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FRIGHT NIGHT III



Stories for Halloween

By

The Tunbridge Wells Writers




COPYRIGHT NOTICE

Published by Tunbridge Wells Writers Publications

Copyright © (2017) for individual stories remains that of the named author.

All rights reserved.



While offered freely for personal use the stories in this collection should not be reproduced without the permission of the relevant author(s). All unauthorised commercial use is expressly prohibited. Links for the Tunbridge Wells Writers website and social media pages can be found in the introduction to this book.


Thanks once again to Peppy Scott for her practically perfect proofreading. Any remaining errors will be those of the editor, artistic license on the part of the contributor, and/or the vagaries of the Smashwords “Meatgrinder”.



Cover image adapted from an original taken during our Fright Night reading event, 2015. Used under copyright © (2015) by kind permission of TN4 Productions.

CONTENTS

Tunbridge Wells Writers: An Introduction

A Brief Outline of the FRIGHT NIGHT III Project




THE STORIES

Hellogram – Bryan Murphy

The Crypt Dweller – Ita Ekhaletruo

Day of the Dead (Pts. I – III) – P. J. Lewis

Something in the Water – David Smith

The Cleansing – Karen Tucker

Haunted House – Peppy Scott

Michael Moon – Roz Dace

Man on Mars – Richard Crosfield

The Tell-tale Barking of the Canine – Sue Marlow

Eyeline Descending – Barry McCann

The Brown Monk – Katherine Loverage

Falling – Philip Holden


Further Reading from the Tunbridge Wells Writers

TUNBRIDGE WELLS WRITERS

An Introduction

Tunbridge Wells Writers is a small collective of aspiring writers living in and around the much-maligned town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent. We meet once a fortnight to discuss all aspects of writing, to offer mutual support and encouragement, to swap ideas and writing tips, and, on occasion, to work together on group projects like this one. Several of us, in the great writer tradition, also like to take the opportunity to down a few glasses of wine and/or beer, which is one of the reasons we meet in a local pub.

Neither a fondness for alcohol nor residence in Tunbridge Wells is a prerequisite for membership of the group, however, so if you, dear reader, have similar literary ambitions but prefer soft drinks or live elsewhere please feel free to join us either in the flesh or through our website or Social Media pages which are found -


Here: http://tunbridgewellswriters.org.uk/

And: http://www.facebook.com/groups/twellswriters/

Or: https://twitter.com/TWWriters


A Brief Outline of the FRIGHT NIGHT III Project

Each year, on or around October 31st, The Tunbridge Wells Writers gather together to share dark tales of haunts and horror and other fiendish goings on to honour the spirit(s) of Halloween. Fright Night III, as you have undoubtedly already surmised, is the third collection of stories to come from these events; we hope you enjoy them.

This year’s FRIGHT NIGHT will, spirits willing, be taking place on Halloween itself at our usual meeting place of St John’s Yard, where, to paraphrase Bela Lugosi’s / Tod Browning’s Count Dracula, we will bid welcome all comers, whether readers or listeners. In addition to falling on the very night in question, this year’s event will be a double celebration, being our Fright Night fifth anniversary. The new stories shared during the evening will, in readiness for next year’s festivities, make their way into Fright Night IV, so don’t forget to check back next year and collect your free copy.

In the meantime, if Fright Night III has merely whetted your appetite, why not browse to the links at the end of this volume for the previous Fright Night collections and our other free e-books...

Hellogram

Bryan Murphy

I didn't know it was going to turn out like that. I mean, usually I just set things up so that it all runs smoothly. I had no inkling that the event in Tunbridge Wells would be any different.

We got there early, me and the boss – The Channel, as she's known in the business, like she's the only one. Do you know Tunbridge Wells? It's a pleasant little town, struggling between a time warp in the gentle hills of Kent and the encroaching modern world, a place where New Age and new money meet solid tradition and blind faith. Ideal for us.

The venue was a pub on the road to London: The Scrivener's Arms. It was next door to a school designed by the Brothers Grimm. We'd scouted for a room there, but the interiors were too modern: no atmosphere, whereas the pub had offered us a smallish room with peculiar furnishings and creaky floorboards, just the job, as well as the electrical fittings I needed to lay out our gear just right.

The Channel usually brings back two or three of the Dear Departed in any one evening's work. Any more than that is too much of a strain. It stresses me out, too. This evening, though, she was serving just one punter: Jade Pankhurst, a retired advertising executive, we found out later, who'd come up with the cash for us to pipe a single tune all evening. She arrived with a retinue of a dozen men and women, presumably as well heeled as they were well dressed. Tammy, our MC, greeted them obsequiously, plied them with prosecco to calm them – of course I'd backed that up with EmpatheezeTM in the incense – and got them seated where I'd worked out each of them would have a clear view.

I could see the standard array of emotions on their faces, from eager expectation to scepticism to bemusement: nothing The Channel's skill could not turn into wonder and belief.

Tammy took the microphone and got the ball rolling. She was quick: we don't bother with the bells and whistles of our predecessors: they're seen as an affront to the intelligence nowdays, and besides, we don't need them.

‘My fellow Seekers, we all know why we are here. The Channel will be with us very soon. Please greet her with silence.’

I doused the lights: a few aspects of the old rituals still help. I'd sound-proofed the room and spiced up the resonance filters so that when the audience's eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could hear their breathing, which, I noted with pride, was rapidly synchronising.

The Channel's empty chair was in front of the audience, of course, with its back to the wall on their right. A minute passed. Someone coughed. Without warning, The Channel appeared in her chair, perched rather than seated, illuminated by her own aura. Perfect. Her lined face radiated serenity. A smile played on her lips. She turned to look directly at her client.

‘Call him.’

Jade Pankhurst struggled to get the name out.

‘Wayne.’

‘Wayne!’ The Channel echoed, adding force to the invocation.

Nothing happened.

The Channel repeated the name at twenty-second intervals. Nothing happened. She looked at the whole audience.

‘Together, please. Wayne!’

The audience's reaction harmonised until a rhythmic chant of 'Wayne!' emerged. After ninety seconds of this – I counted – The Channel's body flopped backwards in her chair. She raised her left arm, palm outwards.

‘Thank you. He is near. Now you alone must call him, Ms Pankhurst.’

The tension in the woman's voice was palpable as she called the name of her Dear Departed.

A point of light appeared on the far wall in front of her. There was a collective intake of breath in the room.

The body of The Channel seemed to diminish as the point of light very slowly grew into a tiny figure, approaching as if from a great distance.

Jade Pankhurst was on her feet.

‘Wayne! My love!’

The figure stopped, head bowed, then came on forward, limping, hobbling as though in pain.

‘Wayne! What has happened to you?’

The bowed figure halted, then turned away.

‘Stop! Wayne! Come to me!’

Wayne hesitated. The audience could now make out his clothing: the fashion of twenty years ago. He turned back and again hobbled in their direction, leaving a trail of small footprints. The audience stirred, as though it felt something was amiss. I realised they were right: this was an anomaly. The vibes were all wrong; the undercurrent of joy was absent.

The figure grew nearer and larger. We could see that Wayne's dark red clothes were drenched, wet enough to cling to his thin, crooked frame.

Wayne stopped. He and The Channel let out a loud moan at the same time. Wayne raised his head. Jade Pankhurst screamed. Wayne's face was a mass of suppurating scar tissue. Blood and pus filled his eye sockets. In the space where his mouth might have been, a severed tongue struggled to form words without the aid of lips or teeth.

‘Eehhhl!’ he bellowed.

The Channel writhed in her chair. Then she interpreted for the audience: ‘Hell!’

‘No!’ Jade Pankhurst's scream pierced my brain and iced my blood. She screamed until she could scream no more and collapsed to the floor.

I brought the lights back on. Two people who were not in shock moved towards Ms Pankhurst, to help her. There was no trace of Wayne. A tall, thick-set young man moved toward The Channel. She was limp in the chair, unconscious but breathing. I reached her first, cradled her grey head in my arms and whispered to her gently, ‘Come back to us. Please, come back to us.’

Before she stirred, I became aware of the hubbub behind me. The screams had brought in the bar staff, followed by several of the pub's regular patrons. A cacophony of recriminations, threats and counter-threats reminded me of the aftermath of traffic accidents in Naples. Fortunately for Tammy and me, an ambulance arrived before the verbal violence toward us could turn physical, and both Ms Pankhurst and The Channel were taken to the local hospital, with the poor lady's entourage in their wake. I knew that Tammy and I could collect our boss later, once the coast was clear.

I seethed inside as I explained to the pub's manager what The Channel had done, without, of course explaining how she, or rather we, had done it. After that, Tammy and I cleared up and cleared out: a taxi to our hotel. Tammy was as angry as I was, and she fizzed throughout that night, which is another reason why I remember it. The next morning, I got on the phone to the hospital, made sure Jade Pankhurst had been revived, nursed and discharged, then Tammy and I took another taxi through the never-ending small-town rush hour to collect our boss and bring her back. I would torture her, if I had to, to get an explanation.

She still looked drained and frail, as though she had aged overnight, when we found her, but she was dressed to leave the hospital.

‘What the hell?’

‘Precisely.’ The Channel smiled weakly.

Tammy echoed my question. ‘What the hell were you playing at?’

‘Metaphysics, my dears. Have you noticed how no one believes in Hell any more? They cling to their Heavens, though. I just thought I'd even things up a tiny bit, if you see what I mean. Inspire them to ethical behaviour with a bit of fear, remind them not to cherry-pick their religious beliefs, if they still have any. It might not have been nice, but I'm willing to bet you it was effective.’

I spluttered. ‘But – but that's insane! You could have killed that poor woman!’

‘Well, I didn't, did I? I didn't kill anyone: just played with them a little.’

‘I think that's disgusting!’

‘It was horrible,’ Tammy put in. ‘You frightned the life out of me! Thank goodness no children came.’

The Channel pouted like a teenager.

‘Oh, come on, my ethical-wettical accomplices. Can't a girl have a little fun any more?’

Well, in the end it's not my job and not my responsibility. I just set the holograms up and run the programs. I don't write them: The Channel does that. I thought of erasing this particular one – I could manage that all right. But bookings went up, so I thought: If it pulls 'em in like that, I might flog a copy of it to one of the Channel's competitors, together with the hologram specifics – make myself a load of money. But a nagging doubt at the back of my mind stopped me from doing that.

The Crypt Dweller

Ita Ekhaletruo

The eyes opened, and as consciousness slowly returned, their beholder came to realise he was no longer in his soft bed at home. Instead he found himself lain against a hard cold surface, surrounded everywhere by impenetrable darkness. He knew he must have been here for some time now as his back ached severely. Where he was, however, he did not know. Hands, rigid and clammy, began to explore the surroundings. They did not need to seek far. To his left, to his right and above, all they met was the same unyielding chill as presently touched his back. He tried sitting up, but could not, as his forehead very quickly collided with the ceiling. There was, in fact, so little room that he could not even shift from his current position.

For some time he just lay there, within the shadowy durance, trying to keep fear and panic away. He needed to make sense of everything first. Where he was and how he was wherever he was. When he jogged his memory, the last thing that came to him was of having gone to bed. He had been extremely tired, but beyond that he could not recall anything odd. Yet, now he was trapped here, with nothing but what felt like a thin gown over an otherwise naked body. Then the thought of the frail cloth suddenly clicked something in his head. The idea was morbid, though plausible. Could he have been buried? But why? He was not dead. He did not feel it, whatever the sensation of being dead was. Furthermore, he was unconvinced that where he was now could be either heaven or hell, though a third option did present itself. Perhaps his soul had entered purgatory, his penance to lie here till the Day of Judgment. However, the more he entertained these various afterlife scenarios, the more strongly he felt that he was alive. Even now the cold was seeping through his flesh and into the bones, causing his teeth to chatter and body to shiver. This was enough to convince that his soul still remained within its body.

He was forced, then, to return to the original question. If he was not dead, why was he here? Why would they bury a man who was still alive? Some sick joke, or did his cousins really hate him so much because of one silly will? Without clues there was little to say. For now, he wanted out. The hands began to press against the ceiling with all their might. But to no avail, as the weight of the lid was enormous, to which his strength had no answer. He realised any further attempts to escape by himself would be useless, for if he was, so to say, dead and buried, he would be lying in the family crypt. There, put in a stone sarcophagus in his personal vault. As he listened out, he could not hear anyone about and it would likely be some time before anyone would visit. He realised the hopelessness of the situation, for it would seem that he would expire in his own tomb before help came. The irony did not escape him either. The lurking panic which he had fought so hard to resist began its creep, as he imagined what his fate might be. Would he simply suffocate within this stony prison or then agonise in starvation for days before the end finally came?

His fearful imaginings were stopped, however, when the stillness of the crypt was disturbed. Sounds which emanated from nearby filled the narrow underground corridors, reaching his vault, as faint as they were when heard through thick stone. The sounds became ever closer. His immediate, natural reaction was to shout for help. Yet for some reason, a deeper and more contemplative part of him bade him keep quiet, overcoming his instincts. The sounds were headed towards him, soon so close that even through the stone he could begin to discern them. Someone was walking, but it was not shoes that stamped the hard floor, rather it sounded to him like naked feet tapping against stone. Still, despite the confirmation of another living being near him, he chose to remain silent. The footsteps came to a stop right by him, renewing the quiet of the crypt, until a new sound broke it quickly after. It was the ceiling, his ceiling, which suddenly began to move. He watched as it was gradually shifted aside. Despite this, the darkness was alleviated only slightly, the vault not much better than his prison. He waited in anxious trepidation as to who this person was.

When enough of the lid had been moved aside they came into view, a shadow looming over him. His eyes, quickly able to function in the low light, perceived the stranger. When they did, he nearly yelped. It was no person, discernible from the head and torso that hovered over the sarcophagus, rather it was some bestial aberration. Although its shape was humanoid there was not much human to it. The gaunt face struck him first, a bizarre mixture of man and dog, while the greenish skin that covered it was taut and leathery as if its body had suffered severe immolation. The arms that held the sides of his stony prison were spindly, the body itself extremely emaciated, and the creature carried with it a most putrid stench, causing him to gag. Red eyes gleamed at him in the dark, a predatory keenness evident in them, which, however, upon glimpsing him became confused.

Not dead?’ the thing puzzled in a voice which was very guttural, speaking the words slowly like a child.

The confusion in the glowing eyes became mixed with curiosity and the odious head stuck itself in to better peer at him.

Not wight. Too pretty,’ the thing said as it examined him. ‘Maybe Lilith’s child?’

This question it seemed to ponder for a moment, until one of the spider-like arms reached into the sarcophagus, claw-like fingers coming to touch his face. Upon contact with his skin, he felt his entire body suddenly go numb, whereby he could not even blink though he tried.

Not us,’ it said, withdrawing its hideous appendage.

The creature seemed greatly puzzled by him, the red eyes narrowed to a slit as it continued to observe him. Then it began to sniff the air through the two vertical slits on its face.

Human,’ it said, then sniffed a bit more. ‘Not dead.’

It had now satisfactorily confirmed what he was. The earlier uncertainty gave way to a new disturbing quality in the gleaming eyes. Its mouth widened into a hideous grin, revealing to him an upper row of nasty serrated teeth. The paralysis which had held him inanimate had begun to relent, yet he was now frozen in place by fear as he lay staring up at the creature. A long wormy tongue extended out of its mouth, licking the discoloured lips, while rancid saliva began to drip onto him. Sweeps of nausea coursed through his body, and he could feel his innards begin to retch. Yet he could not take his eyes off this thing. It too stared at him, the red eyes seeming to appraise him like a morsel. Even the slightest doubt as to its intentions were erased when those words were uttered from its horrid mouth, evoking in him a fear he could not have ever believed possible.

Long time. Fresh meat.’

Day of the Dead Pts. I - III

P. J. Lewis

On the Mexican Day of the Dead families and friends visit their dead loved ones at the cemetery, spending the night at their graves, adorning their tombs with flowers and picnicking amongst the headstones.


The Voices from the Yarn


Listen, listen

to the voices from the yarn

knitted beneath graves

or between the tombstones

Listen, listen

to the knitting needles of the dead

clicking, clicking

weaving ladders to climb back to us.

We wait for them and

spread our blankets

on the cemetery’s dry soil.

We sit under black trees

with no moon

to eat and drink with the dead.

Orange marigolds adorn their tombs,

dead souls will float towards us

sailing on their scent.

Listen, listen

to the swoosh of matches lighting incense.

We inhale the spirits of friends and fathers

brothers, mothers, children.

They sing their invisible songs

to the tune of the music we play.

We set out their food

and Tequila oozes

from slim bottle necks into the

lightless funnels of our throats

while we fill their glasses too.

We take their knitting needles

gently and help them knit their stories

back to life again, just for the day,

until another day we ourselves return to them.

and join the voices from the yarn.



***



Death by WhatsApp – A Literary Skull*


Last week a girl named Maria was seen

looking intently at her very smart screen

She didn’t look at the road,

was entirely in WhatsApp mode.

The reason was, she got a text

but ere she knew what was next,

A car approached fast

and yes, alas,

instantaneously dead,

she hadn’t yet read

Death’s message for Maria:

“Hey, what’s up girl, I’ll see ya!”


* “Calaveras literarias”, or “literary skulls” are part of the traditions that celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead. They are short rhyming poems mocking death itself and/or mocking the way someone died.

***

Eyüp Cemetery, Istanbul


Overflying headstones:

a massive crowd

stands out in the sun,

enjoying death on their summer fairground,

in rows like obedient schoolchildren,

holding invisible hands,

while we are being pulled uphill

in our cable car,

drawing a straight line

above their heads.

Something in the Water

David Smith

I didn’t notice anything during the swim, but by the time I was halfway through the cycling I was starting to feel very ill indeed. It was then I noticed the blood trickling down my arm and the spreading stain on the sleeve of my t-shirt. I’d assumed until that point that it was merely sweat and lake water I could feel, but now I saw that even though diluted by those things the blood was a deep crimson – much darker than the highly oxygenated close-to-the-surface stuff you would expect from a regular scratch. I hadn’t noticed the pain either – I think I had been too intent on the race – but I felt it now; a kind of flaring warmth in my upper arm and shoulder, something like a bee sting but more intense, deep within the meat of the muscle. I glanced at the Garmin on my wrist and saw my time was way off. I hadn’t thought of it until now, which was unusual given the hours of training I had put in to shave points from my personal best. With hindsight, I think whatever the thing in the water had pumped into my system to stop me feeling it feeding had anaesthetised my brain too. I was on autopilot.

The first of the stomach cramps hit me then, so powerful I felt the bike jerk beneath me and almost dropped it. We were spread out enough by then that the other bikes had time to avoid me. Fifteen minutes earlier there would have been one hell of a pile-up. I watched instead as bikes passed on either side. I was a rock in the middle of a flowing stream.

I just made it to the verge before throwing up: long, heavy, gut-wrenching heaves that left me purple-faced and bulbous-eyed. Simultaneously I felt spreading warmth in my shorts. I prayed a silent prayer, hoping the second skin of Lycra would be tight enough, strong enough and substantial enough to contain the liquid outpouring my bowel no longer could. I was sweating profusely, my head swimming. I felt a blinding flash of pain rip through my head, like an ice-cream headache but much, much worse, and then the ground was rushing up to meet me.



I came round a couple of hours later. I was in a hospital bed, my sister and ex-wife sitting on chairs on either side of me while my brother-in-law perched uncomfortably on the edge of the mattress. I remembered nothing between collapse and recovery, missing out on all the excitement of the air ambulance transfer to A&E. I felt, surprisingly, completely fine. My throat was a little sore from the puking and there was some soreness at the other end too, but the cramps, the headache and the sweating were gone.

I noticed a horrible smell and briefly panicked, remembering shitting myself by the roadside. I moved experimentally, relaxing as I felt the shifting pull of a hospital gown beneath the covers. Whether some other poor bedridden bastard’s bedpan, or just the smell from the ward toilet a few beds along, I was reassured the smell wasn’t coming from me. Then I thought of the nurse or whoever it was that had cleaned me up, and felt myself blush.

They kept me in overnight “just in case”, but other than the small circular wound on my upper arm there was nothing to indicate I had ever been ill. Blood, stool and urine samples all proved normal, as did the physical ENT examinations and my blood pressure, temperature and resting heart rate. As no other entrants in the tri seemed affected they concluded I’d had some kind of allergic reaction to an insect bite, coupled perhaps to severe dehydration brought on by weeks of intense training. God knows who I had been trying to impress, but in the wake of the divorce and a prolonged period of clinical depression I had thrown myself into sport as a diversion. It worked, to a degree, but had something of an OCD quality to it that even I recognised as a double-edged sword.

Carol, my sister, insisted I go home with her “to recoup”, but after a couple of days in her spare room with no sign of a relapse we were both relieved when I went back to my own flat. I found my wetsuit there in a plastic bag, waiting for me in my mail pigeonhole in the shared hallway, dropped off by one of the other triathletes from my club. There was a tear in the fabric on the upper right arm, and a small creature of some kind caught in the folds of the material. Three days trapped in the rubber had almost destroyed it. It was shrivelled and dried – almost mummified – but it looked something like a cross between a leech and a fish. The word lamprey popped into my head. I looked it up online and the description seemed to fit. Blood-sucking parasitism was also mentioned. I wrapped the thing in tissue and flushed it.



It was about ten days later that I first noticed the lump on my arm. I’d been picking at the scab again, so at first put it down to that, but as the lump got larger over the next few days I started to worry. It looked initially like a boil, a small hard lump about the size of a pea. The glassy head appeared a couple of days later, growing more transparent as the pool of white pus beneath the skin forced its way to the surface. It was quite painful, and, as is the case with such things, I couldn’t leave it alone. It popped beneath my probing thumb and forefinger, a thick gruel of pus and blood erupting from the torn skin to coat my fingers. It stank: a rank, stagnant smell like a blocked drain. I almost vomited, barely keeping down my evening meal. It was too late to phone the doctor, but I made a vow to phone for an appointment the next day. That smell was nothing I had ever encountered in a wound before, and it scared the crap out of me.

By bedtime the wound had stopped bleeding and a new transparent skin had grown over the hole. I craned my neck to look at it, pulling the skin carefully, so as not to disturb the crust. I felt a strange flickering sensation at the centre of the wound, and at first thought it was this that had caused me to imagine a shadow in its depths. Then it flickered again and I saw with absolute clarity the corresponding twitch beneath the boil sac. Under the flesh, within the white pus, some living organism stirred. My dinner did come up then, in a fountain that proved too much for my spread fingers to contain. I sprayed the bedroom wall and the bedclothes as I rushed to the bathroom sink.

It took me about ten minutes to find the equipment I needed and to boil the kettle to sterilise them. I found a bottle of Dettol in the bathroom cabinet too, and a roll of sterile gauze. In the harsh light of the bathroom, seated on the edge of the tub, I prodded and poked at the cyst with tweezers and darning needle. The black speck swimming in the pus was clearly visible now, like a tiny tadpole at the centre of a pearl of spawn. Whenever I poked or prodded it recoiled, its tiny tail whipping from side to side like that of a sperm seen through a microscope. I broke the skin and drained the fluid, squeezing the tweezers as tightly as I could bear. Blood and pus dripped from between their stainless-steel jaws onto the black-and-white lino, stained the Dettol soaked gauze as I swiped at the wound. The pain brought tears to my eyes. What was left, when I had finished, was a circle of raw meat with a tiny black hole at its centre, welling dark blood. The creature, whatever it was, had gone deeper, submerging itself in muscle and flesh.

Covering the wound with gauze I drove to A&E. They found nothing, other than the site of what looked like a badly squeezed boil. They disinfected and covered the wound and told me to see my GP if it didn’t clear up within a week. I told them about the creature I’d seen but they could find no trace of it. The doctor thought it had probably been something introduced while I had been poking at the wound – perhaps a hair or a piece of dirt from the tips of the tweezers. It had probably been mopped up with the other gunk I’d wiped away. My GP was just as dismissive a few days later, when I told her I could feel it moving under my skin.

God knows how it does it, but somehow this thing knows when it’s being observed. I wake sometimes and see it swimming just below the surface of my skin, chasing up my arm or across my chest, a livid, living welt. Should I try to catch it or show it to anyone it swims deeper, moving through my body like a fish through water. It’s sustaining itself from me, but I can’t imagine how. It can’t pass through solid flesh, can it? It must be, then, that it’s tunnelling through meat and muscle? But how can it do that without leaving any trace, without killing me, its host?

The doctors tell me it’s all in my head, which is why I’m here now, in this place. I’ve been pretending for a while that I believe them, but they still won’t let me leave. There’s a review in two weeks. I don’t think I’ll last that long. Thing is, it really is in my head now. It swam there a few days ago, up from my chest, through my neck, up under the cheek and into my skull through the eye socket. I thought my eye was going to burst out of my head as it squeezed around behind it. The pain was unbelievable.

It’s settled there now, inside my skull, curled up between brain and bone, suspended in cranial fluid. It’s attached itself to my brain, and it’s mutating, sending out feelers through the grey meat, searching for the clusters of neurons that can make me do its bidding. I’m like one of those infected snails with brightly coloured throbbing tentacles on its head, being steered against all natural instinct to climb high into a tree and be eaten by a bird to complete a parasitic lifecycle. It’s taken over my speech already – I could no longer tell the doctors about it even if I wanted to – but whatever part of my brain is used for writing is not yet accessible to it. Even as I write, though, I can feel it searching for the mechanism. This may be my last chance to tell my story.

I have no real idea what it plans for me, but sometimes I dream, and I see terrible images of streams and rivers teeming with creatures like the one I harbour. I have no doubt that somewhere inside me there is a colony of these tiny monsters, lying dormant, waiting. I think my purpose might be to carry them back to the water, to the cleanest, freshest water I can find where they might have the best chance of infecting new hosts. There’s a reservoir not far from here. It calls to me. I will kill myself before I let that happen. If I can find the means. And if I still have the autonomy to do so.

The Cleansing

Karen Tucker

The youth in the mustard-coloured t-shirt cocked his head as if listening as he stepped through my front door. A waft of musty air passed by with him and his sandals slapped noisily on the newly-laid laminate flooring in my hall.

‘Well, Mrs Young,’ he said breezily. ‘I’m not picking up any intimidating vibes yet.’ I followed him into the living room. ‘No,’ I said. ‘There aren’t any in the main house. It’s only the cellar, really.’

He turned in the middle of the room and sniffed the air. ‘Yeah, you said. Usually there’s something in the rest of the house, though, even if it’s only residual. I’m getting a faint anxiety, but I think that’s from you.’

Probably, I thought. Your dreadlocks make me nervous, never mind the “treatment” you’re here to mete out to my new house. I hope it works – I need it to be worth it.

He eyed the bump in my maternity trousers. ‘I can see why you want it sorted, anyway, lady. Not good having bad vibes in a house with children. Can result in all sorts of unpleasant activity. Mostly poltergeist stuff, especially when they’re older, but also nightmares, bed-wetting, that kind of thing.’

‘Quite,’ I agreed. ‘I really don’t want to bring up my child in that kind of atmosphere. So, shall I take you to the cellar, see what you can find?’

He bit his lip as he considered this one. ‘No, not yet,’ he decided. ‘I’ll have a shuftie over the rest of the house first.’

I had hoped he wouldn’t need to go poking into all my private spaces, but I’d tidied up in case he did.

‘Sure. Oh, would you like a cup of coffee?’

‘Is it Fair Trade?’

‘I don’t think so.’

He shook his head. ‘Then I won’t, thanks,’ he said. ‘You got a glass of tap water?’

I gritted my teeth and smiled. ‘Certainly,’ I replied and went away to get him one. What was I thinking, inviting this spotty oik with his probably second-hand ideas of social justice into my home? Then I thought of the presence in the cellar, and knew the answer. I was desperate.



A friend had recommended him. She’d moved into a home with her new husband, where they were desperate to have a child, but the place never felt welcoming for children, and after two years, she was still hoping. In fact, they were on the verge of applying for the long-drawn out, painful process of IVF, when they’d had a flyer through the door advertising this man’s services as a ‘space clearer’. Desperate, they’d tried it as a last resort before medical intervention. Amazingly, shortly after his visit, she’d conceived. They were now the proud and happy parents of a beautiful baby daughter.

So when I’d moved into my dream home, only to discover that going anywhere near the cellar made me feel like all the demons of hell were behind me, she’d had no hesitation in suggesting Pete to me. I’d been resistant at first – who wouldn’t? – but the feeling wouldn’t go away, and she was getting quite worried about me and my unborn child.

‘You could be endangering the poor thing,’ she said to me at least once a week. ‘You don’t know what may have been left behind in that house by the previous owners. Do you know its history?’

I had to admit that I knew nothing except that it was sold with vacant possession. The estate agents who had shown me round and dealt with the whole process had told me nothing about the previous occupants. Now I came to think about it, I wondered why.

‘See? There could have been a death in the house for all you know. Perhaps by some accident that’s left a nasty residue behind. You don’t want that for your child, do you?’

I didn’t. Still less did I want my child to grow up knowing Mummy was scared of the cellar. Hence the spotty oik in my living room.

 

‘You know the procedure, don’t you?’ he asked when I brought him his drink. ‘I mean, you said you thought there was a presence in your house, but I’m not just here to clear that. There’s a negative energy in most houses that have been around for a while, and my guess is this house has quite a bit of history behind it. And it’s possible it’s about you, love, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just give you the once-over.’

I bridled. Gemma hadn’t told me about this bit. ‘What does that involve?’ I asked, suspicious.

He grinned. ‘Nothing to panic over. I just need to connect with you for a few moments, see how balanced your energy level is.’ He placed a hand on the top of my head and closed his eyes.

Somewhat hesitantly, I closed mine, too. He held position for a few long seconds, then the hand was removed. ‘You’re OK,’ he said. ‘A little weak on the male side – that probably means you’re stuck in a bit of a rut, perhaps not quite over an old relationship, but that may just be because of the problem with the house. Let’s go see the rest.’

He was right on that front, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. I didn’t want to go into it just now, and especially not with him.

So we traipsed all over the ground floor, then tramped, single file, up the narrow stairs. He wandered into every room, head cocked, with me following at his heels like a new puppy.

We finished up in the hall again. ‘Well, I can’t find much that’s negative,’ he said. ‘There’s a bit of unhappiness, but you expect that in a house of this age. Best to do the whole thing, anyway, in case I’ve missed anything.’

‘Doing the whole thing’, as it turned out, involved a lot of noise, and I was glad the neighbours were on holiday. First we had to walk clockwise around the whole house, sweeping out the existing energy with our hands, and clapping in every corner. ‘It breaks up the stuck energy,’ he explained. ‘You can get a build-up of rubbish in corners that needs to be cleared out.’ I felt foolish, but did it anyway.

Then we burned ‘smudge’ – sage and sweetgrass in a traditional mixture, apparently – to help with the purification. I eyed the fire alarm warily, but it didn’t go off. I made a mental note to test it soon.

After that, music. Clockwise around the house again we went, this time playing Tibetan cymbals and ringing a bell. The vibrations, he said, would help to drive out any remaining negative energy. I noticed that in all of this, we carefully avoided the cellar, passing by the door each time without comment.

Then I had to go round by myself. This was to replace the negative energy with emotions of my own. I had to shake brass harmony balls in each room, while concentrating on the ‘vibe’ I wanted to feel in that room – warmth and welcome in the hall and living room, peace in the bedroom. As I went through each, trying to think positive thoughts, Pete was spraying essential oils around the house relating to the four elements and my intent for the room.

 

We ended up in the kitchen. His glass of water was long since empty, so I offered him another.

‘Oh great, thanks,’ he said.

I filled it for him, and made myself a defiant cup of non-FairTrade coffee. He sat down at the kitchen table, sipping his water and staring out of the window while I fiddled with the kettle, mug, spoon and jars.

‘So, what now?’ I asked, as I took a chair beside him. ‘We still haven’t done the cellar.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I think I’d better go down there by myself first, and see what I can find. Knowing how you feel about it, you may contaminate the energy field if you are there.’ He took the last swig from his glass. ‘You stay there – I’ll go and see what I can find.’

 

I stayed. I wasn’t going anywhere near that room if I could help it.

I had to admit I was rather ashamed of my violent reaction to that cellar. I’d never experienced anything like it, and I couldn’t explain it rationally. But what I felt was rather like how Gemma said she felt about heights. She said that when she stood in a high place looking down, she felt somehow drawn to step over the edge. Something was trying to tell her it was safe, but another part of her brain was frozen in horror of what would happen if she did. The resulting feeling was rather like that of endless falling, making her feel dizzy and thoroughly frightened of the outcome. That more or less summed up my feelings, too.

It wasn’t that the steps were steep – I had the same stairs up to my first floor, and they didn’t bother me. It wasn’t the traditional fear of the dark, or even of the possibility of spiders – neither particularly worried me. But whenever I opened that door, some terror took hold of me, and my head span, my feet wobbled on the steps, and my legs turned to rubber. I felt it was inevitable that the next step I took would send me hurtling into oblivion. I’d intended the cellar to be used for storage, but there was nothing down there. I couldn’t face those stairs with something in my hands.

 

I was just taking my last sip of coffee when his footsteps sounded on the hall floor, and I looked up. He was holding the Tibetan cymbals, which clanged faintly with each step. He looked pale and troubled.

‘I totally see what you mean, lady,’ he said gravely. ‘Wow, that was some vibe!’

I nodded. ‘So I’m not just being foolish?’

‘Totally not! No, there’s something down there that doesn’t like you. I don’t think it liked me either.’ He drew a deep breath. ‘Still, I’ve done my business. I don’t think it’s gone – I’m not sure I’m the one to persuade it to leave, either – but it seemed much better by the time I’d finished. Why don’t you come and see what you think?’

I looked at him nervously.

‘I know, but honestly, it’s not as bad as it was. Come on, I’ll be right behind you.’

I got up and stepped into the hall. He’d left the cellar door open, and cold air rushed out to greet me as I put my hand on the door frame.

‘It’s all right,’ his voice said, behind me.

I put a foot on the first step. He was right. It wasn’t so bad. I gingerly stepped onto the second, then the third. I heard him follow me, and turned to say something to him.

Then I saw it. Dangling from the ceiling of the cellar, a rope wrapped round its neck and hanging from the light fitting, its head swollen and a huge purple tongue hanging from its mouth, was a man’s bloated body.

I screamed, and lost my footing. As I fell, I heard Pete’s cry of horror – Holy Shit! – then the slap of his sandals on my wooden hall floor as he ran away.

It was the last sound I heard before the wail of the ambulance siren an unknowable time later. They saved my baby, but I can never go back there.

Haunted House

Peppy Scott

A True Story



It was a dark and stormy night,

No other words describe it right.

Welcome was the warming sight

Of glowing lights inside the inn;

A log fire crackling in the grate,

The gentle buzz of conversation,

Men and dogs at ease among

Familiar companions.



Two young men approached the bar,

Wet and wildly weather-beaten,

Gladdened by the landlord’s greeting

As he pulled the strangers’ pints:

‘What brings you here out of season?’

His was just a casual question,

Didn’t need to hear the reason,

Just a barman’s bar-room chat.

But the young men blushed and coughed,

Shuffled in discomfort, swapping

Nervous glances till they felt

That speaking out would be all right:



‘We’ve come to meet the Lady in White.’



A hush descended on the bar

For every man there knew full well

The legend of the tragic Lady

Of the Manor on the marsh;

She whose destiny had been

To bear an unrequited love

Until it could be borne no more.

Released by harsh untimely death –

A fate she met at her own hand –

Her spirit restless even now,

Renowned the length of this bleak shore,

Her history taken seriously by

People of professional standing –

Even the most sceptical and

Those of scientific bent

Vowed that they had sensed her presence

Round the ruined haunted house.


‘Well if you’re meeting her tonight

Let’s hope you reach the place all right,

It’s quite a way, down haunted lanes –

You wouldn’t want Black Shuck to get you!’

A teasing glint had now appeared

And danced about the landlord’s eye

As he invoked this unknown threat

That sent cold prickles through their skin:

Mysterious, malignant being,

who – or what – was this Black Shuck?



Knowing chuckles from the locals

Till a leading voice spoke out,

A broad man, tall and known to all,

Naturally confident:

‘I know you’re not from hereabouts,’

Said Billy, spokesman for the rest,

Part serious and part in jest,

‘But if you knew about Black Shuck,

The phantom beast who guards this shore,

You’d not go out and chance your luck

On a night like this when the tide is high

And the moon lies hidden by stormy skies.

You’re better off here, safe in the pub.’

And Billy, with those words, got up.

His sparkling eyes gave a darting wink,

The village life-and-soul departing,

Leaving men in fear to think

Of where he might go next tonight –

His footsteps tracing well-worn paths,

Setting someone’s pulse rate racing:

Which lady’s bed might he be gracing?

Each man hoping, ‘Not my wife!’



Undeterred from their adventure,

Paying no heed to Billy’s advice,

The young men took their leave as planned,

Drained their glasses, steeled themselves,

Claimed a courage they didn’t feel,

Aiming to appear fearless –

Fearlessness enhanced with beer;

Bold bravado, almost real.



Gales of laughter followed after,

‘That old smugglers’ tale,’ they smirked,

‘Never fails to work ‘em up –

Black Shuck, my arse!’

But the Lady in White –

Now she was quite a different story,

Her place enshrined in local lore,

The urge to see her, live the legend,

Long a teenage rite of passage.

Each last man in the public bar

Had spent a youthful night of terror

Lying in wait for the Lady in White.



Some of them still swore they’d seen her.



A Hammer Horror gothic creak

As rusted hinges groaned in motion.

Speaking in whispers – ‘You go first!’

‘We’ll go together,’ and so they did,

Ascending rotted wooden stairs

Drawn toward the faintest glow,

A candle flame’s uncertain flicker –

Maybe just a trick of the light.

Was that the swish of a lady’s gown?

Light as swan-down, feather-like

And white as white…

This was no hallucination,

Fabrication formed from fear,

But formless, floating, real something,

There yet barely visible,

There in every other sense,

Swathed in swirls of white.



Suspended animation then,

Breath and heartbeat both were held

Before the spectral apparition

Floating in diaphanous folds

And coming closer, colder, creeping

Chilling closeness and then…



Run!’

Helter-skelter down the stair,

Pelting through the abandoned hall

In dark confusion – where’s the door?

Regretting now their bold intrusion.

Hell-for-leather down overgrown paths,

Tripping through a thorny tangle,

Feet ensnared in roots and brambles

Sprung like man-traps in the dark.

Stumbling blinded by the night

And fear at what they had disturbed,

Their sightless staring eyes in search of

Signs of life, a source of light.

Footsteps pounding, heartbeats sounding

Loud above their gasping breath,

Recalling Billy’s warning words –

A new and terrifying feeling:

Rasping, slavering, panting heat

Of Black Shuck hot upon their heels.



‘You found her then?’ the landlord grunted,

Finding them at his back door.

Time was called on his warm welcome,

Friendly warnings all ignored.

‘You look like you’ve seen the Lady in White!’

And he bolted his kitchen door for the night

While, just along the village street,

Billy’s wife unbolted theirs,

Ready by the door to greet him

Just returned from who-knew-where.



Confronting him, her rage unleashed,

Snarling in his handsome face,

Her fury fired too hot for tears

She let the accusations fly:

‘You’ve really crossed the line this time,

I’ve turned a blind eye all these years

against your well-known bedroom sagas –

Other women, other beds –

But taking some of my best linen…

Surely they provide their own!’



Billy had been caught red-handed

Sneaking back in late at night,

He owed his wife an explanation,

Needed to explain it right.

‘You might have cause to be suspicious,

I cannot claim to be whiter than white,

But please believe me when I say

I’ve not been untrue to you tonight.’



His wife looked puzzled, hand on hips

Standing firm, but softening

Beneath his charm as often before.

Her stance relaxed as he kissed her lips.

‘Darling, I’m sorry for your distress.

Tonight, I’ve just one thing to confess.

It’s true, I’ve been a little naughty,

But all I did was gate-crash a party;

And, yes, I raided your linen chest –

Your fine white sheet was my fancy dress.’

Michael Moon

Roz Dace

Cradling the beer can Mick twisted in front of the full-length mirror admiring the tortured and painted contours of his naked body, savouring the vivid memories of this year’s European Championships at the Paris Tattoo Convention. It had been fuck-off great. Two hundred quid, a silver medal, and he’d made the media after his full Monty, on a revolving stage with a drop dead gorgeous lady wearing a leather g-string and two bottle tops. On his fortieth birthday too! Next year he’d make gold, the movies, big time dosh. Sure as fuck. He shimmied into a victory dance over a scattered jumble of mangled cans, food remains, discarded clothes, and soft toys rescued from next door’s rubbish heap.

Telly and an interview with cute-as-fuck, stuck up Victoria from Skin magazine. ‘Wicked shit that sticky Vicky with her hot smile and those lady lips. I bet she trains hard and is into heavy shit.’ The words rolled around his metalled tongue, sending stabs of excitement racing through his veins as he remembered Vicky’s turn-on flesh art, the thrilling crush of the crowd, the scented sweat smell of the chanting throng and the watching eyes of the TV cameras, broadcasting him, Michael Davies Moon, to the world.

Normally Mick’s toned, illustrated and pierced frame was crowned with a shag-pile of bleached blonde hair, but he had recently semi-shaved his head and dyed his dreadlocked ponytail purple to match the boldly inked 666 etched into his scalp. Chicks were always chucking themselves at him saying he was a cool dude and real good looking, hard as nails too thanks to his cup-winning boxer dad. His old man had been bad-arse brilliant with his tough guy teaching. This boy was ace proud of his fighting fists, grit guts and fancy footwork.

The late afternoon sun laced through the dust-patched bedroom window as Mick knocked back the beer, tossed the can across the floor and skinned up a joint. He punched the sound on, turning a throbbing rap up to full power, and resumed his reflected admirations, air-guitaring with ironed fists, drumming his feet on the floor in perfect harmony with the thumping music.

The pain hit without warning, shrouding sound, a flaming arrow that burned into his chest, curled, and ignited the shrapnel that pierced his body. Clawing at the mirror he bent in fiery agony as his reflection blurred into red mist and a toxic heat-rush hammered into his skull. In a frozen instant of iced sweat and numbness the pain stopped. Mick’s shadowed image swam into view emerging from a fire cloud, body hunched, hands fist tight, eyes glassed wide, and…

‘What the fuck?’ He swung round violently, staggering as a hair-raising feeling banged through him. What bastard had crept in? But there was no-one there, just himself, and Barny the cross-eyed stuffed lion, balefully staring at him from the littered bed. Turning back, he saw that his piercings were sparkling like fairy lights, caught in the laced streams of the setting sunrays. He rubbed his eyes and wheezed out a laugh, ‘Man, I look like a frigging Christmas tree!’ Grabbing another beer he sprayed open the can, gurgling back the liquid and firing up the joint in a weedy haze of comfort.

Pain was good. He didn’t mind pain, loved it actually, it turned him on big time. Grinning, he remembered the Liverpool fetish ball. It was brilliant. The thrashing chamber was a turn on and the ladies in leather studs with bull whips were fuck-off gorgeous. They’d locked him in the stocks and beat the shit out of him for just five pounds. He’d gone a bit loopy the following week, and got nicknamed Mad Moony when he wore his ex’s wedding dress with stockings and suspenders to the local pub for a laugh.

He couldn’t remember the exact moment that it really kicked off, that intensely weird feeling of something other. It was not just the fancies caused by a spliff or two, there was a moving chill in the air, a shift in the reality of the dying day. Was it his dog howling in the garden that spooked him, or the splintered light as the red sun dipped behind the estate houses? Leaping off the bed and throwing open the window Mick scanned the back, a tangled garden where shadows danced in the dimming dusk.

‘Tally, shut the fuck up!’ he roared. Rising howls cut through the air and he shivered in the evening stillness feeling a chill of nakedness, his face caught in a scarlet spotlight as the sun flared on the tiled roof horizon. Talulah wasn’t visible in the unruly mess of uncut grass, but she was there alright, tethered to the trunk of the bowed, fingered oak tree next to the cannabis crop. He leant out of the window, his heart quickening into an unsteady rhythm, as the howls slid into a slow yelp-growl dogologue, then a shuddersome feeling of something akin to fear swept over him, like real menacing shit. In one swift bravado move he was in front of the mirror, eyes wide burning, etched tears black on his ashen, ink-patched face.

‘Nothing frightens me,’ he muttered, ‘not even those bastard losers who kick off with knives and guns, or those coke heads who beat the shit out of anyone who screws with them.’ Talulah’s growls faded and in the screaming silence a black crow shivered into reflected view, one hooked claw extended in mute beckoning, bright eyes shimmering in moving shadows. Mick swung round and crashed into the bed, spinning off on to the floor as his eyes swept the room. ‘Fuck, nothing!’ Back to the mirror now, squinting in disbelief as the crow’s unblinking gaze pierced back. He gave out a cracked yelp as a soot shadow rolled in, gathering all around him, putrid, whirling through the looking glass, twisting and morphing into a tall, black-clad, stooped and hooded figure, white glow face pitch tattooed, spiked hollow eyes flickering red. It glided now silently towards him, stone bone-iced fingers reaching, talons indigo scaled. Mick sucked in air, throat on fire, his voice hoarse with relief. ‘Bob boy, what’s occurring? Wicked stuffed bird! You found the back door key then. Some Halloween joke you bastard. Fright Night down the pub now is it? Where did you get that frigging clobber? You had that Jacob’s ladder string of spine bars skewered in yet butty?’


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