Monday, 21 December 2015

Free fiction - Strands

As a little Christmas present, here's a free story. Hope you enjoy (and if you do, there's more fun for all the family like this little tale in Die Laughing). Merry Chrimbo.



Strands
                                                                       
The man leaves his wife in their bed, her body a still mound beneath the covers, and shuffles as quietly as he can to the hallway of his cousin’s house. Enough moonlight bleeds through a gap in the curtains for him to make out the top of the stairs and the other bedroom doors, all closed. Despite the open window directly opposite letting in the warm air and the good scents of a July night, there are no sounds to mix with the heat. Inhaling deeply, he swallows the smell of the river and the grasses on its opposite shore. The stink of manure, strong earlier in the day, has faded and he is left with the healthy aroma of water and green. Despite the pleasant taste in his mouth and nose, he cannot relax. Oddly, he misses the constant flow of traffic on the parkway around the corner from his own house. That steady noise is seventy miles away, though. Any comfort he takes from the familiarity of his home and the sights and sounds of his town is far away because he is here for the weekend, here for the family get together, here in Littleport for the Show.
He pulls open the curtains a fraction more and peers to the still surface of the river and the rolling black of the fields beyond it. The village sleep as his wife, children and cousin’s family do—as he should. No sleep tonight, though. Not while he is more terrified than he has been in decades.
Being eight years old was another life. He is a grown man now; he has his own family, his own kids to keep safe. He tells himself all that and it does not change a thing.
Back in Littleport. Back for the Show. And back to the complete terror of being eight years old.
In the white moonlight coating his bare chest, he shakes and he prays for the safety of his children as he prays for his sanity.
And as much as he tries not to, he remembers.

###

Kelvin was lost.
There was no point in trying to argue with himself any longer. And it didn’t matter that only a few minutes had gone by as he remained on the same spot on the grass, turning in a circle so he could check all directions for his family. Two minutes or five or more, he was lost.
Kelvin pulled at the collar of his t-shirt, loosening it from his neck. Although the t-shirt was a size too large, it still managed to feel as if it were digging deeply into his chest and neck. His favourite cap pinched the skin of his forehead. Pulling the cap off, Kelvin held it with both hands and stared at the word USA printed on the rim. His favourite cap already, and he’d only had it for the morning. Uncle Len had given it to him a few hours ago: a present from Uncle Len’s trip to New York. In all of his eight years, Kelvin had never seen anything as cool. And there was no interior debate on the issue. Nothing in the future would ever be quite as cool as the cap from another country, from America.
He rubbed his head and put the cap back on. Better too tight than too hot with the July sun cooking him.
“Where are they?” he whispered, unconsciously emphasising the second word exactly as his mother often did. His mother who was nowhere in sight. Neither was his dad or Uncle Len or any of the cousins Kelvin saw once a year. Neither was his brother Mark. Mark hadn’t wanted to come this year. He’d told Kelvin that a couple of days ago. Said he wanted to stay at home and go to his friend’s house on the Saturday night. The first Saturday night of the summer holidays and Mark angry about not being allowed to go to this party. Kelvin hadn’t asked why. There’d be more parties. Summer had only just started. They had six weeks of long days made of the sun and time. Six weeks of videos now that Dad had finally bought a player. Six weeks of all the time there was. But Mark hadn’t looked like he’d understand that so Kelvin only asked why Mark didn’t tell Dad. And Mark laughed but didn’t sound like he thought it was funny. Dad wasn’t the problem, he said. Mum was. No way would she let him stay at home even if he was fifteen. It was all of them back to Littleport once again, back to stay with Grandma and Granddad and go to Littleport Show and then to Uncle Len’s big house beside the river in the evening for a party and beer Mark still wasn’t allowed to drink.
Not much of that made sense to Kelvin but he’d kept his mouth shut. Mark was all right most of the time, but he could still shout and punch when he wanted to. Better for him to be angry at Mum for forcing him to come with the family than to be angry at Kelvin.
Only Kelvin had to admit as he stood by himself that he would have taken Mark angry now if it meant his brother was with him.
Kelvin smoothed his t-shirt down, running his hand over the GhostBusters logo, and walked. A lot of his surroundings looked the same whichever direction he checked, but he had the idea his parents, Mark and everyone else had headed in a diagonal line from where he’d stood. That meant they’d been rambling towards the edge of the horse display. Kelvin walked at a steady pace, not letting himself move too quickly any more than he considered his nervousness stretching into panic. Because after panic came fear. He knew that in a wordless form, knew it in the ways of small boys too young to articulate their ideas, too old to sometimes feel weak and stupid, too old at eight to be scared of the dark. Even if he sometimes was.
He walked on, whispering that he’d find them soon; he’d walk right into them. Because as big as this field was with its dozens of tents of beers and cakes and homemade jams, as wide and open and green compared to the city, it was still only a village. Kelvin knew the difference between towns and cities and villages wasn’t to do with the amount of roads or houses. It was in the people. City people were bigger and faster and angrier. People here in the village were much slower in everything they did. And they were smaller. In a way, that meant it’d be easier to find his family. They were city people in crowds of village people. They would stand out.
Kelvin passed an old man sitting on a deckchair, cool in the shadow of several trees. For a moment, Kelvin though the man was his granddad, then saw he was completely wrong. Granddad was much fatter than this man. Fatter and balder.
The old man looked up from his paper, appraised Kelvin without a word and went back to the headline. £50 MILLION AND COUNTING it read and Kelvin knew what it was for. They’d all watched the music the weekend before, everybody round the TV all day long, Kelvin bored after the first two hours and his dad telling him it was important and he should remember it and people would talk about this for years.
The old man shook his paper and Kelvin trotted away, abruptly scared. He stamped hard on that fear. Couldn’t be scared. Scared meant he was in trouble. Looking for his parents was fine. He could do that.
At the edge of the horse display, he stood still, trying to appear as relaxed as possible, and checked all directions again. People were everywhere, walking, talking, laughing. Families, boys and girls like him. Except not like him. They weren’t lost.
“Shut up,” Kelvin said and dug his dirty nails into his palms. Saying shut up was always followed by his mum telling him not to say that. Always.
He walked alongside the horse display, passing people every step of the way and smelling the wild stink of the animals. Nobody appeared to pay him any attention. It took him a moment to pick up on that. When he did, the thought brought a wave of cold despite the summer sun.
Shouldn’t they be looking at him? Wondering why he was alone?
For one of the first times in his life, an adult thought spoke to Kelvin. You’re by yourself. You’re eight. Why is nobody looking at you?
Troubled, Kelvin walked on, the sun still unable to fully warm the phantom chill. He licked his lips and again wished for a drink, maybe the can of Coke Uncle Len had promised him before something off to the side had caught Kelvin’s eye and then when he turned back, they’d all disappeared into the mass of people. All of them swallowed by the crowds.
Kelvin pictured himself standing on that particular spot of grass, facing a patch of land between two white tents.
A shadow. That’s what had caught his eye. A shadow rolling over the ground. And that made no sense. There’d been nothing close enough to that small bit of grass to make a shadow. No people. No dogs. Nothing.
And the shadow hadn’t really moved like shadows do. It had sort of. . .jerked. Like a balloon on a bit of string pulled along by someone.
A jerking shadow made by. . .nothing.
Kelvin hugged himself, skinny arms crossing over his favourite t-shirt.
The fairground. He’d head there. Mark had muttered something about it earlier. Said he’d take Kelvin to it if he wasn’t allowed in one of the beer tents with everyone else. Even if their parents weren’t in the fairground, Mark would be.
Moving faster than a moment before, Kelvin changed course. He set out in a straight line from the horses, crushing tired blades of grass below his trainers, people on both sides. People who were finally looking at him.
Kelvin scanned the crowds for a woman. Better to ask a woman for help than a man. Or even better, a man and a woman with children. Not a man alone. He knew that even if he didn’t want to think about why.
Nobody was looking at him now. They’d turned away.
Kelvin inhaled breath and readied himself to speak to the first person who caught his eye.
Excuse me. My name’s Kelvin and I need help.
Simple as that.
But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t admit his nervousness had reached panic and was now slipping into ugly fear.
Had to find them. Had to be told off by his mum for getting lost. Had to listen to Mark talk about singers and bands who meant nothing to him. Had to hear his dad and Uncle Len get angry about a woman named Maggie—whoever she was—and had to let his granddad tell him the same stories he’d told the year before. Had to do all that.
Kelvin’s trot became a jog. He reached the edge of the small fairground, the voices and shouts and music from the other side of the barrier merging into one sound. One horrible sound hurting his ears because it was too loud and too ugly. It was the sound of car accidents and fighting and crying. Kelvin ran to a clear spot so he could see directly into the fairground. People filled it. More people than there’d been anywhere else at the Show. It was as if everyone in the village had crammed into one little bit of the field, leaving barely any green space. And they were all looking at him. Even though none faced him directly, Kelvin knew each of them was looking at him.
A few had their hands to their mouths. They whispered to each other, somehow hearing their voices despite the noise of the people shrieking on the rides and the bellow of the music.
Talking about him. Looking at him.
Kelvin backed up. Clouds passed over the sun. All at once, the temperature dropped. Shadows rolled over the grass; great masses of black coating the green and stalls and people. A whisper spoke from off to Kelvin’s side. His name.
He whirled around and saw nothing but shadows. Just like the shadow that caught his eye seconds before everyone else went one way and he’d gone another.
 A jerking shadow. It shot from one spot to the next almost appearing to be dancing, a messy pool staining the ground.
Open-mouthed, Kelvin watched several strands of grass split into long fingers of curling green. The strands raced straight towards him.
All Kelvin knew was the bellow in his head, a bellow that sounded like a mixture of his mum, his dad and his brother. All of them roared a single word.
Run.
Kelvin ran.
He sprinted away from the fingers of grass and the noise of the fairground. The shouts and screams of the people followed, and as the cool air parted around him, their voices deepened, slowed like a record played at the wrong speed. He raced away from them; they stuck to him like toffee, their voices rough and grating and all completely aware of him and his favourite cap and favourite t-shirt.
He ran into a group emerging from a beer tent and looked up. Gloom coated each face, and each face was stretching, mouths and eyes growing as if made of glue. Something whispered his name again, something awful.
Kelvin had no breath to scream. He shot between two men, both reaching monstrously long arms for him, jumped over a knocked over deck chair and registered from far away that the newspaper beside the chair was the same one the old man been reading. The old man was nowhere in sight.
Kelvin ran from the horse display and fairground and people. He shot through the middle of the field, framed on one side by tents, the small stage where the folk singers were now screaming instead of singing, and framed on the other by a long, silent row of people with glue faces all bathed with light the colour of sick, none making any effort to hide their appraisal.
Breath burning in his lungs, Kelvin saw the wide gap forming the entrance to the Show. He raced to it, broke through the thin rope forming the barrier and hit the pavement. Cars flowed past in a regular flow. There were no people in sight. No shadows either.
Trembling, Kelvin took slow steps away from the entrance and realised after a few seconds he’d come out somewhere other than the entrance. The road was unfamiliar, the houses on the opposite side too large and grand compared to his grandparents’ bungalow. Seemingly miles ahead, the road stretched into the distance. Walking with the slight idea of keeping to the perimeter of the Show and then finding the entrance, Kelvin walked. His legs shook; his stomach was a tight ball of pain and his throat screamed for liquid.
Something in the high wall of hedges blocking the pavement from the fields said his name. It made no effort to whisper. It spoke as if it was right beside him, eager to have a conversation.
Kelvin stopped.
Far ahead, the road now appeared to sink rather than remaining straight. It sloped into darkness. The cars carried on heading that way, making no move to avoid the slope or darkness. They simply vanished into the shadows, rolling into them as if dropping down a slide.
The thing in the hedge said his name again. Unable to resist, Kelvin stepped closer to it, reaching for it.
On all sides, shadows jerked into life, racing towards him. Kelvin’s fingers brushed the leaves. The darkness at the end of the road loomed up into daylight, a black mouth bearing down on the road, on the boy.
“Kevin?”
Light and summer heat crashed down on Kelvin, knocking him to one side. He stumbled, fell and picked himself up.
“Kevin?”
The policeman stood at the curve of pavement into the fields. Kelvin was no more than a few steps from it despite feeling as if he’d walked for minutes. Walked towards the slope in the road and the mouth of darkness that lived down there.
He looked back that way. Nothing but traffic moving in both directions on a normal road.
“Kevin? Is that you?”
The policeman was coming towards him. Kelvin turned around.
“Kelvin,” he said. “Not Kevin.”
“Kelvin.” The policeman nodded. “Your mum and dad are looking for you. They’re very worried. Come on. I’ll take you to them.”
Kelvin let the policeman take his hand and lead him back to the field. There were no jerking shadows, no people with faces made of glue. And nobody watching him from the corner of their eyes.
“They’re not far,” the policeman said. “Just a few minutes away. They’ll be glad to have you back, I tell you. Especially your mum. She’s beside herself.”
Kelvin let the policeman walk him back to his family and while he didn’t let himself look back to the hedges, he couldn’t help the little thought that wanted to know how he could get out of coming back to Littleport ever again.

###

The man opens his eyes for the first time in several long minutes and gazes at the river. Still black. Still motionless. Still Littleport sleeping in the middle of the night, its roads and fields ready for the Show tomorrow, ready to bake on another hot day in July exactly as it has on the same day for years. Not that he’s been here on those days. No. Not at all. He allows himself a pained smile at the thought. Not been here in thirty years. Getting out of coming back with his parents and brother had been much easier than he expected—telling them he was scared of getting lost again, becoming hysterical when they pressed the matter. Easy. After the first few years, his mother had stopped bringing the subject up and he had been allowed to stay at home with his brother.
But now here he is again. Back to Littleport. Back to the heat and the smells of grass and beer, back to the sounds of families all together, back to the river and the cousins’ party tomorrow night.
Pain burns in his stomach, and the trembling in his chest spreads to his arms. The fear has returned, come to slip inside him while he stands in the moonlight, listening to the nothing at all of an unconscious village at three in the morning.
Enough, he tells himself. Enough of the middle of the night. Enough fear. He will deal with tomorrow. He will watch his family every second they are at the Show and when they are at the party and the beer flows, he will relax and be glad to be with his cousins and all the good people.
He will do all that and nothing will bring back the nerves, panic and terror he felt in the long dead year of 1985 when he’d been a terrified child.
Padding across the carpet, the man returns to the guest bedroom and makes his way to his side of the bed in the almost complete darkness. As he slides next to the warmth of his wife, she mumbles something in her sleep. He kisses her head and presses himself against her; she does the same against his body and sleep is already racing down, dropping over him as if rolling down a slope.
He brings his arm from his wife’s waist, over the comforting weight of her breasts and towards her neck. She mumbles again; he holds her tightly, chasing sleep as it chases him.
And rising out of sleep, streaking back to screaming consciousness, he registers the sticky strands coating his fingers.
The strands of her glue face.

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