If Adam had said Bethany had told him in a dream what he needed to do, his father might very well have physically tried restraining him. But if his father had even conceived of Adam's intention to explore as many graveyards as he could find along the way, he might have done something even more drastic. Instead he'd told his father he wanted to see something of the world outside their own little claustrophobic universe, not the most diplomatic of responses, but it at least gave credence to what his family had come to expect of him. His father had given him a look that said he didn't entirely believe him, but it was a look of relief rather than one of suspicion. Bethany's suicide had given rise to every parent's darkest fears, that the unthinkable was no longer the unthinkable. Adam started in among the crowds, using his bicycle to carve a path where it grew densest. Some, groups of chattering schoolgirls mainly, pressed against him as if seeking his attention, giving him quick salutatory glances. He ignored them for fear his acknowledgment might cause similar protests as those he'd experienced in the mountain town. He'd learned how easy it was for people to misconstrue his intentions, especially when those self-same people refused him ample time to explain. He doubted any explanation would have convinced the inhabitants of the mountain town any more than they would have recognized his integrity. He drew his bicycle against him as if wary somebody would attempt to steal it, its wheels crunching on the gravel path that stretched in front of him. On each grave, each slab, there were dozens of lanterns and candles; headstones glimmered pale white marble, their round portraits like wellpolished pebbles in a crafted rock-face. Most of the graves hummed with the activities of its visitors, a collusion of whispered prayers drifting and falling as if driven by the tides of a non-existent wind. There were other graves which had no-one stood praying over them. These graves might have saddened him if it hadn't been for the abundance of lanterns and candles also placed upon their flowerless beds. The dates on their headstones denoted the decades since the internment, making it difficult for him to imagine there was anyone left to remember who these people had been. But it was clear they hadn't been forgotten and he took solace in those strangers who had taken the time to - 73 -


FRANK DUFFY donate one or two of their own batch of lanterns and candles. He came to a crossroads amongst the numerous paths, the crowds thinner here than elsewhere. He turned the handles of his bicycle as if divining which route would be the best. Old fashioned gas lamps hung in the dark on the ends of wrought iron posts, the encrusted glass stirring as if insects the size of dust particles swarmed and multiplied within. He noticed an old man in a raincoat bent over a freshly dug plot of earth, a small bunch of flowers drooping from his hands. On the ground at his feet lay a long rake endowed with the remains of crumpled leaves. He looked at the old man whose face shone with concentration, his hands clasped, kneading each other with rigorous insistence. The lips in the face moved in perceptible mutterings, his head jerking forward every so often as if nudged from behind. Was this an act of contrition he was seeing? Was this old man muttering his apologies for not having recognized what he'd once had in life? If so, there was kinship between the two of them, an unenviable bond brought about by unforeseen tragedies. Adam decided to chose the path with the fewest gas lamps. He needed the best cover the cemetery could afford him, away from the eyes of those who might take offense to the ritual he was about to enact on Bethany's behalf. He was confident that this time nobody would disturb him. Perhaps all those near misses in all those other smaller cemeteries and graveyards had merely been practice for this day. The bicycle guided him beneath branches forming a tunnel among the gas lamps, the light fluttering as if invisible moths had laid siege to it. As far as he could see he was the only person about this part of the cemetery, without a single lantern on any of the graves. The further he went the more the gas lamps became indistinct beyond the trees. How ironic that it was a town cemetery that now gave him the isolation he'd craved earlier. The setting was perfect, if only a little disconcerting, light dancing away between the branches in spikes of juddering silver, fragmenting the shadows. The dimming light made him turn his head back in the direction he had come, but wherever he looked there were only the trees. Anxiety had yet to annex the confidence he felt, but it was there, chipping away at him. The path took a bend to the right and he saw there were no gas lamps left to illuminate his way. There was a faint coalescence from above the tree-tops, but it was hardly sufficient by which to see. He fixed the lantern to the front of - 74 -


FRANK DUFFY the handlebars and unslung his rucksack, hunting out the torch he'd brought with him. He flashed its beam into the dark, expecting to see it twinned on the path ahead of him. Only the torch light drew anything from the shadows. It was then he realized the headlight on his bicycle had stopped working. Slapping it with the palm of his hand, a spasmodic watery yellow blob hit the trunk of a tree and then winked out in the same instance. He almost felt like turning back, the trees and the darkness ready to close in on him. Nevertheless, he pressed forward, the torch beam picking out headstones, catching the glimmering specks of eyes in portraits. Another bend in the path and the dark swallowed the torch beam as if it were hungry, before expelling it back out again. He lowered his bicycle to the ground among a heap of crisp yellow leaves. It was much colder now, almost as cold as the day they'd cremated his sister. That his family hadn't even entertained the thought of interring her had been cruel enough, that they hadn't consulted him or his brothers was at once both repugnant and vile. Adam swung the torch beam in a wide circle. Most of the headstones had sunk into the earth, some leaning to one side, their basins cracked and splintered. He took a couple of paces and crouched down, leaning into the arc of two overhanging branches. One of the graves appeared less neglected than the rest, its headstone giving off a dull metallic glare. He shone the torch on the ingrained lettering, scraping away the dirt with his other hand. A female name. He raised the torch, pointing it at the portrait. He sucked in his breath. The face in the portrait was that of a young girl. She couldn't have been any older than twelve when the photograph had been taken. She looked nothing like his sister though; strait plaits down either sides of her cheeks, a large brow, a curl of a mouth, and eyes that seemed far off, perhaps dreaming of sleep. There was no doubt that this was the place. He stood up and went to his rucksack. As he fumbled inside for the masking tape he tried not to think what his family would have said if they had been able to see him. It was their fault more than Bethany's that he was here at all. If they'd only given his sister the plot alongside his grandparents. The day before the cremation he'd pleaded with them, begged them to have her buried instead. But the look in their eyes had told him all he'd needed to know. He found the roll of masking tape and placed it on the ground alongside - 75 -


FRANK DUFFY the torch. Recovery would never come to this family, wouldn't even touch it on its way elsewhere. Whatever they might have thought had they known his intentions made no difference to him anymore. They may have chosen to surrender in silent collusion at his sister's passing, but he had not. Scattering her to the uncaring winds had only deepened his resolve, not reduced it as they had reduced her. It was time for the lantern. He opened the hatch and removed the tin dish. From his rucksack he took out a box of matches and lit one, angling the flame to the candle. He carefully slid the dish back inside. The flame took and the soon the lantern emitted a comforting glow. He placed it on the grave, light lapping at the portrait of the young girl. Next he bit off a length of the masking tape and stuck it to the edge of the headstone. He no longer worried someone would see him for he was lost in the act. He took the photograph from his pocket and held it in the beam of the torch. Only one face in the photograph mattered to him. Bethany. Her wide rabbit eyes stared nonchalantly at the camera, waiting for the flash. Adam had one arm draped about her left shoulder, squeezing her lithe body into the lanky folds of his own. They looked like best friends, not brother and sister, which of course is what they had been. Adam went to work as quickly as his hands would permit. He folded the photograph so only his sister's face remained visible, then pinned it against the portrait of the dead girl, and took the slip of masking tape and attached it to the headstone. He bit off a second piece and fixed this to the photograph also, smoothing out the creases at the same time. The forehead of the dead child stuck above his sister's face. In the dark he worked his mouth in rendition to the Lord's Prayer, feeling its magic coming out of him. When he finished and opened his eyes, he was not sure what to expect. Kneeling there with a photograph of his dead sister fixed to the headstone of another dead child, he knew what he must look like. He knew because of the people from the mountain town. He saw himself walking down those streets, through its echoing alleys, outdistanced by the frozen glare of the sun, his shadow sent skipping over the faces of its inhabitants. They'd watched him all the way out of the town, monitoring him as they might an insolent child intent - 76 -


FRANK DUFFY on vandalism. Only when he'd reached the road on which he'd come in did he start to think about the reason why he was there. Eventually he'd come across their cramped graveyard with the paint stripped fence of its plots and the lichen dressed rocks of the encircling wall tucked beneath the shade of a few straggling trees. Above stood the mountains, mist drifting down their precarious slopes. He was certain it was the place Bethany had told him about in his dreams, but then the little girl had appeared. He'd found her knelt at a grave with a portrait of an old man glaring up at him, her blond hair diffuse in the thinning sunlight, her delicate hands bidding a prayer from the heaving undulation of her chest. At first she'd seemed to welcome his presence, smiling at him and saying hello in a voice that reminded him of his sister. He'd knelt down beside her, wanting to communicate his understanding, wanting her to know he was grieving also. But when the little girl had started crying, pulling away from him as if he might hurt her, he too shrank back, revolted by the suddenness of her reaction. He'd barely touched her, had only placed a friendly hand on the back of her head, that was all. Why had she been so afraid of him? She ran and even though he thought about it, he hadn't tried stopping her. It had been too late for that. And when the sound of the townsfolk came calling to him through the rapidly descending mists, he was on his bicycle and pedaling as fast he could go. He'd glanced back once, seeing those dark shapes flapping in the ghostly viscera of the mist, unformed bodies hurtling after him. He looked to the headstone, to the photograph. One corner had come loose, the tip of which had curled over obscuring his sister's face. He folded it back. There was now something different about the way Bethany looked. Her expression had changed from one of complacency to one of fear. Of course it was the dark which made it appear this way. Nevertheless, the expression remained. Adam peeled back one strip of the masking tape and let the photograph unfold so he could see what Bethany was afraid of. The closer he peered the more he began to think her pose had changed also. Was she leaning away from him, attempting to extricate herself from his grasp? He thought of the little girl in the mountain cemetery, of her revulsion at his touch. He recalled the two lovers in the bus shelter earlier that evening. Had he only observed them at play or had he stayed there longer than he should have? Had he imagined the teenage girl in the throes of her first fumbling sexual misdemeanor? Had she - 77 -


FRANK DUFFY even been there? And what had compelled him to stop at the crossroads with the shrine? Had it been the photograph tacked to the wooden cross, had it framed the face of a young girl in a summer hat, her pale blue eyes winking at him knowingly? Adam leaped to his feet and knocked the lantern over, light rippling across the ground. He pointed the torch at the trees, and could have sworn there were more of them than when he'd last looked, as if they'd uprooted and come closer. Impossible. Yet a solid and defining wall complimented the darkness, a web of limbs knitted together so closely he suspected he would become entangled. The lantern went out, leaving him with just the torch. The darkness made him think of the woods opposite his old high school, the woods he'd taken his sister to one dark and gloomy Sunday afternoon. A voice drifted out from between the trees. He swung the torch over the branches, finding a gap and let it penetrate through to the other side. There was denying how much the voice scared him, the awful lilting cadence of its words creeping ever nearer. But even worse was the familiarity with which the words hit him. “...hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done...�, the voice said, repeating what he'd only moments ago uttered in deference to his sister. Adam backed away from the path, almost stumbling over the grave with his sister's photograph. The wind snatched at the words, hurling them at him, their discordance a shrieking melody. He wanted to speak, to confront whoever was there, but the sound of his own voice died the second his lips parted. The torch beam wavered at the gap between the trees, animating tree branches, provoking movement he might not have noticed if not for the voice. He sensed this somebody approaching, somebody who was ready to turn the bend in the path in order to finally reveal themselves. He didn't think he could look, but he did, his eyes squinting into the darkness. A figure began to materialize; slight and without substance it seemed, a phantom composed only of air and light, its limbs like a quick sketch spread out around it in supplication, as if it were hovering off the ground and drifting towards him through the gap in the trees. The upturned face, the fissure of its mouth gleaming whitely, dragged the weight of its body forward, the tips of its red ballet shoes scraping through the dirt, leaving two parallel tracks gouged from the path. Dark ringlets of hair coursed over the bony humps of its - 78 -


FRANK DUFFY shoulders, flying in the force of the wind. Around it swung a plain white cotton dress, the hem of which swirled about its pallid legs, its scabbed knees oozing a thick green pus, its ankle socks smeared by the dripping effluence. Again he opened his mouth to speak, but all that escaped was a low and uncontrolled moan. The thing had his voice. It continued to recite the Lord's prayer, mocking him.“...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us...”, its lips purple now, swollen, the ridge of its teeth protruding against the flickering point of its tongue, “lead us not into temptation...” The thing's eyes suddenly blazed, crimson and burning within its own liquid gaze. Staring into the cauldron of those dreadful eyes he could literally feel the worms squirming beneath his feet. Halfway between the path and the grave of the dead girl, it paused to watch him, grinning. Its mouth twisted out the final few words of the Lord's Prayer, its head cocked to one side, waiting for him. He considered running, knew he could easily push past it, but it had fixed him with its maleficent eyes. Those eyes had depths, he thought, depths that spiraled down into a dark and cold starless void. It lifted its arms to him and grimaced. “Hold me,” it said. He went to it, its crimson eyes locked on his, its cold breath tickling his cheek. He swept it up into his arms, wanting to believe he hadn't planned this, but knowing he had conjured it up for one last romance. He stroked away a ringlet of hair and peered at its face, smiling. “Kiss me, brother,” it said, “kiss me hard like you used to.” Copyright ©Frank Duffy 2009

Frank Duffy is 38 years old, and currently live and works in Warsaw, Poland. He has been writing seriously for five years, but first fell in love with the written word when his junior school teacher read a selection of ghost stories to the pupils one rainy Halloween morning. Since then he has written 'something' every day. His story False Pilgrim came about after he visited the cemetery of the story on the night in question, November 1st. In reality the cemetery is stunningly beautiful... until sundown that is! - 79 -


FANTASY CHARACTERS

Copyright © Steve Upham 2009

- 80 -

Estronomicon Sketchbook 2009  

The eZine of fantasy, sci-fi and horror

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