Parting Shot

He’d brought her to visit his home town. Since this was her first time visiting, he decided to show her his childhood haunts. First was the ruined cottage, sitting by itself on a rural road.

“This place used to scare the crap out of me.”

“Why?”

“It was haunted.”

“You really believed that?”

“I did. It had a creepy vibe. Maybe I should see if it still does.”

He walked through the front door.

“I can’t feel anything. Whatever haunted this place has gone.”

He walked further into the ruin.

“There’s an entrance to a cellar in the floor here. Never noticed that before.”

The wood was rotten and it splintered. He fell through into the darkness, stopping only when his belly jammed in the entrance.

“Give me a hand to get back out.”

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

“I’ll push. You pull.”

His face changed.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“Something’s touching me.”

“What?”

“Something’s stroking my legs.”

“You mean a rat?”

“No, I can feel fingers.”

She knew he wasn’t joking.

“GET ME OUT!”

She grabbed his arm and pulled as hard as she could. Nothing.

“PULL!”

She gave a heave. He popped out of the hole like a cork from a bottle. He lay in the dirt, panting.

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but it felt like a human hand.”

“It couldn’t be. Nobody’s down there.”

“I know, but let’s get the hell out of here.”

Before they could move, a voice spoke from the darkness of the cellar.

You kids come back real soon…

They ran away from the thing that still haunted the cottage.

.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Store at the Center of Hell

You probably don’t know this, but Hell isn’t all burning pits and brimstone. Hell is cleverer than that. Hell is personal. It picks apart your psyche like the layers of an onion, exposing the torments that are perfect for you. Then, those torments are inflicted on you…forever.

Damn clever, wish I’d thought of it. I really wish I wasn’t part of it.

Every morning I wake in the same small back room. I open the door and head into my store. It isn’t really my store, I woke up here, presumably just after I died. The layout is reminiscent of those old-fashioned general stores you used to find in every small town. Wooden counters and shelves. Tin cans, dry goods. Brands you’d never heard of before. Newspapers for the men, magazines for the ladies, candy and ice cream for the kids. Cigarettes, some booze. Lightbulbs, rubber bands, tin openers; items secreted in dark cupboards, stuff you may only ever need once in your life. Cocktail umbrellas, apple corers.

This is my hell.

It’s not as if I was a storekeeper when I was alive. I was a firefighter. A pretty damn exciting, cool job. The ladies loved me; all I had to do was tell them I was a fireman and…well, I’m sure you can guess. Good times. All I remember of my death was smoke, flames and a collapsing roof. Then, I woke up here.

I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering where the torment comes in. Running a wee store in hell doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Well, let me enlighten you. You see, I’m not just playing the role of storekeeper. I am the storekeeper, that’s my whole world. I spend my days dusting and rearranging, fussing over what prices to lower, where to stack my tins. Making sure my newspapers line up with ninety-degree angles. I dream about stock-taking. I am the ultimate, totally consumed, archetypal storekeeper. And who is the natural enemy of all storekeepers? You don’t know? Guess. Correct; shoplifters. Little, shitty thieves, stealing from good, honest, honorable people. To steal, to shoplift, is a crime, it’s a sin, it’s an outrage.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I’ll get back to my point. You see, I only have one customer. It’s Old Hob himself. Every day at four o’clock he comes into my store. I’m where I usually am, standing behind my counter. I watch the old bugger wander in, casual as anything. Every day I ask the same question.

“Can I help you with anything, sir?”

The answer is always the same.

“Just browsing.”

I watch him as he wanders around, between the shelves. I watch him as he takes items, examines them and then carefully drops them into the pockets of his long, black coat. I stand, unable to move, unable to speak, while I watch him defile my beautiful store. My blood boils, I feel my blood pressure skyrocket. It feels as if I’m having a stroke. I want to scream, I want to stop him, hurt him, kill him, but I can’t do anything. My soul, my storekeeper’s soul, is rent asunder watching this travesty.

And then, his pockets full of my wonderful goods, he smiles and heads to the door.

“See you tomorrow, storekeeper!”

The door closes behind him and I can finally move. I spend the rest of the day, every day, restocking my shelves, mourning for the lost items. Grieving for the money lost, despairing that I allow this to happen, dreading the next day. My head hurts, my heart aches.

I told you, Hell is clever.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Price of Revenge

“Mr. Roger DeMontfort-Jones?”

The voice startled DeMontfort-Jones out of his reverie. He had been engrossed in the latest share index prices. He looked up to see two men standing at the entrance to his office. One was tall, the other small, bent and twisted.

“How can I help you, gentlemen?”

“It is we who have come to help you. We are here to offer you an unusual and highly unique service.”

Salesmen. DeMontfort-Jones waved his hand dismissively.

“Just leave your brochure with my assistant down the corridor.”

“Our service is not one that has any accompanying literature. It can only be offered to those who have been specially selected. It requires an ability to provide adequate recompense.”

“You mean, whatever you’re selling is expensive.”

“Quite. You see, very few people are ever allowed to join our club. The service we offer has certain expenses. Therefore, the membership fee must reflect that.”

“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s hear what you’ve got to offer.”

“Reflect on the words I am about to say. Reflect carefully. These words describe our unique service. The words are ‘unpunished crimes’.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it. Think about all those times when a driver has hogged the road, refusing to pull over. Remember when somebody’s dog defecated on your lawn and they refused to pick it up. Think of all those rude shop assistants and bank-tellers, the sloppy waiters who can’t be bothered to be polite. These are all unpunished crimes. Not recognized in law, but enough to drive any normal man to desperation. Remember the annoyance you felt, the unrequited fury. But there was nothing you could do about it.”

“Until now,” said the other man, then continued.

“You have been selected to join our club. For a very reasonable fee you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing these crimes punished. We will eliminate five of these unpunished criminals for you. You choose which ones. All you do is make one phone call and then leave the rest to us. Imagine the satisfaction, knowing that the moron behind the counter will never bother a decent citizen like yourself again. Or the driver who lifts his middle finger to you will never sit behind the wheel again. Imagine the pleasure you will get from knowing that.”

DeMontfort-Jones understood exactly what they were saying. He had spent years getting to the top, crushing careers and swinging massive deals. He was the most respected and feared financial broker in the city, but he was still affected by such annoyances. He felt the pleasure of revenge already. It was a wonderful feeling.

“I’ll buy it, gentlemen. I’ll buy your service.”

“Excellent, welcome to our club. Now, all you have to do is provide us with one million pounds. A banker’s draft, if you please. And please consider, the quicker we get the money the quicker you can start choosing.”

DeMontfort-Jones practically ran out the office. It only took him thirty minutes to get the money. His private bank asked no questions. The two men were waiting patiently in his office when he got back. Both were still standing. After the money had been exchanged, the small man handed him a piece of paper.

“That is the number you call. You only have five. Use them wisely. You will never see us again. Good hunting.”

The two men left. DeMontfort-Jones slumped into his seat. He began to convince himself that he had been ripped-off, that it was a con. Had he just pissed away a million pounds? He was tempted to call the number to see what happened, but a voice in the back of his mind reminded him ‘only five calls’. He didn’t call. Instead he smiled. Imagine if it wasn’t a con. That doorman would be first. The one at his apartment building. The stuck-up little sod. Then it would be the guy next door. That prick insisted on playing movies at three a.m. with the volume turned up. He could easily think of at least a dozen people who deserved to be ‘punished’. His paranoia vanished and he decided he might have to renew his subscription to this club.

He sat for half an hour, debating who, out of his list of candidates, to choose. There was a knock at his door.

“Come in.”

The tall man and the small man walked in again.

“Mr. DeMontfort-Jones?”

“What the hell? I thought you said I would never see you again.”

The two men looked at each other. The small one spoke.

“Ah. I see you are one of our members. It’s always a pity to have to make a visit to one of our own, but business is business.”

DeMontfort-Jones stared at the pair, noticing slight variations between them and his first visitors. These two weren’t the same pair. Close, but not the same. They were probably chosen that way. The tall man spoke.

“I’m afraid you have been selected by one of your fellow members for punishment.”

“What did I do?” he squeaked, realizing the implications of the tall man’s words.

“I’m afraid to say you carried out an unspeakable crime. Not more than one hour ago you cut in front of our member and stole his parking space. Our member was most annoyed, but luckily not so distracted that he omitted to note your car registration.”

“But I was in a rush. I was rushing to get my membership fee. I was rushing to get your damn money!”

“I’m sorry. No excuse is accepted. We do have our rules you know.”

DeMontfort-Jones saw the gun in the same instant the small man fired. He died with the small consolation it definitely hadn’t been a con.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Tiny Freezer

The delivery man dropped off the new freezer. Part of the store’s deal was to take the old one away. As he loaded it onto the truck, he asked. “How did it die?”

“Pardon?” asked Melissa.

“The freezer. How did it die? It isn’t very old.”

Weird, she thought. Might be something to do with store’s return policy. “The storm last week. The power went off. When it came back on, the freezer was bust.”

“Good to know.”

He loaded it onto his hand-truck.

“R.I.P. tiny freezer.”

He stroked its white surface, as he gently placed it into the delivery truck.

That was really creepy, Melissa thought, but decided not to say anything. He was a big guy and she was on her own. She quietly closed the front door and watched as he drove away.

A couple of days later she decided it was time to fill the new freezer with food. She went shopping and returned with a car full of groceries destined for the freezer. As she climbed the stairs from the basement, after filling it with her purchases, she noticed the front door of the house was open. She closed it, disquieted.

She entered the lounge and saw the delivery driver sitting on the sofa.

“I checked it. The condenser had blown. The manual clearly says to unplug it in case of a surge after a power cut. You didn’t.”

“What?”

“You could have had the condenser replaced you know, you could have fixed it, but no, you went ahead and had it destroyed. Euthanized. You killed it. You murdered that tiny freezer. It was only a baby. There can be only one punishment for that.”

He rose from the sofa.

Brian came home from work at six, to find the house dark and empty. Shrugging, he guessed Melissa must be out for a walk. There was no note and she didn’t answer her phone. He decided to get a head start on dinner. In the basement the floor was covered in thawing packs of food. Melissa had obviously forgotten to load the new freezer. He opened the lid and recoiled. His wife lay, curled in a foetal position, in the frozen compartment.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Door

I know I’m lying in a hospital bed. I know I have been here for a long time and I am unlikely to recover. I have heard the nurses whisper about me. I lie on the uncomfortable mattress, my flesh penetrated by needles and tubes. I am surrounded by machines that click and beep. I am unconscious and yet, somehow aware. I dream, or at least I think it’s a dream. I find myself walking in a dark corridor. I come to a door. It is painted yellow, decorated with rainbow stickers and smiley faces. I enter and find myself in a green park, the sun shining and the sky blue. Small children are running around, playing. Adults stand close by, monitoring. I recognize my mother first, then myself, deep in a scrum of children. I look to be about five or six. My mother looks so young. Her clothes are incredibly dated; her youth, my age and the fashion dates this time to the early 70s. I have somehow travelled back in time. I try to speak to my mother, reach out to her, but it’s clear that this is a vision, a memory. I cannot interact with the people around me. My heart aches to see her so young, so healthy. If my calculation of the date is correct, she has another thirty years to live before the cancer takes her. I see the cigarette in her hand and hate it. If only I could tell her to stop, to save her own life. My heart breaks when I realize I cannot change the future.

A force compels me to move, I walk through this idyllic scene, headed to an unknown destination.

The next door is black, skull & crossbones stickers plastered across it. Yellow police line tape crisscrosses the wooden panels. I recognize this door, I decorated it this way when I was fifteen. A snotty little goth, trying to be cool. I open the door and smile with embarrassment at the scene in front of me. The teenage me, dyed black hair, black skull t-shirt and a poor attempt at mascara sitting on the bed with my friends, all dressed exactly the same. Some dreary music plays in the background. There’s a girl on the bed too, the girlfriend of my best friend. It takes me a mere second to realize she’s looking at the younger version of me, not him. My teenage version is too interested in showing off his new leather trousers to notice. Her eyes tell the story, she likes me, she wants me to like her. To notice her. I fail to do so, I’m too focused on showing off. I curse my younger self. What a fool I was, she could have been the love of my life.

A push from behind impels me to move again. I come to another door.

This door is pastel blue, a soothing color. Inside the room is a nursery, decorated in gentle colors, with toys scattered around. The room is clean, bright and sunny. A tiny baby lies in a crib. I’m standing over it with a woman I don’t recognize. I look to be about thirty. This is an interesting scene. Not only is the woman a stranger, but I also never had any children. I had a wife, but she isn’t here. I never lived in this house. I wonder why I’m being shown this scene. I never regretted not having children, never really thought about it. Is this an untravelled road, a path my life could have taken, or is it just a dream? Wish fulfillment, from some unspoken subconscious desire? I wish I had the answer.

I’m pushed again, there is no time to ponder.

The third door is a rich burgundy, a solid color that speaks to me of success, money and complacency. I recognize this one, it is achingly familiar. I know what to expect. Inside I see myself. I am sitting in a wood-lined study, surrounded by leather bound books. This is my home, the place I worked my whole life to afford. The books are the ones I spent a lifetime collecting. I am old, with a wrinkle-lined face and grey hair. I’m reading a book, an anthology of Victorian ghost stories. My dog sits at my feet, warming herself in front of the log fire. I pause, this is last month, the day before I tripped and fell down the stairs, ending up in this hospital bed. This was the last day I spent in my beloved house, the last time I saw my dog.

The force insists I continue on. I have no choice but to obey. I reach another door.

This door is grey, almost hazy. I have the sense that this is it, the end of the line. It wasn’t a dream after all. I have really seen my life, my lives, the real and the possible. The branches I could have taken; the ones I chose to take. My life in high definition. I reach out to touch the handle, to pass through this door. I know it’s the last one, that whatever follows will be infinite. Was my life good? I ask myself. Did it fulfil me? Did I leave a good legacy? Did I ever act foolishly, selfishly? Do I have regrets? I answer yes to all those questions, but that is life. It must be painted in blacks, as well as whites. I feel a huge sense of sorrow, but I’m grateful I had the chance to reflect on my life, to see some reminder of my bygone days. I don’t want to leave yet, but I know I cannot stay. The sorrow diminishes to be replaced with hope. Perhaps there really is something on the other side of this door. I draw a breath, realizing that, in the real world of my hospital bed, this may well be my last. I exhale, then turn the doorknob and pull the grey door open. I enter.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Signal to Noise

He regained consciousness in the hospital corridor, finding himself standing in the middle of a stream of people flickering past without pause.  He was dimly aware he couldn’t be seen.  The world he had emerged into was grey, faded and separated from the world he had just left.  It was also silent.  He reached out to touch a nearby nurse, but his hand, insubstantial, entered her arm and passed through without making contact.

As soon as the time of death was recorded most of the staff cleared the emergency room, moving onto the next crisis.  She stood over his shell, stunned, ignoring the nurses who fussed around him, tidying up the detritus of the failed attempt to save him.  She thought back to the accident; they had been walking across the road, moving from pub to pub, then boom, the taxi had hit him.  The next few minutes were a blur; a scream, bystanders arriving, the police, the wail of the ambulance, the emergency room and the medical staff.  Then this, the unnatural quiet.

He found himself floating down the corridor towards an unknown destination.  The world around him was moving faster and faster, the people mere blurs.  He was slowing down, fading from the mortal realm as his life energy dissipated.  He was moving between worlds.

She left him and stepped out of the triage room.  The policeman, who had diplomatically waited outside, agreed to meet her the following day to take a statement.  She signed the required documents and received unwanted, rushed condolences from the harassed admin staff.  It was the week before Christmas, the busiest time of the year for the emergency department.  Falls, fights, drunks and car accidents overwhelmed the staff.  With nowhere else to go she went home, getting back at about ten o’clock.  She left the house in darkness and slumped onto the sofa in the lounge.  An involuntary shudder shook her thin frame, memories returning.  The worst thing was she hadn’t had the chance to say farewell to him, he hadn’t regained consciousness and she knew her whispered goodbye as he lay dying hadn’t been heard.  That, above all, was unbearable.

He started to notice other shapes around him.  Diaphanous, smoke-like figures floated next to him.  The real world, the world of living people could still be seen, but it was blurred, as if observed through a film of ice.  His mortal energy was almost gone, but one thing kept him focussed on the world he had just left.  Her.  He didn’t know if he could, but he knew he had to try.  Concentrating, he steered himself towards his goal.

She tried to sleep, but found it impossible.  She rose and made some tea, watching the darkness out of the kitchen window.  She hadn’t cried yet, the emptiness she felt had driven out every other possible emotion.  She knew with the coming of the dawn she would have to start phoning.  It was then the emotion of the truth would overwhelm her.

He reached for the pay-phone praying he was still able to lift the receiver.  Around him, the shapes of his new companions whirled and danced, some grieving and some celebrating.  His companions were fading away, just as he was, but he had to do one last thing before he left the mortal world.  His fingers, through sheer willpower, made contact with the receiver and he managed to find the strength to lift it.  He had to reach her, had to say goodbye.  The shapes around him scattered in confusion at this merging of the two worlds. 

She finished her tea and rinsed the mug.  The early morning sun was streaking the eastern sky with reds and yellows.  She knew she would have to reach for the phone soon, to start the task of letting friends and family know the news.  Suddenly, shockingly the phone rang.  She lifted the receiver and placed it to her ear.  A crackle of white noise made her wince, but some hidden emotion kept her from hanging up.  She strained to listen.  A voice spoke, faint beneath the crackling.  The voice was achingly familiar and she gasped when she recognised it.  The voice spoke a simple message, over and over again.  All too soon it faded to nothing amongst the overwhelming white noise, but it had been enough.  He had said goodbye.  Tears flowed down her face.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

All Hallows

It was the end of October. The summer season was over in the sleepy seaside village of Foreness. Chris checked his watch. Four fifteen. He had driven from the final, insane argument with his now ex-girlfriend, stopping only to pack a small suitcase before he left their home for the last time. He walked down the promenade towards the pier, but it was closed.  Standing on the edge of the promenade, his hands resting on the green painted metal fence, he looked out to the grey ocean. He was totally alone and that suited his mood. The whole town seemed deserted, with ‘Closed’ signs up in most of the shops, arcades and hotels on the front. He hadn’t seen a single person since he had arrived. Lost in his own brown study, he remembered he had been brought here by his parents three times in his early teens. He had loved those holidays in the dim and distant past. Holidays that seemed to last forever, full of adventure and joy. And now he was back. He needed somewhere to escape and he had instinctively chosen Foreness, this place of childhood happiness, memories of a time when there was no pain, no sadness.

He walked down the nearest steps down onto the beach, finding a discarded deck chair to sit on. Sitting near the concrete wall, he looked out to the sea as darkness fell.

Waking with start, he rubbed his eyes, not quite believing he had managed to fall asleep. He checked his watch. It was seven thirty. He supposed he better find somewhere to sleep for the night. Climbing the steps from the beach to the top of the seawall, he was amazed to find the promenade was crowded with people. There were about fifty, all staring out to sea. It was an incongruous sight. There was no buzz of conversation, no-one was talking.

He walked up to the nearest person, a man of around fifty years old.

“Hi. How are you doing?”

The man didn’t immediately respond, his attention focused out to sea. It took a few moments for the words to register.

“Um, yes. Hello. As well as can be expected, I suppose.”

“I’m Chris.”

“Philip.”

“Nice to meet you Philip.”

Philip was staring back out to sea. Chris did the same, trying to work out what these people were looking for. He couldn’t see much, just the beach and the edge of the sea. After that the darkness was complete. Away in the distance he could see a tiny speck of light from a fishing boat.

“Can I ask what you are looking for?”

Philip looked at him in amazement.

“What?”

Chris was suddenly aware he had said the wrong thing.

“I thought you were one of us.”

“No.”

“It’s normally only this group who come here on this night. The locals leave for the night, to give us space.”

“I’m not local, I just arrived this afternoon.”

“That would explain it.”

Philip lapsed into silence, continuing to stare out into the darkness. A few moments passed, then Chris knew he had to ask.

“Why are you all here then?”

Phillip spoke without taking his eyes off the shoreline.

“Have you ever heard of the H.M.S. Forstall?”

“No, sorry.”

“No surprise. It was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. All hands went down with her, a total of two hundred and thirty-four souls. October the 31st, 1942.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Seventy-four years ago tonight. And it happened just out there, just off-shore. It’s a war grave now.”

“And you’re here to mark the occasion.”

Chris glanced at the other people. Some were old, some were young. Most were middle aged. Chris guessed they were the families of the lost sailors.

“I am the grandson of one William Henry Partridge. Able Seaman, aged twenty-five years old on the night the Forstall sank. My mother’s father. She is getting too old to make this pilgrimage, so now I do it. My boy will take over in a few years.”

Suddenly there was a shout from further down the line of people.

“They’re here!”

The people starting moving, down the steps to the beach. Philip turned to Chris.

“You may not want to see this.”

“Why? What’s happening?”

Philip smiled. A dark smile without happiness or humor. He gestured at the other people.

“We come here, on this night, not just to remember, but to meet them. The crew return to shore, once a year. Every year, on the 31st of October. I think it’s because they died on All Hallows that they are able to return the world of living. After all, this is the night when the veil between worlds is the thinnest, when the dead can return. All we, the living must, be here to greet our families and pay homage to their sacrifice.”

“That’s not funny. What a horrible thing to say.”

Philip smiled the same smile.

“Why do you think the town is deserted? On this night, the dead return and we must be here to greet them. Come with me, if you think I’m lying.”

Philip walked down the steps. Chris stared at him for a moment, then followed.

Later on, in the daylight and well away from Foreness, Chris tried to piece together that night. Those few hours when he saw the dead emerge from the sea to be greeted by their extended families. But it wasn’t a complete picture. His mind had blanked out a lot of what he had seen, almost as if he had been drunk or drugged. He retained some memory, but only brief flashes. Memories of darkness, of white faces, of naval uniforms and of figures stumbling through the waves back onto the land. Memories of the dead returning from the sea. He didn’t remember making his way back to his car, after, but he guessed Philip had helped him. He vaguely remembered driving out of Foreness, tears streaming down his face. He remembered begging his girlfriend to take him back and she agreeing, just as tearful as he was.

As he grew older, he always remembered the night at Foreness on the 31st of October. Those broken fragments of memory never lost their clarity. He always wondered if those families still met on the promenade to greet their long lost relatives. He guessed they must, but one thought often kept him awake at night; what would happen on the night when the families no longer gathered to greet the crew of the Forstall? When the new generations of the families simply forgot or no longer cared or believed. What would the sailors do, where would they go, when that day inevitably came?

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

World Without End

The wind blew fallen leaves along the street. Grey, leaden clouds lay low in the sky. Phil walked along the row of terraced houses in the same direction as the leaves, travelling just as aimlessly. It was two p.m., the dead time of the afternoon when people had finished lunch but before the kids arrived home from school. The street he walked on was completely empty.

He reached a junction with the main road and saw there was a park on the opposite side. He might as well waste time in there rather than wandering the empty, depressing roads. Phil could see the local Council had recently tried to make improvements in the park; the railings were all freshly painted, the small tea-shop was actually open, the grass was freshly cut, and the beds and pond well-kept. He felt cheered at the sight. It would have been easy to let the park fall into disrepair and ruin.

Because it was mid-week and off season, there were only a few people in the park; a couple walked a dog, an old lady listlessly threw bread at a bored looking duck, and a barista in the tea-shop leaned on the counter with no customers to serve. A man in overalls worked on a flower-bed, clearing out dead flowers. None of them paid him any mind. He noticed a greenhouse on the other side of the small lake, and headed round to have a look.

He peered through the cloudy glass on the door and saw a magical world of green inside. A notice on the glass said it was closed on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday.

He walked round the building, looking for something else to do. He ended up in a part of the park which hadn’t been as well restored as the other areas. Overhung trees and bushes sprawled untidily over cracked and broken paths. The railings, such as they were, were rusty and damaged. The whole area had an atmosphere of dereliction and decay. He saw an old sign attached to one of the trees. It read ‘Maze’ in antique script. Underneath the words, an arrow pointed him further away from the main park. Phil decided to go for a look.

The path led him through oppressive bushes and trees for a few hundred yards, then ended in a wide grassy area with the maze set in the middle. It wasn’t a particularly big maze, no more than a hundred feet square, but it was tall; about eight feet high. It didn’t look as if it was well maintained; the hedge itself was ragged and unkempt, as was the grass surrounding it.

Phil walked up to the maze, and looked around. There was a small booth at the entrance but it was in a poor state of repair suffering from dry rot and peeling paint. Phil checked his watch, then decided to have a go at the maze. There was no particular reason, it just felt the right thing to do. He walked past the booth and was about to enter when he heard a small voice.

“A penny please, sir.”

Phil gave a visible start, he thought he was on his own. It took him a moment to source the voice and finally realized it had come from the booth. He looked toward it and saw there was a tiny old man sitting in the darkness of the wooden hut.

“A penny please, sir,” repeated the old man.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” stammered Phil.

“That’s alright, sir. Don’t get many visitors down here. I was just taking a nap when I heard you passing me by.”

Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.

“Don’t like people passing me by, sir. Ain’t right,” the old man said in a dour tone.

“Sorry.” Phil mumbled again. To ease the tension, Phil changed the subject, “I like the renovation they’ve done to the rest of the park.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing been done to this whole park nigh on twenty years, not since the Thirties. Alderman Smith did it, well leastways he organized it.”

The Thirties? Twenty years ago? More like eighty. But Phil didn’t bother to argue. The old guy had obviously lost his marbles. He reached inside his pocket and dug out a coin. A twenty pence piece, it was all he had. Phil handed it over.

“Keep the change.”

The old guy smiled. “Thank you, sir. Go right in.” he said motioning to the entrance of the maze.

Initially Phil enjoyed the sensation of getting lost. He tried to make the most of the experience, and intentionally wandered aimlessly. He twisted left and right without thinking, following the paths of the maze as he saw fit. After what he felt was about fifteen minutes he decided he was lost enough and would try to find his way out.

No matter which way he turned he was faced with the same scene; green hedges. The green was vibrant and almost dazzling; it struck a harsh contrast to the grey of the sky. He stopped and sighed, it had looked like a fairly mediocre effort from the outside, but he had to admit the maze had stumped him. Faced with no other choice, he started to walk once again.

The hedges were impenetrable; no light shone through them. He could see nothing but grey when he looked to the sky. To make matters worse it was beginning to get dark. Dark? It was only about three o’clock. He looked at his watch and realized with a jump it was half past five. How the hell did that happen? Time didn’t race when you were unemployed; it dragged. 

With no other choice, he kept up his pace, twisting and turning through the green walls that trapped him. Trapped? His subconscious had thrown the word into his mind; a word he would never have normally used. He didn’t feel trapped; it was only a bloody maze! Don’t you? a sly voice inside his head asked. He checked his watch. Seven o’clock. What? He shook his wrist, not believing his eyes. He looked up at the sky, saw only grey and the darkening of approaching night. He could still make out the hedges in front and beside him, and the ground was still visible, but he wondered how long that would last.

Something twitched at a locked door in his mind, something he tried to get rid of. Panic. He suddenly realized he was really lost, not like earlier when it had seemed merely a game. Why hadn’t the old man tried to find him before the park closed, had he forgotten or had he not cared?

Phil reached a junction – left or right? He went left. After what felt like only a few moments, he checked his watch again. It was nine-thirty. He was cold, hungry and tired. Surely there was a way out of the maze? He took a tissue from his pocket and shredded it into long, thin strips. He put all but one back in his pocket. He twisted the remaining piece round a small twig so its whiteness was visible in the night. He started to walk again, careful to count each step. When he reached fifty he tied another small twist of tissue into the hedge. Fifty steps; a twist. Fifty; twist. His plan was to eventually get back to the first twist so he would know he had covered that portion of the maze. Then, he would be able to find his way out. It was simply a matter of elimination.

He gave up on that idea when his watch read one a.m. and he still hadn’t come across any bits of tissue. He had run out of twists around eleven o’clock but had carried on in vain as he tried to find any sign of the twists he had lain. He couldn’t find one. Crumpling to the ground, he put his head in his hands and began to sob.

***

In a deserted and scruffy part of a forgotten park, in a small hut at the entrance of a neglected maze, an old man waits patiently for the next customer. While he does, he smiles because he is the only one who knows that sometimes, just sometimes, those who enter the maze never find their way back out.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Shadows

The blast stripped his skin away, charring the flesh underneath and turning his bones to dust. His eyelids were sealed by the heat, the fluid orbs boiling and bursting in their sockets. He felt a brief moment of pain, then nothing, as his limbs were ripped from his body, his guts torn open and his head shattered. After the explosion, there was nothing left except for a few misshapen lumps of gristle and burnt meat.

He woke. He was in the boiler room as usual. He stood, dusting himself down. He quickly realised the room had changed. There was a hole in the roof and the room was full of smoke and debris. The furnace was ripped open, sheared metal hanging from the frame. He looked down and saw the charred, rendered remains of his body. He remembered the explosion. He was dead.

He’d often thought about death, not morbidly, but in a detached way. What did it feel like, what did you see, experience? Now he could find out.

There were sirens in the distance, but they didn’t concern him. He was well past the point of being saved. No defibrillator was going to bring him back; they’d have to take his body out in a bucket.

He walked upstairs to the factory floor, amused to see the panic and fear on his colleagues’ faces. They had practised drills for this type of occurrence, but none of them seemed to remember. They ran for the doors in a panicked mob. No-one was checking for colleagues, no-one was counting heads, no-one was grabbing fire extinguishers. He laughed to see them, but reflected he would probably be doing the same. He wondered how long it would be before his absence was noticed, who would discover him, the memory of the sight no doubt being burned into their memory forever.

He walked out the factory, intrigued to find he wasn’t floating or drifting. His body felt as solid as always. Nobody noticed him, so it was clear he was invisible. He walked towards a stack of pallets with the intention of seeing if he could walk through objects. The bump on his nose suggested he couldn’t.

He wandered away from the site, keen to get home. He had a sense that his time was limited, and he wanted to see his family for the last time. He wanted to say goodbye.

His car wasn’t an option, so he decided to walk.

The factory was situated in the working-class part of town. It was a Victorian red-brick edifice, originally a flour mill, but converted into a small timber yard in the late 1970s. He walked down streets full of red brick terraced houses, originally built to house the flour mill workers and their families. The homes were modest, two-up and two-down, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a small yard behind. An alleyway at the back allowed access to the yards.

As he walked down the quiet street he became aware of curtains being twitched in almost every house. Was he visible? Could they see his injuries? It didn’t take him long to realise he was being watched by the dead. Pale faces with sunken black eyes started at him from behind glass. These were the dead of past ages, condemned to the house where they died, condemned to move unseen amongst the living. He saw the sadness in their faces, the despair.

As he walked, getting closer to his home and family with every step, the world around him changed. The real world, the one he had occupied until twenty minutes ago, was starting to change, starting to become unfocused and misty. The figures in the houses were becoming more distinct, more solid, while the bricks and mortar became more and more transparent. His feet started to sink into the tarmac of the pavement. The world darkened. The street, the one that belonged to the real world, faded away. He realised the houses, the pavement, the entire mortal realm had passed from his view.

He found himself on a wide open plain, full of darkness and shadows. The dead were all around him.  Most were heading to an unseen point in the distance, some were simply wandering around, lost. He joined the throng, walking to the unknown destination.

An endless time later, travelling through this dark, shadowed land, he arrived at his destination. Standing there, with countless others, he looked across the river into the darkness. Boats arrived on the bank every few minutes, the dead boarded and the boats headed back out into the darkness. Some of his new companions shuffled around, unsure, but he knew he had to make a decision. To go across the river meant the end. He wouldn’t see his family again.  To stay on this side was to become a wraith, a spirit that haunted the mortal world, being able to see but not being seen. The sadness was overwhelming.

He stood on the river bank and made his decision. He remembered the misery and despair on the faces staring out at him from the houses in the street. He didn’t want to suffer that fate. Instead, he would move on. He stepped onto the next boat.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Skin Trade

It was rush hour. As they weaved through the throng of commuters Peter noticed a group of people standing near an intersection. He was reminded of a recent headline.

“I wonder where they all come from.”

“Who?” asked John.

Peter pointed. There were about ten of them, all clearly vagrants.

“Those guys. I saw an article that said the number of homeless people in the city had increased three-fold in the last two years. I was just wondering where they all come from.”

“No idea. I don’t think about them.”

“I’m going to contact Sarah at Channel 6, she might be interested in commissioning a piece.”

“What’s your angle?”

“What the city is doing to help. The article didn’t say.”

They carried on walking.

A week later Peter emerged after dinner wearing a coat. John glanced up from his laptop.

“Off out?”

“I’m going to a homeless shelter tonight. Channel 6 commissioned the story. I’ve done some background research and now I’m off to talk to the people who run the shelters.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t forget your phone.”

Peter started with the largest of the city’s shelters, Harmony Hill. He asked the man at the reception if he could speak to a manager. After ten minutes a young woman arrived. She introduced herself as Susan, night supervisor. Peter explained his mission.

“Sounds like good exposure for us. Numbers are increasing to the point where we’re turning people away. If you could publicise this issue, it might drum up some interest. City hall doesn’t seem to care. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll have more time to talk.”

The next night, as Peter headed to Harmony Hill again, he noticed a truck parked on the street. It caught his attention because the tailgate was open and a man was addressing the homeless who had gathered around. The man pointed at various people, who climbed into the back of the truck. The man jumped down, closed the tailgate and drove off. Peter asked Susan if she knew anything about it.

“No, but I can guess. It’ll be some farmer or factory owner picking up cheap labour. We’ve heard reports of that happening.”

“That’s a dimension to being homeless I didn’t realise existed. I think I’ll investigate.”

Peter asked Susan if she could let him know when the truck appeared again. It was three weeks before she phoned.

“It arrived ten minutes ago. You better be quick; it’s half full already.”

Peter jumped into his car and sped to Harmony Hill. The truck was still there, but it was clearly about to leave. He decided to see where it was going.

The truck drove through the city, stopping at a scruffy industrial unit. Peter parked on the far side of the lot and walked over. The driver had backed the truck up to the loading dock. A tall, broad man and a smaller, younger man stepped out from the factory and opened the tailgate of the truck.

“You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, so we’ve prepared some food. Fill up before we head out again. Line up, we want to get your names before you eat.”

The driver joined the two men on the dock. The homeless men left the truck and stepped onto the loading dock. They were lined up before being beckoned inside. The dock was closed.

Peter pushed a nearby dumpster underneath a high window and climbed up. He could see into the factory. It was divided into three parts. The first area, where the homeless men were standing, was empty of furniture and equipment. There was a partition dividing this section from the next, a smaller room that contained a desk. The third area, much bigger than the other two, was a processing area. There were conveyors, chains hanging from the ceiling, long stainless steel benches and large plastic bins.

The driver addressed the line of men.

“We’re limited in space here, so I’ll ask you to go through this door one at a time. We’ll take your details, then you’ll be fed. It won’t take long.”

The broad man opened the door and gestured for the first man to enter. The door was closed. The homeless man was instructed to sign a form on the desk. As he bent to sign, the broad man reached into his pocket and brought out what looked like a gun. He placed it against the head of the vagrant. There was a soft pop and the man dropped like a stone. There was no blood. The broad man lifted the corpse and pulled it through to the processing area. He then returned to the office and instructed the second man to enter. The same process happened again and again, until there was no-one left.

The next stage of the operation started. The young man stripped each body. The broad man tied the feet together and hung them upside down on a hook. He sprayed them with a hose, then drew a knife across each throat, stepping back to avoid the gush of blood. Each abdomen was slit open and the intestines and organs pulled out. These were dumped into a nearby bin. The heads were then removed and thrown into a bucket. The slaughterman carefully removed the skin to leave a red, glistening slab of meat. He neatly folded each skin and placed it onto a trolley. The cadavers were then pushed towards a white door at the side of the room.

Peter tumbled off the dumpster and phoned the police.

“There’s murder taking place! Homeless people are being slaughtered. Send as many cars as possible.”

He gave his name and the address and hung up.

It took fifteen minutes for one solitary patrol car to turn up. A bored looking officer stepped out. Peter, standing next to the dumpster, beckoned him over.

“Where’s your backup? There’s at least three of them in there!”

“Sir, we aren’t going to dispatch multiple units without evidence. Now, can you please explain to me what you told the dispatcher?”

Peter gave an account of what he had witnessed. The officer couldn’t disguise a look of disbelief.

“All you have to do is kick down that door and you’ll see, officer!”

“Let’s start by talking to them.”

The officer knocked on the door, while Peter stood behind. The door was opened. It was man from the truck.

“Constable McCready. Good to see you.”

He glanced behind the police officer.

“And who do we have here? Ah yes. Mr. Peter Jones, freelance investigative reporter, currently working for Channel 6. I wondered when you’d turn up.”

The officer spoke.

“Mr. Jones must have followed you, Inspector. Thought you might want to deal with him yourself.”

“That’s very kind of you, Constable McCready. There’ll be something extra in your pay packet this month.”

“Thank you, much appreciated.”

Peter stared at the two policemen as the truth of the situation hit home, then passed out.

He wasn’t out for long. He woke to find the Inspector squatting and staring at him. They were in the processing area, the floor sticky with blood.

“So, now you know, Mr. Jones. It’s the city’s way of reducing the homeless population. They just kept coming and coming. Fighting, drinking and making the city look like shit. City hall doesn’t want to waste money on shelters and soup kitchens. The mayor asked us to come up with a solution and we have. The homeless have finally become of use.”

He glanced around the room.

“It’s all too easy. To them I’m Father Murdoch of the Souls Full of Hope Mission. They can come and work on our farm. We promise we’ll feed them and pray for them. They fall for it every time.”

He stood and stretched.

“I’m going to leave you now. Mac is a good slaughterman; he gets paid in the meat he produces. What he does with it is his business, not ours. The less we know the better.”

He nodded to the slaughterman and left. Peter felt the Mac’s legs straddle him. Mac pulled Peter’s hair, lifting his head.

“Just so you know. Meat goes to piggies. Piggies eat the meat. Piggies get fat and go to slaughter. But we don’t send the skin we collect, we keep the skin for something special. We make leather. Sell it to fancy stores in the city for shoes and handbags. Get more money that way.”

“Please, let me go.”

“You ain’t the first to come snooping. Inspector says to kill ‘em all, can’t risk it. Nothing personal, but no choice.”

The slaughterman glanced down, with an expression that was almost sympathy. He lifted his knife. Peter closed his eyes.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.