Monday, 18 September 2017

Run!




Jinny woke with a start, flashing into fully alert. Her instincts told her something was awry in the house, something involving David. She fled from her bed, along the upstairs hall and noted his bedroom door was open. His nightlight rotated serenely, visions of unicorns and rainbow stars dancing across the ceiling and walls. His miniature race–car bed lay empty and cold to her touch. How long had he been gone? Where did a three year-old go at four in the morning?

About to hurtle down the stairs, glimpsing the closed stairgate below, Jinny changed tack and headed to the end of the hall, turned the kooky l-shape which had been one of the things to endear her to the house and skidded to a halt at the bottom of the attic steps. David stood, apparently unharmed, on the bottom step, chattering and giggling. Jinny looked up, frowning at the open attic door and the light within.

Caught between fear for her son and frustration at these increasingly frequent midnight excursions he’d fallen into, she snatched the boy up, stuck a hand round the door to flick off the light switch, clicked the door into place and took him back to bed. Tucking him under his Paw Patrol duvet she smoothed back his hair and sighed.
“Sweetie, remember what I told you, about staying in bed at night? How it isn’t safe to wander about in the dark? That you could fall and hurt yourself?”
David nodded, but his reply gave Jinny little hope that this new turn of events was going to quit any time soon.
It’s ok. Mummy, Sariel says he’ll look after me. You too, if you want.”
Sariel huh? An imaginary friend to add to the mix. Joy.
Jinny kissed his forehead, aware he was already drifting away.
“Hunny, how about you ask Sariel if you guys can play during the day?”
“Sariel says I have to know how to run.”
His eyes closed before Jinny could figure what to ask next. Why was her son preparing to run? She sloped back to her room, fell into bed and lay watching the day grow, exhausted but sleepless.

Over the next three weeks, Jinny found David on that bottom step every other night. Her doctor suggested baby sleep meds, but she was loathe to take that step. Her mother figured it was just a phase he’d grow out of and her bestie suggested putting a bolt on his door. She took that one on board, but put the bolt on the attic door instead.

The night she fixed the bolt she fell into an exhausted sleep, her first full sleep since David’s wanderings had begun. At three am she woke, let the adrenalin wash away her exhaustion, breathed through the panic and headed for the attic stairs.
David stood on the second step. The door was open and white light spilled down on his intent face. He was clearly listening to something. Jinny recognised his expression for when he was trying to process something he didn’t fully understand. Suddenly he nodded, turned around and spoke to her.
“Sariel says not to lock the door please. It makes his job harder.”
Jinny looked up, saw a flicker of movement in the light and leapt up the stairs. She slammed the door shut and bolted it, screaming at the faded blue paint and cracked wood.
“Leave my son alone!”

Once David was back in bed and she in hers the ridiculous nature of her response hit her, but she had no idea if she should laugh or cry. The supernatural was for binge watching series on Netflix, right? No such thing as ghosts and spirits who possess humans, right? Then why had her innate instinct kicked in, her deeper level fears, causing her to react to a threat? She had no answers as sleep took her.

Another fortnight passed. Jinny had men in to check the attic for anything she could use to explain the strange occurrences, but nothing was found; not even a mouse or bat. She had a new door installed with an electronic lock, which garnered her some odd looks from the workman. His bantering tone was that of indulging a silly woman, but she didn’t care. That door had to stay shut.

Still, night after night, the door opened, the light spilled out and David went to chat to Sariel, now on the third and final step. Every time Jinny rescued him she expected an arm to shoot through the crack in the door, an attempt to take her son and she was ready to protect him with everything she had. One evening, desperate and lost, she sat on the bottom step with her back to the door, in some vain attempt to stop her boy climbing those stairs again.

In the drowsing quiet of 2am she heard the door open, saw the light fall about her, but she refused to look around. A voice, masculine but light, almost melodic, whispered into the envelope of light about her;
“Be ready to let him go. If you cannot do this one thing for your son he will be lost.”
Terrified, her brain screaming that she was hallucinating, sleep deprived, Jinny bolted from the steps and back to her room, shuddering under her duvet like a frightened child, half expecting the monster under the bed to be beat the barriers of the blanket shield this once. She woke to find David curled in bed beside her, smiling gently.
“Sariel says let me run.”

Jinny grabbed him up, holding him close, smelling his unique little boy smell and swore to never let him go. Wiping her eyes on her arm she told him they were taking the day off. Breakfast with pancakes and ice cream, a painting session, maybe a swim or a ride to the mall for a treat in the toy shop. David’s eyes shone with excitement and she held his hand,, leading him to the kitchen.

Mid-day rolled around, a time when they would normally be at work and pre-school. Jinny decided it was swim time, maybe mall after. She ruffled David’s hair.
“Go get your swim bag, kiddo. It’s hanging on the knob behind your bedroom door, ok?”
David nodded and headed upstairs. Seconds later the back door smacked open, kicked in by a young man who was as shocked to see Jinny as she was to see him. He recovered quicker, hurtling across the kitchen and pinning her up against the wall, threatening her with a gun to her temple.
“Can’t let you live, bitch. You seen me, huh?”
The circle of freezing metal against her temple faded to nothing, his words and wild eyes with it. David was descending the stairs, swim bag swinging happily against his shoulder. Silently, pleading with weeping eyes, Jinny mouthed to him;
“Run”

Later, when the psychiatrists talked to him, David recounted his flight, the one Sariel had prepared him for. The tear up the stairs, along the hall and round the L. The race up the steps and through the open door, the white light, the feathered arm reaching to close the door behind him, cradling him against the bang which blew his world apart.
They thought it was the imaginary friends Jinny’s family had spoken about. A way for a disturbed psyche, a terrified child, to explain how he ended up in the attic behind an electronic lock which he couldn’t reach. Adults prefer not to believe, David came to understand. They like the rational, the door left open, unnoticed. He also knew better. Sariel couldn’t reach his mother, but he’d reached and saved David and one day he would know how to thank him for the gift of his life.





Thursday, 14 September 2017

Carping






‘Wanna come Carping this weekend?’
Visions of torrential rain hammering holes in the surface of a murky green lake surrounded by huddled men in green macs avoiding their wives and children filled Graham’s head. He shook his head firmly, hoping the office geek, Ned, would leave him alone.
‘I’ve never been into fishing; I’ll pass.’
Ned laughed, that annoying bray which set Graham’s teeth on edge.
‘No man, it’s like Larping, but real niche,’
‘And you think I know what Larping is because…?’
Ned was about to reply when Shirley, blonde, buxom Shirley from Accounts, who was currently between boyfriends and fair game, cut in with an excited squeal.
‘You are going Carping? Oh my gawd, you have to let me come!’
Graham jumped in, feigning the same level of enthusiasm.
“You can be my plus one, Shirl.’
He winked, she giggled, Ned frowned in vague annoyance, but buried it quickly in his reply.
‘Yeah, why not? Meet me at the Red Rooster on Acre Street, 6am Saturday.’
Graham’s splutter at the ridiculous hour was drowned by Shirley giving Ned a huge hug and squealing yet again, assuring the discomforted geek that she couldn’t wait. He tried to ask both of them what the heck Carping was, but Shirley tip-tapped on her stilettos back to Accounting at speed and Ned just winked and told him to enjoy the surprise.

Saturday dawned grey and windy, but at least it was dry. Graham swung his bike into the parking lot and noted Shirley decanting from her nifty little sports number. Despite the strange, medieval wench get-up, those magnificent mammaries beckoned above a froth of lace. She grinned at Ned, hugging him as Graham crossed to join them.
‘Can I get one of those?’
Graham flung open his arms but his dramatics were roundly ignored, Ned and Shirley heading towards the Red Rooster and disappearing inside. He had a sinking feeling his hunt for Shirley was going to fall flatter than a pancake stuck to the ceiling.

He was surprised by the interior of the pub. Outside it looked like ye olde worlde British inn. Inside the place was chock-a-block with screens. A row of plasmas seemed to be continuously streaming table-top gaming from around the world, complete with time-checks. Tiered tables in semi-circles filled the floor space and contained groups of cheering and groaning nerds all attired in ballooning shirt sleeves, tabards and green or red tights. Graham had never felt so out of the loop in his life.

Shirley simply threw herself into the mix, joining a similarly attired set of women by a long wooden bar. Ned put his arm around Graham’s shoulders and drew him toward one of the semi-circles.
‘Wanna make some bets?’
‘Bets?’
‘Sorry, I keep forgetting you’re new. We bet on the races we hold, all over the world. There’s a whole underground of these race clubs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to shell out too much.’
Ned seemed to find this comment incredibly hilarious, most of the group chuckling along. Several cries of ‘Good one’ and ‘Ned gets off a goodun’ followed. Ned indicated the screen.
‘Let the man see what he’s about to crack open his wallet for.’

Graham spent the next five minutes failing to close his gaping mouth and only remembering to blink when his moisture deprived eyes forced themselves shut.  A triptych of screens showed a race from the air, from the side and from some kind of head camera. His eyes swerved from one screen to the next, around and around as men in the same tights and tabard get-up as Ned and crew sat proudly astride their chosen chicken. 

It took Graham’s brain a few tries before it managed to stammer out the word. His vision saw chickens; bloody great chickens being ridden by grown men… in tights. His brain kept trying to tell him all was well, he was simply having bit of a nervous breakdown, what with end of year accounts and whatnot, but his eyes screamed ‘CHICKENS!’

Ned swept a chair under Graham with a practised flourish, catching the sinking man neatly.
‘Eggsactly what happened to the last three guys I introduced to Carping. Chicken Action Role Playing, in case you hadn’t got that yet. Cool huh?’
Graham continued to suck in the screen images, muttering a constant chant of ‘Chickens… bloody great chickens.’ Ned yelled to the wenches at the bar.
‘Ladies, something strong for our friend?’
Shirley bustled over, stuck a large whiskey in Graham’s barely responsive hand and clutched him to her bosom in her eggcuberance; which at least got his attention.
‘Awesome huh? I’ve been trying to  get an invite for years. Who knew our little Ned was gonna be my hero huh?’
She gave Ned another flirtatious wink and sashayed back to the bar. Reeling from all kinds of sensory overload, Graham really wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

A hush fell over the room, the plasmas were muted and all remaining screens began to show a large open field. A trumpet blared off screen and two groups of riders lined up at opposite ends of the field. Graham tugged on Ned’s sleeve.
‘What now?’
‘Best part of the day. The Battle of King HENry versus King Arthur. When Arthur draws Eggscalibur the battle will commence.’
Graham watched a rider with a slightly wonky crown and dragon-emblazoned armour stab a gold-painted, fake jewel encrusted sword at the sky. There was a thunder of talons, a chorus of squawks and then a cloud of feathers.
Graham slumped in his chair, downed the whiskey and gave in. If you can’t beat ‘em, he thought, as he scrambled for the door and the sanity of tax returns in April.





Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Balloon Man





He came every week. Never on the same street corner two weeks running, and that was half the fun.  Kids would run all over Bridgetown looking for him, The Balloon Man. We’d never seen balloons like his before. Always animals, but they were so real! Beasts of every shape and size, but that wasn’t the only surprise about our town balloon seller.
After chasing all over town kids would eventually track him down. He only ever carried one balloon and we all wanted it, but being first in line had no bearing on who got the gift. He’d look at the kids, a slow, lazy consideration, and then he’d say the same thing every time:
‘Ah, that’s the one.’
He’d hand the balloon to the lucky kid, the rest of us pretty much green with envy, before walking away without further comment. Growing up we all wanted a balloon and I think most got one over the years. There didn’t seem to be much of an age limit. I’d seen kids as old as 12 handed a balloon, seen their eyes light up same as any toddler. I also knew dozens of locals who had kept their balloon long after it was flat as a pancake and earthbound.
I still had mine. I remembered the pure joy when I wrapped my grubby six year old hand around that purple string and floated on air all the way home, my snowy owl – almost as big as me – flying free in my wake. He survived for nearly a year and I cried a little the night he began to drift toward the floor. Once all the helium had dissipated I carefully rolled him up, tied him with the purple ribbon and popped him in my sock drawer. Over the years, through college and becoming a teacher and marriage and kids that owl stayed with me, a little roll of crinkled security. I held it close now, drawing on the vestiges of a happy childhood to get me through the day.
It had been all over the news, Bridgetown’s only claim to fame, and one I doubted it would ever live down. The bullied school kid who worked at the local coffee shop. His internet searches and strange purchases. The invitations to a reunion of Bridgetown school pupils before the place was bulldozed and lost forever. A school hall filled with laughter and memories blown away, half the pupils gone with it, more forever scarred in mind and body.
The mayor and town council had sent out elegant, black-edged calls for any remaining pupils to come, to attend a mass funeral and the laying of the first stone of a memorial park on the site of the disintegrated school. Two hundred and sixty-five coffins, generations of Bridgetown erased. I couldn’t stay away, but I took my owl with me.
The coffins were lined up row after row, all the families and friends lined in echoing rows, reminding me of a bizarre chess game. The first move came from the mayor. He called for a representative of each coffin to step up and place a memory which would go into the grave with their absent loved one.
In the drizzle, under leaden skies, specially bought funeral outfits saturated, new shoes slipping on the turf, men, women and children came forward and I caught my breath as I watched. The town was so silent I felt I could hear the rain drifting onto my skin, no-one needing to strain to hear the words spoken by each figure. My heart lurched as I realised every single person was laying a rolled up balloon on the coffins.
A series of people brought tears to my eyes. These were related to my classmates. Marge Graham’s wife laid her balloon gently:
‘She was so unassuming but she was my life.’
The balloon, I remembered, had been a mouse.
George Temple took his turn:
‘My brother had a sharp tongue, but a heart of gold.’
The balloon drifted in my mind’s eye, a crocodile.
Anna Lyons wept copiously, placing a balloon for her husband:
‘Everyone knew he was slow, but he never hurt a soul, and I loved him.’
His balloon had been a turtle.
I tuned out then because my gaze was captured by movement by the graveyard wall. The balloon man stood there, head bent, paying his respects. I was frozen for a moment, thrown by how he had not changed, not even his dated coat and hat, but then a child began to wander over, smiling, a bright spot amongst the melancholic litany of death and destruction.  A chimp balloon rose up from behind the man. He smiled down at the girl, handed her the pink string and began to walk away.
I made to run after him, but the girl’s mother scurried over, embarrassed by her child’s brilliant presence in the depths of bleak despair, I heard her clearly in the sepulchral silence – ‘She’s such a monkey! – and I gazed after the retreating coat and hat, wondering who the child might have been had she not been given the chimp balloon.
Later, when the people had faded away I wandered over to the fenced off, ignored section of the churchyard. Behind the locked iron gate I could see where they had buried whatever they could find of Logan Miles, the kid with the lisp and chronic acne who had attained revenge on a whole town. A balloon had been left, tied to the crooked wooden cross at his head. I wasn’t surprised to see it flap pathetically in the wind, a hawk moth.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Penned




I bought this book (Dean Koontz - What the Night Knows) in a charity shop. Wasn't til I got home I realised where it had come from and I was vastly amused by the idea of a story about a cop and serial killer ending up in a prison library. It also inspired this story.

Heather had been writing to Stephen Miller for three years. She’d stored every letter, neatly bound in a manila folder which belied the slow burning romance inside. Once in a while, when she missed him most, she took them all out and read them. As much as they cheered her, she couldn’t help but wonder how they would read if they didn’t have to be careful. It hurt to know that every soft word and loving declaration was read by someone before her, before him, but prisoners had no choice. Especially men like Stephen.
Heather glanced over at the pile of letters, mostly single pages, but occasional doubles. In order, resting one on the other, she realised there was something odd about the edges. She shuffled the sheets tighter, aligned them neatly but could only see an odd darkening along the left-hand side. In a moment of inspiration she fetched a large book from the shelf and set it carefully on the tightly hand-written pages. The sheets compressed and the oddity manifested into words printed down the left side of the pile.
It was like those old pads her dad had used. He’d kept a thick pad on his desk for notes and they were often printed on the sides with company names or logos. It had amused her to watch these images or words slowly disappear as the pad was used up. Stephen had used the same technique and written a phrase which she alone would see. She wondered why he had used such a slow method to send her his words.
Perhaps to stop the officials reading them? Maybe as a get out clause. If she turned out to be one of those flakes who fell in love with unattainable serial killers he could just stop and she’d never know. It was only chance which had revealed them to her now, her natural curiosity and penchant for observing the small things. The fact of his finished missive made her glow. In meant he trusted her. She read the words again, pondering their meaning.
D
R
E
A
M
S
S
E
T
Y
O
U
F
R
E
E
Setting the letters on the desk with the words facing the sofa, she settled down to think, staring at the wonderful, frustrating message. Her mind wandered over their strange and beautiful connection.
Like the rest of the world, she’d followed the unfolding story of the Evangelical Executioner and his bloody trail. To this day no-one really knew if the handsome young vicar was a master manipulator or a dog-collared hypnotist. All the police could confirm was that twenty-eight people had killed a total of two hundred men, women and children, and then committed suicide via a vast array of methods.  As one of the tackier tabloids had gleefully written, in horror movie blood-dripping fonts, ‘…and he’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darn kids!’
Two of the twenty-eight killers had been seventeen-year-old twins. They’d gone into a local nursery and released an airborne toxin, killing 7 children, 2 nursery workers and themselves. No-one knew why they were the only killers to leave suicide notes, but they had and it lead to the arrest of Stephen Miller, a well-liked reverend whose parish was at the epicentre of all the killings. The note had read simply:
‘We did as you asked, Reverend Miller.’
Despite flimsy evidence – mainly the note and a witch hunt by the media that whipped people into a pitchfork and burning torch frenzy – Stephen Miller was branded a modern day Manson and committed to Blakewood Secure Unit for the rest of his natural life.
At which point Heather, a firm believer in the goodness of all men and second chances for all, had decided Stephen Miller needed a friend. A quick search online had delivered his prisoner number and the unit address, along with so much fan worship from teen girls Heather had felt physically sick. Forging ahead, she’d written and been happily surprised when a reply, complete with an explanation of what could and couldn’t be said or sent, had landed on her welcome mat.
The intervening years had been difficult and divine. Heather found it harder and harder to reconcile the wise, funny, clever and gentle man of her letters with the world view which called him Svengali, cult leader and squarely blamed him for manipulating the twenty-eight into doing his killing for him. They struggled with a motive, just as the prosecution had, but Stephen had given them an in. Throughout the trial he had sat silent, hands resting in his lap and a soft smile on his lips.  Interpreted in the media it was decided his motive had been pleasure and some hack attributed a fictional line to Stephen which sealed his fate, despite his never uttering it. When asked why he had done it he was supposed to have replied ‘Because it was fun’.
He preferred not to discuss his case, but once she had asked ‘Why do you think it happened?’ His reply had been more detailed than she had expected.
‘Perhaps, and I speculate, my sermons were more powerful than I thought? They became very popular, as you know, and people came from parishes other than my own to hear them. Was there something in them which inspired this misplaced desire to cleanse the world? I can’t say. If you could read them you might be able to see something I suppose.’
He’d said no more but she had pondered and eventually written to his old parish. Under the guise of writing a psychology piece for a local paper she’d persuaded the new incumbent to hand over a batch of Stephen’s sermons which had been put into storage, on strict instructions that they were not to leave her sight and not to be quoted with any reference to the parish. She’d agreed readily and now she reached out and opened the slim folder. Just three sermons within but maybe enough to give her a sense of what caused the terrible events of three years ago?
Reading through the words, at once new and yet familiar, Heather found herself slipping into Stephen’s voice. She drifted through the text, imagined him speaking the words aloud in his cell. Prison guards came to listen, moved by his eloquence and the righteousness of his words. Some consensus took them, caused one to step forth and open Stephen’s cell door, no man stepping up to stop the action. They parted to allow him to walk to the main reception, their heads bowed in reverence, a few whispering that none who spoke thus could commit heinous acts. The prison governor stood at the main doors, clearly enraptured as Stephen continued to speak. He inserted the combination of keys, paused before throwing the lock switch and embraced Stephen, tears in his eyes. The door swung open and the men started to sing a hymn as Stephen walked into the encroaching darkness of night.
Heather shook herself awake, realised she’d dozed off to dream whilst reading the sermons. She couldn’t quite figure if the light was dusk or dawn and flicked on the tv to get the time. She surfed to the news channel and saw it was morning. She’d slept on the sofa all night which explained her crook neck and aching back. About to rise and get coffee she abruptly dropped back down, listening as a serious-faced anchor read the story.
‘Last night, Stephen Miller, known as the Evangelical Executioner, walked out of Blakewood Secure Unit and vanished. Authorities say they have no ideas why prison staff simply let him walk out, but people are already asking if the rumours about Miller’s ability to control people is more than just media hype. Police have issued a warning to refrain from any kind of engagement with Miller should the public see him and …’
Heather startled when the front door vibrated under three loud knocks and she could see a shadowy figure through the frosted glass.