The Leaves and the Signs are Falling

Colin Leonard

Amanda wouldn’t have given the missing signs any further thought on the way home except for the other odd thing that she saw.

“The sign is gone,” said Milly from the back seat of the car.

“I know,” said Amanda, concentrating on the road ahead, looking for a chance to overtake the slow tractor behind which they were stuck. “The election is over, remember I told you.”

For almost a month on the school run, they had enjoyed the entertainment of a particular candidate’s poster for the local elections. Every morning, without fail, six-year-old Milly, her older sister Jane, and Marcus, the oldest at twelve, had erupted into giggles at the smiling face of the woman on the election sign, blissfully unaware of her marker-drawn moustache and devil horns.

“Not the poster, Mummy, the triangle sign. The one with the word I don’t know. The Y word.”

“Yummy?” suggested Jane.

“Yucky,” offered Marcus.

“No, no, no,”

“Stop teasing your little sister,” said Amanda, as they slowed on the approach to the crossroads nearest the school. “It’s yield, Milly. Remember now?”

“Stop,” said Milly. “S-T-O-P.”

“That’s excellent spelling, Milly, but stop’ is a different sign.”

“Stop is gone too.”

“Yeah,” said Marcus. “She’s right, Mum. See. The stop sign is gone. Shouldn’t there be a stop sign here?”

On the grass verge of the crossroads stood a tall pole, painted in the sad grey colour of an inconspicuous sky, but the demanding red head of its stop sign was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh,” said Amanda. “That’s weird. It must have fallen off. I hope they fix that soon, it could be dangerous without it.”

As usual, the drop-off point at the school was crowded and disorganized. Amanda didn’t want to join the queue. She parked on the other side of the road a hundred metres away and told Marcus and Jane to stay close to Milly while they walked up.

“Last day today,” said Jane. “Halloween break.”

“Don’t forget we finish early,” said Marcus.

“I won’t. See you later.”

#

Amanda wouldn’t have given the missing signs any further thought on the way home except for the other odd thing that she saw. She swung by the village shop to buy bread and milk, swapped some pleasantries about the late October weather with the shop assistant, and began to mentally plan her morning’s work. She was adrift in a mindscape of household chores and paperwork as she edged out onto the road, so she had passed the man by the time the sight registered. He was a figure she was familiar with, a man whom she occasionally saw walking the roads around the area. He was a large man, his bald head shiny-sore with the crisp weather. He wore a jacket, as large and loose as a two-man tent, that was once bright red before stains and age had conquered it, and his trousers were tucked into his boots. On the roadside, he was interfering with a pair of wooden stakes that usually had the shop’s billboard attached to them. It was nowhere to be seen.

#

Her husband, Freddie, was at home when she got back. They lived in a spacious house on a broad country road where the neighbours were well spread out. His truck was parked in the driveway despite the fact that he had left for work an hour before she had roused the kids for breakfast. In all her daydreams as a young adult, she never imagined herself living in a small rural community like this. She had grown up in the suburbs of a large town and gone to college in the city. When she met Freddie she had assumed the span of their life together would be spent under the bright city lights.

He was a musician and a singer when they got together. He had grown up here in Bradwood but he had seemed like a being sprouted from the pulsing music scene of the city, with his fingers wrapped around a microphone stand, a spotlight picking out the quiff of his hair, and a starry glint in his eye. Bradwood was a million miles away from his lifestyle back then. In those youthful days, it had nothing to interest him apart from occasional visits to his parents.

Things changed after he and Amanda had Marcus. Renting a one-bedroom flat behind a music venue seemed faintly ridiculous with a baby and they both wanted more children. A singer’s wage even supplemented with free beers from the bar, wouldn’t cut the mustard anymore so he trained for his truck licence and applied for a job at the Bradwood quarry from which his father was getting ready to retire.

“It won’t be too bad,” she remembers him saying. “Elvis Presley was a truck driver. It made his voice stronger, singing over the engine noise.”

In Bradwood they could afford a house, afford a family, breathe the smokeless air. They had a cabin built out the back of the house for Freddie to turn into a studio, to keep his dreams alive, but the longer life went on the more content he seemed with being a family man. He didn’t want to shut himself away from the kids in a soundproof room after work. So, Amanda took over the cabin to build her own dream. She taught violin there. Her pupil roster had grown over the years, and her reputation attracted students from miles away to the neat hand-painted sign at their gate that spelled Amanda’s Music School in letters formed of crotchets and quavers.

Freddie was in the kitchen, brewing coffee.

“Why aren’t you at work?” Amanda asked.

“It’s dead up there at the moment. No deliveries. It’s always quiet around the Halloween break.”

“So they sent you home?”

“Nah, I’m working, we’re still getting paid. I just popped back for a coffee. They’re getting a few of us to do things around the locality. Tidying up, odd jobs, that sort of thing. See, isn’t it a lovely, thoughtful community that we’re part of? You wouldn’t get that in the filthy, selfish city,” he smiled.

“You’ve changed, Freddie Cassidy. You used to be a cool, hip urbanite. Now you’re just a homespun country bumpkin.”

“Yes ma’am,” he bowed with a flourish then went to fill two cups.

“Hey, I saw something weird while I was out,” said Amanda. “You know that old baldy man who walks the roads. Finnegan, isn’t that his name?”

“Finnegan? He’s not old. He’s only around our age. He was in school at the same time as me.”

“No way. He looks…I don’t know, it must be the way he’s hunched and lumpy. And his clothes, he wears old man clothes. Like an old farmer who doesn’t care what he looks like. He’s not all there, is he? What’s wrong with him?”

Freddie put down his coffee and paused as if to consider what words he should use.

“Finnegan was taken. When he was a boy.”

“Taken? What do you mean ‘taken’? Who took him?”

“They don’t know. He was returned, after a while, but he was never right again.”

“Oh my God. What age was he?”

“That was thirty years ago now,” said Freddie. “So I guess he was about eleven. You shouldn’t go near him, Amanda. I’m sure I’ve told you about him before. He’s harmless enough but it’s best not to talk to him.”

“Yeah, sure,” she took a sip of her coffee and tried not to ponder the terror of a child being taken. “Anyway, the strange thing was that there were signs missing on the way to the school. Road signs. Milly noticed that they were gone, she usually reads them. Then, when I was driving away from the shop I saw that man messing with the shop sign on the side of the road. I mean the sign was gone and he was where it used to be, doing something with the posts. He must have taken them, don’t you think? Would he do something like that?”

“I guess, maybe,” Freddie swallowed his coffee and grabbed his work jacket from the back of a chair. He kissed her. “I’d better go. If you see Finnegan again let me know. I’ll get someone to sort it out.”

#

Amanda got precious little done in the half-day before she had to collect the children from school. The tragic Finnegan was treading through her consciousness like he was stealing the signposts of her mind every time that she tried to get stuck into some work. Then, when she started the car and opened the gate, his clumping presence truly invaded her day. Her ‘Music School’ sign was removed. She got out of the car and whirled around in annoyance searching for it. Her own personal sign. Why the hell would he vandalize her sign? She was about to ring Freddie when she spotted a corner of painted wood tucked in behind a bush on the driveway. Her sign. So, he had trespassed onto their property as well. She examined the sign. At least it wasn’t damaged. He had removed the bolts that attached it to its wooden post but all the bits were there on the ground. She checked the time and had a fleeting premonition of her kids standing outside the school waiting for their tawdry mother while a disgruntled teacher stayed behind with them. The sign would have to wait. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to rehang it herself anyway.

On the way to the school, Amanda noticed more signs missing. The warnings for junctions stood as decapitated poles. A cluster of signs that usually indicated the directions and distances to nearby towns had all disappeared from the crossroads at the end of her road. She slowed down as she passed a large farmhouse, despite her lateness, convinced that there was normally a large white rock outside it with the chiseled title of Bradwood Farm. Just a hollow in the grass remained.

When she arrived, her children were indeed the last to be collected but Miss Fagan, the headmistress, didn’t seem too perturbed by having to hang on.

“Sorry, sorry, I got delayed,” said Amanda through the rolled-down window.

“We thought you had forgotten it was a half-day, Mum,” said Marcus.

Milly had the red puffiness of tears in her cheeks.

“That’s no problem at all,” said Miss Fagan. “Poor Milly got a little worried, that’s all.”

Amanda got out to hug her littlest one as the other two got into the car. The low brick wall that bordered the school grounds had a heavy black tarpaulin pinned over a section that was close to the pedestrian gate.

“That’s where the school name is written,” said Amanda. She put Milly back down and took a step towards the entrance of the drop-off area and the two holes in the grass verge. “The other sign as well. Someone pulled it up. What’s going on?”

“You know,” said Miss Fagan. “With Halloween tomorrow. Vandals and the like. We’ve had the school signs defaced in the past. We thought it best to remove the temptation.”

“I don’t remember you doing that last year,” said Amanda.

“No? Well, I suppose last year it wouldn’t have fallen on a weekend. There’s more chance of trouble on a Saturday night.”

“Daddy took the sign,” said Milly. “We saw his truck out the window.”

“What’s that now?”

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Fagan. “Your husband was good enough to help take the sign down. The men at the quarry are a great help at times like these.”

“Times like these?”

“You know, troubling times. They look out for the community.”

“It’s just…” Amanda wondered if Miss Fagan’s smile was hurting her from being on for so long. “It’s just that there’s been a lot of nonsense going on with signs today as far as I can see. That Finnegan person, you know the one who wanders the roads. He’s removing signs from everywhere. He took my ‘Music School’ sign down and left it in my garden.”

“Well, he won’t get ours now, thanks to your husband,” beamed Miss Fagan.

Amanda secured Milly in her car seat, broke up a squabble between the other two, and drove away from the waving Miss Fagan. She tried to pick out the spots where she remembered there being signs on the route home. There had been a banner supporting the local football team stretched high across two telephone poles near the school. No more. She was sure she had seen it yesterday. The football season wasn’t over. Another headless grey pole near a farm gate caught her eye. It usually warned of cattle crossing. An ostentatious three-story house once had a plaque on its gateway pillar boasting its self-appointed moniker of Bradwood House. Today the blockwork was frayed and chipped around a blank space.

“No way,” said Amanda out loud to herself. “He can’t have stolen that.”

“Stolen what, Mum?” asked Jane.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Adult secrets,” Marcus said to his sister. “They never tell us anything.”

“Be quiet, Marcus!” said Amanda. They were close to home. She slowed down. There was a figure at the side of the road, crouched down and searching on the ground beside a field gate that was missing its hunting club sign. The man appeared frustrated, scrabbling around the grass. He lumbered backwards and Amanda pressed the brakes before colliding with his filthy red coat.

At their slow speed, her stop was gentle but an air of anxiety wafted from the children.

“Mum?”

“Mummy, I don’t like him.”

Finnegan appeared disoriented, standing in the car’s path, but he gathered himself enough to put up an apologetic hand. He shook his head like he was disappointed with himself for causing this trouble. Amanda beeped the car’s horn and he again raised a hand to beseech forgiveness but he didn’t move out of the way.

“I really don’t like the look of him,” said Jane. The large man’s chin and cheeks were shadowed by rough white stubble and dirt, transferred from his unclean hands.

“Why won’t he move?” said Marcus.

Amanda beeped again and was immediately infused with an anger that drew her to open her door and get out of her seat. This idiot had vandalized her sign, her property, her livelihood.

“Hey you,” she shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re up to? What are you doing on our road, abusing other people’s property?”

Finnegan shrunk back from the onslaught, worry wrinkling his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I’m sorry. I fell backwards looking for something. I’m not doing any harm, that’s for sure. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I’m calling the police. How dare you. How dare you remove other people’s signs that they went to all the trouble of getting made. And the road signs too. That has to be an offence. You could cause a serious accident. I’m calling the police on you.”

Finnegan rubbed the stained sleeves of his coat together, hiding his hands inside them.

“No please, no police. I’m not taking signs. I’m trying to find them. Other people are taking them. They don’t want him to be able to find his way here, to recognize Bradwood.”

“What are you talking about,” Amanda asked. A good deal of her rage had subsided with her shouting fit. She was levelling off now and noticing the sideways look in Finnegan’s eye, like it was caught on a hook and being tugged by an invisible line.

“He’s due back this year. Every ten years he comes. He said he’d come back for me, he did. They think they can trick him by taking down all the signs. They think he won’t be able to find Bradwood. Their plan may have worked the last time and the time before that but not this year, not if I have anything to do with it.”

“I don’t know what you’re gabbling about but you removed the sign for my music school and threw it in my garden. I should report you.”

The invisible pull on his sideways eye slackened. Finnegan crabbed up towards the car like he could smell something tasty.

“The music school? The sign with the notes on it? That sign is in your garden, is it?”

“You know what you did with it,” Amanda slid back down in her seat. “You hid it behind a bush,” she muttered before closing the door.

She drove away quickly, leaving Finnegan behind with a fat smile opening up his features.

“What was that about?” Marcus had a quiver in his voice. Milly was whimpering.

“Don’t worry about it, kids. He’s just a damaged man. His mind isn’t well. I think you should play inside when we get home, ok. We won’t go outside, just in case. Just for today.”

#

Darkness landed outside their house before Freddie did. It wasn’t unknown for him to drop into the local bar for just one beer with a workmate from the quarry before heading home. Amanda wished he wouldn’t when he was driving the truck but it was only up the road, he’d argue. The kids were glued to a computer game in Marcus’s room. She was tidying away their dinner plates and left Freddie’s in the low heat of the oven.

The outside sensor lights had already fooled her a few times into thinking her husband had arrived, detecting a motion whose source she couldn’t see when she checked out the window, but the rumble of his truck backing in the driveway confirmed his presence at last.

She yelled down the hallway to the kids.

“Nearly time to shut that game off. Five more minutes, ok?”

Back in the sitting room, she peered out the patio doors. It had been a few minutes since she heard the truck’s engine die but Freddie hadn’t come in. The patio furniture was in strange positions. One of the chairs had been placed facing the doors, looking into the house. She returned to the kitchen and turned up the oven to give his dinner a blast.

The kitchen window allowed a view of the gate that was half-shrouded by an overgrown Fuschia bush. Flickers of frantic flashlight beams knifed through the gloom. What was he doing out there? Amanda took cutlery from the drawer.

The sound of running footsteps brought Freddie’s face to the window just as she turned back around. She jumped with fright then giggled. Freddie didn’t laugh. He bolted round to the kitchen door and tried to get words out at the same speed as he was thundering inside.

“The sign, Amanda. Why is the sign up? Why did you put the sign back up?”

“It’s up? No way. He must have come back and fixed it. Freddie, we had a run-in with that Finnegan man on the road earlier,” she backed up against the wall, concerned at this unfamiliar expression that her husband wore. “Wait, how did you know that he had taken it down?”

“I took it down, Amanda. We’ve been taking down signs all day. All of the signs. We have to remove them all. Every ten years it has to be done. He’s due back.”

Amanda laughed, waiting for the punchline, for the joke to be on her. Then she stopped laughing. “Who’s due back.”

“There are hoof prints on the lawn,” Freddie was crying.

He dashed into the sitting room, bounded up the stairs. Amanda held the bottom of the banister, unsure whether to go after him, but he clattered back down before she could make a decision. He cradled a random selection of clothes in his arms. A sports bag hung from his shoulder.

“Get the kids, where are the kids?”

He was circling the room now, dropping items of clothing, picking them back up, unaware that the logical act was to put them in the bag. Amanda stretched her hands out apprehensively, wanting to help and halt him at the same time. The children trailed out of Marcus’s room, pale-faced and confused.

“Freddie,” she said. “What’s wrong? I don’t understand.”

He gave up on the clothes, gathering only a jacket and their youngest child in his arms before stalling, mouth agape, facing the patio doors.

“Too late,” he wept. “He’s already here.”

Amanda followed her husband’s frozen gaze. It was too late. He was out there, drawing in the bad things of the night with his every breath, the electric pulse of his skin promising pains she could barely imagine. He sat in the patio chair, cross-legged, staring in at them, and the horrible smile pasted on his face made her heart want to stop beating right then and forever.

Colin Leonard lives in rural Co. Meath, Ireland, beneath the hills from which the ancient Samhain festivals spawned Halloween. His stories have been published in the magazines Dark Tales, Fudoki, and The Harrow and his flash fiction appears in anthologies from Breaking Rules Publishing and Ghost Orchid Press.
https://twitter.com/collyleonard

Best Friend Becky

Wayne Faust

Sammy slept fitfully in her small bed in the attic room. Downstairs, a clock chimed twice. Outside the grimy window, the October air had turned cold, and an early frost descended on the small town. A wood fire sputtered in the Franklin stove by the far wall and amber firelight danced around the edges of its doors. A small stack of applewood rested in a wicker basket next to the stove, in case Sammy awoke during the night to a cold room. Dr. Brooks, Sammy’s cat, lay by Sammy’s pillow and poked his gray and white head in the air, firelight reflecting in his powder-blue eyes.

Sammy had restless dreams for a child. Her Mom told everyone that her daughter was a 40-year-old in an 8-year-old body. She was always posing questions to adults, questions that no one her age was supposed to even think about. Maybe that explained why she slept so lightly, and why she awoke in the middle of this long autumn night, even though the voice that spoke was muffled and soft.

“I’m Best Friend Becky, and I love you.”

The voice came from a doll perched atop an antique, oaken bookcase next to the window. Sammy had gotten the doll from her Aunt Cynthia on her birthday in August. It was one of those dolls where you pulled a string on its back and a mechanical voice recited one of several phrases. But this time, no one had pulled the string.

Dr. Brooks meowed and arched his back. Sammy’s eyes fluttered open and she lay there on her side, facing the bookcase, head still on the pillow.

“Best Friend Becky wants to be your best friend. Will you be my best friend?”

Sammy tried to sort the last of the dream voices in her head from the real, waking sounds of the room. Moonlight silhouetted the doll and Sammy saw it move slightly, cocking its head to the side

“Best Friend Becky wants to play. Do you want to play?”

Sammy slowly raised her head. The doll’s voice hadn’t sounded like the tinny, machine voice she had always heard before. This voice sounded more like a real voice. It sounded like a grownup woman’s voice, like maybe someone was hiding behind the bookcase, making the voice for the doll. But the bookcase was all the way against the wall so that couldn’t be.

“Best Friend Becky wants you to wake up. Best friends don’t sleep the night away.”

The doll only had seven phrases and Sammy had never heard that one before.

The fire inside the Franklin stove flared briefly and illuminated the doll’s face. The doll turned its head side to side in a jerky, robot-like way. At the same time, it moved its hands up and down in a chopping motion.

Dr. Brooks hissed. Sammy sat upright and stroked the cat’s back. Fully awake now, she stared towards the bookcase. Huge shadows played on the walls in the flickering light. From that angle, the doll could have been one of those dinosaurs that glared down at you from the halls of the Natural History Museum.

“Best Friend Becky doesn’t like to sit alone all night. Best friends shouldn’t make their best friends angry.”

Outside, a gust of wind blew a few brown maple leaves against the windowpane. A nighthawk shrieked in the distance. Sammy swung her legs down to the floor. Dr. Brooks rubbed against her hip.

“Best Friend Becky is very bored.”

The doll sounded impatient like Sammy’s Mom got when Sammy didn’t clean her room.

Sammy touched her bare feet to the cold, linoleum floor. She reached for the pink, fuzzy slippers she kept by the nightstand. She put them on and carefully stood up.

“Best Friend Becky is very upset. Best Friend Becky is gonna do something bad.”

The doll moved its hands faster. It was less jerky now and there was a peculiar, fluid motion in the way it turned its head.

Sammy took a short, reluctant step towards the bookcase.

“Best Friend Becky wants to play now!”

Sammy took two more steps. She was nearly at the bookcase.

“Best Friend Becky is going to be naughty!” The doll’s eyes gleamed red. It pointed its flesh-coloured, plastic finger at Sammy and bared its teeth. Dr. Brooks spat at it from under the bed.

Sammy gritted her teeth and reached out. She grabbed the doll by the neck and shook it. It shrieked and tried to bite Sammy’s hand but her grip was too tight. She quickly moved across the room to the Franklin stove and opened the door. She threw the doll into the flames and slammed the black, iron door shut behind it. She heard a few more shrieks and then the soft sound of fabric and plastic burning. Then it was quiet.

Dr. Brooks crawled out from under the bed.

“Why can’t I ever just get a doll like the other kids?” asked Sammy to Dr. Brooks. “Why do they have to come to life all the time? Did Aunt Cynthia think I’d be scared? I’m like a hundred times bigger than a doll. Duh! Why do we have to have witches in the family?”

Sammy climbed back into bed and fell quickly asleep; wishing her family could be just a bit more like everybody else’s.

Wayne Faust has been a full-time music and comedy performer for over 45 years. From writing songs all that time, where you have to say everything you need to in three verses or less, his prose tends to be tightly written and fast-moving.

What I See

Ivanka Fear

Vibrant reds, golds, purple, and orange
mixed with evergreen
nature's bounty spread out just for us
alive and pulsing with colour

Dull shades of yellow and brown
mixed with green bile
human waste splayed at my feet
dead matter clinging to the earth

Crisp and clear air
a respite from the burning fire
the start of something cooler
the rains cleansing

Damp and foggy
a chill running through my very soul
the end of warmth
the rains drowning

A promise of a wonderland
in each and every facet of life
embracing the winds of change
jumping head first into a pile of wishes

A promise of dark days ahead
in each and every eerie corner of my existence
shuddering as cold fingers close around my throat
wishing I could jump backwards into the past

Ivanka Fear resides in Ontario, Canada. Her poems and short stories appear in Spadina Literary Review, Montreal Writes, Adelaide Literary, October Hill, Scarlet Leaf Review, The Sirens Call, The Literary Hatchet, Understorey, and elsewhere.
You can read more about her on her website.

Sprig

George Aitch

Closer to the forest, the path is littered with dry leaves, crisp from the frost.

I have always made sloe gin. The berries are best picked from the hedgerows after the first frost. There are plenty of patches around if you know where to look. Once I’ve gathered enough of the blue firm sloes, I sit in front of the television pricking their skins then slipping the pierced berries in to soak. They’ll float store-bought gin for a few weeks with only the meanest pinch of sugar to draw out their flavour. At the end of the process, I’ll have a clutch of bottles to pass around at Christmas. Of course, I have to pick them first.

On that first morning which coats the grass in lace webs, I wash out a couple of plastic tubs. Wrapping myself up in a winter coat and boots, I set off down the lane. My cheeks burn with the cool air’s caress as all breath rises as fog. My next home crafting project ought to be a scarf.

The afternoon beyond my bungalow is still. Most of the birds have left for warmer weather weeks ago. In the late autumn calm, words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘domain’ come to mind. At the Astradurham parish school, the tarmac comes to a halt. A dirt track runs along the fenced playground where timbers and planks have been stacked in a cone ready for bonfire night. Indoors the children will be putting their Guys together, old newspapers and older clothes, the effigies to be tossed into the flames come November.

On the bridle path, the mud is firm, the chill having raked all moisture away. Hoofprints, the signature of the stable horses from the mews downriver, mark the distance between hollow puddles. My boot falls thud and the plastic tubs in my backpack rattle as I make my way along the track. The village allotments are here. I’ve never tried to nurture anything in our waterlogged marsh soil and it isn’t worth fifty pounds per annum to try. That doesn’t stop the few weekend farmers out today tending to their shallots and peas.  

The bridle path worms into a gulley and beyond to the forest with hedgerows at its brink. Year on year I’ve found the richest harvest here. From atop one of the hills on either side of the dirt track, a sentinel rock looks down on me, a sarsen stone placed back in who knows when. The hedges are near bare here. They hem the bridleway as a pair of spun wooden skeletons. Where they dip too close to the trail, their thorns catch at my jacket. I tug away and the branches shake as they release their grip.

Closer to the forest, the path is littered with dry leaves, crisp from the frost. My trail is steep here. It’s getting harder to hike up at my age; it’s not just the chill keeping my hips stiff. A trio of dog walkers tip over the hillbrow. As they pass, their chat peters out. They nod their heads to me and I smile. A snuffly terrier takes an interest in my ankle and the walker tugs its lead. I have enough time to sneak a quick tickle behind its ears before it potters after the other two mutts, all of them wrapped in tartan coats. Even the dogs feel the cold.

At the top of the valley, the wind sweeps over the hillside, stirring the yellowing grass. Even though it’s more exposed, I have to pause here and rest. The climb has winded me. I am alone. From up here, the waning sunlight on the manor and village rooftops casts long shadows into the marsh. It is getting dark early, though the golden light playing between the beech trees doesn’t enchant me the way it used to.

Instead, I cast an eye toward the shallow pond filled by the rainfall during the week. Once summer was over, the rain felt no need to hold back its torrents. It’ll soak through the chalk in the hills to flood the river meadows before long. I’ve taken to switching off the radio while I’m in the middle of cooking dinner to listen out for the pitter-patter of the shower on my patio. As such, it isn’t surprising to find the pond brimming with rainfall.

Its surface is calm. The silver reflections of clouds are faces peering back at me from the murk beneath. I leave the mirror and it’s drowned to venture away from the path. The hedgerows and their sloes are only a little farther, a short weave between the treeline. The bracken at the forest edge holds a lot of treats for any forager like me. There are blackberries for crumbles, juicy damsons for jam and red haws which I’ve been told can make a rich-bodied wine.

Today is for sloes though, and I am rewarded after a short meander by the little blue dots sheltered between the blackthorn. These luscious fruits nestled in bramble are what I’m after. My favourite shrubs peep over the mantle of the Avon valley. This is the place. The annual pilgrimage ends here.

Rolling up my sleeves, I reach into the shrubs and seized handfuls of the berries. I crane on my tiptoes and come away with a few small cuts on my fingers, the price to be paid for harvesting sloes. A host of tiny brown spiders creep away from the disturbance. Their spindly legs tickle my bloodied fingertips. My tubs fill up. I work quickly against the fading daylight, the effort stoking the mist which I exhale. The white puffs drift across the gulf left by the valley and join the mist rising from the riverbank.

When my plastic boxes are packed with berries, I heave them into my rucksack. As I start to wander back to the track, I look over my shoulder at the now-empty blackthorn bushes. Out of the low shrub, a large growth seizes my eye. Like the rest of the starved hedgerow, its twisted branches are mostly bare. They curl around the blackthorn like stag horns. I don’t recognize the plant, though from the way it hangs on the boughs it might be some parasitic mistletoe.

A gust shakes the trees and something rustles behind me. I glance back. A bundle of the growth has been knocked to the ground. The ball is a skeletal cage. Its folds ensnare the grass and anchor it where it should roll over the lip of the hill. The wind stills once more and I tread through the birch trees to meet the bridle path. 

The sun has fallen further toward the horizon and its beams flicker between the trees. My boots, wet from the field grass, toss up twigs and fallen leaves from the forest floor as I set a brisk pace home.

On looking back, I see that the wind has cast the thorn brush into the woods, like a tumbleweed from a Spaghetti Western. The forest is silent. Even the evening birdsong has died. I glance again at the ball of growth and see that it has grown. Where it was tossed by the wind it has snowballed to collect the leafmould detritus.

An uneasy sense settles on my shoulders, that flavour of quiet dread which is only felt in the lonely parts of the woods. I feel as though I am being followed. Glancing back at the thorny growth, I spot that it has unfurled. Where before it was a spooled mass of bramble sprigs, it has unwrapped itself, the brown still-frame of an electric spark caught in motion. My neck prickles as I hurry through the dusk to the edge of the woods.

I dare myself to glance again. The ill-ease is overcome by a stab of definite fear. The bracken has shaped itself into a pillar and has crept closer, tracing the route I’ve taken. My breath quickens at the sight of this looming clump that stands twice as tall as I do. A stack of white chimney smoke floats from my lips.

Frozen to the spot, I hold my gaze at the thorns as my heart batters itself against my ribs. The wooden column holds to the spot. Each of us peers at the other, daring to be the first to move. Keeping my eyes level at the mass, I take a first step back and then another.

The last of the sunlight is vanishing in the distant fields. A gale starts from nowhere, shaking the trees. I look behind me to make sure that nothing else is creeping up where I can’t see. There’s nothing but empty forest, the coppiced birch trees clawing out of the ground like bare finger bones.

When I spin around to the clearing where the column has planted itself, my sweat turns to ice. It is much nearer now, a single pace away. It has unfurled itself into the outline of a figure treading towards me, a sculpture of a running man. Still held fast like a scarecrow, a skeletal arm reaches out with grasping twig hands splayed. From where its brow has formed grow a set of twisted wooden horns. Its face is frozen in a roar.

My last nerve breaks away and I flee after it. I sprint as fast as I can through thicket and back to the bridle path. Each gasp burns my lungs as I urge my iron legs to run. Each glance into the woods is a snapshot of the thorny figure pacing after me. When I look forward, I can hear fallen leaves crisp and whisper as it takes unseen footsteps.

I rejoin the path at the head of the gulley. Here I have to stop, I’ve spent my puff. The shaped thorns haunt the edge of the forest. The wooden figure lingers between the trees, captured by my gaze. While I retake my breath, deep wheezes of chill twilight, I lock my eyes onto it. Between my blinks, it darts closer in flickering movements I cannot see. As long as I am watching it, the creature cannot stir.

Keeping my eyes peeled, I tread backwards along the path to the village. The berries in my backpack rumble with each stumbling step. My eyelids itch to close, tearing in the cold wind. They bulge as I force them open, droplets streaming down my stinging cheeks. I cannot look away. I mustn’t.

The familiar hedgerows crowd around me. I don’t dare check them. All effort is honed on keeping my stare as I trace my trail in reverse. The thorn figure holds fast, locked into position. I feel its hate as a swarming black cloud at my midriff. The last I see of it is a crown of antlers poking over the hedge by the allotments.

When I am sure that it has gone, I test the water by turning around on the spot. After a few trials where nothing breaks through the dusk, I cut a brisk stride back to the safety of my doorstep. It is dark and the first pinpricks are starting to pierce through the night sky.

I lock my door and latch it shut. The windows are closed firm. I settle my nerves on the sofa, dipping a sewing needle into my sloe harvest before washing them and poking them through the bottlenecks to steep in gin. Between the howling gale outside, I catch the scrape of branches as they pore at my windowpane.

George Aitch is a writer from Deptford. You may find more of his stories in print and online with Massacre, Shlock! and Horla, among others.

On the Surface

Evan Baughfman

 The dreary weather was supposed to be behind them, back in Seattle. But it had stubbornly clung to them all the way across the globe, like a parasite feasting on their misery.

Clouds cried over Hanoi. Charlotte cried beneath Jeff’s umbrella. 
“This is awful,” she said. “Why won’t it just stop already?”
“Don’t know, Honey.” Jeff pulled his wife closer to him, attempting to shield her from roaring sleet.

The dreary weather was supposed to be behind them, back in Seattle. But it had stubbornly clung to them all the way across the globe, like a parasite feasting on their misery. Soaking them in further sorrow.

 “Maybe we should get going again,” Jeff offered. “Which way to the market?”

“I think it’s a long walk still.”

“I’ll get us a taxi.”

“Don’t you dare step into that street!”

In the intersection before them, cars and motorbikes blatantly ignored traffic laws. Vehicles weaved whichever way was necessary, narrowly missing one another in a never-ending stream of movement. Honking horns battled for sonic supremacy against rolling thunder. Seasoned pedestrians confidently maneuvered around dauntless drivers.

Charlotte shivered. “Forget the market. I don’t want to be outside anymore. I want to be dry!”

“Another phở spot, then?”

“Hilarious.”

They had just eaten their latest meal of noodle soup, bringing their total to four bowls each over the last two days. With every slurp, the warm broth brought brief respite from the rain.

“Okay,” said Jeff. “So, back to the hotel?”

Charlotte shook her head and pointed. “Maybe we’ll find something interesting down that way.”

“I like the optimism! Let’s go.”

They walked along an uneven footpath. More than once, a car swerved toward them to avoid a collision with a cyclo. Charlotte yelped each time it happened.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I pictured sunshine and palm trees and adventure. Not this.”

She had been the one insistent on visiting Southeast Asia and “experiencing beauty in the world again”. Australian beaches had been at the top of Jeff’s list, but he easily gave in to Charlotte’s wishes. He’d do almost anything to get smiles to return to her face.

After a hard-fought clash with cancer, their five-year-old son, Spencer, had passed a few months prior. The parents had been desperate to escape Washington State’s stormy skies, as well as the silence emanating from their boy’s bedroom. They sought newer, happier memories and needed to know that the universe could offer them something more than pain and misfortune.

Jeff hugged his wife tight. “We’ve got a long trip ahead of us. No way the weather’s this shitty everywhere we go.”

On cue, the shitty weather tore the umbrella from Jeff’s hand, lifting it into the sky before discarding it in the middle of the road.

Charlotte clutched her husband’s wrist. “Leave it,” she said.

“I wasn’t going to—”

A bus crushed the umbrella underneath its tires.

“Well, at least we have a mission now,” said Jeff. “Initiating Operation Bumbershoot in 3…2…1…”

Charlotte chuckled. “Exactly the kind of excitement I was hoping for.”

Their journey continued. They struggled to secure windbreaker hoods to their skulls, and they struggled to communicate what they were looking for to various locals.

Six minutes into their objective, a man stepped from a doorway, putting out his palms to stop them. He had a long, dark beard and mustache.

“A show,” the man said. “This way, yes?”  

He gestured to the building he had just exited from, an unremarkable black box. Vietnamese words were spelled out in metallic block lettering on its face. Also featured below them was an English translation.

“‘The Little Water Puppet Theatre’?”

“Oh, they do water puppetry here!” Charlotte exclaimed. “I’ve read all about these places!”

“Yeah, I remember you mentioning something about puppets before…”

“You didn’t seem very interested, so I didn’t—”

“We’re doing it.” Jeff nodded to the man. “How much?”

“Today, free.” The man grinned. “Please, come. Please.”

“Wow.” Charlotte beamed. “Lucky us.”

“And we can ask about umbrellas after.” Jeff shook the man’s hand, noticing his long, sharp nails. “Uh…Thank you, sir. Thank you. Much appreciated.”

Jeff and Charlotte entered the theatre’s lobby, a small room with a concrete floor. Raindrops fell from the couple’s clothes, generating small puddles at their feet.

Charlotte sighed. “God, I feel better already.”

A woman in a fiery orange dress stood at another open door. “Hello,” she said with a smile. “Good afternoon.”

Charlotte smiled back. “Hi, sorry we’re all wet.”

“No problem,” said the woman. “Come, come.”

Jeff and Charlotte stepped past display cases. Behind glass, wooden fish and fox puppets stared at the tourists with painted eyes.

“Showtime soon,” said the woman in orange.

She ushered Jeff and Charlotte into the fifty-seat auditorium. A staircase descended toward an illuminated pool of water.

“Whoa,” said Jeff as they traversed the steps. “That’s the stage?”

Charlotte nodded. “The puppeteers stand in there, waist-deep, and perform.”

There were no other audience members. A third employee, a woman in a purple cloak, signaled for them to relax in the front row. Jeff and Charlotte positioned themselves in plush seats three metres from the pool’s edge.

“The splash zone,” Jeff joked.

“This is so cool.”

“It definitely has the potential to be better than a typhoon.”

On the far side of the pool was a façade designed to resemble a temple. It had red walls and a golden, sloping roof. Colourful, tasseled tapestries hung from its front.

Charlotte said, “That screen there at the bottom? Performers stand behind it so we can’t see them. They hold their puppets at the ends of these long poles, which are hidden underwater. It’ll look like the puppets are actually moving above the little waves all by themselves.”

“Nice.”

“They used to do this in rice paddies. To charm the gods. Make them happy. To ensure a healthy harvest and no overflooding.”

“Well, if it’s good enough for the gods…”

“There’s going to be live music, too. A tiny opera, basically.”

Flanking the left and right-hand sides of the pool were instruments and microphones. However, no musicians or singers stood at the ready.

Jeff said, “If you’d told me ‘opera’ from the start, I’m not sure we’d be sitting here right now.”

“Stop it. It’ll be fun. A bunch of little vignettes about local life, and some folklore. Like a magical turtle with a sword, if I remember correctly.”

“A ninja turtle?”

“Don’t be dumb.”

“That’s right. Ninjas are Japanese.”

“Spencer loved puppets,” Charlotte said. “And swimming. He would’ve thought this was awesome.”

Jeff squeezed her hand. “Yeah, and he also would’ve complained that there wasn’t any popcorn.”

Charlotte laughed. “Or M&M’s.”

The door to the lobby creaked shut.

Jeff looked around. “We’re still the only ones here.”

The auditorium dimmed while the lights above the liquid stage grew brighter. On either side of the temple, machines puffed a thick layer of mist over the water. The fog billowed, obscuring everything but the pool itself.

Drums suddenly boomed. Flutes chirped. Female voices sang.

Charlotte said, “Guess we aren’t alone, after all.”

A serpentine dragon puppet slithered out from behind the screen at the bottom of the temple. It danced on the water, gliding to and fro, turning every so often with changes in the music’s tempo.

Someone clapped from the dark staircase. It was the bearded man with the long fingernails. Beside him stood his compatriots, the women in orange and purple.

Jeff and Charlotte applauded. The dragon returned to the temple, and the melody morphed into a more playful tune.

A couple of frogs hopped into view. They appeared to skip along the surface of the pool. A pair of clumsy children chased after them, slipping and falling numerous times as the amphibians leapt just out of their reach.

Though she was teary-eyed, Charlotte giggled. “Couldn’t you just imagine Spencer tripping all over himself like that?”

Jeff choked out a simple, “Yeah.” Anything more would’ve resulted in his own tears.

Finally, the kids caught the frogs, hugging their new pets close to their chests. Charlotte cheered as the puppets re-entered the temple.

The lighting shifted into a bluish hue. The music became far more melancholy. Plucked strings began to cry.

A life-sized dinghy gently drifted toward the center of the pool. A young boy sat inside.

The previous characters had been cartoonish and obviously carved from wood. The puppet in the boat appeared to be breathing.

His face was cast in shadow. He spoke.

“Mommy?” he said in English. “Daddy, are you there?”

It definitely sounded like the voice came from the puppet and not from a singer off to the side. Jeff craned his neck, hoping to get a better look at the artistry on display. Perhaps a tiny speaker was attached to the boy or rested by his feet.

The spine of some large creature then crested above the water. Charlotte gasped as the thing submerged below the boat, bumping against it, spinning the boy in circles.

“What was that?” the boy shrieked. “Mommy! Daddy! I’m scared!”

As the dinghy spun, the puppet’s face became visible.

“Oh, my God!” shouted Charlotte.

The boy in the boat looked just like Spencer.

Bewildered, Jeff stared at the puppet, mouth agape. Charlotte stood from her seat.

The monster in the water struck the boat again, more forcefully this time. Spencer-puppet screamed for his parents as the dinghy began to rise and fall over swelling waves.

 “How?” Charlotte wondered. “How are they doing this? How’d they know what he…? How’d they get him so perfect?”

Jeff’s heart raced. The puppet was their son before disease took ahold of him, strangling the strength and vitality from his body.

Jeff got to his feet. “What is this?” he demanded. He made sure to project loud enough for every performer in the auditorium to hear. “What the hell is going on?”

No one said a word other than the boy crying out for Mommy, for Daddy. The stairs were empty. The bearded man and the women were nowhere in sight.

The lights went red. The boat looked as if it bobbed in blood.

The unseen creature attacked the boat once more, nearly toppling the puppet overboard. Water sloshed over the front of the pool, further drenching Jeff and Charlotte’s soggy shoes.

“Mommy! Daddy! Help me!”

“Stop it!” Charlotte screamed. “Please! Enough already!”

The entire room shook as the aquatic monster bellowed beneath their boy.

Charlotte stepped toward the stage. “Leave him alone! He’s just a child!”

“Stop this!” Jeff yelled at puppeteers. “Stop it right now!”

“It’s going to eat me, Mommy! Help!”

Sobbing, Charlotte declared, “I’m coming, baby! Mommy’s coming!”

Jeff grabbed onto Charlotte before she could dive into the water. “What’re you doing? Let’s get out of here!”

“He needs us! He doesn’t have a lifejacket—”

“He’s not real, honey!”

“Yes! He! Is!” Charlotte broke away from Jeff and jumped into the pool.

“Christ! Charlotte, get out—”

The monster then lifted its malformed head out of the water. Every inch of the creature’s flesh was covered in bulbous, throbbing tumors. The hairless beast resembled a massive mutant water buffalo.

Jeff was dumbfounded. Just how deep was that pool? How could a puppet possibly be so big and look so real?

Spencer-puppet looked at the creature and begged for it to go away. The thing grumbled as it studied the boy with dark eyes.

Charlotte reached the side of the boat and hoisted herself in. “Don’t worry. Mommy’s here, baby. Mommy’s here.”

The monster roared, opening its mouth to reveal fangs and a tongue that split into a trio of writhing tentacles.

Charlotte shielded her son and roared back. “Get away from him! Go!”

Jeff said, “Out of the water, Charlotte!”

But it was like she couldn’t hear him anymore. The Pinocchio impostor had her attention, as did the creature with the bulging cysts.

Jeff plunged into the pool, too…and immediately found himself transported to a vast and impossible lake. The theatre was gone. He now stood under a cloudless, crimson sky in water that came up to his thighs.

To his left, auditorium seats rested on a rocky shore. A scaly dragon lounged across the front-most row, stroking its beard with pointy claws. Behind the dragon, a flaming phoenix perched atop seats with powerful talons. A giant deer with a violet pelt watched from the back.

“What…?”

Jeff had to be hallucinating. Somebody had laced his phở with—

Screams grew from the center of the lake, where Charlotte swung an oar at the encroaching monster. Spencer cowered in fear.

Beside Jeff, a huge turtle emerged. In its beak, the animal clutched the hilt of a gleaming sword.

“Use weapon,” something suggested from the shore. “For enemy.”

Jeff took the sword from the turtle and climbed aboard the reptile’s shell. The animal carried him toward Charlotte’s battle with the enraged beast.

The monster wrapped a tonguetacle around Charlotte’s oar, ripping the object from her grasp and flinging it elsewhere with a splash. The creature’s dripping tendrils reached for Spencer.

 “No!” Charlotte cried. “Take me, instead! Not him! Take me! Please!”

“Nobody’s going anywhere!” said Jeff.

 He sprang from the turtle’s back and landed beside his wife in the boat. He stood, unsteady, between her and the monster. The thing recoiled its tongue for a moment.

The dragon clapped in the distance.

 “You’re here,” Charlotte said to Jeff, like she couldn’t believe it.

  Jeff nodded. “The magic turtle, too.”

 “Daddy,” said Spencer. “Don’t let it hurt me.”

Jeff saw no strings on his boy. Somehow, their son was there, breathing. He was alive again.

And in danger. They all were.

“Back up,” Jeff told Charlotte. The sword suddenly felt heavier in his hands. “I don’t really know what I’m doing with this thing.”

Charlotte cradled Spencer in her arms and said, “Just kill that bastard!”

The monster roared. Jeff swung his weapon downward, severing a snaking tongue segment.

The beast screeched, but its remaining tonguetacles grabbed Jeff by the waist, lifting him from the rocking dinghy, bringing him to its open jaws.

“Don’t touch us!” Jeff yelled. “Any of us!”

He stabbed at the creature’s snout, at the spherical masses under its skin. The abomination wailed, dropping Jeff back into the boat.

“I’m not letting you hurt my family! You hear me?” Jeff jabbed at the monster, but it slunk away, in pain. “If you want more, you can come and get it, you ugly piece of shit!”

The beast hesitated, contemplating its next move. Ultimately, it decided to return to the depths of the lake, leaving the inhabitants of the boat unharmed.

Spencer cheered, as did the audience watching onshore.

The giant turtle poked its head out above the water. Jeff placed the sword back into its beak.

“Thank you,” Jeff said as the animal disappeared into the lake also.

“Daddy, you’re strong!”

“Yeah? You think so, bud?” Tears traveled down Jeff’s cheeks. “Mommy’s pretty strong, too.”

Jeff knelt beside his family. Together, the parents embraced the child they never thought they’d see again.

“Hello? Excuse me? Hello!”

Jeff and Charlotte turned. They were back in the auditorium, standing in a calm pool, no longer sitting inside a tiny boat.

A young man wearing a backpack stood at the stairs. With accented English, he asked them, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Charlotte. “We’re fi—Oh, Jeff. Jeff, no!”

Between mother and father was their son. However, Spencer was no longer flesh and blood. Instead, the boy was a grinning puppet, carved from wood.

 Jeff stammered, “I…I…don’t…” He stumbled away, leaving the thing in Charlotte’s care. “What…What’s…?”

“This is my family’s theatre,” said the young man. “Our first show starts in two hours.”

“But we just saw a show!” said Charlotte. “Saw our…our son…” She hugged the puppet and began to cry again.

The young man nodded, solemnly. “I understand. This happens sometimes.”

“What?” Jeff demanded. “What happens sometimes?”

“Spirits…gods…They get tired of watching the same old story. So they bring in new performers like you to show them something different. Something exciting.”

“The hell?” Jeff shook his head. “It wasn’t real…A trick…” He looked to the puppet. “He was never real! Why would they do that to us? Why would they put us through that? For their own entertainment? Seriously?”

“I know it seems cruel,” said the young man.

Jeff huffed. “It is cruel, goddamn it! It is!”

“Did you see a monster of some kind?”

“Yes,” said Charlotte.

“And you overcame it? With the help of a great, big turtle?”

Both Jeff and Charlotte nodded.

“The gods wanted to see you happy. They wanted you to feel victory. To win back something you’ve lost. Did you?”

Charlotte squeezed the puppet. “Yes, we won.” She looked to Jeff. “Finally.”

Her husband said, “I guess we did.”

“I’m glad,” said the young man.

Jeff climbed out of the pool. He helped Charlotte to solid ground.

The young man asked, “Would you like tickets to our next performance?”

“No,” said Jeff. “I don’t think we do.”

Charlotte gestured to the puppet. “What do we do with…?”

“It stays here,” Jeff suggested. “Can’t be carrying that everywhere we go. A constant reminder of…of…”

The young man nodded. “My family would be happy to have him.”

Charlotte asked, “Will he become part of the show?”

“Yes,” said the young man. “We could do that, if you’d like.”

“Please.” Charlotte handed Spencer over. “Let him have fun and make some new friends?”

“No problem. He’ll enjoy himself here.”

“Thanks,” Jeff said to the young man.

Charlotte did the same. Jeff grabbed his wife’s hand, and they left the auditorium, walking through the lobby.

“Shit,” said Jeff. “I forgot to ask about an umbrella.”

“Don’t worry.” Charlotte had already pushed open the front door. “Look.”

Outside, the sun shined. A rainbow arced over the theatre.

The parents, with smiles bright, stepped into an uncertain future.

Evan Baughfman is a middle school teacher and author. Much of his writing success has been as a playwright. A number of his scripts can be found at online resources, Drama Notebook, and New Play Exchange. Evan also writes horror fiction and screenplays. More information is available at amazon.com/author/evanbaughfman

The Moon Queen’s Harvest

Alicia Hilton

Nightshade
malignant tumors
spread in her breasts

Weeping Willow
she sings a sorrowful ballad
beside the open window

Dragon Lily
her song conjures solace
arriving on batwings

Red Peony
she bares her soul and throat
for the moon queen

Stinging Nettle
fangs sink into her neck
her own canines grow

Night-blooming Jasmine
tumors shrink
love blossoms

Resurrection Flower
metamorphosis complete
embracing immortality

Birds of Paradise
leathery wings unfurl
they fly into the night

Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, DreamForge, Litro, Sci Phi Journal, Space and Time, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. Alicia’s website is https://aliciahilton.com.

We Wait

Miriam H. Harrison

We wait, knowing at any moment the bell will ring, children pouring from the doorway. They will come with half-eaten lunches, half-coloured drawings, half-true stories about their day. They will ask us what’s for supper. We will tell them they have to wait to find out. They do not like waiting.

Neither do we.

Still, we wait, knowing the bell will ring. We wait as the falling leaves of autumn give way to the snowdrifts of winter, the puddles of spring, the glare of summer. We no longer feel the seasons, do not count their comings and goings.

We wait.

Writing from the boreal forests and abandoned mines of Northern Ontario, Miriam H. Harrison writes poetry and short fiction that vary between the eerie, the dreary, and the cheery. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association.

Also in this issue, a poem by Miriam H. Harrison: Learn My Strength

Learn My Strength

Miriam H.Harrison

it is not
in the budding vigour of spring,
the blooming splendour of summer
that I learn my
strength

no, it is here
in autumnal dread, dressed
in dying colour, having
everything to lose, nothing
to come but the bare
and empty cold that I
see myself—strong enough
to be vulnerable

Writing from the boreal forests and abandoned mines of Northern Ontario, Miriam H. Harrison writes poetry and short fiction that vary between the eerie, the dreary, and the cheery. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association.

Also in this issue, a drabble by Miriam H. Harrison: We Wait

Old Man Christmas

Luke Walker

Bill let go of the curtains, shielding his home from the fog, the night, and the winking lights. And Father Christmas in the middle of his yearly visit.

Even with his new glasses, Bill Reid wasn’t sure what he saw hanging from the bedroom window of his neighbour’s house. Fog had clung to the streets for the entire day and while it had thinned marginally in the short time since sunset, enough remained to mute the pavements and the road with a grey blanket. Lurking behind the murk, the twinkling lights in windows flashed. He blinked a few times and realized he was looking at yet another Christmas decoration to go with the reindeer, the snowmen and the plastic sledge. Hanging from the window, linked to a short ladder, Father Christmas looked to be in the process of clambering up the wall of number seventeen.

Bill laughed at the crass sight. He didn’t know who lived in the house, only that it was a couple with at least three kids who’d moved in about two weeks ago. He’d lived on Oak Avenue for twenty years. Plenty long enough to know what the people in the surrounding homes would think. Lights and trees were fine. More, they were expected as long as the lights weren’t ostentatious. A six-foot Santa apparently performing a break and enter under cover of night wasn’t one for Oak Avenue.

Bill laughed again. Sue heard him from the kitchen and called through.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Come and have a look at this.”

A lone supermarket delivery van passed. Two days before Christmas and it felt like the world was more than ready for its annual close down. The road was never busy with traffic at the best of times. Today, a Friday, it looked to Bill like a Sunday afternoon.

Sue joined him and peered through the window. She smelled of dinner and perfume. They were having John and Cathy from next door around for drinks later; he’d been looking forward to it all day.

“What is that? Father Christmas?” Sue asked.

“Yep. Nice, isn’t it?”

Thanks to a nearby street light and the illumination from the lights in the ground floor window, blurry oranges, and winking bulbs showed enough despite the fog. A fat figure dressed in the standard red and white suit (although that red was bleached like a bone); a heavy sack slung over one shoulder, and a plastic hand clinging to the ladder that dangled from the closed window. Although Bill couldn’t be sure, he thought Father Christmas was straining to peer up at the window and the last foot or so of the ladder.

“Yes, lovely.” Sue eyed him. “No, you can’t.”

“Can’t what?” He knew.

“Get one for the house.”

“Really? It’s great. I want one.” Bill stamped his foot in mock anger as if he was ten and not in his mid-fifties.

“It’s tacky and ugly and the entire road will hate it.”

“That’s why I want one. Look at his bulging sack.”

Sue laughed at the entendre and kissed his cheek. Again, he smelled her and loved her with a fire to warm against cold Decembers. “Get ready. They’ll be here soon.”

Sue returned to the kitchen. Bill let go of the curtains, shielding his home from the fog, the night, and the winking lights. And Father Christmas in the middle of his yearly visit.

#

“That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Bill looked up from the paper and his toast. Lisa stood near the windows, facing the front garden, the road and the opposite houses. She breathed on the window, fogging it, then wiped the condensation clear.

In the daylight, the Father Christmas was much clearer. The hat with bells hanging from the tip; the white fluff of his belt; the polished black of his plastic boots; the bag that looked ready to burst with its overflowing presents. The sheer size of the thing. It was there for the world to see. And by world, Bill knew the only people who mattered were his middle-class neighbours. The local Facebook page would be going bonkers.

“I like it, but your mother won’t let me get one,” Bill told his daughter. She pulled a face. Whether it was at the suggestion of Father Christmas stuck to the wall of their house or at the decoration itself, Bill didn’t know. He loved the girl with a force that was occasionally frightening – even after nineteen years – but he sometimes wondered if he really knew her. Lisa did have a sense of humour; she was sharp and quick and destined for great things in a way he had never been at her age, but Christ, everything was black and white to the girl.

But it was nine on a Saturday morning. He had his paper, his toast and nothing bigger planned for Christmas Eve other than a couple of pints at lunchtime and the preparing for the family arrival tomorrow.

“I can’t imagine why,” Lisa said. “Other than the fact it’s tacky as hell and sentimental and a bit shit, really.”

“Just like Christmas.” He said it before she could.

“No.” She dragged out the syllable for a second too long and Bill smiled around his toast. Sue joined them with her coffee. It had been a later night than usual with drinks with their friends and then an unexpected hour in the bedroom. She looked wonderful.

“I’ve already told him he can’t have one,” Sue said to Lisa.

“Spoilsport,” Bill muttered.

“There’ll be a petition to take it down by lunchtime.” Lisa indicated the nearest houses to number seventeen. “They’re probably ready to move out. Or call the police.”

It was a joke and Bill knew it. Still, there was an edge to his daughter’s tone he didn’t care for. He heard the humour; he also heard a slight sneering. A judgement. For the people at seventeen with their tacky decorations, perhaps. Or for the middle-class road. Or for Christmas.

“What’s the problem with it? The people who put it up like it. It’s a laugh, isn’t it?” Bill said.

“It’s cheesy. It’s supposed to be ironic, but it’s just. . . crap. Like that guy you listen to on the radio in the afternoons who’s deliberately not funny. Like not being funny is actually funny.” Lisa pointed to the dangling Santa. “That’s Christmas.” She smiled. “Crap, really.”

“No presents for you, young lady.” Sue sat beside Bill and raised her breakfast to his. “A toast to your toast.”

“A toast to your toast,” he echoed.

“Old people.” Lisa returned to her bedroom where Bill suspected she’d be online in about three seconds to decry her parents to the world. Along with Christmas.

Really, what was the problem? People celebrated; they had a drink and a laugh; they saw friends and neighbours and they were warm against the dying year. If they had to stick up some garish decorations to do so, then where was the harm?

The dim sound of tinkling bells came to their living room. Bill looked up, aware the windows were closed. Across the street, Father Christmas hung from his place on the wall of the house.

Father Christmas had turned around to face straight into Bill’s living room.

#

With the light from the downstairs hall bouncing up the stairs to meet the illumination from the second floor, Bill ascended the stairs without any shadows walking with him. As he reached the hallway, he heard Sue flush the downstairs toilet and smiled. He could have waited for her to finish instead of coming upstairs to the bathroom, but the wine they’d had over dinner along with a few bottles of Bishop’s Finger didn’t want to hang around. He padded past Lisa’s bedroom door, heard the murmur of her voice and a reply from whoever she was talking to, through her computer, and took care of business in the bathroom. Washing his hands, he studied his face in the mirror, not liking the way the light bleached his features or how the sliver of illumination carved a square below the window. It didn’t take much imagination to see the winking flash of Christmas lights inside that white square.

It was just one of those things. It doesn’t mean anything.

He could believe that quite easily. Imagination was fine for writers or creative people and while he loved his books, Bill knew he was long past letting imagination dictate what he saw or believed. The world was made of solid things. His family, his home, his friends, his job in the Council. Christmas.

A phantom ache clung to his elbow from where he’d jerked and knocked his arm into Sue’s plate, spilling her toast to the carpet. She’d cried out in shock, then asked him what was wrong. He’d coughed hard, deeply, eyes blurring for a couple of seconds before he could focus and there was Father Christmas, clinging to the wall opposite, surrounded by lights and reindeer and those inflatable snowmen. St. Nick with his sack thrown over one shoulder, his body fixed to the ladder and free hand straining for the bedroom window. Facing number seventeen and most definitely not staring into Bill’s living room.

“I had a twinge,” Bill said to his reflection. It was what he’d told Sue. A twinge in his stomach as if he’d been about to be ill. It passed, he told her, but he’d go to the loo just in case. Sitting on the toilet, staring at the wall, he’d taken a few minutes to jettison the childish terror of a sodding Christmas decoration moving when it couldn’t possibly do so and then returned to his breakfast, his wife, his world of normality.

Close to twelve hours later, the quiet of Christmas Eve pleasant in the warmth of his home, it was a welcome knowledge to know it had just been one of those things.

You haven’t looked out of the window much, have you?

No. He had not. While he hadn’t gone out of his way to avoid the view of the faint mist on the road and in the gardens, he had drawn the curtains a good hour before the sun went down in its red glory. And when he’d gone out at lunch to meet his friends for a pint, he’d marched in a straight line, breath puffing, the chill icy in his nose and chest. Eyes ahead. Focus ahead. His speed that of a younger man until the stabbing pain in his side forced him to remember he was in his fifties and it was time to slow down.

He left the bathroom. He and Sue would have another drink, then bed. With everyone descending on the house by eleven at the latest the next morning, they needed sleep and time to prepare for his brothers, sister, their spouses and kids, and his parents. This was his last chance at peace until probably seven the following evening.

Bill slowed as he neared Lisa’s bedroom. She was still on her computer, her voice carrying through the closed door. He paused there, wishing she had met up with some of her friends for a drink, but she wasn’t a pub kind of kid. Few of her friends were. Their lives were online, not face to face.

“Yeah. Aunts, uncles, cousins I don’t know.”

Bill listened. Whatever reply Lisa’s friend offered wasn’t clear.

“Well, yeah. I mean I know them, but I don’t have anything to do with them apart from Christmas, you know?”

Downstairs, Sue was in the kitchen. Probably heating another glass of mulled wine and digging through their copious supplies of beer for him.

“Yeah. It’s going to be hell. Grandparents who must be about three hundred by now; all my inbred aunts and uncles. If I can get out before dinner, I’ll come round.”

“Inbred?” Bill whispered.

“What?” Lisa’s annoyance was as clear as her surprise. “Not even for like half an hour?”

Her friend couldn’t get away from family, it seemed.

“Shit.” Lisa sounded much younger than nineteen in that second. Again, Bill wondered if he knew his child as much as he loved her. There was actual disgust here; not even something as simple as disliking the day. Disgust at the whole thing.

“Yeah, I don’t like it.”

Bill sagged, disheartened. It was as if she was agreeing with him, not her friend.

“Like why this one day? Why not meet up with people whenever you want? Why wait for the same day as everyone else? Shit, why do it at all? It’s the same every year. Like, literally the same every year except all my relatives are older and definitely more boring.” She laughed. “Definitely more inbred. I swear, the stuff they get up to out there in the country.”

Bill leaned on the wall, listening to Lisa go on with her mocking just on the wrong side of good-natured. The country. Old. Same every year. Same every year. Same every year.

The terms clung to his heart, bringing a dismay that pained his stomach. Lisa had always been cynical and that was okay. He could live with that. But this was ugly. It was the same judgement she’d given to the garish decorations festooning number seventeen. Judge the decorations; judge the people who celebrated Christmas to such an extent.

Which meant judging her family.

Bill left Lisa to her conversation, returning to Sue and the lights on their tree. They watched TV; they laughed at repeats of Morecambe and Wise, and Bill sipped brandy an hour later while Sue found a mixture of Christmas songs. Nat King Cole followed Bing Crosby while Bill sang quietly to Slade, Wizzard, and Shakin’ Stevens with a humour he did not feel. After the carols from King’s, Sue suggested bed. They hadn’t heard or seen anything from Lisa all evening; she’d be asleep by now.

“I’ll be up in a bit.” Bill shook his brandy glass slightly. The liquid caught the glimmer of the tree lights. He’d filled it with a liberal splash ten minutes before, not admitting to himself he’d deliberately timed it. Because he knew Sue would soon suggest turning in.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Yes. I’ll finish this and be up. Keep the bed warm for me.”

She smiled and he loved her. Thirty years and that love was in their home and their curtains sealed against the embers of the dead year.

Sue yawned hugely. “All right, but don’t be long. Big day tomorrow.”

He knew it. The inbred and the old would join them to celebrate light and love and family.

Within minutes, he was alone, brandy in hand, beside the lights on the tree. The TV was on, showing some ancient film, the volume close to non-existent. Floorboards creaked overhead; the faint light from their bedroom reached halfway down the stairs. It went off. His wife in their bed, doubtless asleep in two minutes if the mulled wine was anything to go on. Lisa, up there either still decrying family and Christmas, or also sleeping. Dreaming of days that didn’t involve forced fun and festivities. The same every year.

Every year.

Bill drank, eyes on the screen, attention elsewhere. He’d have to speak to Lisa at some point. Not tomorrow, though. Let the family meet and laugh for the day, then have a word. Point out that just because sociability wasn’t her strong point, that didn’t mean judging those who did want to celebrate the day was okay. Nor was mocking her extended family. Nor was any of it.

Bill shifted, niggled by doubt. Something in those words – same every year – stuck to him like. . .like Father Christmas was stuck to the wall. Reaching for access. Weighed down with his bag of presents or whatever was in his sack. Except Bill thought his own weight wasn’t anything as fun as presents.

It was a begrudging admittance Lisa was right.

It was the same every year. Same people. Same conversations. Same music and TV and routine and routine and routine. Anything meaningful in the day was lost and buried by repeats and ironically bad music and over-indulgence. Christmas was just one big echo sounding out of his childhood into adult life and then into the grave.

Soft bells tinkled.

Bill’s neck turned his head. He had nothing to do with it. He stared at the curtains and heard the gentle tinkle again. The sort of sound one might hear from the movement of a hat with jaunty bells attached.

Because that’s what it was.

“Bullshit.”

The whisper didn’t help. If anything, the tired hiss of his voice was an invasion in the tranquillity of Christmas Eve night.

As his neck forced his head to turn, his legs took over. He stood, still with brandy in hand, and lurched to the window.

Curtains parted, Bill gazed at the houses and gardens shrouded in a thicker mist than earlier.

Father Christmas stood in the middle of the road. He’d descended from the wall of number seventeen, trudged through the frozen earth and black ice, between the inflatable snowmen and reindeer to stand in full view of Bill’s living room. But stand wasn’t the right word for the hunched thing outside. It was too old to stand straight, too weighed down by those centuries and repeated nights trudging from year to year, so it hunched over, head twisted to peer at him with blue lights for eyes. Winking lights, cold instead of warm on a tree or hung in a living room window. This was Christmas of distant time before the houses and cars. Christmas of mud and no sun, of woodlands and hunting not for tradition on Boxing Day, but to eat. To survive. Because that was life. Survive in the killing and blood, or die in the ice and the wind. Harvest in the spring and the summer; hide in the long months of the winter when the wolves howled in the woods and the night never ended and this bent, gnarled creature was the creation born from ever-present fear of the snow and the freeze. A story told by parents to comfort children with promises of gifts and a future beyond the woods and the fog caressing the hedges and leaves as it lay on the detached houses and garages here on Oak Avenue.

This walking Christmas was that story, birthed by people in the ground for a thousand years and a thousand more before then. This stunted goblin with its sack ready to spill its toys to the ice, with its cold fire for eyes and its mouth open to reveal jagged teeth and a pit into its belly. It was outside Bill’s Christmas of family and light and food. And it was hungry.

Whatever gifts Santa had brought shifted inside the giant sack, the movement feeble but still discernible.

The curtain fell from Bill’s hand, shutting out the mist and the silence.

“I did not see that.”

It was all he could think to say, all the words his tongue and lips would create. He swayed but managed to stay upright, and swallowed a large mouthful of brandy. The burn helped to bring him back, and he took another.

Lisa, the day tomorrow; his private wish for more time like tomorrow despite his advancing years and knowing there were fewer Christmases ahead than behind  they were the issues that mattered. The vision outside was as imagined as Scrooge seeing Marley and then blaming it on indigestion.

Scrooge did see Marley, Dad.

A second away from crying out, Bill flung the curtains wide.

The mist had thickened in the last moment and while the soft grey obscured much of number seventeen, it left the road open. The empty road.

“Christ.” Bill sat and placed his almost empty glass down. Way too much indulgence today. He’d watch his intake over dinner tomorrow and into the evening – food as well as drink – and he’d suggest to Sue they take down the tree and decorations by the twenty-seventh. Let Christmas sleep for another year.

The floorboards overhead creaked.

Bill glanced at the ceiling, unsure why the sound disturbed him. Fingers trembling more than he cared to admit, he reached for his brandy. Then stopped.

The creak had come from the corner of the room, not directly overhead where Sue slept. And in the corner, the fire they rarely used, the fire mostly forgotten in the age of central heating and radiators, was a dark pit with the long since disused chimney breast stretching to the roof of his home.

Another creak. A shifting. A loose patter of brickwork.

Bill stared at the unlit pit, fully aware he didn’t have time to cross the room and ignite the flames before those two blue lights brightened the fake coal. Before Christmas came to him.

All he could do was hope his body would be alone in the hunched thing’s bag when it left his home to set out for the snow blanketing the world.

Luke Walker has been writing horror and dark thrillers for most of his life after finding a copy of Lovecraft’s stories that his brother left in the bathroom. His books include Ascent and Pandemonium.
He lives in England with his wife, cats, too many bad films and not enough books.

Slateley

Malcolm Timperley

A signpost pointed to “Slateley 7 miles”, so I followed it, thinking that anywhere important enough to merit a sign seven miles away must have something. As it turned out it did.

Before I went there I’d never heard of Slateley, and I doubt you have either. In fact, I’ve never spoken to anyone who has. Actually, I’m still not quite sure exactly where it is. Somewhere in the North, but that doesn’t really narrow it down much, does it? I mean, that’s the thing about the North, there’s such a lot of it. Anyway, it was December about twenty years ago, the Solstice in fact, and I was on the motorway, driving home. After a whole day ploughing through rain, snow, and traffic jams, I was tired and hungry, it was getting dark and I still had miles to go. When I saw the sign “Roadworks in 5 Miles”, that was it, the final straw, I took the slip road at the next exit. Anywhere that’d sell me a meal, a couple of drinks, and eight hours in bed would do. A signpost pointed to “Slateley 7 miles”, so I followed it, thinking that anywhere important enough to merit a sign seven miles away must have something. As it turned out it did.

It was only a small village – a church, a few stone cottages and another, taller building, the only one showing a light. It was a pub. And that was where I spent the night. The room was adequate, the food was good and the beer was excellent. But the only person I saw was the landlord. I’m sure he must’ve done at some point, but, do you know, I’ve no memory of him speaking a word the whole time I was there. If I needed something, he’d materialize from somewhere, do whatever, say nothing, then disappear. After a meal and a second pint it seemed pointless just sitting in an empty bar, so, even though it wasn’t that late, I decided to turn in. Getting back to my room seemed to take forever. All the doors I walked past were open. The contents of every room were draped with white sheets as if the place had been uninhabited and unused for a very long time indeed. Mine was the only room without shrouded… things. That was when I started to feel that there was something very wrong with Slateley.

I slept, but badly and not for very long. The moon woke me up, shining through the gap where I hadn’t been able to close the curtains completely, so I got up to make another attempt at shutting out the light. As I did, I looked outside. In the winter moonlight, pall bearers were leading shrouded mourners on a slow trudge towards the church. In complete silence. At the lychgate, they stopped and one of them turned his head. He looked straight up at me. I couldn’t see a face under the cowl, and I know this must sound ridiculous, but I felt as though I was recognizing someone I hadn’t actually met yet. Then he turned back and they moved off through the lychgate and disappeared into the churchyard. Feeling… cold, I retreated to bed. Further sleep was hopeless, and, in truth, I didn’t relish the prospect of what it might bring. Eventually, daylight came, so I got dressed and headed back downstairs. The doors I’d passed previously were all closed now. I called and rang but no one came. Breakfast had been laid out for me though, together with my bill. I ate, stuck a cheque under the teacup, and left.

It was frosty and the sun was starting to work on thick mist. Slateley was silent. There wasn’t even a cat wandering about or a bird on a wire. In the mist, I could just make out the silhouette of the church beyond the lychgate. I was attracted and repelled at the same time. Have you ever felt that? It’s a strange thing – you’re drawn to go and investigate something, but held back by fear of what you might find. Curiosity won, but only just; as I passed through the lychgate it struck me that I was holding my breath. Letting go, I relaxed a bit and, feeling braver, I started walking round the churchyard. The sun in the mist looked peaceful and convinced me that nothing terrible was going to happen, at least not there and then. In fact, what with that and the frost sparkling in the sunlight I forgot all about the spooky stuff. It looked so good that I even retrieved my camera from the car and had some fun taking pictures. I only stopped when I ran out of film, that wouldn’t happen nowadays, would it? Not with digital, you’d just keep on and on, clicking away. So I gave up on the camera and just wandered round the place for a bit. Now, have you ever noticed that when you’re walking through a graveyard, for some unknown reason you’re drawn to particular graves? Of course, usually, they’re the ones with the kitschy statues or something, but not always. Sometimes you just find yourself attracted to completely ordinary gravestones. And that morning it was to a row of new ones. I read the inscriptions. The last one, the one at the far end, had no details, no dates, just a name. My name.

Shock, fear, confusion, and god knows what else. I don’t remember anything about leaving Slateley, how long it took to get home or which way I went. Of course, I kept telling myself that, though I’m not John Smith, there must be hundreds of other folk with the same name as mine. So, obviously, it was all just an incredible coincidence. After a few days I stopped dreaming of Slateley and its silent inhabitants. I forgot. Well, mostly. Now and then something would bring it all back. The first time was when the lab sent a note back with my pictures; your photographs are all fogged, did you forget to remove the lens cap? No, sorry, not with an SLR camera I didn’t. And again, when I noticed that the cheque I’d left at the pub was never cashed. And of course, the time years ago when you and I first met, at that dreadful dinner party. God, the embarrassment when we were introduced and I just stood there, open-mouthed. You said I looked like I’d seen a ghost, remember? You see, the fact is, I was too rattled to tell you at the time, but the landlord in Slateley was the spitting image of you. Well, an older version of you as you looked back then. But at that moment it felt as though I was seeing him again. So now, years too late I’m afraid, I want to say that I’m sorry. Truly.

You see, yesterday I found an envelope on the doormat. Inside was a black-edged card, informing me that next week a funeral will be held. In Slateley. My attendance is required. So, once again I’m dreaming of the wintry village with its empty pub and its silent landlord. And of the funeral procession passing through the lychgate. And of the strangely familiar, shrouded mourner. And of the line of gravestones. And of the one at the end of the line bearing my name.

And, most vividly of all, of the gravestone next to that with your name on it.

Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, spent more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, and is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. He has published non-fiction (railway history), comedy (he was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards), and horror (most recently in Horla).

Also in this issue by Malcolm Timperley: “A Ghost Story for Christmas”