This happened in 1952. I was young, a boy of seventeen. A conscript, like so many of my friends. Some of them were unlucky enough to be sent off to fight in Korea. I was one of the lucky ones, posted to Norfolk on the east coast of England. It was a bleak and isolated place, but I didn’t mind; it was better than fighting. My service consisted of endless parade-ground drills, physical exercise and rifle training. I’m not sure what good I did for my country, but perhaps the boys fighting and dying in Korea felt the same.
I was heading back home on leave. I planned on catching a train passing through the local station at 9 p.m. Getting this train would allow me to catch the overnight mail express in Norwich. I would be at home first thing in the morning.
I headed out front gate of the camp. It was already dark and the country roads were unlit, but I knew the way to the station like the back of my hand. After a fifteen-minute walk, I arrived at the station, a small red-brick building. The platform was empty. The station building was dark and the waiting room was locked. I was alone.
I read the notices on the platform to pass the time. Having quickly exhausted this diversion, I stared without thinking at the other side of the railway line, across from the platform. I found myself looking into misty blackness. I knew in front of me were hectares of flat farmland. I checked my watch. Five minutes had passed, with ten to go. I looked up from my watch and glanced over to the other side of the railway tracks again. Shapes were moving in the dark fields in front of me, just beyond the reach of the platform lights. As I stood there, my mouth open and my heart racing, I could hear voices. British voices. I could hear words being spoken, words which were very familiar to me. They were orders, barked in an all too familiar military tone. Attention. At ease. Dress right. These were the commands I was used to obeying without question at the endless drill parades I endured. I could feel my muscles twitching to obey.
I wondered if a troop embarkation was scheduled, but I would have known. There are no real secrets on an army base. I also knew troops wouldn’t wait for a train in the darkness of a muddy field, not when there was a perfectly good platform. The noise from the fields beyond the railway line continued. In the darkness, in the muddy field in front of me, troops were on parade. I was terrified. Against all logic and reason, I knew there were dozens, if not hundreds, of soldiers in the field opposite me. Soldiers I couldn’t see.
I heard a command. Attention! The troops were suddenly quiet. There was a pause, laden with tension, then a bugle sounded. It was the Last Post; the signal the military day had ended. It was also played when a soldier was laid to rest. The bugler stopped, the notes drifting across the field. There was one last command.
“Soldiers! You have done your duty. You are dismissed!”
The field opposite me was suddenly empty.
I jumped out of my skin as the train slid into the station. I took it to the next station and caught the mail train. I spent a week with my family then returned to Norfolk. I finished my time as a solider without firing a shot in anger and, my duty done, went home with a clear conscience. I only have one thing to add, something which might help with the solution to the mystery. Over the last few years I have done some investigating. The camp where I was stationed had been used as a disembarkation camp for troops in the First and Second World Wars. From the camp they were taken straight to the docks to board the ships to would carry them to Europe and beyond. Many of the men sent overseas never came back home. Perhaps it is of significance, perhaps not, but I will never forget what I witnessed in 1952.
The celebratory ball had been planned years prior, at a time when he had been a child playing “castle” with little Ella who was brought to the courtyard by her nanny. Current day Prince Charming wanted to scream at his parents for being so blind. Didn’t they realize he did not want to marry, or at least, he didn’t want to marry a princess? Did they need a more obvious hint than his always insisting he was the queen of the castle when he had played with Ella?
Ironically, the ball was considered a “coming out.” It was meant for the debutantes to be offered as if they were impersonal wares instead of daughters that were cherished.
At the ball, the maidens were paraded in front of him, each one growing more unappealing than the one before. Finally, Prince Charming signaled that it was time to dance, and his parents reluctantly conceded. They had hoped he would select a bride prior to drinks and dancing.
Prince Charming managed to avoid contact with the slavering single ladies as he swayed alone in a corner. Then he saw her.
He hadn’t seen Ella since her mother had died and her father remarried. He strolled across the dance floor and asked her to dance. She was perfect: no one remembered her, no one was chaperoning her, no one would interfere. Furthermore, her sense of style was flawless. As they twirled, he ran a hand over her back.
She winked. “Magic.”
“It is some sort of magic that made you appear.” He smiled. “We used to have such fun together; we were quite the pair.”
Ella could not match his smile. “I believe that is the last time I ever had fun, and the last time I was ever called by my real name.” After some gentle nudging, she recounted the abuse she had suffered since she had last seen him. She confided that she had to sleep on a bed of ashes and that her meals were the spilled food she secretly scavenged from the burning coals of the fire. “If I were to remove these gloves, you would see nothing but scars.”
Prince Charming’s heart broke for his old friend. “No one helps you? What about that kind nanny?”
“She was fired when my father remarried. There is no one comforting me except the feral animals I have befriended. My stepmother and stepsisters take turns beating me; it is how they find enjoyment.”
Prince Charming considered this sad information throughout the next song and then he told her, “I could help you escape, but you would have to live a different life than you may have expected.”
Without hesitation, she said, “Any life would be preferable to the one I live.”
“Then I have an idea. I noticed your beautiful shoes that are unlike any others I have ever seen…”
She leaned closer, “I told you; my outfit is magic.”
“I fully believe it and we will need more magic to get away with my plan. What I was thinking was…”
The two hashed out the details while deflecting the envious looks of those who wanted a turn to dance with the prince. At midnight, as planned, the girl accidentally left one of her glass slippers behind. The prince dramatically swept up the shoe, held it aloft, and proclaimed he would marry any girl who could fit the slipper. He said he would go from house to house the following day, until he found the maiden with the right shoe size.
Also as planned, he only visited one house.
When the door opened, Prince Charming realized that two of the ugliest eligible bachelorettes from the night before were Ella’s stepsisters. The women were beside themselves when he entered their home. They knocked each other with their elbows, pushing so that they could be the one closest to their visitor.
“You are here about the shoe?” a stepsister asked.
“Indeed, I am,” the prince said loudly. He knew that Ella was waiting for her cue. “May I ask how many maidens live in this home?”
“Just the two of us,” the other stepsister answered.
This lie made it easy for the prince to follow through with the plan. “Then please be seated on the sofa.”
The women perched on the edge of the cushions, kicking off their large satin shoes.
The prince handed a shoe to one sister followed by the other, confident the dainty slipper would never fit their large, calloused feet.
The stepsisters grunted and struggled, but the glass construction would not give. They fought over the shoe, believing they could make it fit. Each woman panted and cried, “I can make this work, give me a minute…”
The prince scoffed, “I don’t think either of you really wants to be a princess. If you did, you would make the shoe fit.”
Both stepsisters sobbed and wailed, “I do! I do want to be a princess!”
“Those sound like magic words,” the prince announced, and Ella appeared.
“What is she doing here?” the women scoffed.
“Just this.” Ella put her fingers to her mouth and whistled loudly. A mischief of rats ran into the room and the stepsisters pulled their feet up onto the cushions; their squeals and squirms rivaling that of the rodents.
“More magic,” the prince exclaimed. Ella looked alarmed but he had made a solemn promise to keep her secret.
What happened next was far outside of the realm of courtly decorum. The rats were not shy about attacking the women’s feet, devouring toes and heels quickly.
When the stepsisters fainted from blood loss, the prince called loudly, “Is there no other woman in the house to try the shoe? Even a widow who might like to live in the palace—”
Ella’s stepmother ran down the stairs and looked from Ella to the prince expectantly.
“We have a special shoe for you to try,” the prince explained. Ella pulled the iron shovel from the fire.
“That’s for scooping ashes,” the stepmother noted.
As their plans had not included touching the abusers directly, Ella whistled, and two large hawks landed on her stepmother’s shoulders, forcing the woman to sit on the sofa.
“That shovel has many purposes,” the prince assured her as the rabbits Ella had called forth pushed the shovel onto the soles of the woman’s feet, scorching the skin with a sizzle that could be heard above her screams.
Prince Charming and Ella vacated the house, understanding that they could have left without bringing harm to anyone, but feeling fully satisfied with their revenge.
A month later, they had an extravagant royal wedding. When it was time for the groom to kiss his bride, their lips met but there were no fireworks, no tingling spark. In fact, there was no feeling of romance at all.
Ella smiled knowingly at the prince and whispered, “I will keep your secret, too.”
In their happily ever after, Ella no longer suffered abuse and Prince Charming was free to be the queen of the castle.
Growing in clusters and well cocooned in a thistle-like brush, this non-indigenous species has begun to bud on the south-western side of Pular. The stratovolcano has been active for some time now, emitting noxious fumes that have kept researchers and volcanologist rife with both anticipation and abundant caution. As the area is not stable, we are unsure if the flora emit carbon dioxide or not, though other plant species in the area seem to be dwindling which would indicate a rise of gaseous fumes that smother what sparse life is able to grow there.
Recent reports seem to indicate that when the bud has reached maturity, it will detach from the stem allowing for a new bud to form. This naturally occurring ‘dead-head’ process releases the buds in what might be referred to as a rhythmic pulse. Once the buds separate from the mother plant, they begin gathering in small clusters, making their way toward the western shoreline of Chile along the Pacific Coast. There is a sense of waiting, a pregnant pause if you will, in the tension forming in the seemingly endless row of invaders.
One can only deduce that a sufficient number have gathered as the thousands of buds lining the shore have begun to mobilize. Waves of what look like gray sleigh bells have entered the water, and appear to be moving with intent toward the continental shelf.
Two weeks have passed, and what we initially believed to be floral pods are clearly presenting as small aquatic beings. Unlike the naturally occurring creatures in the depths of the ocean, these lifeforms appear to be toxic to any fish, crustacean, or invertebrates they manage to hunt down or infiltrate. At this rate, predictive algorithms suggest all life in our oceans will be consumed within a matter of twelve to fourteen months, though I would posit that figure to be munificent of the actual impending depletion. As more buds bloom, detach, and make their way to the water, I would suggest that six months of life left on planet Earth is a generous estimate.
Rebecca pulled the heavy bolt across the front door. Picking up a lantern, she made her way to the kitchen. On the table, she pushed the pile of cutlery to one side and picked up the pistol. It was heavy in her hand. She could barely lift it. Was it the weight or fear that made her hand shake as she practiced aiming it? Maybe it was a mixture of both. She picked up a bullet and put it in her pocket. It was a conscious decision of hers not to load the gun at that moment, as if not doing so would delay the inevitable.
She breathed in long and deep to steady her nerves and made her way upstairs. Retrieving the round of ammunition from her dress she rolled it between her fingers. It glistened in the light of the lantern, and she paused, marveling at its beauty. It was her father who had shown her at such an early age how to melt and shape metal into a bullet. The silver spoon she had chosen made just the right amount of material for one perfect round.
Loading the weapon, she walked quietly down the corridor. It was a Peacemaker. The type that she had seen in the dime novels about the Wild West. The local sheriff would usually be armed with one. She moved past her parents’ room and stopped. It was 29 days since her father had been killed by the beast. 29 days since the last full moon. 29 days since he had tried, and failed, to protect his family from the hideous creature that came for flesh and blood. On that night it had received both in ample portions.
She made her way to her little brother’s room where he was sleeping soundly. She bent down and kissed him gently on the cheek, feeling his warm, innocent breath on her face. He was not yet even four years of age and was the apple of her eye.
Silver was the only thing that could stop the creature, or at least that is what she had heard. After her father had fallen prey to it, she knew it was now down to her to protect what was left of her family. Her mother had died of fever three summers ago.
She left James’s room and silently closed the door behind her. There was a leather high-backed chair in the corridor which she had moved from her room so she could be as close to him as possible. She settled herself in it to wait.
The clock above the mirror on the opposite wall ticked loudly. It was ten to midnight. She hoped with all her heart that the monster would not appear that night but with the moon shining full it was a fool’s hope.
Rebecca awoke with a start, not intending to have slept at all. A growl filled the corridor, low and menacing in its pitch. She stood and caught her reflection in the mirror. Her eyes shone yellow, her ears started stretching into hairy points, and her teeth grew into razor-sharp fangs. She raised the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger.
On the lower steps, you could just barely see him. A gray smoke. A whirl of ghostly gnats and ashes. Faintly glowing. On the move. Adrift but seeking. Rising up from the cellar’s darkness.
In the light. In a narrow place. Beneath the rococo wall of gold, he became invisible. And he waited. To take a lover. To kiss the first mouth that passed through him. To sup upon a soul and become manifest. To feast upon life so that he might return to flesh, and become a god.
Knock on Wood Marge Simon
I return to the house of my youth, where the newel post still stands at the foot of the stairs. Dear memories of childhood, that staircase with its banister, the game of Knock-on Wood. Down and around we children used to slide. At the landing, knock on wood, then change directions, plunging onward shrieking to the very bottom stair. There, we’d touch wood once more at the newel post, then scramble up to do it all again. The fastest one would take the win, such a lark in bygone days!
All too well, I remember Cousin James, who too often won the game. How he’d crow about his win, until the day I’d had enough, and pushed him downstairs to his death. I tell myself I’d meant no harm; it was just a game gone wrong. I go to leave, but a whuff of chill air stops me in my tracks. Suddenly afraid, I turn to see that newel post knows otherwise, a fiendish leer within its carved design. And, after all these years, there’ll be the devil to pay.
After Dark Nina D’Arcangela
In darkness there is patience, a quiet that waits; a moment pregnant with pure malevolence.
I lay in the dark, sheet tucked to my chin on this sweltering night. The small bulb fixed to the tin wall barely a beacon, let alone a source of comfort. I can hear the crick of the wooden stairs as it stealthily begins the climb. Eyes shuttered tight, breath fetid by fear, my muscles seize — I feel it watching me. Minutes pass as I count slowly in my mind. Finally, I hear it turn, I hear its bones and crepe paper skin as it scrapes the railing and planks. I hear the slight squeal of the hinge as it opens the hatch set into the stairwell. I let out a small sigh and immediately regret my mistake. As I throw the sheet over my head, the thing pounds back up the treads and across the room; bones slamming every surface it passes. It leaps onto the bed, and in a frenzy, begins to pound and slash at my body; the bruising from the last assault not yet healed. Both of us scream. Mine, a high-pitched shriek of terror; its, an unholy wail that splits the night.
Abruptly, the onslaught stops. As I lay panting beneath the torn and bloodied bedclothes, it retreats to the stairs once more. In the near silent room, I hear the latch click as it pulls the door shut behind it.
Locked-In with Dreams Louise Worthington
I eagerly wait for a new day inside my cold cell, even when the sun’s face is ready to give up on me. As usual, the sheets are unhappily twisted around me, hiding imprints from the vigour of my dreams. My secret light pollution. Only I can see them travelling on the train of my life going by, cabin by cabin. On waking, they are water spewing from a hose until it’s cut off mid-stream.
I am thirsty. So very thirsty.
Today I imagine myself escaping from a tower. I have grown my hair, and I lower myself down gently to the ground like precious cargo.
Outside, free from walls, stairs, and doors, I build a new country out of mirrors that heal fragmented reflections, like Picasso. I steal silver foil like magpies to protect my skin.
I skip stones across the pond – one, two, three – and bury seeds in the garden and water them in, then secure trellis for black-eyed Susans and ivy to spread over the ugliest and roughest of brickwork until this house disappears.
The precious things which I have lost shower like cherry blossom, and gusts of wind blow the soft-scented petals indoors, dispersed like breadcrumbs up the stairs, along the dark landing, to confetti beneath my locked bedroom door. If I try hard, I can catch their sweet scent.
Rebirth Lee Andrew Forman
Each footfall echoes with unnatural intensity as I ascend. The newfound light draws me, body and soul—this first dawn to repel the suffocating darkness in which I exist, is irresistible. The edge of all my eyes have witnessed have been no more than shadows and illusions of the psyche. I climb, against all struggle, into the blinding gleam, to flee this domain of suffering and feast on all that is within my grasp. I hunger for more than the rotten scraps the cold metal tube provides. As I reach the barrier I’ve never dared near, I wonder how their flesh will taste—the mother who expelled me from her womb as though I were pestilence, and the father who scorned all I am.
In My Darkness Miriam H. Harrison
The first time I saw her, she was little more than shadow. Walking through our sleeping city, she was a companion in my insomnia. A hope in my darkness. We had many more sleepless nights together, but the sunrises are what I remember best. The daily glow of warmth and colour filling her smile.
That was before the sickness came. Before it drained away her colour. Before all warmth faded to chills and aches. Still we spoke of our sunrises, but she was too weary to see new dawns rise. And without her, I saw no beauty in the light.
The longest, darkest night was when the sickness won. I dreaded the light of a new day, the start of my first day without her. But then, just before dawn, I saw her.
That last time I saw her, she was little more than light. Glowing like a sunrise in my home. Like hope in my darkness.
The Upper Room AF Stewart
He lived in a small room on the top floor of the monastery. A small space beyond narrow winding stairs that smelled of sour, musty age. The upper room they called it, at least the monks that spoke of it at all. Few wished to acknowledge its existence, nor the presence of its occupant.
“A holy man,” they sometimes murmured.
But no one truly knew. No soul saw him, not even the monks that brought him food, slipping it inside his darkened space. After all, who would wish to disturb a hermit lost to silent mediation and prayer?
Strange how the truth can be distorted over time. Equally strange how no one questioned the occasional missing traveller or how dissenting monks sometimes disappeared. Sin calls to sin after all.
For the creature that lived in the upper room was no holy man, nor even a man. Not any longer. Once perhaps, a devout monk seeking enlightenment, seeking the divine. But pride drove him beyond sense and he found only demonic secrets. Ones that devoured his soul. Now he waits in the upper room, a prisoner, consuming the sins of occasional fools that venture too far inside his lair.
But he knows one day someone will make a mistake. They will forget to replenish the wards, or he’ll devour enough sins to break his bonds.
He knows one day he will escape.
Stairwell of the Liquid Souls Harrison Kim
Edema steps up and down, up and down the stairs between the walls, under the light that never turns off. At the top, Edema cannot turn the corner because there is no corner. She can’t go through a door because one doesn’t exist. No turning, because her forehead’s becoming larger, her belly too, and her knees. Her body’s filling with liquid, what sort of liquid, she doesn’t know, all she does know is it is heavy and thick, seeping through from the walls, and it sloshes inside and slows her movements. Within her ears she hears a wailing, a crying in despair,
For God’s sake, get us out of here!
Her heartbeat thumps faster as the wailing rises, a heart that slops and slips as she climbs the stairs ever more slowly, hoping she may escape to freedom if she hits the walls hard enough, in this sick brown coloured stairwell with no night or day. Her forehead droops, her belly sags.
It’s her knees that first drag on the floor, her huge liquid filled knees. Then it’s the belly that drops, and now the forehead, pulling her head down, its creases lie flat on the upper stairs, her feet on the lower ones. Edema’s fluid engorged body fills the entire stairwell, a swampy miasma of skin, liquid soul and bones, she can’t climb any more though her legs continue in spasm. In her head the only thought is “For God’s sake, get me out of here!” how much time does her body lie there… ten days, a month, in stench and stink, seeping into the wood and plaster. Afterwards, the only indication that anything filled the empty space is a slightly brighter light atop the hallway of the liquid souls, an alabaster shimmering in the wall.
The Clearing RJ Meldrum
They parked, grabbed their gear and headed down the trail. Walking for about a mile, they reached a fork. Peter consulted the map. He was unfamiliar with the area, but their destination lay to the east, so he decided to follow the trail heading in that direction. Compared to the path heading west, this one was overgrown with grass and other foliage. It was clearly rarely used. Amanda was worried they were literally leaving the beaten path, but he had the map. Her instinct was correct; he’d chosen the wrong trail. It led to a remote, unpopulated part of the forest.
After an hour they entered a clearing. In the middle sat a ruined cabin. The lumber had decayed into indistinct piles. Only one part remained; a flight of stairs. In perfect condition, they climbed to a floor which no longer existed.
The sight was so incongruous, Amanda just had to take a closer look. She touched the bannister, but quickly withdrew her hand. It had vibrated. Peter placed his hand on the wood too, but felt nothing.
She started to climb the stairs. Her eyes were glazed and distant, as if she was seeing something Peter couldn’t. She reached the top and extended her hand. Her fingers mimicked opening a door. She stepped forward. Peter shouted she was about to fall. Instead, she simply disappeared. He ran up the stairs, but there was nothing. He had to get help. He headed back down the trail.
In the clearing, the ruined cabin sat quietly. The fresh varnish on the stairs reflected the evening sun, sending shafts of light to sparkle amongst the green leaves of nearby trees. There was a sense of calm and tranquility. The offering, although unexpected, had been acceptable.
The Servants’ Staircase Elaine Pascale
“I keep dreaming about the stairs.”
“The servants’ stairs?” Clay asked even though he knew the answer. His wife had complained of being haunted by the narrow staircase ever since they had been forced to relocate. She said there was bad energy trapped in the stairwell. He had caught her performing a ritual at the foot of the stairs.
“I wish you wouldn’t call it that…” Julia sighed.
“It’s historically accurate. Besides, neither of our families could have afforded servants. We have a clean slate.”
“Then explain the dreams.”
He tapped his forehead. “Your witchy brain, my dear.”
She frowned. “Can you try opening that weird cubby again? Maybe if I see the inside, the dreams will stop.”
“I’ve tried. It’s sealed shut.”
“Break the seal,” she pleaded.
Knowing that the landlord would not be thrilled with the act of vandalism but wanting his wife’s superstitions to stop, Clay tried the small door again, only to find that it opened easily.
“See, nothing—” Clay stopped when he spotted what looked like a sapphire ring peeking out of the dirt. “How did your ring get in there?”
Julia shrugged. “I bartered.”
Clay was confused. “Bartered? For what?”
As Julia swung the hammer at his forehead, Clay saw that the ring was garnishing a gnarled hand.
“Your life insurance policy.”
The hand grabbed Clay’s shirt just as the pain set in.
The last thing he heard was Julia say proudly, “Thank god for my witchy brain.”
Sunlight fogs the clearing where the dying trees watch; nothing stirs. But the quiet will soon break. Riders are coming from north and south, and before them fly the ravens. They come in flocks, light spilling dark from flashing wings. Their cries rasp the sky. A wind moves with them.
The ancient oaks shiver as the black birds settle raucously in their branches. The ravens’ agate eyes spark with red as they turn their heads in the sun. The grass stirs now, whispering with gossip as the wind arrives. And there is a rumble in the distance that might be thunder but which the ravens know as the pounding of iron-shod hooves.
Up the last hills toward the clearing the riders come, their thunder shaking the earth now, shaking the trees and stirring the birds into a frenzy. Light ripples off armor, off the heads of lances and the bright pennons that snap with eagerness.
The sky roars with sound, then falls nearly silent as the armies draw to a halt facing each other. In the trees, the ravens preside. And the charge comes, as the birds expect. Battle is joined. Carnage riots in the clearing.
First blood soaks the earth, moistens the dry soil. More crimson follows. Buckets of it. It’s what the dying oaks have waited for. It’s why they’ve been sending hate over the years into weak human minds, urging them toward war, urging them toward this moment and this place.
Quietly, the oaks begin to bloom. And in the trees’ awakening hunger, the ravens are the first to be devoured.
The scissors on the dressing table catch Libby’s eye, which means it is day time.
She takes another two pins, thrusts them into the doll’s eyes then puts the doll’s hand in hers. Hand in hand.
‘Come on, Mummy, let’s go to the corner shop.’
Libby makes the doll walk across her single bed. Doll has a face full of shiny pins. Next door in the box bedroom, Mummy is working at her sewing table. The hum of the Singer machine is continuous, from morning through to night time. Libby knows not to disturb Mummy when she’s busy working, but she is hungry.
She looks at the little pin-cushion doll Mummy made her as if she might tell her what to do. ‘Are you hungry, too?’
The humming stops. Libby puts her ear to the bedroom door expecting to hear familiar movements, like the rustle of fabrics, the snip of scissors, the cheerful rattle of the beads and buttons in those special see-through pots, even a scraping of the chair on the wooden floor – something. Mummy likes singing snatches of a song when her mood is happy. Fancy fabric like taffeta and silk for Mummy’s special customers make a rich sound, but that doesn’t happen very often.
The only sound is Libby’s heartbeat and blood rushing through her ears. Loud rumbling in her tummy. She wants to knock.
Libby fingers the poppy-red ribbons in her pigtails. One ribbon is frayed at the end where she has chewed it, but it is still her favourite because of its colour. When it’s time to go to school, she’ll wear them in her hair and everyone will notice her. Only Libby isn’t sure when school starts, or what day it is. She chews the inside of her cheek until a fly lands on the end of her nose.
Fly is tickly, unlike pin-cushion doll who is stuffed with cotton wool and stitched at the seams, made of gingham cotton in pink and red. Left-overs from something or other Mummy made for someone else. Always left-overs and scraps, hand-me-downs. Cold food from the night before, reheated beans, clothes with someone else’s name written on the label.
Buzzing fly is like the hum of the Singer.
Libby knocks on the door, desperate for food and reassurance. ‘Mummy?’
Spools of cotton in navy and black roll behind the door on the wooden floorboards, releasing a new and unexpected sound into the little room. As Libby edges inside the box room, she spots a red bead that looks like a splash of blood.
It’s a relief to see Mummy at her sewing table, her head resting on the desk for a nap after hours of her machine humming away. No wonder she is exhausted.
The Singer is humming even though Mummy’s hands and legs aren’t moving. Libby edges closer to the table, sensing something – an odour. She sees the peculiar angle of Mummy’s head.
When Libby screams a swarm of flies, angry at being disturbed from the stinking corpse, enter her mouth. The humming doesn’t stop; it gets louder.
More flies crawl over the bleeding head with its pin-cushion face, eye sockets of pins, lips of pins, and in between, a flush of gingham pink and red.
People in the Sun by Edward Hopper as Explained by the Ghost of One of His Models
Here I am posed in the crowd. Do you see? We’re supposed to be tourists gathered to relax and stare at distant mountains. It’s as if the artist were replaying a silent film of a family vacation. Normally, visitors here get this explanation: ‘The canvas may reflect Hopper’s discomfort in the West, where he found himself unable to paint with his usual enthusiasm when confronted by the harsh light and monumental wonder of the landscape.
I’m that fellow reading in the back row. My wife Lucia is the woman in the floppy hat. Of course, that’s not a real mountain range on the right. It was actually just a pile of lights and equipment, so it wasn’t difficult to look bored or unimpressed – just what Hopper was after, as a fact. I think he was making a statement about how tourists often miss the awe of the place they are visiting. Whatever, the scene marks our fifth anniversary, the last day of our connubial bliss. We started arguing on the way home and she shot me with the pretty little handgun I’d given her as an anniversary gift. It was for her protection, what a laugh! To think, we’d planned a visit to the Tetons to celebrate. A shame, all that monumental wonder we missed.
The sweet milk drew them to the widow, Mrs. Keller daily. Their lips silently spoke of thirst; a parching despair was evident each morning upon their arrival. Mrs. Keller smiled with each new sun as she watched them come in droves. She waited at the door of her barn, tin containers filled with the greenish-white cream. One by one, she’d fill each jug the locals brought. They’d leave with both their spirits, and wallets, much lighter.
They always asked to see the cows that produced her famed product. An off-kilter smile was the only response she ever gave. They talked in hushed rumors of what might be in that old, red outbuilding, what wonderous dairy cattle gave their delicious milk in secret. They imagined a majestic specimen, the fur a color never before seen by human eyes. Others argued she dyed the milk and put something in it for flavor, but they were buying it as well—thus it was unanimously agreed that wherever it came from, it was the very best.
Despite the general consensus on the milk’s quality, some were too intrigued to stay away. Their curiosity made them brave fools, ready to risk a gut full of buckshot at a chance to know. A plan formed, in preparation for the night of the month when the moon would be most dim. A group of three prepped their tools, headed out at nightfall, and waited, watching the barn and Mrs. Keller’s house.
Long after the lights went out, when all went quiet and they thought she must be asleep, they approached the barn. One cut the chain while the others held it and let it down lightly on the ground. They opened the barn doors just enough to slip inside and face the darkness within.
One of them lit the oil lantern they brought and revealed the source of their town’s milk; the commodity they so cherished—the near-godly nectar of some unknown animal’s bosom. Their faces went slack, as did their minds upon the ghastly sight that lay within Mrs. Keller’s barn. It was no cow that produced their prized milk, but a monstrosity they couldn’t have imagined.
In the stall at the far end, a man’s upper half was chained to the wall. His waistline was no more than a scarred line where stitches had once been. Below that, attached to that man, was something inhuman. Its physique didn’t recall anything they could identify. The flesh, if it could be called that, was dark and had the texture of motor oil. It stank of sulfur and burnt rubber. The three intruders held their noses and gagged against the stench.
The man attached to this multi-legged thing beneath howled in agony, raising both the attention and incalculable fear of the trio. His inexplicable bottom half began to shudder and heave. A slit of flesh opened up near its end, which they then noticed was attached to a hose. The human top wailed while that hose pumped green, viscous fluid into tin canisters lined against the other side of the barn.
When the event was over, the wretched smell intensified, and the man atop this beast fell to rest again. Two of the men heard a loud bang, something wet splashed the side of their faces. By the time they realized what happened, Mrs. Keller shot them as well.
As she began with a shovel to bury her unwanted guests, she had a thought: They may be the first to discover what became of my husband, but they most likely won’t be the last.
As he stared out the window, he still found it difficult to understand how he hadn’t noticed. It’d lain in the long grass for weeks, decaying in its own putrescence, and all he had done was complain to the custodian about the smell from what he assumed was the drains. But it hadn’t been the drains. It had been an old man, lying dead no more than ten feet below his office window for approximately four weeks.
The police assumed he’d wandered behind the office block looking for a place to relieve himself after an afternoon in the pub. The autopsy indicated a heart attack.
The body had been found on a Saturday morning by a loose dog following the scent, so none of them had known about it until the following Monday. Andrew read about the man in the local paper the next day. He’d been married, with five grown-up kids and an army of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’d lived in a small terraced house close to the office. His family had reported him missing after he failed to come home and the local police had carried out some extensive searches, but who would have thought to look in the long grass behind an office block? Andrew learnt the man’s name. Bernard Jones. He had been seventy-eight years old.
Andrew went to the old man’s house about three weeks after the discovery of the body. He had no real plan, just some vague notion of wanting to see where the old man lived. He had an unresolved sense of guilt. There were a few cars outside, with people in dark clothes milling around. It was only after a few moments he realized he was watching the man’s wake. A young man, smoking outside the house, noticed him and walked over.
“Can I help?”
“I’m just paying my respects to Bernard.”
“Oh, you knew him. I thought you might have been the press again. They’ve been hanging around for weeks now. It was the way he was found, you see. Come on in and say hello to Nan.”
“No, I must get back to work.”
“Please. Grandad had so few friends. It would be nice for her to see you. We’re just back from the crematorium.”
Andrew found himself being guided into a small house where the entire Jones family was gathered. It was a forlorn place, showing all too clearly that Bernard Jones had not been a rich man. He was gently steered into the front room, full of what his mum would have called knick-knacks. Plates with various pictures hung from the walls. Brass figures of dogs and horses stood on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. Photographs of the family were everywhere. Bernard might not have been rich in the financial sense, but he did have wealth of another kind. He was rich with family.
An elderly woman sat on a sofa. Middle aged men and women, teenage girls and boys and children were arrayed around the matriarch of the Jones family.
Andrew stood there awkwardly. He shouldn’t have been there. He felt like a fool. He should have just stood up to the young man outside. The conversation stopped and interested faces turned towards him. Mrs. Jones smiled at him. The young man spoke.
“Nan, this is one of Grandpa’s friends. What’s your name, mate?”
“Nice to meet you Mr. Johnson. Bernard never mentioned you, but that’s no never mind. Come and sit beside me Mr. Johnson. It’s nice to hear stories about him. Makes me feel as if he’s still with us. We were married for fifty-six years you know. Never had a row, not ever. We didn’t have much money but we was happy.”
Andrew sat, trying desperately to think his way out of the situation he had stumbled into.
“So, how did you know my Bernard?”
“It wasn’t through the bingo was it? He loved the bingo, not that he ever won anything.”
The others around her laughed.
“No, it wasn’t bingo.”
“The pub then. He loved his ale.”
A ragged cheer went up in the room and several of the men raised their plastic glasses.
“No, it wasn’t the pub either.”
A plastic cup containing warm white wine was thrust into his hand. He took an involuntary sip just to avoid speaking for a moment.
“So where did you know him from then?”
There was no other answer than the truth and it spilled out of his mouth in an unchecked flow. The faces of the family changed to amazement and then to anger. Mrs. Jones sat on the sofa beside him with an expression of stunned bemusement on her face. Tears welled out of her eyes and coursed down the canyons of her wrinkled face.
Andrew was pushed off the sofa and landed on his knees on the faded carpet. The wine spilled out onto the shoes and stockings of Mrs. Jones and, as if in a dream, Andrew watched as the liquid trickled from the nylon down into her lumpy shoes. She sat as if not feeling the sensation.
The family jostled him, not quite drunk enough to strike him in front of the widow. He was forced from the front room and into the hallway. In a matter of seconds his jacket was torn and his tie pulled off. A few punches were thrown and Graham felt blood on his face. He was thrown out the house. He started to run. The crowd did not pursue him, perhaps in deference to their deceased relative. Shouted insults echoed in his ears.
He didn’t stop running until he reached the office building. He was deeply ashamed. The Jones family had reacted naturally to him. He had spoilt an important family moment. He walked round the side of the building until he stood directly below his office. He saw the indentation in the grass where Bernard Jones had lain. It was still visible. He laid down and started to cry.