With a sigh, she noticed the lightbulb was still flickering.
Rebecca climbed up on the coffee table and tapped on the bulb. At her touch, it shattered, startling her. Unbalanced, she fell, hit her head on the side of the table and died.
A woman offered her a coat.
"Welcome! You'll want to put this on." A woman beamed at her, proferring a fur-lined coat.
Rebecca stared blankly at the woman.
"I'm sorry? Who are..." She trailed off. Looking around and realised she wasn't in her house. She had to squint against the white light which seemed to suffuse everything. Like sun through fog on a ski-slope. She touched the back of her head where she could still feel the sensation of it connecting to the edge of the table. "Sorry, who are you? Where am I?"
"Please, do not worry." The woman smiled, almost, but not quite, to her eyes.
"I'm not worried." Rebecca paused. "Well, no, I am quite worried, but, wait, sorry, who are you?"
"I am here to help you, here, put this on." The smiling, but not quite to her eyes, woman helped Rebecca into the fur lined coat. Once she put it on she realised how cold it was. She could see her breath. Her eyes began to adjust.
She was standing on a path that had been carved through the snow. Everything either side of the path disappeared into a thick fog that reflected the diffuse light.
"Please, madam, you must carry on down the path." The woman put a light but insistent hand on Rebecca's back. Her eyes had stopped the pretense of smiling, though her mouth still played lip service to it in a very literal way. Rebecca, pliant in her confusion, began walking.
The path curved gently to the right but that was all she could see. All else was clouded by the mist. She walked forward in a daze.
"Welcome!" She snapped out of her daze and realised that she was standing a meter away from another woman, who looked identical to the first. "You have been allocated to the remote controlled toy department. Please follow me."
The woman set off abruptly down one of the branching paths ahead. Rebecca hurried after, not wanting to lose her.
"Wait, toy department?" The cold and the toys suddenly collided in Rebeccas head. "Am I in..." The woman cut her off.
"Yes, it can be disorientating. You are dead and you are now in Lapland. This is what you would perhaps call 'Heaven', though that has been a cause of confusion over the years. You are probably wondering about 'God' and 'Santa' - same person. We couldn't have been more clear - an omniscient being who judges your moral character?" The woman was looking at Rebecca with clear annoyance, as though she was a slow child. "Anyway, you are through here."
She handed Rebecca a lanyard and placed a light but insistent hand on her back, pushing her towards a building that loomed out the fog.
This is the second time this month, she thought to herself with a gleam of frustration. Since the factories had shut down, most of the town had left. It had become almost impossible to hire a reliable worker. Anybody with any real skill had fled to neighbouring cities, leaving behind those who had never dreamed of anything more. She’d have to call the same electrician, all the others had gone. Making a note on her dwindling to-do list, she turned off the light so that the flicker wouldn’t bother her. Although it was cold out, and getting darker by the minute, she knew a walk around the block would do her cloudy head some good. Grabbing her thickest coat and scarf, she walked out and took a left, feeling that an anti-clockwise journey would make a nice change.
Over time, the streetlights had stopped working one by one, and now only a small handful remained operational, a devastatingly obvious metaphor for the migration of all her neighbours. Now, the streets were so dim and empty, that she felt almost as if she was walking through a strange dream, not certain what her reality truly consisted of. She allowed herself to settle into this feeling of limbo, and as she walked, the cool night air cleared the small frustrations of her day, and she could feel herself lighten with each step. Turning the corner back onto her own street, she saw a car she didn’t recognise parked a few doors down from her own.
Where she was standing, the nearest light was a few metres away so she was cloaked in darkness, hidden from anyone’s view. Someone in the passenger seat of this strange car turned on their interior light and she could just about make out their face. Nobody she recognised, which made their presence even more peculiar. She took one more step forward and then caught herself as she noticed someone else looking in through her living room window. She’d heard rumours of looters who descend on abandoned towns, rummaging through the homes of those who had left with no intention of coming back, and it looked like they had finally found her town.
Having never been burgled before, she didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do now. Mobile phones were a luxury, and even if she could call the police, the nearest station was an hour’s drive away. An unexpected courage came over her and she charged over to the car, swinging open the passenger door and demanding the identity of this strange man.
“Jean, it’s me, Lee. The electrician? You called me back to fix your light.” His face was drenched in confusion.
She blinked slowly. As she opened her eyes she couldn’t believe how bright it was.
“What time is it?”
“It’s three in the afternoon. Are you okay, Jean?”
She wasn’t sure. She could have sworn it was evening. She was wearing her coat. She saw a flicker of something in his eyes.
It all began that Tuesday morning.
They arrived and clocked in as usual, putting on their uniforms and filing into their stations. The low murmur of activity spilled out but as the morning crept on, something hollow hit the floor and a piercing reverberation sang throughout the hall. It was a noise unlike anything they’d ever heard before.
Jasper was the first to call out.
“What- what was that?”
A small group ran to where the object fell and studied it intensely, calling out their findings as they found them.
“Yes, not quite a tree but almost like a tree’s cuff, torn from its sleeve.”
“Something’s transcribed inside!”
“Yes, I can’t quite make it out - it’s an alphabet of slightly skewed letters.”
“I can still hear the noise coming from it!”
“Yes, there is a low hum in the air, like an electrical current that won’t die out.”
They’d never seen anything like it in their lives. It was all so surreal that they decided to call it nothing more than a bizarre incident on an otherwise regular Tuesday. Jasper, a hypochondriac with an edge of paranoia, couldn’t help but feel that something about this object’s arrival wasn’t right. In all of their observations, nobody had asked where it had fallen from. There were no tree-like structures on the roof, and even if there were, the roof was windowless. He decided to keep those thoughts to himself as the small group of inspectors set the strange object to one side.
When everyone came back the next morning, nobody had been able to get the transcendent reverberations from their minds.
“I heard it singing in my sleep.”
“I could barely talk to my family at the dinner table, I was so obsessed with it.”
Something in those sounds had taken over everybody’s minds. As the group were putting on their uniforms and talking about that strange Tuesday morning, someone noticed that the hollow bark-like object had grown. It had gotten longer, and the strange inscriptions had bled from the bark to the surrounding floor. The scene looked like the inside of a madman’s nightmares.
“Have you seen this?”
“How has this happened!?”
The three who had inspected the object yesterday were keeping very quiet. As they had woken that morning, they had seen their skin change before their eyes. It became bark-like. It started in their hands, but soon crept up the length of their arms. Cloaked in long sleeves and gloves, they were lingering towards the back of the group. In a burst of bravery, Jasper went to approach the object, his hand outstretched. Before he could take another step, the three infected leapt forward to scream. However, instead of words of warning, what emitted from their mouths was a gargantuan chorus of the strange, melodic reverberations.
Their voices were amplified by the object and the sounds filled the hall once more. Everyone fell to their knees and watched their own extremities transform. They raised their faces to the sky and sang.
It was a few weeks after we moved in and I was cleaning the house for the first time since we got rid of the last few boxes. There were footprints in the hall. Muddy footprints of bare feet. I scrubbed them, annoyed that the previous owners had not cleaned properly.
I noticed them again a couple of weeks later. Muddy footprints from the backdoor, through the kitchen and into the hallway. Then they stop. You can see that they stood still. Two footprints side by side on the floorboards. Then nothing.
We don't have children, and it's winter here so we are definitely not going around barefoot. I wondered if it might be the local kids trying to freak us out - the new city folk moved to the countryside. Coming in with muddy feet and then retracing their steps. I mopped them up and made sure I kept the door locked, an eye out for the neighborhood kids.
A few days after that they were back again, but this time they continued to the bottom of the stairs. You agreed to change the locks on the front and back doors, but thought I was being ridiculous. Said they didn't even look like footprints really, it was probably just dirt tracked in by one of us.
The day after we changed the locks they were there again, but they looked different. As though whoever left them had been running. They stopped at the top of the stairs. Two feet pointed down the corridor, towards our bedroom door.
I stopped sleeping. I lay awake at night, the sound of the wind or a creak sending my body rigid, straining to hear another sound. I feared that if I slept I would wake to find the footsteps closer to my door. I was not sure what I was scared of exactly, it was definitely a local kid trying to spook us.
I didn't want to leave the city, but you wanted to escape the hustle and bustle. You said I was making it up, giving us a reason to go back. I should stop making up some spook in the night to give us a reason to give up.
There were footsteps outside the bedroom door this morning.
I feel sick with dread, with exhaustion. It is 2am. I strain to hear over the sound of your muffled snoring. I strain to hear over the sound of my heartbeat in my ears. You finally stop snoring. I hear a sound. A creak? The blackness of the room presses in on me, no streetlights to illuminate with an orange glow. I shake you, but you do not rouse. You're a heavy sleeper. Your arm out of the duvet, cold in the winter air.
I turn on my bedside lamp, ready to apologize for waking you. I see footprints on our floor. They stop at your side of the bed.
Your body is cold in the winter air.
She always forgot the most important ingredient.
He smiled at her expectant face.
"Wow, yum! Lovely!" He theatrically rubbed his stomach.
She smiled back, pleased with herself. I may not be able to look after myself, she thought, but that doesn't mean I can't look after my husband.
He forced down the rest of his meal, knowing how hard she would have tried. It would crush her if he didn't enjoy the dinner she had prepared.
Always the salt. She always forgot the salt. Or when she would remember she would add too much.
He talked about his day. Mentioning the good things that happened, skipping the bad things as always. She talked about hers, the small victories. She got up, she showered, she brushed her teeth. She even went to the shops. He smiled, encouraging.
"I'll wash up, seeing a you cooked." They performed their nightly pantomime. She would say "No no, you have been at work all day" and start to collect the dishes. He would say "If you cook, I clean, those are the rules!" and he would take the dishes and wash up.
He counted the hours before bed with a heavy heart.
It was becoming unbearable. What kind of idiot chefs was Le Cordon Bleu churning out these days? They can whip up a soufflé with their eyes closed but can barely remember their own names. Every day I gave her the same instruction, every day it was just as simple, yet every day she made the same mistake.
“Let’s look at our notes from your very first day again.” The exasperation in my voice was palpable, yet she seemed entirely unperturbed. “Come on, quicker.” Even her pace was infuriating.
“This page?” She asked, doe-eyed and hopeful. My fury subsided at once, replaced with compassion, guilt, and an awkward amount of lust.
“Yes, exactly - what does this bit right here say?” I pointed to her cursive notes that I had made her underline and circle in red. “What is the base herb of every single dish we create here?”
“Oregano.” Her mouth overly exaggerated each syllable. Oh-ri-gah-noo.
“Oregano! Precisely! It is the essence of what we do! Now say it again so I know you’ve understood me this time.”
I felt the blade hit my spine and twist upward. She lent into my ear.
“Nobody says ‘Oregano’, you little prick.”
It gathered in the corners of the room.
Tiny fragments of dappled light that snuck in through fractures along the wall - rising and falling as the day grew old and weary. A divine feast for the eyes.
Air was filtering through those same fractures, heightening the sense of movement within the room. The draught was cool, but it came with a mild undercurrent, meaning it must be early autumn. The change in season was truly welcome.
Summer hadn’t been kind, it had felt far longer than usual and temperatures had soared to record-breaking heights. Ventilation in the room was almost non-existent, so breathing was often difficult. This new air was crisp, it cleared the lungs.
Watching the gathering light had become a key part of each day, it gave the mind something to focus on, kept it sane. But something interrupted today’s ritual. Familiar footsteps grew louder, yet today there was more than one set. I’d finally been found.
“H- h-… HE-“ It had been so long since words had escaped my mouth that my throat gave way. I mustered all my vocal strength and let rip. “HELP!”
Thuds and clinks and colliding metal erupted from the other side of the ominous door. Daylight tore at my eyes.
It moved slowly through here, syrupy. Getting caught on table legs, bunching up against items on shelves.
It took us a few weeks to realise. Food on the shelves rotting within hours whilst items just next to it stayed fresh for weeks.
We rearranged the furniture, avoided the hotspots. That was after the accident.
Peters asleep in the corner after an incursion into the dead zone. Never woke up. Looked like he had aged 50 years.
It was the same outside. Gnarled, twisted oaks appearing within days. Animals dragging one decrepit limb.
Everyone changed their watches to chime on the hour, acting like Geiger counters. If it started pinging too quickly you knew you had to move.
In other places time was sparse, watch hands barely move.
That's were we are now. Me and you.
You got injured in the attack, I dragged you out to here. Anywhere else you would have bled out in minutes. Here, we have more time.
I let go of your hand and drag a chair to the corner of the room.
It gathers in the corners of the room.
The room was perfect.
It was exactly forty square metres. Not much, but plenty of space to fit her small number of possessions. She imagined a small dining table for two, an elegant coat stand and a low queen-sized bed. The thoughtful minimalism would delight and awe her future guests, and she swelled with pride.
“I’ll take it.” She announced to the universe, surprising herself with her own gumption. This must be what becoming a grown up truly feels like, she thought.
The next few months played out exactly as she’d imagined - hanging pictures and constructing flat pack furniture and eating more takeaways than she could really afford before finding that perfect roasting dish. Life was as perfect as the room.
One night when she was watching TV, she noticed dust falling from the corner of the room. She looked up to the ceiling where a perfect circle had been carved out. A single eye blinked.
“You’ve made it real nice.” A gravelly voice muttered, she could feel the smarmy smile that followed. She didn’t scream.
“Thanks.” She replied, simply. A show off she had always been, a performer who demanded the eye. Now she had one focused solely on her, it felt perfect.
It was one of the many formal living rooms in this stupidly big house. Each one perfect. So perfect that it was hard to take in, nothing for the senses to catch on. A perfectly smooth glassy visage of wealth and power and fuck you.
He shut the door behind him and the sound of the party became muffled. He needed time alone, away from that room of boorish men. His wife is definitely fucking at least one of them. He has been through enough affairs to recognize the glint in another man's eye when he is fucking your wife and thinks you don't know. At this point he just didn't care, a fury of tired apathy raged within. He sat on one of the sofas and heard the door click open behind him.
He turned and saw a pretty woman nervously poke her head into the room. He smiled at her and she apologized, turning to go but he gestured her in. They ended up speaking about politics and music and boring parties.
That night going home in a cab he wondered if his wife could see the glint in his eye. She didn't care.
The new moon was barely visible.
Only the whimper of the dogs let you know they were close.
We had heard the first reports from the deep-ice drilling site 3km north from our position. An unusual wall of ice, driven up by two colliding ice sheets. They were boring into it when they hit an unexpected cavern. That's when it started.
Experienced miners went missing in the night, found dead from exposure at the drill site. Other tracks would lead straight to the bore hole and disappear, as if our companions had climbed straight in.
Now it was winter and there was no daytime reprieve. The ever present whisper of desire, of longing, calling you out into the constant night. Coaxing you towards the North. Toward the hole in the ice.
On dark nights like tonight, you could sometimes see figures in the half-light. Shifting and glinting at the edge of your vision. Was this who was calling us?
Now it was just me. The radio was broadcasting SOS but with no response; food and fuel were dwindling. The soothing call lulled me to leave. Leave all this behind. Let's leave this wretched place. Let's go to your friends. Just follow us.
She came out to her balcony on the same night each month to see it in all of its glowing beauty, but tonight it seemed nowhere to be found. Layers and layers of dense clouds stood between them.
“Moon?” She called to the night. “Moon, what’s wrong? Where are you?”
The overcast sky thickened with anger, incensed at her insolent questions. It tried to scream back at her but all that erupted was thunder, a rolling storm that filled her horizon. She cried out in fright which caused a small hurricane to break out in the west.
With every furious bolt and devastating gust of wind, the moon dimmed further and further, almost disappearing from sight entirely. She daren’t whisper for fear of angering the sky and sending the moon into hiding forever.
She gathered every stone from her periphery and threw them skyward. As they soared, the clouds split in two, the stones tearing a path up, and up, and up. With a sigh of relief, she saw the moon once more. She loved it with all her might.
As the morning came she bade the sphere farewell with promises of next month’s meeting. How terribly naive she was
I rang the bell twice.
Twice was for danger, it meant something wasn’t quite right. From my vantage point on the wall I’d seen small flickers of light grow as they came closer and closer. Little handheld fires. We were under attack.
Within seconds of the bell ringing, a chorus of others exploded around the periphery of the wall and armies were poised and ready for the fight.
The battle only lasted a few hours, they outnumbered us five to one. As I felt my final moments descending, I rang the same bell once. Once was for surrender, it meant I wasn’t ready to die.
The trill chime hung crystalline in the chill air, until I was unsure if I could still hear it or just remembered the sound. I stood on the step as time passed awkwardly, feeling out of place in this exclusive neighborhood.
An expensive man opened the door and appraised me.
He grew paler, but said nothing, frowning slightly. I radiated uncomfortably inside my stupid brown second-hand duffle coat. A squall of wind clattered some yellow leaves along the street behind me. I turned to leave, unable to handle the crushing weight of his silence.
It began to fall.
They could see by the moving needle on their dosimeters, which had been jammed against the upmost limit for the last 3 days. The machines, which had been been crackling a constant stream of white noise, eventually grew silent.
Leaving the exclusion zone the enormity of their sacrifice dawned on them. They sped down the dark track in silence. Too fast for the road. Not fast enough to save their souls.
It was only a matter of time.
Slowly, at first. After the first few days it started with the loose dust and rubble that had already started chipping away, but after a week the bricks near the foundation started collapsing in their dozens, then, by the second week, their hundreds. Then by the third week, their dozens of hundreds.
A wall ten thousand feet high, one brick wide. It was never going to last the 300 years they had envisioned, but it’s barely been a month.
We saw the light from the other side as the bricks soared downward and we shed a tear of sweet relief.
The door opened with little resistance.
A bell on an ornate loop of brass sprang to life and sang a gentle song to the room. Eyes subconsciously glanced in his direction but resumed their activities almost immediately.
A bold column of light poured in through the window, picking up every speck of dust that spiralled toward the ground. The smell of old books filled his nostrils, a sudden burst of nostalgia forcing its way into his mind.
Tucked away, he found the one he was looking for. Inside, as promised, was a note.
The bell sang farewell as he flew back out the door in terror.
This pleased him. He always thought that you could tell the quality of a man by the sensation of opening the door to his office. A good sturdy door sliding confidently on sufficiently lubricated hinges meant he was bound to be trustworthy. Scoundrels don't oil their hinges.
The gentleman in the room looked up and he noticed that they both had the same style of moustache. Another good sign.
Unfortunately, the man then died of a heart attack. You may think this is shocking or unusual, but I am not sure why as it happens all the time.
The taste still lingered on his tongue
Chemical. Acrid. Metallic.
His ears were ringing and he shivered, gray light began to filter through the curtains. He hadn't slept. She shifted in her sleep behind him and he felt sick.
They'd met at work drinks, then she chided him on to the club. On the dancefloor, anonymous in the crowd, she kissed him. She'd stuck her finger in his mouth. That metallic taste. The feeling of the music. Losing himself. Alive.
He'd never felt so connected with someone.
Now he was here. His phone vibrated. He hung up.
14 missed calls.
xX Sandra Xx
The air was thick with it, a delectable heaviness that made movement feel like a slow motion saunter through treacle. A honey that hung.
He smacked his lips the way he always did when the air dripped; heaving and overflowing as he fell through the liquid floor.
Weightless, he hovered in a limbo that took the feeling from his fingers. Our view pans out, and the atmosphere seeps in.
It tastes of freedom, it is no longer heavy on the tongue. He breathes and the air around him changes colour.
Enlightenment is always found by the least deserving of men.
I stood and I waited.
The wind had dropped with the sun, the surface was smooth obsidian, my gaze reflecting off like arrows against so much stone.
I had told you not to do another dive, you were excited but tired. We were so close.
I don't know what I would do without you.
I’d been here for hours, loitering on this platform, inspecting countless faces passing me by. I started to believe the threats in your letters.
A crackle clumsily stumbled from the tannoy and lights appeared further down the track. As passengers disembarked I caught your eye.
You did not.
His atoms began to lose interest in his form and drift loose.
His being suffused into the room, particles aimlessly settling into new forms.
His last breath became air as the body holding it wafted away like pollen in the breeze.
Shallow, irregular, something still not quite right. I slowly opened my creaking eyes and let the sunlight seep. It felt as though it singed my lashes and they gently turned to dust. I had a feeling this moment would be my last, and with one slow exhale the sunlight disappeared.
The noise was unbearable.
It drilled down from the endlessly soaring sky, these terrible winged creatures and their comings and goings.
The noise was inescapable, no matter where I tried to hide, it continued to harass me.
Life under a flight path - the mortgage was cheap but good God was I paying for it.
The ceaseless roar of the ocean driven unrelentingly to shore.
She was smiling for the first time in months, cheeks red from the wind. The sea air blowing that lichenous black mould from her heart.
He stayed, restlessly content, drowning in the sound of the endless waves.
He waited for her, watching the raindrops hit the water's surface.
She was delicate, slight, she liked to take her time.
He counted the raindrops until the rapids from the heavy sky reached a number he didn’t know.
He turned in time to see the gleaming gold tooth of the brute whose fist hurtled towards him.
Nothing delicate, nothing slight.
The room murmured with expensive chatter and he despised the socialites sitting at the table adjacent. Who wear's a wide brimmed hat during lunch? Poseurs. He is not a poseur. He is real. Worthy. Authentic.
Low clouds fade the edges of the landscape and his seething soul is soothed.