The Followers by Jim Mountfield

“Don’t make yourselves comfortable.” 

As if to reinforce Clive’s warning, a gust of wind rattled the classroom’s windowpanes. The city’s football stadium dominated the part of the skyline framed by those windows. Now a black cloud loomed above the ribs of the stadium’s cantilevered roof like a buzzard perched on a carcass.

Clive felt no guilt at sending his twelve students outside just as the weather was turning foul. He hated them. They were an imposition. He was meant to be a writer, yet he was stuck here, wasting time that should be spent writing, trying to teach these no-hopers to write.

He placed some photocopies on his table. “This exercise is a practical follow-on from last week’s lesson on creating characters. Take one of these handouts. Then go outside, walk around the neighborhood, find someone who looks interesting enough to base a character on. Follow them, observe them, imagine what their personality, background, life-history are like. Make notes on the handout, which lists the things you need to consider. Be back by quarter-to-three. The next homework assignment is to turn your notes about the person you observed into a 500-word character description. You can use the last fifteen minutes of class to start it.”

The students heard the first raindrops strike the windowpanes. But the task’s unexpectedness left them too surprised to complain. Clive was eager to get them out before they did complain. “Obviously, do your following and observing at a discrete distance. Don’t get arrested for stalking. Now…” He clapped his hands. “Go!”

Out they went. By the time they’d gone along the corridor to the school’s lobby, some were grumbling, but it was too late.

The last person to leave was a woman with long auburn hair who looked in her early thirties, though, from the information on her course application form, Clive knew she was older. She’d loaded the top of her desk with stationery—biros, notepaper, correction fluid, colored highlighter pens—which she was returning to an oversized handbag. He said, “You needn’t take that with you, Edie. It’ll be here when you get back.”

She sounded nervous. She usually did when she spoke to him. “Oh… I’d better bring it along… It might be useful…somehow.”

She was the only person in the class with a strong city accent. The others spoke in middle-class or posh accents that were less easy to identify geographically. Clive assumed this gave her an inferiority complex and was why she found him intimidating. Come to think of it, she seemed to find everyone in the class intimidating.

She tottered towards the door on high heels that just about elevated her from being short to being of medium height. She lifted the final handout but, before leaving, turned and looked at him worriedly. “Do you think this is…right, Clive?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well… It feels dishonest… It’s like we’re spying on these people and stealing something from them.”

“Oh Edie. Don’t fret. It’s what we writers do. We exploit everything and everyone around us for material. We eat it all up. Why….”

He laughed, showing his teeth.

“We’re practically cannibals.”

***

Edie was well behind the other students. She followed the twisting staircase down from the adult-education center, past the poolroom on the middle floor, to the building’s entrance, which was beside the façade of one of the street’s Chinese restaurants. A classmate stood in the doorway, peering out at the rain while it smacked the pavement with growing violence.

“Hello,” she said. “You’re Ralph, aren’t you?” Though he spoke poshly, she found this classmate more approachable than the others because he was so young. He barely looked out of his teens and had apparently chosen his clothes, a loose-hanging tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, and clumpy leather brogues, in the hope they’d make him look older and more mature.

“Yes. And you’re Edith.” Unnecessarily, he added, “It’s raining.”

“Oh, just call me ‘Edie’.” She removed a small umbrella from her cluttered handbag. “I’ve got a brolly if you want to share it.”

Ralph took her umbrella and opened it, and they stepped out of the doorway. Through the shimmering prism of the rain, they saw out a few figures further along the street who might belong to their class. One after another, those figures disappeared around a corner at the street’s end. “The market,” he explained. “I think they all decided to head there.”

“That’s a good idea.” The market was a roofed-over complex southeast of the city center, encompassing a block and housing nearly a hundred stalls, shops, and eateries. “It’s always crowded. There’ll be plenty of folk to choose from and we won’t look so conspicuous as we follow them. Plus, we’ll be out of this horrible weather.”

She realized he was holding the umbrella low for her. While it shielded her, the wind and rain swept over it, pelted his face, and tangled his hair. But before she could protest, Ralph pointed ahead and asked, “What about him, though? He might have potential.”

Another figure was prowling the street several yards in front of them. Definitely not a classmate—this one was hunched over and wore a frayed beanie hat, an anorak that’d once been white but was now gray with dirt, and a pair of saggy sports bottoms.

Edie felt uneasy. “Him? Well, I know him… I mean, I’ve seen him. He hangs around this neighborhood.”

“I’ve seen him too. He’s eccentric. I bet we could get an interesting character-description out of him.”

“But using him doesn’t feel fair. He’s probably been through a lot, poor man.”

They followed him further. Then the wind swelled and almost wrenched the umbrella from Ralph’s hands. By now the rain was strafing the street, making miniature watery explosions over the road and pavements. They ducked into the strip of shelter offered by the doorway of the nearest restaurant. A tang of Thai tom-yum soup assailed them as they huddled there. Though the council promoted this street as the city’s Chinatown, there weren’t enough Chinese restauranteurs locally to line its sides with eating places, so restauranteurs from other Asian communities had found premises too.

“God,” Ralph lamented, “Clive chose a fine time to send us on this mission.”

Edie didn’t reply. Awkwardly, she stared past him. Ralph turned and discovered that the man they’d been trailing had also taken refuge in the doorway. His face, only a yard from theirs now, was unshaven, weatherbeaten, and strangely squashed-looking. Because most of his teeth were missing, his head seemed to sink onto his jaw.

“You,” declared the man, “were following me.”

Ralph lied. “No, we weren’t.”

“Oh, I’m wise to how these things are done. First, you weren’t just behind me, but were keeping pace with me. You didn’t want to catch up and overtake me. Second, you were talking about me. I could tell. Ordinarily, people would be shouting over this storm. But you weren’t. You were keeping your voices low. A dead giveaway.”

Edie piped up. “John, please! Don’t be paranoid. We happened to be walking behind you, that’s all.”

The man’s indignation vanished. Amiably, he said, “Oh hello, Edie. How are you? Er… I don’t suppose you could make a donation to the cause today?”

Ralph was astonished. “John? You really do know him!”

Edie opened her handbag again, extracted a purse, and from that fished out some coins. She gave them to the man, too embarrassed to check first how much she was handing over. Meanwhile, he told Ralph, “Sure, she knows me. Talks to me every time she comes here to attend that writing class, up above the Pride of Shanghai Restaurant.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you go there too? Are you a writer?”

“Well, I don’t profess to be yet—”

The man sneered. “Profess? You look like a young professor, all right.”

“But I have ambitions that way.”

He became belligerent again and stabbed a finger towards Ralph. “Well, here’s something to write about. You can write a whole book’s worth about it. What…happened…to…my…wife?”

Edie sighed. “You see, a while ago, John’s wife disappeared. He believes she was abducted.”

“I’m investigating,” he elaborated. “Not just the abduction. Also, the abductors.” Furtively, he glanced either way along the street. “They’re all around, see? Among us. Selecting more people to abduct. They try to blend in, but if you know the warning signs to look for…”

Ralph interrupted. “What about the police? Have you reported your wife’s kidnapping to them?”

That prompted a scornful laugh. “The cops? What would they do? Those bastards haven’t just abducted her—they’ve erased every trace of her existence. Erased all memories of her from the heads of everyone who knew her. Nobody knows she disappeared because nobody knows she existed in the first place.”

Edie was desperate for this conversation to end and for them to be on their way. But, to her dismay, Ralph was mulling the man’s words over. Then he demanded, “How did they manage to do that?”

“A signal,” said John. “It’s some signal they send out at the moment of abduction. Removes the person from the collective human memory.”

Ralph peered down at the man’s left hand, searching the grimy fingers for a ring. “But didn’t some physical evidence of her remain?”

“No. The signal destroyed the physical traces of her too.” He considered it. “They send out a fucking strong signal.”

“But if the signal’s so powerful…” Suddenly, Ralph’s voice had the triumphant tone of a debater clinching an argument. “Why hasn’t she been removed from your memory?”

John, though, had an answer. He raised his left hand—definitely, Ralph noted, no rings on those fingers—and tapped his left temple. “My brain’s different, see. Differently wired. And while their signal did get her out of my memory, it didn’t get her out of the deeper bits, the subconscious. So, sometimes, I dream about her…” His squashed face seemed to deflate more. His voice became a croak. “That’s right. I know I had a wife once… Because I meet her again in my dreams.”

Ralph felt pressure against his hand and realized Edie was clutching it. When he looked down at her, he saw faint smears about her eyes. What? John’s babblings had moved her to tears?

The man had another change-of-mood. Something made him glance along the street behind him. His anguish turned to alarm, and he hissed, “Right, everyone, act calm. One of them’s coming.”

The storm hadn’t quite cleared Chinatown of pedestrians. A figure was approaching on the opposite pavement. It was tall and thin, lacked an umbrella, but was clad in a raincoat that descended to its knees. The raincoat had a plasticky greenness and, though the clouds and rain muted the light, it glistened brightly. Ralph tried to discern the figure’s face, but a cloth cap was pushed down over it, and the corners of the raincoat’s collar were pulled up around it.

For a hallucinogenic moment, Ralph thought the shafts of rain were bending towards the figure. The rain was crowding against it, splashing in a tumultuous halo around its feet and nowhere else… But the crazy moment passed, and he found himself contemplating an ordinary, rainy street with an ordinary, raincoated pedestrian on it.

The figure receded towards Chinatown’s other end. “So,” said Ralph, “that’s one of the abductors?”

“It is.”

“To me, it looked like a bloke in a green raincoat.”

Edie contradicted him. “Not green. It was blue.”

“No,” said Ralph, “it was green.”

“Blue.”

John sighed. “Yip. These disagreements happen when they’re around. Always a warning sign.”

***

Edie sat outside a café in one of the market’s alleys. While shoppers milled past her table, she worked with two highlighter pens on Clive’s handout. The details you could tell about a person by looking at them she marked in one color. The details you needed to use your imagination to answer she marked in another.

“Favorite drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic…” she read, running the second pen’s nib across the words. She sat back in her chair. “How am I supposed to know that?”

She thought about John. Though they’d agreed not to use him as a subject, she wondered what his favorite drink would be. She recalled some beverages associated with down-and-outs. Buckfast Tonic Wine, Frosty Jack’s Cider, Carlsberg Special Brew…

“No. That isn’t right.”

She imagined John at the end of a day, sheltering in a derelict building. Opening a knapsack and taking out a bottle of wine—proper wine, not Buckfast—and two wineglasses. He set the glasses on the dusty floorboards and poured two miniscule amounts into them. Because the wine was expensive, far beyond his normal price-range, he had to pour it sparingly. Then he raised one glass in a toast. He was pretending his wife was with him. They were drinking wine together and everything in their lives was normal. The nightmare had never happened.

It touched her that John was devoted to his wife, even though, possibly, she’d never existed and was a phantasm of his madness. She wished her own husband had shown such devotion—the husband who’d knocked her up when she was 16 and cleared off, never to been seen again, when she was twenty one.

Ralph returned to the table. He’d been in the market’s toilets, drying his hair in the breeze from a hand-dryer. Now his hair rose in a weird nimbus, but she didn’t embarrass him by pointing this out.

He noticed she’d highlighted the words on her handout in green and blue. “When we saw the raincoat worn by that man in Chinatown…”

“The abductor?”

“The abductor, as John claimed. Maybe it wasn’t so strange we saw different colors. There are greenish-blue shades where it’s hard to decide which color you’re looking at.” He sat down. “Also, in Japan, there’s a color called midori.”

“Isn’t that a liqueur with melons in it?”

“Technically, it’s the Japanese word for green. Except that in Japan some things we would consider blue, like the sea, are called midori. So, different cultural conceptions of green and blue exist too.”

She repeated it. “Midori. You know some interesting things, Ralph.”

“Well, I’ve been…” He checked himself, sensing it was inappropriate to tell her he’d spent his gap-year in Japan. He didn’t want to brag about his travels in front of someone who’d perhaps never been further than a beach in southern Spain. “I read about it somewhere.”

She gazed into her mug of coffee. “I wish I’d had time to read. To educate myself. It’s probably too late now.”

He tried to cheer her up. “Well,” he laughed, “that John’s a character, isn’t he? Crazy as a box of frogs. When I pointed out the hole in his lunatic conspiracy theory, about how he could remember his wife when nobody else did, he said it was because his brain was differently wired. In other words, because he was mad. He used his madness to justify his mad story. Brilliant circular reasoning!”

Edie didn’t find this funny. She shuddered. “Don’t joke about it, Ralph. My poor mum wasn’t right in the head, either. She was in and out of hospital for years. Schizophrenia, she had. No laughing matter.”

Ralph blushed. To hide his red face, he bowed it over his mug and took a swig of coffee. “I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have made fun of him.”

“It’s frightening. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve inherited some of her schizophrenia.”

“You? Surely not.”

“Oh, I’m all sweetness and light now.” She sighed. “But after a couple of gin-lime-and-lemonades, I become a different person. A scary one.”

Ralph’s blush persisted and Edie felt embarrassed that she’d made him embarrassed. After a minute of silence, he declared in an unconvincingly upbeat tone, “Right-o. Time to get to work.” He turned towards the shoppers. “See anyone promising?”

Edie grimaced. “Oh, I hate this. Having to snoop on people.” But she tried to focus. “Okay, what about her?”

She’d noticed a twenty-something woman approaching. The hair had been shaven from the sides of her head, but a thick, defiant comb of it, dyed purple, remained on top. She wore spectacles, a black greatcoat, and Doc Martens. “Interesting specimen,” he commented. “Good choice.”

“You can follow her if you like.”

“No, she’s yours.” He spoke quietly as the woman was almost level with their table now. “You saw her first.”

Edie returned the worksheet and pens to her bag and clambered up. “Damn Clive for putting us through this. I feel like a criminal.”

“You’d better hurry.” Already the woman was receding, carried off on the torrent of shoppers. Then Ralph took a deep breath and was about to add, “Edie, look, I apologize. I honestly didn’t mean to mock John or your mum…”

But he was too late. Edie spoke instead. “Well, got to go. I’ll see you at the school at two forty five. Good luck with finding someone.” She departed, her eyes fixed on the strip of purple hair as it bobbed away in the crowd.

Ralph drained his mug, her final words lingering: “Good luck with finding someone.”

In her company, he’d begun to wonder if he had found someone. Not for Clive’s stupid task, of course, but as a friend. Someone he could talk to freely and naturally and without awkwardness. And perhaps, one day, that friendship might develop further… He shook his head. No, impossible. They came from completely different backgrounds. And the age difference. How old was she? She looked reasonably young, but… Could she be old enough to be…his mum?

Maybe that was why she’d shown an interest in him. She felt an urge to mother him.

Ralph tried to forget her and slough off his feeling of foolishness. For a minute he studied the handout, groaning at some of the wilder things Clive wanted them to deduce—the subject’s favorite superhero? Then he chose a passer-by, a man with pepper-colored hair and an even-grayer beard, in a plaid shirt and jeans. He rose and followed him. No ideas came, however, and he soon gave up. He switched to following an old woman whose varicosed legs, in their stockings, looked almost as lumpen as the bag of vegetables she was carrying. But again, he quickly gave up and changed to following someone else.

Led by one person after another, he wandered out of the alleys, with their fruit-and-veg stalls, hardware shops, butchers and fishmongers, tearooms, and greasy-spoon cafés, and into the arcade, which was the open and more touristy area of the market. Preserved old shop-fronts with antique signage ran along its sides. A few more shops, detached and single-story, formed islands in the middle of the floor. One sold footwear and had a giant red boot, like something from a nursery rhyme, planted on its roof. Higher up, rain sluiced off the barreled glass roof of the arcade itself.

Looking down again from the rain, he noticed a patch of green shimmering amid the crowd ahead.

He sped up and dodged past a few people, straining to get a better look at the figure. It changed direction so that it no longer walked across the arcade but along it, and Ralph changed course too. They passed the old-fashioned shopfronts on one of the sides. By now, between the heads of the shoppers who still separated them, Ralph saw a cloth cap above the greenness. This surely was the person they’d spied in Chinatown, the one whose raincoat they’d disagreed about.

Then a strange thing happened. The raincoat was suddenly a different color. It wasn’t green but—as Edie had claimed—blue.

Something muffled the noise of the arcade. It shrank to a murmur, then to a whisper, then to nothing. Perhaps this was to do with how the air was changing. Ralph had a notion it was becoming crystalline. Yes, crystals were forming around him, green ones that caught the building’s light, filtered it, gave it a greenish hue. He tried to pause and study this impossible phenomenon, but couldn’t. His feet kept moving of their own accord.

Doesn’t anybody else think this odd?, he wondered.

In fact, only he and the raincoated figure were moving now. The other people in the market had frozen. As Ralph traipsed past them, he saw how literally frozen they’d become. They’d acquired a glassy-green transparency and resembled human-shaped sculptures, carved from green ice. Meanwhile, the people directly in front of him didn’t even resemble ice. They might have consisted of green vapor because, magically, he passed through them.

His quarry, the figure, still had substance. It halted and slowly turned towards him.

Its raincoat was green again. Everything else, the crystals in the air, the ice sculptures at Ralph’s sides, the vaporous forms in front, became blue. Their blueness thickened and solidified until he felt he was traversing a blue corridor.

Ralph thought of one of his roommates, a postgraduate student with a fondness for hallucinogenic drugs. It’s Harry. For a laugh, he’s put something in my food or drink. Magic mushrooms or some shit. The bastard!

Then the corridor became both colors. One marbled the other. Soon, the swirls of blue and green animating its sides made it feel more like a giant kaleidoscope. At the kaleidoscope’s end lurked the figure, which was darkening. It shed all its color and transformed into a human shadow. The darkness within its outline was absolute, hiding everything, showing nothing.

Ralph heard a shrill, tearing noise. He felt it too. It tore through his thoughts, through his flesh, through his very being. Also, he no longer had a sensation of walking forward. He was falling. The kaleidoscopic corridor had stopped being horizontal. It was a vertical shaft, and the figure was at its bottom like a black, human-shaped floor.

Ralph saw things plunge past him, falling at a greater velocity than he was. Other people—a baby in a crib, a toddler in a onesie, a six-year-old boy in a familiar-looking primary-school uniform.

That’s me, he realized. Me at different stages of my life.

The tearing noise escalated to an immense, sanity-threatening screech. Around him, the streaks of blue and green in the shaft’s sides dwindled. As the figure drew closer, as he fell closer to it, they were replaced by streaks of blackness that spread from the figure like tentacles from an octopus. Past him plummeted more versions of himself—Ralph at the age of thirteen in a different uniform, that of his boarding school, and a mid-teens Ralph in skinny black jeans and an emo T-shirt.

The figure expanded and made the shaft black. A few remaining threads of green and blue wormed through the blackness alongside him, then vanished, and he saw nothing more.

The noise reached a crescendo. Ralph imagined the particles that made up his body were being torn asunder, as were the particles, whatever form they might have, that made up the time-stream of his life. His final thought before obliteration was: What do you want with me? But even if he’d been able to communicate with them, and they’d been minded to give him an answer, he wouldn’t have begun to understand their answer anyway.

After that, there was only a last radiating pulse of energy.

***

Edie felt it while she watched the woman with the purple comb of hair mosey in front of a second-hand bookshop. The woman was inspecting some paperbacks on an outside rack. Edie tried to get closer so she could see what the woman was interested in reading, information that might help with Clive’s assignment.

Then pain stabbed through her head. She blundered against a different rack and knocked books onto the alley’s tiled floor.

She was surprised at how quickly the pain departed again. It was as if she’d suffered a violent migraine, but one with a lifespan of just a few seconds. Then she noticed the books scattered about her, crouched, and started gathering them up and returning them to the rack. One book made her pause. Its creased, aged cover sported an image that transfixed her. It showed a huge rat with black-gray fur, black-pupiled eyes, and splayed, almost human-like claws. The author was somebody called James Herbert. The book was titled The Rats.

She realized the woman she’d been following was standing beside her. When she looked up, she found herself in her bespectacled gaze. “That’s one of his best ones,” the woman said. “Have you read it?”

Edie felt terrified. Had the woman guessed what she was up to? “No…” she stammered, trying and failing to sound natural. “I haven’t.”

The woman laughed. “Well, if you ever do, don’t get too attached to the characters.”

“What do you mean?”

“He keeps introducing new characters. Lots of them. He’ll introduce one and spend pages telling you about them. Describing their whole life-history. And then, when you feel you completely know them… Bang! He kills them off. Monster-rats eat them at the end of the chapter.”

“Oh. That sounds brutal.”

“It is. You never hear of them again. And you realize they had nothing to do with the plot.”

***

While he sat in the empty classroom, Clive also felt a fierce but brief pain in his head. “Jesus!” he cried, “What’s happening?” He snatched his hands from his laptop’s keyboard and clamped them to his face, suddenly imagining a blood clot or a ruptured blood vessel wreaking havoc inside his brain.

Then nothing was happening. He was shocked to discover he felt okay again. He lowered his hands. “What was that about?”

Spooked, he looked again at the screen. In the hour since he’d got rid of the students, he hadn’t even written a paragraph. The word-count in the bottom-left corner told him he’d managed a pathetic eighty nine words. He looked at the time in the opposite corner. Oh no. two thirty six. Those eleven pains-in-the-arse would be back soon.

Something else spooked him. Eleven? There were eleven of them, weren’t there? Not twelve?

He opened the class register and counted. Yes, of course. Eleven. How had he got that daft suspicion there might be twelve students?

***

In the same classroom a fortnight later, Clive went from desk to desk, giving each student a copy of a handout.

“This,” he announced, “is Edie’s most recent homework assignment. I want to share it with you all because it’s so good, both for the observations and for the effort she made imagining the character. The old-fashioned clothes he wears because he’s young and insecure and wants to look older. His determination to do the gentlemanly thing by holding the umbrella low for the person he’s walking with, while his head and shoulders get soaked. His absent-mindedness, suggested by his unkempt hair after he’s dried it using a toilet hand-dryer. The way he hangs his head over his coffee, because—insecurity again—he’s shy and blushes easily. And much more. Anyway, please read it.”

He made eye-contact with Edie. “Come on. Don’t look mortified. I’m not pulling your leg. It’s an excellent assignment.”

After three o’clock, when the other ten students had left, Edie dawdled in the room. She wanted to say something to him but didn’t know how to say it. Clive sighed and told her exasperatedly, “I wasn’t joking. I thought your assignment was wonderful. Have some self-belief, Edie!”

“But Clive,” she lamented, “I cheated!”

“What?”

“The character I described for my homework. It wasn’t Gwendolene.”

“Who’s Gwendolene?”

“The person I followed that day… I messed up, you see. I got too close to her, we ended up talking, and… Well, we swapped telephone numbers.” Indeed, she’d arranged to meet Gwendolene tomorrow evening. They were having a drink and then going to the cinema, where they planned to see a new movie based on a Stephen King novel.

Bewildered, Clive lifted a copy of the handout he’d distributed. “So, who’s this?”

“That’s the thing… I don’t know. I imagined him… No, it wasn’t just imagination. I had a dream about him. One of those dreams you only remember pieces of—ghostly, tantalizing fragments that float around in your head for days afterwards. But each fragment seemed to give me a few details about him, which I wrote in the homework.” She sighed. “It sounds crazy. Maybe I am crazy. Like my poor old mum.”

“Edie,” he said. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you cheated.”

A couple of minutes later—the time he judged it’d take Edie to leave the school and descend the staircase—Clive went to a window. He spotted her head of reddish-brown hair on the street. She crossed the road and stepped onto the opposite pavement, where she paused to speak to someone. Clive recognized the person as the old dosser in the beanie hat and filthy anorak who stalked Chinatown, accosting folk, begging them for money, subjecting them to insane ramblings.

The dosser and Edie started walking along the street together, apparently in conversation. “She knows that nutter?” Clive marveled. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

How did she know him? Why did she associate with him, when surely, she knew what a looney he was? What were they discussing now? Suddenly, Clive turned from the window, eager to grab a pen and paper and write this down. He had the seed of a story.

Thus, he wasn’t watching the street when a third figure, wearing a green raincoat, appeared below. It walked in the same direction as Edie and her friend, a little way behind them, and moved at a similar pace so that the distance between them remained constant.

As if it was following.

Jim Mountfield

Jim Mountfield

Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, grew up there and in Scotland, and has since lived and worked in Europe, Africa and Asia. He currently lives in Singapore. His fiction has appeared in Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Death Head's Grin, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, Horla, Horrified Magazine, The Horror Zine, Hungur, Schlock! Webzine, Shotgun Honey and The Sirens Call, and in several anthologies.

Beyond These Walls by Tom Folske

Angelica was running around the complex with her brother Samuel and their friend Manny, looking for her mother, a paleo-botanist, and one of the first settlers of Deltren 4419, a planet 18 billion light years away from earth, that could only be reached via wormhole. Angelica remembered the trip quite well. She had been having nightmares about the wormhole for three months prior to their departure and when they did finally approach the wormhole, Angelica had become so scared, she fainted. That was five years ago, back when she was seven. They had been on Deltren 4419 ever since, and even though it was far more physically dangerous than Earth, which was practically a wasteland, at least the air here didn’t make her cough at nearly every breath. She was glad she didn’t have to go through the wormhole again. Angelica spotted her mother.

“Don’t run, Bunny,” her mother told her.

“So, what’s the plan for today? Can we go outside and explore?” Angelica asked.

“Yeah, can we?” Samuel added.

“Not today,” their mother replied. “The threat level is red. They say there may be a new predator moving in. It might be a couple of days before we can go back outside.”

“But Mom, it’s boring in here,” Angelica whined.

“Go swimming or play in the rec room. I have to meet your dad in the lab. We’ll have dinner at five.”

“But Mom…”

“Angelica, stop. You know what is out there just as well as everyone else. Now I have to get going.”

“Fine,” Angelica said as she led Samuel and Manny back to their living quarters.

“You wanna go swimming, I guess?” Angelica asked reluctantly.

“I guess.” Samuel replied.

“Screw that,” Manny interjected. “I’m going outside. My mom didn’t tell me no.”

“But the threat level is red. The guard will never you pass,” Samuel told him.

“Ah, but I know a way to sneak around the guard.”

“Sure you do,” Angelica said.

“We’ll see later who is outside having a good time, and who is stuck inside using the swimming pool,” Manny stated confidently, before disappearing back off the way they had just come. Angelica began to follow, but Samuel grabbed her arm.

“If you go out there with him, we’ll all get in trouble. You heard what Mom said. It is dangerous out there.”

“But Manny is a little snot. I can’t let him go out there without us.”

“I don’t want to get in trouble. Also, remember last time the threat was red? Remember those things that came out of the sky?”

“Yes. I remember.”

“Let’s just go swimming, huh? I promise when the threat level goes down, I will go out there with you, and we can spend the whole day doing whatever you want.”

“Fine,” Angelica agreed. “But you owe me.”

Samuel smiled, and they continued to their rooms to get changed.

A few minutes later, Angelica and Samuel showed up at the pool, in full swimming attire, with towels in hand. They set their things down on the pool chairs, across the room from the giant, virtually indestructible, glass, domed window that looked out onto the new and strange world they had learned to call home.

“Oh hey, what is that? Do you see that?” Angelica said, pointing to something in the bushes.

“Oh yeah, what is that?” Samuel asked, getting a little nervous. They moved in closer and as soon as their faces were pressed against the glass, Manny jumped out from behind the bushes, scaring the pants off both of them.

 “No fair,” Angelica said as she watched Manny dance around and play by the bushes. “I wish we were out there.”

“Yeah, but the threat level is in the red, and you never know,” Samuel replied.

“Nothing really serious has ever happened. We’d be alright.”

No sooner had Angelica spoken, yellow and red flashing lights erupted all over the complex and a voice came on over the PA.

“THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS A REAL EMERGENCY. EVERYONE REPORT TO A SHELTER AREA IMMEDIATELY.”

Manny stopped dancing, and his eyes went wide. His young face filled with fear.

“Get back inside! Get back inside!” Angelica yelled as she pounded on the thick glass dividing them.

“Manny! Manny!” Samuel shouted as he joined his sister in beating against the glass.

Manny ran up to the dome from the outside, frantically looking for a way in. He was utterly panicked, and he didn’t seem to know how to handle himself.

Angelica began making hand signals and gestures to try to get Manny to go back the way he had come, but he was apparently too overwhelmed to process this information.

A moment later, two things happened simultaneously. First, the enormous, heavy, metal security doors on the outside of the glass came to life and began to converge toward the middle of the dome from both sides. The second thing that happened was the ground began to tremble ever so slightly, as the trees, tall as skyscrapers, began to ruffle and sway on the edge of the forest, beyond the clearing of the encampment.

Angelica and Samuel stopped beating against the glass and looked out toward the gargantuan woods. Their faces melted with horror as something tall, almost as tall as the trees themselves, and dark gray in color trampled wildly out into the clearing. It looked almost like a Tyrannosaurus Rex from history class, but it was taller and lankier. Also, it had a long, pointy snout, like a giant bird beak, except for it was reptilian, and a thin, darting tongue, surrounded by rows upon rows of narrow, piercing teeth.

Manny was still beating on the glass when he noticed that his friend’s faces had gone ghostly white. He stopped slamming his fists on the dome and just let hands rest by his sides instead. The outer wall was about a quarter of the way closed now. Manny didn’t want to look behind him.

The creature screeched so loudly that it hurt Angelica and Samuel’s ears, even through the glass. Manny began to shake violently. He slowly turned his head around to see what had made the loud noise. When he saw the creature behind him, he instantly released his bladder and began to scream. The thing, which was about a third of the way across the clearing, seemed to hear their friend’s scream, because it looked right at him. The big metal doors were about halfway closed.

Manny left the window and began to frantically run around, trying to find a place to hide, but the big thing behind him always seemed to be staring right at him. It was now about two-thirds of the distance across the clearing. The doors had closed three quarters of the way.

Angelica and Samuel screamed. Manny kept scrambling around in dead terror. He didn’t have any clue what to do or even what he was doing. All his actions managed to do was to draw the attention of the creature. The thing itself was moving rapidly. It was most of the way across the clearing, its short arms tucked in at its sides, and its gargantuan head and neck lowered, like a rooster chasing after a field mouse.

Manny ran back to the glass. He looked crazy, and he appeared to be pleading with Angelica and Samuel to help him somehow. All they could do was watch. The creature was almost upon the camp. There were only about five feet left for the big metal doors to finish closing.

Angelica watched in horror, holding her brother’s hand as Manny began to beat and claw wildly at the glass so hard his fingers bled. She watched as the giant creature closed the last bit of distance to the complex faster than seemed possible. She watched as the doors closed around her friend, threatening to squish him in seconds. Angelica even watched as the giant creature pecked her friend off the glass, just like a bird at a worm, cracking the thick, protective dome, and blotting out the last little bit of their vision with what seemed like too much blood for such a small body to contain. The shrill, gut-wrenching scream that escaped Manny as he was being pulled away lasted long after the protective doors finished closing.

Tom Folske

Tom Folske

Tom Folske lives in Minnesota with his wife, four kids, and three black cats. He has had short stories, poems, and articles published by Siren's Call Publications, Glint Media, Papa Bear Press, Phoenix Fire Publishing, Eber and Wein Publishing, and The Century Times, with an upcoming story being published in an anthology by JWK Publishing.

Yours Truly, Spring-heeled Jack – Part One by Glynn Owen Barrass

Lord Ainsley was a man bored with his humdrum life. A loveless marriage, overbearing parents who still chose to interfere with his choices… No wonder he sought distractions wherever he could find them. 

Nothing as improper as possessing a mistress—though his friends certainly dallied in that, trying to inject some spice into their own uninteresting lives—he sought excitement elsewhere. Chemistry was a passion of his. And also, the many mysterious vagaries of the occult.

And on this windswept autumn night, he sat in one of the Kraken Club’s parlors, observing a séance.

The lights were down, all but a candelabra on the circular table he and the other club members faced.

Low mutterings, the occasional whiff of tobacco. The atmosphere was a genial one, everyone in good spirits as they anticipated this occult display.

A door opened to his right.

Ainsley turned, watched a trio of shadowy figures heading towards the table.

A tall gray-haired woman wearing a high-collared scarlet dress led the three. She was followed by a harried-looking, black-haired man in a green coat. He carried a large wooden box. A plump young woman in a plaid dress, a straw bonnet upon her red locks, took up the rear. She also held a box.

The eldest of the three reached the table and turned to face the audience. Someone in front of Ainsley stood and approached her.

Lord Harrenhal. Large, florid-faced and bearded. Impeccable in his dinner suit.

He bowed to the woman and shook her proffered hand.

Her companions stepped behind the table, placed their boxes to the floor and began unpacking them.

“Good gentlemen,” Harrenhal addressed the crowd. “We have for you this evening a display from the most talented Spirit Medium of the age, Madame d’Esperance.”

Those around Ainsley began clapping. He joined them.

The woman smiled, placed her hands in a praying gesture, and bowed.

The pair waited till the applause ceased, and Harrenhal continued.

“Most experienced, the madame is. Tonight, she promises to reveal secrets from beyond the grave, exhibitions that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the souls of the deceased may be contacted, even manifest themselves upon this earthly plane.”

More clapping, Ainsley included. He felt truly intrigued.

Harrenhal returned to his seat, and all attention was on the woman.

“Thank you,” she said, a beaming smile upon her face. “As the good sir says, I shall prove to you that souls continue to exist after death. That it is possible to speak to them. I have many tools to facilitate this, including ones that shall prove no fraud is possible.”

“Now.” She walked past her helpers, paused near the fireplace on the rear wall.

“The magnetism is best here,” she said. “Miss Dorris, bring the chair and my robe.”

The girl stopped unpacking, went to the table, and dragged a chair towards d’Esperance. As she passed her male companion, he handed her a black bundle.

“Tonight,” Madame d’Esperance continued, “You may witness automatic writing, ectoplasm, dematerialization, premonitions, and table-turning. This depending on what the spirits gift us with.”

Miss Dorris placed the chair beside d’Esperance and shook the black bundle out. It appeared to be a robe of some sort.

“Place it on me,” d’Esperance ordered, and raised her arms.

“This costume will ensure I can commit no fraud,” she explained.

Someone near Ainsley chuckled. Another voice shushed the man.

Miss Dorris placed the robe on Madame d’Esperance, arms first. She stepped behind her and started to button it up.

The young man began placing objects on the table. Musical instruments, Ainsley could see a bass drum, a fiddle, a trumpet, a tambourine, and more.

“As you bear witness, there is no way to use my hands here.” Madame d’Esperance raised her arms. The cuffs of the robe were tied.

The young woman helped move her shuffling form towards the chair, sitting her down.

“Miss Dorris.”

Producing a strip of black fabric, she proceeded to cover d’Esperance’s eyes.

The man had finished laying the instruments out. He retrieved the boxes and took them to the side of the room.

“Now…” d’Esperance paused for some seconds before she continued. “I need my girl beside me to help utilize my speaking trumpet. The spirits, on occasion, use a medium’s vocal cords, manipulating our voices to send messages. The trumpet will magnify these words for you to hear.”

Miss Dorris hurried to the table, retrieved a long brass horn from amongst the instruments.

She returned to Madame d’Esperance and whispered in her ear.

“We are ready.” d’Esperance said. “Clarence. Extinguish the candles. All but one”

The man returned to the table, licked his fingers, and began snuffing the candles out. A short hiss accompanied each extinguishing.

The room became darker. Ainsley’s anticipation swelled.

“I shall now attempt to contact my control.” d’Esperance said. “He is a departed Red Indian Brave who acts as my spokesperson when I am in trance. Squanto, are you there? I need your assistance.”

Silence. One of Ainsley’s companions coughed lightly. Someone sucked on a freshly lit pipe. The room remained quiet a short while longer, until a loud “rap” issued from somewhere to the left.

“Is that the door?” someone whispered.

“No, the wall,” an anonymous voice replied.

A rap issued from their right this time, followed by two more from the ceiling.

A chill of fear filled Ainsley’s chest.

“Ah, Squanto, my spirit friend. Are you well?”

Ainsley leaned forward, squinted. The young woman beside d’Esperance remained still. He looked for the man but couldn’t find him in the gloom.

d’Esperance continued. “I kindly ask the Spirit Realm, you my Spirit Guide, to bring forth a soul so I may prove the existence of the afterworld. Oh. You wish to speak through me? Miss Dorris? The speaking trumpet, please.”

Some shadowy movements, then:

“I am here, Mistress,” said a drawn out, echoing voice.

Ainsley experienced another chill.

“There is a spirit close by,” the voice continued, “by the name of Billy Swift. Billy Swift, come forth. Reveal yourself.”

The man beside Ainsley snickered, said, “Billy Swift indeed.”

He turned to see who it was in the darkness. Some other fellow’s exclamation returned his attention to d’Esperance.

One of the instruments, the tambourine, had elevated from the table.

An invisible hand slapped the tambourine, making it jingle. A moment later, a fiddle rose, the strings plucked by unseen hands.

Ainsley was entranced. One instrument could be the work of the unseen Clarence, but two?

The tambourine shook. The fiddle issued a discordant noise.

Beyond the floating instruments, Madame d’Esperance and her assistant were vague but visible.

A trumpet rose from the table. It joined the racket with a loud wail.

Butterflies filling his chest, Ainsley felt fascinated by the miraculous display.

The instruments cavorted in the air, producing a cacophony of noise. A tea bell rose and joined the ghostly orchestra.

This continued for some minutes. Abruptly, the instruments dropped to the table with a clatter.

Ainsley wasn’t the only one to jump. The silence that followed felt palpable.

Madame d’Esperance issued a low moan.

“She is in trance,” Miss Dorris said. “Billy Swift has done with the musical instruments. He shall now perform another feat. Would you please approach the table.”

Interesting, Ainsley thought, and stood with the others as they made their way forward.

Ainsley felt unnerved being in such close proximity to the instruments. He feared they might jump up, begin playing through unseen hands.

But they remained static. His attention was drawn to Madame d’Esperance as she issued another moan.

He could see her more clearly. Miss Dorris stood beside the Medium’s slowly lurching body.

Someone exclaimed, said, “Look at her face.”

My word! Something was wriggling from d’Esperance’s mouth. White, glowing matter, it traveled snake-like down her chin.

d’Esperance groaned, her chest heaved.

The men around him spoke in surprised voices.

The stuff worked its way down her chest, the tip twisting like a serpent’s head.

“Gentlemen. Billy Swift brings ectoplasm from Madame d’Esperance’s very body,” Miss Dorris said, and the table-bound tambourine rattled.

***

The demonstration over, Ainsley stood alone, drinking scotch and water. The lights were up now, other members chatting and drinking in small groups.

He felt numb, his mind a flurry with thoughts and conjectures.

That stuff, the ectoplasm. If only he could get a sample, examine it in his laboratory.

Madame d’Esperance sat with a glass of port in one hand, a flickering fan in the other. Miss Dorris, having removed the robe, was placing it in one of the boxes. Clarence stood at the table, putting the instruments away.

He took a sip of scotch, felt the warmth trickle down his throat.

The other members didn’t appear especially phased. He was the newest one, however, and perhaps this was a common occurrence to them.

Two men nodded to him as they left the chamber. Across from him, two senior members stood in tight conversation with a third.

Lord Harrenhal. Lord Smyth-Jones, thin, elderly, and clean shaven. The third man he didn’t recognize. The fellow was tall, had a somewhat vulture-like visage. He had a white mustache, black hair with a distinctive white streak above each ear.

It appeared the trio were talking about him.

Ainsley blushed, turned his attention elsewhere.

“Ainsley my boy! Quite the show, eh?”

Lord Harrenhal approached, leaving his companions in deep conversation.

“Ah, Lord Harrenhal. All is well?”

Harrenhal nodded, his thick jowls wobbling.

“Yes, yes m’boy. Exciting stuff. We had Madame d’Esperance here twice before, you know. Before your time. How long have you been here? She is a hopeless fraud, however.”

Ainsley felt shocked. “A fraud? Oh dear, no. Really?”

“Hush, hush.” Lord Harrenhal stepped closer, whispered in a conspiratorial voice: “Oh, those assistants of hers. Up to all kinds of tricks.”

Ainsley smelled alcohol on Harrenhal’s breath, noted his eyes were a little bloodshot.

“We have something…” Harrenhal took a quick look around, and, “Well, we usually only involve established members. We have something a mite more serious than tonight’s hogwash. Would you be—”

“Lord Harrenhal. Apsley, is it?”

Lord Smyth-Jones appeared behind Harrenhal. Harrenhal stepped aside.

The older man’s face held few wrinkles, the skin taut and almost translucent.

“Ainsley, sir, Lord Ainsley,” Ainsley corrected him.

Smyth-Jones nodded. “Ah yes, the chemist?”

His gaze was steely, intense.

“I dabble, sir,” Ainsley replied somewhat sheepishly.

“Before your interruption, I was about to inform young Ainsley here of the other business. The Shalka meteorite.” Harrenhal nodded.

Lord Smyth-Jones stepped closer, their little group as thick as thieves now.

He grinned, baring his teeth.

“Just the thing for a young man interested in the Spirit World,” Smyth-Jones said.

Both sets of eyes upon him, Ainsley felt a little trapped.

“I am fascinated, sirs,” he said, and took a nervous sip of scotch.

Smyth-Jones and Harrenhal shared a glance, the latter saying enthusiastically, “No time like the present!”

“Seriously?” Ainsley asked in surprise.

“In earnest,” Harrenhal replied. “Now, come along.”

Harrenhal headed towards a nearby exit.

“I shall be down shortly,” Smyth-Jones said to his back.

Ainsley gulped down the contents of his glass and placed it on a sideboard.

Soon after, he was in pursuit of Harrenhal, through the club’s expansive lobby.

Catching up, he asked, “Who was the man you were conversing with? You and Lord Smyth-Jones? I do not recall seeing him before.”

Harrenhal scratched his chin. “Oh. He is the club’s founder, m’boy. Introductions shall come later.”

The founder? My word. I am in deep.

His companion headed right, paused at a door within the wood-paneled wall. He patted the pockets of his dinner jacket, delved inside one and produced a key.

He waved it at Ainsley.

“There are only two of these in the entire club. Be folly to lose it, yes?”

Harrenhal unlocked the door, held it open for Ainsley after stepping inside.

“Close this behind you. Good chap.”

Beyond the door, a blue carpeted staircase descended to a lower level. Harrenhal waited for him at the top.

He closed the door and followed the man down.

“You will enjoy this,” Harrenhal said.

An open door awaited them at the foot of the stairs.

Reaching the bottom, Harrenhal paused.

“Our chamber of curiosities. Our collected research.”

He raised his arms, bowed in a theatrical flourish. “Please, make yourself at home and examine our collection.”

Filled with intrigue, Ainsley entered the room.

It had similar décor to the rest of the club. Wood-paneled walls, floor and ceiling. The rugs, scarlet and threaded with gold geometric patterns, lined the floor between row upon row of glass cabinets.

Ainsley looked to the other man, then back to the room. He stepped towards the nearest cabinet.

It held a milk-pale human arm.

Taken aback, he quickly realized what he was looking at. The arm lay upon a blue velvet base, beneath which a small, script-filled card proved his supposition.

 

Spirit Wax Mold

Teofil Modrzejewski Sitting

 

“Oh my,” he said. The hand’s balled fist appeared perfect in every detail. The arm itself terminated below the elbow. Spirit presences, proven by phantom limbs dipped in hot wax. He knew of the phenomenon, had never witnessed the evidence until now.

He looked to Harrenhal, who had remained at the door. He nodded encouragingly.

The next cabinet held a pair of hands, the digits touching as if in prayer. He leaned closer, saw delicate lines on the fingers, the fingernails, all perfectly simulated in wax.

As he stepped to another cabinet, Ainsley noted a door against the rear wall. He wondered what mysteries lay beyond.

The following cabinet held a human face. A roughly circular, membranous sheet, it was fringed and curled at the corners. It didn’t appear particularly organic, more like paper. The face was quite flat; the features looking more painted than shaped.

The card beneath read:

 

Ectoplasm

Victoria McCrae Medium

 

Ainsley recalled the ectoplasm at the séance.

“Sir,” he asked, turning to Lord Harrenhal. “Do you think I could possibly obtain a sample of this ectoplasm stuff? I would so like to examine it in my laboratory.”

Harrenhal strode across the room towards him.

“You may not be impressed by your results, m’boy,” he said. “But it is something I can arrange.

“Now,” he continued. “What I brought you here to see is in the next room.” He nodded, indicating the other door.

“Before you enter. You must make me a solemn promise. You will not speak of what you see to anyone in the club. Anyone without. Even your wife.”

The usual joviality was gone from Harrenhal’s face. Ainsley could see the seriousness in his expression.

No danger of my telling the wife. We are barely speaking, he thought, and, “Of course, sir, my lips are tightly shut.”

Harrenhal, appearing satisfied, smiled genially.

“After you, Ainsley.”

Before leaving the room, Ainsley glanced at the other cabinets. He saw ectoplasmic shapes in some, wooden objects of unknown function in others.

All this mystery. Ainsley felt flattered he’d been brought into the senior members’ inner circle, yet perturbed at what he’d encounter beyond the door.

The next room was larger than the previous one and shaped like an octagon. The red-papered walls led to a high, domed ceiling. Divided into eight partitions, the ceiling’s apex was centered by a candelabra.

Alternating black and white tiles formed the floor. Two dozen glass cabinets, arranged in rows of threes, faced each wall. At the room’s center stood something concealed beneath a large black cloth.

The nearest cabinet appeared to hold something large, molded from wax.

Harrenhal entered the room behind him, closing the door.

Ainsley examined the room as he walked forward. He noted an open door to his left. Sounds of sawing issued from within.

Something else. The wall beside the door appeared dedicated to science. There were tools on a worktop, glass jars mounted on shelves.

He went to query Harrenhal over this when he saw what the cabinet he was nearing held.

No wax limb this time. Rather, a naked torso, with arms and a head. The legs, everything below the protruding ribcage, missing.

He sent Harrenhal a shocked look. “This…thing. Where did you find it?”

“All in good time, m’boy.”

Ainsley returned his attention to the cabinet.

Thin blue veins stood visible beneath the torso’s transparent skin. The arms were slim, but well-muscled. The hands My God. They terminated in long, metallic claws. They appeared to have burst from the fingertips: the flesh there puckered and split.

The chest was sunken, and like the arms, hairless.

The head had thick black hair, sideburns leading to a prominent jawline.

Ainsley examined the face with some hesitance.

It was not the visage of a man. Perhaps a travesty of one.

The expression was malignant, even in death, as if the monstrous rage of this being had survived the grave.

Sharp features, a furrowed brow. Mouth set in a snarl. The eyes, devoid of pupil and iris, were black orbs.

He took a closer look at the teeth. Beneath a coating of dried blood, they appeared metallic.

Ainsley looked to Harrenhal again, then back to the cabinet.

A card, sat upon the blue velvet cushioning the torso, read:

 

First Integration

Peripheral: Frederick John Basford

 

First Integration? What does it mean? He dwelled on this only briefly, for there were other cabinets to see.

Ainsley stepped around the cabinet to the next.

At first, he thought it was dog. But no. No dog from this world, but perhaps one from a fevered nightmare.

He examined the creature from head to tail.

At least, what answered for a head. It resembled a mass of thick green feelers, laid slack upon the blue velvet. There were no eyes, no mouth, nothing that resembled sensory organs in the normal sense.

How could this have even lived? But live it had. The head led to a stocky, reddish brown body, devoid of fur apart from a thick shock of green lining its back. The fur appeared metallic in the chandelier’s light.

The legs, of which there were six, ended in metal-taloned paws.

The tail was a fleshy red stub.

Ainsley crouched to examine the underbody.

An array of dark pink nipples lined the flesh, between which a long, deep gash had been stitched up with thread.

Ainsley stood, turned to Harrenhal.

“You have been inside this thing? What was it like?”

Harrenhal nodded and headed right, towards another cabinet.

“Here. Come see.”

“Be right along,” Ainsley replied.

First, he checked the dog-thing’s display card.

 

Unknown Organism

Peripheral: Frederick John Basford

 

He approached the case Harrenhal stood before. The man had a hand to his mouth, staring at the contents in apparent consternation.

What Ainsley saw behind the glass made his gorge rise. He gulped it down and paused beside Harrenhal.

“Ghastly object, yes? An absolute abomination.”

He first thought it was a diseased organ, ripped from an equally diseased body. Around four feet long, varying in width from one foot to two, the large, tumorous lump was pale green in color.

Puckered sphincters and thick tubes dotted its surface, the latter neatly sliced off after a few inches.

And is that?

Ainsley couldn’t believe his eyes. Crouched in one of the tubes sat a diminutive humanoid form. Slender yellow limbs, a somewhat bulbous head, it had three obsidian eyes, a small slit of a mouth. Its hands gripped a nodule protruding from the tube’s inner wall.

He sent Lord Harrenhal an incredulous look and returned his attention to the mystery. An examination of other arteries revealed more tiny men, passengers in the ungodly cancerous hulk.

Ainsley backed away from the cabinet.

This was beyond his reasoning. He felt a little light-headed.

“Lord Harrenhal, I—”

Footsteps interrupted him as two figures stepped into the room.

It was Smyth-Jones, accompanied by the man they’d been talking to upstairs.

Their eyes were on Ainsley. Neither paid attention to the monstrosities they passed.

Ainsley felt glad of the interruption.

“Harrenhal, Apsley!” Smyth-Jones appeared in good spirits. He shook their hands.

“My word, young man, you look a little peaky. What do you think, Bolingbroke?”

The other nodded curtly. He had a predatory air about him.

Harrenhal cut in. “Oh, you have not been introduced, have you? Shameful. My apologies. Sir Bolingbroke, please may I introduce Lord Ainsley. Ainsley, this is Sir Roger Bolingbroke, the founder of our club.”

Ainsley shook the man’s proffered hand, a firm yet cold grip.

“Oh, ah… A pleasure to meet you, sir. May I say, this is quite the museum.”

Bolingbroke grinned, revealing small, perfectly white teeth.

“My pleasure, young man. We are always eager to bring new minds into the fold.” He looked to Lord Harrenhal. “Have you shown him the device?”

Device? Ainsley thought.

“Just about to. We were examining this.” He indicated the nearby cabinet.

“Ah well, follow us, Ainsley,” Bolingbroke said. “You are privileged to be seeing this.”

Before moving, he looked at the cabinet again. Not the tumor—he’d seen enough of that, but the card beneath it.

 

Contents of Unknown Organism

Peripheral: Frederick John Basford

 

They took this from inside the dog? My god. The revelation brought a heaviness to his chest. Ainsley composed himself, stepped around the cabinet towards the other men.

Smyth-Jones was removing the cloth from the object at the room’s center. Bolingbroke, stood at the opposite side of it, watched him lift the cloth away.

The removal revealed a half-moon shaped table, carved from darkly varnished wood. A large glass globe stood upon the crescent’s thicker center. Mounted upon a circular brass base, inky fluid shifted within its confines.

“You may approach it, but do not touch,” Sir Bolingbroke said, his expression serious.

Before the table stood a well-padded wooden chair. Iron cuffs were attached to the arms and front legs. To the globe’s left was a wooden box, topped by a life-sized plaster head. A metal skullcap, surrounded by an array of delicate bands, crowned the head. Wires led from the cap to a row of sockets at the box’s front.

Ainsley stepped towards the globe, curious and hesitant.

He tried moving the chair away, found it bolted to the floor.

The fluid in the glass swirled like a tempest. He discerned a sound, some sort of hiss, wavering in volume.

Nonplussed, he looked to the other men.

“Would you believe this provides one glimpses of another world?” Bolingbroke said. “More than that. It allows us to draw things from that other world.”

“What? But how—”

“Came from the Shalka Meteorite,” Lord Harrenhal interrupted. “West Bengal, India.”

“There were other globes inside it.” Smyth-Jones. “Blasted things all broken. But this one…”

Harrenhal walked forward, took Ainsley by the arm.

“Everything in this room came from that orb.”

Such intensity in his gaze. These men were zealots.

And the very concept of their explanation proved difficult to process.

“Is there any danger? From what comes through?”

Bolingbroke shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. Everything we draw arrives dead.”

“You draw them out?” Ainsley turned his attention to the globe.

“More than that, m’boy.” Lord Harrenhal said. “The effect is two ways. We have entered the world within the globe. A sort of scrying.”

Sir Bolingbroke stepped around the table and placed his hand on Ainsley’s arm.

He smiled wryly. “Now. To the reason we brought you here. Would you care to visit this new world?”

***

Ainsley remained quiet during supper. Nothing new: he and his wife barely spoke during mealtimes, and this time, he had much on his mind.

Ainsley House, his mansion on Hyde Park Corner, was a home accustomed to silence. With no children forthcoming from their union, he and Lady Ainsley had long ago settled into separate bedrooms. When home and not at meals, he preferred the solitude of his basement laboratory, where experiments and books livened his dull days.

Tonight, he took to bed early, not to sleep, but to consider the evening’s events, process them into something that made logical sense.

As wind battered his window, whistled down the chimney, Ainsley’s thoughts had never been so troubled.

Another world, viewed and reached by some arcane object from the heavens. A church-going man but a man of science, he hardly believed in the Hell depicted in the scriptures. Just as he doubted Heaven. Those dead things, stored in the club’s most inner sanctum; it wouldn’t be difficult to mark them as devils. Monstrous, fantastic aberrations…

Astronomy told the learned man of other worlds. And what forms would their life take? The concept of an anthropomorphic universe was the abode of the unimaginative.

Science created miracles, visible miracles. Unlike the God preached of in church.

And did science answer for Spiritualism? It would eventually, he felt sure.

Could science explain a globe purportedly linking his world to another? It would if he had anything to do with it.

Tomorrow he’d give Bolingbroke his answer. Tomorrow he would venture into the unseen.

Glynn Owen Barrass

Glynn Owen Barrass

Glynn Owen Barrass lives in the North East of England and has been writing since late 2006. He has written over two hundred short stories, novellas, and role-playing game supplements, the majority of which have been published in France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Portugal, the UK, and the USA. To date he has edited and co-edited ten anthologies: Anno Klarkash-Ton, Atomic Age Cthulhu, The Children of Gla’aki, Eldritch Chrome, In the Court of the Yellow King, Murder Mystery Madness and Mythos, Steampunk Cthulhu, The Summer of Lovecraft, Through a Mythos Darkly, and World War Cthulhu. He has been the co-recipient of two Ennies awards for his gaming work.

The Girl Who Lived in a Shoe by Hari Navarro

Vanessa feels wettened fingers in her ears as they snap at the knuckles, and then, slowly, she closes her eyes. 

It is suddenly so deliciously hot as the clenching billowing maw above opens, and plastic scented light pours over her, gathering and pulling at her skin.

This artificial aroma; she remembers it as the cheap sun lotion she’d once lathered into her pores. Those dreamy chemicals that stuck in the grooves of her lips. That so filled her nostrils with memories of sand and bearded, moated boulders, and dunes that unraveled as skinny legs plowed through and up to their peaks.

And again, just now, the ground beneath suddenly tips as one foot slumps lower than the other. There is screaming, but it is not human. It is a wail that sucks into itself, and then something cool and sharp plays and runs through her hair.

She needs to be in the pit.

She feels safe in the pit.

***

Vanessa stands on the shore and contracts her feet into the strata lines of ruddied foam, sighing into its cooling swallow. This is a memory of teenage toes and grains that fouled sandwiches that cracked between the, then, effortless twitch of her smile. But, this is now, and her dry lips thin and split as she pulls them back against her teeth. Her mind leaching, bleeding them of any part of joy.

She stands alone with her eyes closed so tightly she can feel them beat, and she plugs her toes ever deeper, down and into the sand.

“I am Drowner of the incessant silences. Drowner of the septic naked thing that purged from the ragged canal in a gush of amniotic roadside wash.”

In this fuddled moment she feels intimately connected to this far beginning, and just short of the end of many a thing. The sand; it has changed its counsel over these long years, she thinks.

In her youth, its rub was a soothing and searing balm to the soles of her feet. But now, it offers only abrasion. Painful mutterings that echo of the very Earth’s approaching demise. Its slow remorse as the moving water forever scratches and wears away at its skin.

***

Vanessa opens her eyes, and for a moment, everything is blue. The sky is ripped of its clouds, and the sea is calmed and without its white-licked peaks. Above and below merge into something terrifying and lovely, and infinite and connected, and so very blue.

“How am I here?”

She loses herself sometimes. She gets lost amid sentences, and on familiar streets, and in the ramping beat of her panting as she claws randomly found flesh into her zenith release.

She gets lost in the question of whether she is cold or hot. A God or not. Sick or not. She gets lost in the not knowing if she is bad or if, indeed, she is good.

She hears sea birds, and she opens her eyes and marvels at how freely they drop and bounce through the currents. To fly.

Vanessa has to work today so surely she didn’t abuse the boys, she wonders. The boys is the name she has given to the capsules that bustle and ruminate in the shoebox beneath her bed—the team she is on as she tries to neatly fold her past. An attempt, of a night, to put it all most soundly to sleep.

Spittle crests and runs the edge of her lip, and her head falls away to the side and bits of shell between her toes poke at her eyes as they play in the sun, and the world pulls back into step.

The ancient sand. Wet cement fragments in time copied so perfectly her feet as she ran.

***

Vanessa is standing naked with her skin torn and rubbed raw at the points where her clothes were torqued and drawn until they snapped and raped from her flesh.

“What am I?”

She knows this place—this bent scoop cove with thrusting walls of failing rock and dripping clay that pantomime at her back. Cliffs that fold to the ever-angered, and at once, so very meek waves that bite and chew. An incessant hunger that crumbles the farmland splaying out from and cowering at its very top.

She knows it well.

There is a ladder of sorts leading down from this top. Not all the way, as it stops twice on little ledges that allow her to swivel and adjust her stance. The ladder is formed from found things. Its main poles are mill-shaved lumber, but the struts are nailed branches of manuka and parts of window frames and such—an old street sign, that even now, as the salt picks and plays at her bare eyes, she wishes the name would thicken, and spill from her throat.

But it doesn’t. Her past does so lock itself in corridors of identical rooms.

***

Before her now, a beautiful ghost wades into the waves with a towering fishing rod in his grasp. This, she knows at once, is her grandfather, the massive height of the rod playing in his hand, begging only to be cast.

She struggles to grasp just how she is here. How she now sees this rod, or still just how the mangled line, wound within its long-neglected reel, passes so perfectly up through its guides and now hangs before him and her, replete with sinker and lavishly baited hook.

She would have thought an apparition such as this would weld his rod in the pristine condition he always maintained it in life. Not projecting it, as it now sits, neglected in the rafters of her grandfather’s long-since visited shed.

He seems full of tiny holes that allow the wave-spun breeze easy passage as it passes through him and beats against her skin.

The old man flips the bar that locks his reel in place and secures his finger to hold the nylon just so against the pole. Then he steps one foot forward, to widen and steady his stance, and arches backward, and with his other hand gripping firmly at the rod’s base, he heaves it backward over his head.

She is sad as the line passes through her mind, and even sadder that she doesn’t flinch in the slightest as it does.

Nothing now is tactile. Everything is hollowed, and she cannot clutch nor caress the form of most anything. Just wisps of husk and shell remain.

“Please don’t speak,” she begs silently of the old man’s back. “Please, I don’t think I can bear it after all this time you’ve been gone.”

“Come now, little whip. What is it that you hope to catch?”

“Myself. As always, Grandad, you know. Always there to wordlessly syphon off my self-pity and loathing with one of these dear trips to the beach.”

The old man smiles as he violently lurches forward, thrusting his bottom hand down to cast his line out. And the lead at its end pours into the ascendant before then falling, the dive probing the farthest distant swell.

***

She thinks she is mad.

She thinks she is mad, as she can feel, again, hands at her back, shuddering as they continue to flail the clothes from her body.

There is a threadbare waterfall that excretes from the cliff behind her. It forms a small pool at its base, and then dribbles down between her parted legs. A stream that splits at the base of the pole she now holds, and then deltas through the sand before her, spilling the clay’s rusty tint further down, veining into the sea.

“So that’s why the foam is red.” She sighs through a briefest smile of relief.

Her hooked finger feels a tug on the line. Then nothing. This pull it is that thing. That thing she tried so hard to ignore as she slipped into the bath with lipstick smiles at her wrists.

It tugs again, and the reel hisses as it plays out. She cranks the handle at its side, and the guide bar flicks back into place. She stops and she waits, and then again it tugs and runs off to the left. She winds again, heaving back the rod, and then stops and locks the line, and heaves it back again.

Time now races, and she can see but flashes of the moon and the sun as they chop and change in the sky. Her name is Vanessa, and she wants to carve it into a sea log so that it might float away, and when found, someone could care to wonder just what it was she was for.

The tip of the rod bows and it whips from side to side. She can see it now; this gathered floundering thing, fighting in the nearby roll, and she wades into the waves and winds and winds and winds.

It flaps and it screams, and then, this mass, it distills in the splaying foam. A great hook scooped into the corner of her scream, and torn out through the puff of her cheek.

She is human. Black hair shaved back to her scalp. Her face pulled apart and leaking like fruit torn to its pith.

Vanessa falls heavily at her side. Guilt throbs in her fingers as she holds the poor girl’s head and, with a long ago practiced twist of her wrist, she removes the hook from her face.

“I’m so sorry, look how I have ruined you,” Vanessa pleads as her voice bends and cracks against the gutted ripped flap of flesh that now slides beneath her hand as she tries to hold it in place. “I so wanted to catch you, but now I have, all I want is to throw you back,” she says to herself as she cups her own head, running her hand across the crust at its fire-scorched brow.

***

She’s seen wonderful things. With her job, she has visited the world entire. She has sat alone in empty bars at dawn and sucked the head off fizzing amber shafts of filthy glass. She has marveled at the flustered faces of commuting crowds packed into trains, and wept as they looked so happy.

Grooves within a lock, clicking and clicking and clicking into place.

“I am a pilot, and I need to get back to the pit. The pews which sit behind me there, worshiped my invisible power to give them all wings to skirt the globe. To find safe passage. My sermon gave them comfort, and now look at the harvest I’ve lost.”

You were in the sky, and you left the cockpit, and as the switches passed above your head, you thought of nothing. Nothing.

Vanessa?

It is now late afternoon, but still the sun, it reaps. Vanessa lies naked and jagged and dead as the returning tide pushes and pulls at the holes in her body.

The bay is strewn with bomb-gouged bodies, and bits of headrests and plastic cups, and private things that float.

Her right leg floats atop the gentle surge of the tide. Its foot remains bound and safe in a shoe—it now the only thing that holds her in place.

The sea sways and sauces the sand, and the sand, it grates and parts and parts again. Smaller and smaller, until finally Vanessa becomes nothing at all.

Nothing but a single shoe to be found on a beach by a stranger.

Hari Navarro

Hari Navarro

Hari Navarro has, for many years now, been locked in his neighbour’s cellar. He survives due to an intravenous feed of puréed extreme horror and Absinthe-infused sticky-spiced unicorn wings. His anguished cries for more dip can be found via Black Hare Press, Black Ink Fiction, Hellbound Books, 365 Tomorrows, Breachzine, AntipodeanSF and Horror Without Borders.