Back to The Shadows.

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The cat dashed past Gerard’s legs and up the stairs in a black, scrabbling blur. Moments earlier the backdoor had crashed open, squeaking and clattering noisily in the frame.

He ran to the backroom and wrenched the door closed against the resistant wind and whipping rain. Gerard locked the door, leaving the key slightly turned. He took a final glance through the frosted pane into the garden, weakly lit by a neighbour’s security light, and returned to the living room.

The family watched as he knelt on the sofa under the front window and peered out into the street. They sat across the room, on the larger sofa, huddled together in the far corner.

‘I take it that’s the last of you?’ Gerard said without turning from his watch.

‘I told you, we’re all here’ the father replied.

Gerard turned his head and grimaced.

‘You didn’t mention the cat. I don’t remember a cat. I don’t remember any of this. Thought I would. Any other potential visitors I should know about?’

Of course I didn’t mention the cat! The father wanted to scream at the intruder. You break into my house, threaten my family, and you think I give a damn about the cat? But instead he just nodded and simply said, ‘No. Why does it matter?’

Gerard turned to the window. The family watched the leathery curls on the back of his neck wrinkle as he spoke.

‘Nothing matters now. Everywhere is locked. No getting in, no getting out. Now it begins.’

Despite her husband’s hurried appeal for calm when the intruder was out of the room, the mother struggled to hide the frustration in her voice.

What begins? What do you want?’ she snapped, clinging to her son tightly.

‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to save you from what’s out there.’ Gerard peered into the gloom between the streetlights.

‘There’s nothing out there’ said the mother.

Gerard turned, smiled, and sat facing them. As he crossed his legs the mother noticed how he repeatedly toyed with the laces of his gnarled boots. A nervous tick? Obsessive behaviour? She’d seen it before somewhere she couldn’t place.

‘Not yet. We’re in for a long night. You might want to get some bedding down for the little one. Looks like he might need it.’

The son, despite the adrenalin and confusion, was nodding into his mother’s armpit, the whites of his eyes rolling up under flittering eyelids.

‘I’ll go’ said the father.

‘We’ll both go’ insisted Gerard, pulling himself up to his intimidating six and five, wreathed in his long, worn leather jacket.

The father ran another mental bout against the monster before him. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight, and he guessed there’d be nothing fair about it. When the intruder had first appeared in the house just twenty minutes previously, having casually just walked in from the street through the unlocked door, he had quickly subdued the father’s attempts at retaliation with little more than a sturdily outstretched arm and a firm grip.

So far the intruder had revealed no weapons, but that coat could hide a small armoury. There was nothing in the house the father could use anyway, save a sturdy walking stick in the storm-porch, but that was locked away like everything else.

He got up and walked to the corridor and was signalled by the intruder to go first up the stairs. As he reached the top he realised there was one weapon that was available to all, given the right circumstances. He stopped and waited for the footsteps behind to catch up.

‘What are you waiting for?’ said the intruder, one foot half on the landing, his knees bent and arms spread to the walls.

The father turned, planted his hands firmly on either side of the stair walls, lifted his leg and kicked the intruder squarely in the chest, putting his whole weight behind his straightening knee.

Gerard instinctively reached forward to grab the assailing leg, but was already toppling backwards as he did so. His hands flayed pointlessly into the void between them. He hit the steps hard, with the weight of his body on top of him, and then tumbled through all the angles to the foot of the stairs.

The mother came running out of the living room, in an instant seeing the contorted intruder and closing the door behind her.

‘Stay in there darling, just stay in there a moment’ she called back, holding the handle to stop her son from following. The handle wobbled and then fell still.

‘That’s it,’ she said, trying to hide the shake in her voice, ‘just have a little lie down, we’ll be there in a minute.’

The father descended the stairs quickly, lunged and landed purposefully with his knee on the intruder’s throat, figuring he could at least hold him down him while his wife and child ran to safety. All the heap below him could manage, however, was to turn his head slightly to meet his eye.

‘I came to save you’ Gerard moaned, pushing back against the waves of pain and cold numbness that phased across his being.

‘Don’t move!’ the mother yelled. ‘I’m calling the police.’

She thrust her hand into the intruder’s pockets and pulled out the keys he had stashed away earlier after bursting into their home and overpowering her husband. She felt a guilty pride now as all the intruder could do to try and stop her was strain against unresponsive muscles and limp limbs, thanks to her husband’s besting.

She unlocked the storm porch and retrieved the mobile phones the intruder had sealed away.

‘Close the door’ he whispered through strained breath, but the mother didn’t listen, busy as she was frantically checking each of the devices.

‘No signal?’ said the father. She nodded.

‘Use the landline. I’ll be okay.’

She ran to the kitchen.

‘Don’t go out. Don’t let anyone in. Not till light. Please!’ Gerard’s eyes bulged with the effort of speaking.

The father twisted his knee. He could barely force out words through the anger.

‘You come into my house, you say we will die if we don’t do what you ask, you threaten my family and now you beg me not to call the police?’

‘They can’t help you!’ Gerard pleaded. ‘They can’t help anyone! Not tonight. Only me.’

‘Why? Because there’s something ‘out there’? There’s something in here, and you’re done, man. You’re sick, you’re a sick…’

The father was interrupted by the sound of his wife’s cursing from down the hall. He called out to her and she returned, clutching the telephone handset.

‘There’s nothing’ she said, handing it over.

The father pressed fruitlessly at buttons, listening to the silence.

‘You cut the lines? Why would you do that?’

The intruder seemed to be coming to some kind of peace. His breathing slowed, his features calmed, his eyes looked past the father and to the ceiling.

‘They’re all down. Everything’s down. I came back to stop it from happening to you again. I failed.’

‘Damn right you failed. Sarah. Go next door, now. Get the police, and an ambulance.’

There was a loud scratch from behind the living room door.

‘Darling?’ said the mother tentatively.

‘I told you. They’re here. But how can… How did I make it? If…’ the intruder babbled weakly. There was another scratch in the wood of the door, deep and jarring. And another. It grew louder, furious.

‘Mummy!’ the son shouted from beyond.

‘Get him out!’ she yelled at her husband.

The father jumped to his feet and quickly but cautiously eased the door open. His heart pounded violently as the cat flew past him and down the corridor to the kitchen. The son followed soon after, sniffling from the fright of the dark living room and the sound of animal claws. He stood blinking in the doorway.

‘Just the cat!’ the father said furiously to the intruder, but the intruder said nothing. His eyes twitched urgently, but the words wouldn’t come to his lips, his breath failing in his throat. All he could do was look to the top of the stairs.

‘What?’ said the father. ‘What’s up there?’ He peered up, trying to follow the intruder’s line of sight but could see nothing on the dark landing.

‘It was me!’ the intruder croaked suddenly and violently. ‘I let it in. But why send me back here if… Oh dear.’ the intruder choked on the end of his sentence.

There was another scratch, and a deep, rattling growl, this time it came from upstairs.

‘But, Claw just went to the kitchen?’ said the mother.

‘Probably a stray’ the father said. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’

‘I’m coming too’ insisted the mother. ‘What if he wasn’t alone?’

The father looked at the dazed son in the doorway.

‘We can’t leave him. Not here, not with,’ he nodded at the intruder who had closed his eyes, and was very, very still. ‘Oh god. I think he’s…’ the father stopped short of saying the word in front of his son, even the sound of it in is head made him shudder.

The mother turned the boy by the shoulders and stepped him into the porch.

‘We’re going out soon, so you put your shoes on, Mummy and Daddy are just going to get some things. I’m going to close the door. Only for a few seconds, I promise.’

The son sat down on the cold tiles. The father winked and rubbed his hair before locking the door behind him and heading upstairs with his wife.

That was the night the shadows came in from the darkness and waited for those who went looking. That was the night that changed everything.

Gerard fiddled with the laces of his shoes while he waited for his parents to return.

THE END

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks.

Garry.

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Pin the Devil.

It was something my grandma told me. I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, or a common myth, but I’m guessing she didn’t just make it up.

The way it goes is this: if you have lost something, simply take a pin (any type will do), and say out loud “I pin the devil”. Follow this by the name of the lost object and stick the pin in the back of a cushion. Leave it there for three days and the object will turn up.

To be honest, incantations over pierced furnishings wouldn’t have occurred to me, if it wasn’t for the ghost. Had my mind not already been on the supernatural, my grandma’s words would have remained a forgotten memory when I lost the ring. But I am getting ahead. Perhaps I should start with the ghost.

I don’t know when the ghost started. It was in the house before me I’m sure, so who can say? When I first moved into 32 Forge Lane, the landlady had neglected to mention that I would be sharing my little terrace with a poltergeist.

Maybe she hoped it would be masked by the plethora of other phenomenon the house presented. She would have been right to. For the first three months I accounted every strange going on in the house to faulty heating, dodgy wiring, and incessant drafts. But after a while, when all the doors had been oiled, all the cracks plugged, and your step dad has kindly given the boiler and the electrics a once-over, you start to notice the difference between a knocking pipe, and just plain knocking.

For a start, a knocking pipe doesn’t knock back. It may seem to, if you are prone to an over-active imagination, or chance so happens to time the random expansion and contraction of metal with your own signals. But that kind of chance, or whimsy, is not demonstrable to others. You know for certain when you can spend a whole evening with your sometimes-boyfriend, rapping knuckles with the other side, asking questions.

The problem with the whole ‘knock once for yes, twice for no’ system, however, is that it rather puts the emphasis on the person asking the questions. But it can get you so far, if you are persistent.

 

Isabelle

Do you want to talk to us?

Knock.

Isabelle

Good. We want to talk to you too. Did you use to live in this house?

Knock.

Josh

Did you die here?

Knock knock.

Josh

But you are dead?

Knock.

Isabelle

Is it you who opens the doors upstairs?

Knock.

Isabelle.

I thought so. And opens the windows?

Knock.

Josh.

See? I told you it wasn’t me.

Isabelle.

Shush! Are you happy here?

Knock.

Isabelle.

And do you mind me living here?

Knock knock.

Josh.

Does that mean no he doesn’t mind, or no he doesn’t want you here?

Isabelle.

He doesn’t mind, I think. Actually, are you a ‘he’?

Knock knock.

 

Call me a sexist, anti-feminist if you want, but something about knowing it was a ‘she’ made me feel better immediately. I’m sure you could argue that women are as free and equal to turn into spirits just as terrifying as men, but another female presence in the house reassured me. After all, how many tired ghost stories have you heard about dirty old misogynistic man that died in the battered armchair in the corner? That’s not what I wanted at all.

After our conversations, things settled down. If something ever happened that I didn’t like, or that disturbed me, I would ask very nicely for her to stop, and she always did. It just became normal to talk to the ghost when needed, but other than that, life continued as normal (at least for me). Then things started to go missing.

It was just little things, usually, and they almost always turned up. Josh’s tobacco, my hairbrush, house keys and whatnot. I know that you’re thinking: who doesn’t lose their keys? We all do, I know, but they don’t usually turn up on top of a six-foot bookshelf that you can’t even reach without climbing on your armchair.

It caused arguments between me and Josh, before we realised it was the ghost. He can be, let’s say, controlling, and I thought he was hiding things to put me off kilter, to make me feel like I was losing it. Josh said it was stupid to blame him when I was the one living with a mischievous spirit. He had a point, so I decided to speak to the ghost again, this time alone.

 

Isabelle

Are you there?

Knock.

Isabelle

Did you hide my keys?

Knock.

Isabelle

And Josh’s tobacco?

Knock.

Isabelle

I’m not angry, but can you please stop hiding things?

Knock.

Isabelle

Thanks. Also, I don’t know how you can answer this, but I still can’t find my grandma’s ring. Only, it’s valuable to me, and I really don’t want to lose it.

Silence.

Isabelle

Is it possible you can put it back for me, where you found it?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

Please? You did hide it, didn’t you?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

No? You didn’t?

Knock knock.

 

Of all the luck, I had an honest light-fingered ghost willing to return my goods, but the one thing I really wanted back wasn’t in her possession. I searched everywhere I could reach and clambered on furniture for those places that I would normally send Josh. He was having another of his ‘absent’ patches, so was no help at all.

The ring was an heirloom and was of more than just sentimental value. Mum had smuggled it out of my grandmother’s house when, in her dying days, long absent relatives suddenly started appearing like so many woodworm. It had always been intended for me, but with the hyenas around, Mum wanted to make sure it was safely out of reach from sticky fingers.

It was thinking of my grandma, and what mum would say if she found out I’d lost the ring, that trawled up the memory of ‘pin the devil’. It’s a funny thing, I’d only ever heard her mention it once, a long time ago when I still lived at home, but it had stuck with me. I think I’d lost something innocuous, probably my Walkman, and was scampering around the house in a blind panic. My grandma sat there watching and told me I should ‘pin the devil’, and exactly what that meant. Mum was there at the time, and for a rational sort of person, she didn’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion.

I never did it. The thought gave me the same chill as I got from playing Ouija with my friends, and a lost Walkman just didn’t seem worth the risk of dabbling with dark forces. But the notion that we could call for help on forces beyond our understanding stuck with me, as if there was a symbiosis at play between worlds.

It took a bottle of wine on a particularly lonely night before I plucked up the courage to give it a try. I had found out earlier that day that Josh had found somewhere else to hang his hat. He’d got his hands on some money, for a change, and no longer needed my social, sexual and financial subsidies. Apparently he was telling people it was my fault for being too overbearing. Presumably because I once asked him if he could bring some milk around, or some other torturous domestic request.

It’s funny how you can’t find a pin when you want one, and realise that you haven’t needed one since you were 12 and wanted to stick a Take That poster up on your wall. Fittingly for that teary night, the only pin I could find in the house was from the back of a badge that Josh had bought me at a gig. It was a black badge with a picture of a green skull in a bowler hat. I don’t even remember the band it was for. I never liked it, and had no issue with bending the pin back and probably ruining it forever.

I performed the ridiculous ceremony, calling for the ring and thrusting the badge pin into a sofa cushion. I went to bed expecting nothing, at least not for three days, but my wait was considerably shorter.

Now, I didn’t know if I had forgotten the added detail about the feathers, or if my grandma neglected to tell me, but it was a nice touch. At first I thought that Bart, my long missing cat, had returned with a present to say sorry for having disappeared three years ago. The feathers were dotted around the living room. There wasn’t hundreds of them, but enough that the eye noticed them straight away. I couldn’t honestly say what kind of bird they had come from, but they were white with black roots, and relatively small, about the size of my thumb nail.

I gathered them up one by one, following a trail of my own making, so I thought, until they led me up to the mantelpiece where I spotted the last one behind the carriage clock. And there it sat, the last feather, resting on Josh’s favourite lighter. He had kicked up a huge fuss when it had gone missing, accusing me of throwing it away to spite him. I remember how he’d been a miserable bastard all night after that, but wouldn’t leave because he knew I was making dinner and wanted to eat, basically.

Now I had found it, I actually did throw it away, along with the feathers. I checked everywhere and found no more. Okay, it wasn’t the ring, but it was something. A warm up. I resolved to leave the pin in place, and see if anything else turned up. Sure enough, the next morning, the feathers were back.

This time, they led me to the bookcase, and the last feather lay on one particular book. The book itself was not lost, evidently, but I opened it up and a photo dropped out from between the pages. It was a picture I had forgotten even existed, so I suppose in a sense, it was lost. The picture was one of me from back home, before I moved out here, when I wanted so much to get out and make my own world. I am kneeling on the sofa at Mums, throwing my hands out to the camera, and I have a look in my eye that I haven’t glimpsed in the mirror for a long time. It was a look of wide-eyed determination and hunger for independence, if such things can be gleamed from a Triple-Print Kodak.

When did I lose that look? If I was going to blame anyone, it would be Josh, but I’ve never been one to lay my shortcomings at other’s feet. Maybe, on some dark nights of the soul, I have been guilty of bitterly blaming my underwhelming existence on his toxic blend of possessive none committal. But I have always checked myself. I am more that the product of someone else’s whims, I know that, even if the hurt can occasionally make me feel otherwise.

I thanked the feathers for the discovery. To find something you weren’t looking for, but needed, is a gift indeed. I resolved to capture that look once again, and looked forward to what day three would bring.

I didn’t have to wait to the next morning, however. I woke during the night, for reasons unknown. There was no startling dream, no wind whistling down the terrace, and no bodily functions to satisfy. I was simply awake at 3am. Trying to find some reason to satisfy and return to sleep, I decided I must be dehydrated and went to get some water.

On the landing, my bare foot twitched as a tickle ran across it. I didn’t need to turn on the light to see the feather, the white down echoing the moonlight against the grey carpet. My eyes adjusted quickly, seeing the line leading down hall, past the bathroom, and terminating below the hatch to the attic.

The attic. That strange none-place in most houses where lost things are forgotten, and forgotten things are lost. I recalled the last time I was up there. It was Christmas, in the obligatory annual attic-opening to recover the old biscuit tin full of decorations and the bin bag with the plastic tree. It was possible that the ring had fallen off when I was up there.

I retrieved the stick from the corner that existed solely for the purpose of clicking the hatch up and off the magnetic catch, allowing the wooden door to swing open and the folding ladder to swivel on its hinge to a reachable height. It was okay getting it down. Putting it back up was another matter. Last time I was up here, Josh had to do it for me. As I pulled the ladder down to it’s full height, another feather drifted slowly down beside me.

I climbed the stairs, lit only by the night through the hallway window, knowing that a small switch on the inside of the hatch frame would illuminate the void above. I positioned myself half way up the stairs and switched on the solitary bulb. I was surrounded on all but one side by my hastily stacked decorations and boxes that I had never unpacked since moving in. Some were open, which I couldn’t remember doing. Maybe I had a taken a little look one of those Christmases, and decided that the memories were exactly where they needed to be, but I was sure I hadn’t.

Either way, as my eyes reached the level of the floorboards, more feathers came into stark contrast, leading through the gap to the small triangle of space by the apex of the rafters, where one could just about stand crooked by the water tank. I crawled up and around the corner, and that’s when I saw them.

Both birds were skewered to the boards by a single metal peg driven through the breast. I would say the pegs had come from my stashed camping gear, but these were thick, rough, mottled iron pins, the kind that you could imagine hammered into the hull of a boat. The poor beasts were dead, of course, their white feathers with black roots haloed around them. They both lay at his feet.

Just when and how Josh had found his way into my attic, and who it was that did that to him with the third peg, will forever be a mystery, if you believe these words. Don’t bother going to the house and trying to ask the ghost; the knocking stopped that night.

I submit this to you as my statement, as my declaration of innocence. I doubt it will help me now. When I pulled the peg from his chest, I swear it was only to retrieve the gold ring that was looped around it. In my shock I handled everything that has now incriminated me in his murder. All I wanted was my grandma’s ring back, and now it is locked up, like me, awaiting the exhibition of justice.

THE END.

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks. 

Garry.

The Timeless Whirlpool of the Talkers.

I can still hear them, at night, long after the bell has rung and the doors are locked. I lay, restless and buzzing from the constant hum that has followed me to bed. The echoes of a hundred simultaneous voices still reverberate in my weary skull, punctuated by the chink of glass on glass.

Sometimes, when I am not so tired and lay alert and listening carefully, I can almost make them out, as if I have the ability to listen again to everything that was said that night, even those words I paid no attention to before. But somehow the utterances evade me. They crescendo and fluctuate with the familiar cadence and rhythm of a million well-worn conversations, but not one syllable can I decipher.

It’s not every night I hear them, just those evenings where the energy generated in the public house seems to overcome the natural order of the silence that should follow. You can tell, when you are down there, a night like that. It is when the edges of the various social bubbles meet and begin to merge. Ripples of mirth, mayhem and intrigue can spread from pocket to pocket, through lounge to bar and back again in a circle of electricity, growing ever more potent and powerful. Fuelled by flowing confidence from tap and optic, sometimes it can be frightening, but always exciting.

The weak willed like me get swept away with it, well past the end of the shift and the hasty clear-up and into the after-hours when tips are turned to drink, and drink is put to good use. Those remnant handfuls of workers and the few favoured regulars, leaching off the residual glow in the last illuminated corner of the now barricaded sanctuary. Here we tell on ourselves, and others. Here we share secrets we ought not. Here the accumulated gossip of a good night is doled out and dissected. We take more from you than your money.

And here, when those of us who don’t retreat because we work for our board (and maybe, board for our work?), are all that’s left, one last door is locked behind us as we ascend to our dowdy refuge. In my room, directly above the epicentre, I try to unwind and the murmurs begin anew.

Now, it appears, they are growing ever more frequent and raucous. Even in the quiet midweek, when fever pitch is seldom reached, I have begun to hear them. I wonder how long the auditory afterimage of the last searing evening can actually last. Is it there all the time? Have I partook in one-to-many extra-curricular sessions so that I can no longer shake them? Is it only when hush is mixed with dark that my senses notice the ever-present drone?

Here on a quiet and almost forgotten Wednesday, alone in the flat, punters long departed and lines well drained, I cannot catch that sober and elusive early-night, thanks to the infernal chatter from below. Yet I know no one is there. I turned the keys and set the alarms myself, but for all the world, beneath the boards the night continues. Without intoxication or high spirits to blame, there can be no doubt.

It’s 2am. It’s been 2am forever, it seems. Whatever the point was of lying here, it has long gone, and all I can think about is the chatter. A laugh breaks out of the mumble soup, as clear as the day will soon be. I swing my legs out of the sheets and pull on the jeans that lay waiting where I stepped out of them an eternity ago. I wrap the rest of me in the tatty gown that smells of smoke so stale it’s almost become fresh again, like everything here, smothered in an amber film of nicotine.

I don’t like to go downstairs after the furore has been sent home and its fallout contained behind the frosted door at the top of the stairwell. I don’t even like coming up those stairs with the cloying darkness on my heels. I never go down, usually, until the daylight has worked its normalising charm. But I’ve got to exorcise this madness from my mind and  give my eyes chance to lay waste to this myth in my ears.

I light up the stairs from the single switch at the summit and make the dash down to the extensive panel at the bottom, around the corner, groping in the darkness for the top row. I realise I have my eyes closed as I do this, a fire-with-fire defence against the heavy black. I click the switches and open my eyes. Only the inside of the bar is lit-up, as it must be at this time of night, should a passing lawman suspect some unlicensed frivolities peeking through the heavy curtains. Beyond the polished and worn oak, shadows prevail.

I tread the extended horseshoe that links bar to lounge yet never has the full view of either. I round the last corner to the far end of the lounge. The sticky, sickly orange glow of the bar lights barely penetrates as far as the upturned chairs resting uneasily on the squeaky red leather benches that run the line of the outer walls.

There is no one here but me, of course, and I hear nothing but the wind in the streets and the slight hum of meters and machines in the cellar. Suddenly I feel awake, stupid and thirsty. Why not pour myself a drink? After all, I’m alone tonight, for a change, and I can put it on my tab to be paid for later by the cheap generosity of clients with too many coppers in their change.

The optic drains into the tumbler, once, twice, hell, let’s make it three times. The ice machine has a few flakes left to push the whisky even further, and a cigar from the tin next to the limes tops it all off.

I don’t really want to go around to the other side, with the shadows, but my bare feet are cold on the dampish tiles behind the bar, and the high-stools are still out, customer-side. There’s a small envelope of pitch black where the hatch lets me out into a small corridor that joins the bar, lounge and services. I skip through it and back to the lounge, a shudder running with me all the way. I take the first stool I come to that hugs the last trap before the door, partitioned by thin, carved pillars.

My drink waits for me on the bar. It feels reassuring to sit facing inwards, like any lonely regular drinking alone at early doors, lost in thoughts, or found in their absence. The whiskey stings at first as it runs on dry, cracked lips. A slither of the ice remedies that as I work it around my gums before taking that first retching gulp. It makes me draw breath through my teeth, and now I’m ready.

‘I never knew him, not really…’ a woman says from behind, from the corner where we normally huddle after hours, cackling and gossiping. My bad habit of ear-wagging kicks in, and then I remember: I’m alone.

‘That’s not what I heard’ a guttural, male voice says, mirthlessly, almost menacingly. I don’t recognise it, I don’t like it, and I won’t, no, I can’t turn around. My glass is frozen at my mouth, tilted but not pouring, I can feel small discrepancies in the rim of the glass tremble sharply against my lips. I can’t move it, no, I daren’t move it.

‘You hear too much, and not half of it true’ the double-negative woman says. Is this it? Has the senseless chatter finally crystallised in my delusion? There is no doubt now. I can hear them, but they can’t be there. For one thing, the rear of the bar is mirrored, and although it is hard to see past my own pale reflection into the murk beyond the reach of the lights, I find not even a hint of a silhouette.

‘I know more than you think’ the man says. ‘I know he wasn’t alone that night, even if that was how they found him. Even if all the doors were locked from the inside, like they said.’

‘Oh yeah, detective?’ the woman says, sarcastically. ‘How’s that then?’

‘There was the glasses, for a start.’

‘Glasses?’

‘That’s what I said. Two glasses, on another table.’

The woman laughs in a breathy cackle I feel I’ve heard before, in the dusk chorus.

‘It’s a pub!’ she finally manages to spit out. ‘So what?’

The man doesn’t seem to find it, or her, funny.

‘It was after hours. The chairs were put up every night, the tables polished, the ashtrays emptied. Every night. Without fail.’

‘So he missed one.’

‘And didn’t notice it when he came down? Sat hardly a yard away?’ The man was speaking to her like she was stupid, barely tempering the contempt in his voice. Something tells me these two knew each other too well. Well enough to hate and abide each other’s companionship until the miserable sun burned out. The kind of couple who come to the pub every night to get away from each other, but end up spending each and every night in the same corner, trapped in contemptuous companionship.

‘And there’s more’ the man continued while the woman scoffed and gulped something down. ‘The mirror was broken.’

‘Which one?’

‘Behind the bar, over there.’

My spine locks. They’re looking this way. I can feel it, them, burning through the back of my neck. But in the mirror, nothing.

The woman grumbles, unconvinced, but curious.

‘I thought they found him slumped over there?’ she says. Now the burning is right on me, all over and around me. The man grunts in agreement.

‘So how did he smash the mirror? Unless he had a funny turn first.’

‘And then sat down for a whiskey and cigar?’ the man pointed out.

‘Maybe to calm his nerves’ she says, sounding unconvinced. ‘Anyway, he never lit the cigar, I heard.’ The pair fall quiet as both take slurps from drinks.

Calm my nerves? She might be right. That’s what these people are, my nerves, at devilish play. Nothing more. The mirror isn’t broken, and I’m not leaving this cigar untouched, I’m having it right now, except… The matches. Not here. Not in my pocket. Behind the bar. No problem. I take the cigar and break it in two.

‘It was snapped in half, though. What was that about?’ says the man, followed by a long sucking noise of moisture being drained from a presumably hairy top lip.

Oh come on! This is beyond madness now. This is a joke. A joke on myself. The mirror already confirms what I know. There is no one there. A quick glance over my tense shoulder will further validate this absence of reality. All I need to do is turn, but the thought of doing so, of actually peering into that dark corner, is the same thought as my heart stopping. But look I must. I must.

I turn my eyes first. Slowly my head follows, hastened by the confirmation from my periphery. There is, thankfully, no one, nothing. The voices have stopped. They haven’t just taken a break from their gossip, they have ceased to be present at all. I can feel the settled ambience of the empty room and my eyes have adjusted to the dimness. It is, as usual, just another corner of a smelly, locked, abandoned pub, save one. I shall take my drink, and another, and what remains of my cigar to bed. I swivel fluidly on my stool back to the bar.

‘Last orders?’

The shock is automatic, the snap of my hand to the drink beyond any conscious decision. The intense, sepulchral face is inches from mine and the bottomless eyes are absorbing my own. I hurl the glass at the craggy faced man who has appeared before me. I take in the dirty blue apron, sweaty white shirt and crooked teeth of the foul barkeep as the vessel passes through, and crack! I blink heavily at the shattering impact. My eyes open. The mirror is broken. The spectre has gone. The drink, somehow, is still grasped tightly in my white, blood-starved fingers.

I try to relax my grip, but the messages don’t get through. The tumbler is at eye level. The cold oak veneer is pressed against my cheek. Am I resting? Did I fall asleep? If so, why can’t I sit up? I can only feel myself tipping backwards from the stool, falling out of myself, away, into the baying crowd who ramble noisily behind me. They claw at me with their fingers and their words, tearing me cell by cell into the timeless whirlpool of the talkers. All that is left of me out there is a husk, broken, like the cigar, in so many fragments and tatters.

I understand now. If you hear them, their stories, their musings and mumbling in the night, then they have you. If you know their words, they know you. They have you.

I am with them now. This was my story. Soon we will have you too.

THE END.

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Bernie II – A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

robot-dog

Bernie II

A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘Frisky little thing, isn’t he?’

The little Yorkshire Terrier was jumping up again at the bars of the cage, his bright green eyes shining under a fringe of curly snow white fur and his tongue flicking in and out of his dark mouth as he panted excitedly.

‘That’s up to you,’ said the engineer, sensing a sale. ‘I can adjust his docility settings if you like? Most people do, eventually.’

‘No that’s okay’ Gareth said quickly before the engineer could fish his spanner out from his tattered leather utility belt. ‘I like him just the way he is. He reminds me of my old dog Bernie, before the, you know, the thing.’

The engineer understood. His whole trade had grown from the thing that happened that one time. The thing with the animals. No one liked to talk about or remember it anymore, that’s why they only called it the thing. It was mostly unavoidable for the engineer though, having made a roaring trade from creating realistic robot pets to replace those that were lost.

‘You want me to leave him as he is then? The default is the most accurate representation of this particular breed’s average behaviour and temperament. You can always tweak it later on, it comes with all the instructions and even a little screwdriver’ the engineer said, waving his own rather large screwdriver at Gareth.

Gareth chewed on his lip. The engineer was a good salesman, with talk of settings and accessories before he’d even said he wanted it. But it was, after all, what he had come here for.

‘Just as he is please. Yes.’

***

Gareth named his new dog ‘Bernie II’ and chose to walk him home, declining the engineer’s offer to have him safely packaged in a foam lined storage crate and drone-dropped the next morning. He even fitted him with a collar and lead, ignoring the funny looks he got from passers by, some of which were being followed obediently and unleashed by their own mechanical companions. Unlike those fashionably placid automaton, Bernie II pulled at the lead, yapped at anything and everything, and even stopped a few times to eject water vapours on the occasional lamppost.

Back at home Gareth managed to dig out the old blankets and cushions that had been stashed in the loft behind the boxes that held all the Christmas decorations. It was Christmas that had made him think about going down to see the engineer in the first place. He had stood there, last December, half up the step ladder, wresting with the awkwardly stacked and sagging boxes, baubles bouncing off his head and tinsel getting up his nose, when suddenly a box pulled free and a cascade of junk came streaming after it, including a chewed up plastic food bowl that rattled to a halt on the landing below.

Almost a year to the day, he now held the same bowl in his hands and used his little screwdriver to scratch the roman numerals ‘II’ next to the embossed ‘Bernie’ that was written across the side. He set it down and filled it with the food the engineer had given him. It looked and smelled just like real dog food, and for the most part it was very similar. It had just a few extra ingredients thrown in designed to make Bernie’s digestive battery converter sparkle with energy, and keep his replaceable teeth nice and white.

As soon as he had filled the bowl and tapped the fork on the edge, little Bernie II came bounding over and began to chomp away greedily at the slimy contents. As Gareth watched Bernie II gorge himself, he heard the key turning in the lock of the front door. His wife was home.

‘What a day!’ he heard her say as he quickly shot up, closed the door to the kitchen behind him, and kicked the dog cushion out of sight behind the armchair.

As always Tina walked in to the living room dressed in her long cream coat and black scarf, dropped her handbag on the sofa, and threw her keys on the pine coffee table with a loud scratchy clatter.

‘How was your day?’ she asked as she carefully plucked the fingers of her burgundy gloves away one at a time. ‘Mine was awful. The printer wasn’t working, so no one could print any paperclips to hold all the papers together.’

‘That sounds annoying’ Gareth said with a half grimace. ‘I’ve had quite an eventful day.’

He smiled and waited for Tina to ask him what had happened, but instead she flung her gloves on top of her keys and headed past him into the kitchen before he had chance to stop her.

‘What is that!’ she yelped, amidst a chorus of even higher pitched yips from Bernie II. He had made straight for her and was attempting something biologically impossible with her shins, even if he had been a real dog.

‘That’s what I was trying to tell you’ Gareth extracted Bernie who was panting and grinning wildly. ‘I did it. I got one. Like I said. He’s a bit lively, but then, so was the other Bernie, you know, the real one.’

Tina comprehended the drooling fur ball in her husbands hands with thinly veiled disgust.

‘So what’s this one called?’ she sneered, holding her hands close to her as if the dog may bite them off at any moment.

‘Bernie II. Do you like him?’

‘Well you can sort that leg humping business out for a start’ was all Tina said before turning away and heading upstairs to get changed.

There was no point in arguing, Gareth knew, not after such an unplanned and frankly unflattering introduction. So instead he got out his little screwdriver and removed the panel behind Bernie’s neck. Before long he found how to turn the dog’s sexuality setting to ‘neutered’ and put him back together again. Gareth thought that was fair enough, the original Bernie had been ‘done’ after all, so nothing had really changed.

***

That evening, Gareth, Tina and Bernie II settled down together on the sofa to watch an old film on the flat screen. It was some farce about a mad scientist who accidentally blew up reality, and at their feet, little Bernie II lay rolled up with his eyes closed, gently wheezing with each breath.

‘He’s sleeping’ whispered Tina, craning over her drawn up legs to look down at the little bundle on the floor.

‘I know. Isn’t he sweet?’

Gareth was happy to see Tina smiling at the sight. Since that afternoon she had paid little attention to the new addition to the household, save to step over him when he got in the way.

Next Bernie started to twitch his eye lids and paws and make little whimpering sounds as he did so.

‘Chasing rabbits’ Gareth suggested, quietly.

‘Or running through…’ Tina stopped before she could finish the sentence, interrupted by what sounded like someone letting a little air out of a tightly filled balloon. ‘What was that?’

It didn’t take long before they knew exactly what that was. The smell of digested dog food mixed with battery fluid filled the room in a near an instant, and Tina’s smile soon was soon replaced by a look of shock and a wrinkled nose.

‘Good God that’s awful!’ she spat, as if the miasma had gotten into her taste buds. ‘Tell me you can switch that off?’

‘It’ll pass’ Gareth waved away her protestation, much as he waved away the dreadful odour, which was gradually diminishing.

‘I don’t care if it does!’ snapped Tina. ‘I don’t want to smell that ever again!’

Gareth went to laugh, but caught the seriousness in her eyes before he did. Instead he tried gentle persuasion.

‘But my darling, if I switch that off,’ Gareth found himself still whispering, as if Bernie may hear and take offence, ‘instead of feeding him to recharge his battery I would have to plug him in to the mains. The manual said that the, exhaust, was normal and necessary, just like a real dog.’

Tina on the other hand spoke quite loud and clearly in response.

‘But you only get the exhaust if you choose to feed him rather than plug him in?’

Gareth nodded.

‘Then plug him in. He stinks. And it will save money on food’ Tina said in a fashion that would brook no argument. She stared at Gareth until he understood that she also meant right now.

So Gareth took the sleeping Bernie out from the room in his arms, got out his little screwdriver, opened his control panel and found the ‘void’ button, being sure to hold him over a plastic bag in the back porch before he pressed it. The remnants of the digested food drained out of the system, along with a smell so foul it nearly knocked Gareth out, which made him think that maybe it was for the best to switch off the feeding mechanism. Not all dogs were smelly. The original Bernie was a little stinky, but it was hardly his best feature. He would miss the routine of feeding his new little friend and seeing him wag his tail and paw for attention when he wanted a meal, but there was still all the other stuff, all the good stuff.

***

That night Gareth decided not to plug Bernie II in as his battery was still full from the food and he didn’t want the little fellow to be restricted to just a few feet from the power point. Besides, it had always made him feel that little bit safer when he knew there was a dog downstairs, ready to bark at the first sign of an intruder.

Tina insisted that Bernie stayed downstairs, however, but Gareth didn’t mind that. When he was growing up they had never allowed the pets to come upstairs into the bedrooms, so it felt reasonable enough. He would be lying though to say it hadn’t pained him to see little Bernie’s sad eyes as they told him to wait and then closed the door on him.

It was about two in the morning when he first started to howl.

Gareth sprang out of bed. ‘I’ll go’ he said, as if there had been another option. Tina grunted and rolled over, pulling the sheets up to her ears.

When Gareth went into the living room he found Bernie sitting on his back legs in the glow of the moonlight that cast a thin monolith across the carpet.  The room was flickering with the shadows of branches dancing in the windy night. Immediately Bernie ran up and jumped into Gareth’s lap as he knelt down to pat him. He was panting so manically that Gareth was almost worried he would pant himself inside out.

Gareth tried to sooth him, and for a while Bernie at least stopped howling, even if he did still twitch and slobber. But every time Gareth tried to settle him back down and close the door, the howling began anew.

Eventually Gareth found himself stood in the doorway of the bedroom, fiddling awkwardly with the hem of his nightshirt and wondering if Tina had actually managed to get back to sleep yet.

‘What?’ she eventually murmured, without turning from her pillow.

‘He doesn’t like being alone when the wind is blowing. Can he sleep up here?’

‘No’ said Tina abruptly.

‘Then I don’t know what to do’ Gareth pleaded.

‘Turn. Him. Off!’ Tina shouted into her pillow.

‘But I don’t want to turn him off. What if there’s a burglar?’ he said, cautiously.

‘Then he can bloody well take him! Turn it off. Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!’ she screamed once more, this time without the pillow, her voice joining the howl of Bernie from downstairs.

Gareth actually jumped with shock at her anger. He decided in an instant that he would do as she said, at least for tonight. He thought that maybe he could train Bernie II not to howl at the wind eventually, but that for now it was better just to put him on mute.

It didn’t take long to find the volume controls once he had opened the control hatch with his little screwdriver. Bernie still yapped and panted, but now he did it in total silence, which had rather an eerie and unsettling effect on Gareth, as if it was he who had gone deaf.

But there was still a problem. Every time Gareth left the room to go back upstairs, Bernie would jump and scratch at the door. He was probably doing it before, but all they could hear was the howling. Now all they could hear was the scratching, and it was one of those sounds that the ear latches onto and makes louder and more distracting with every second that passes until you just can’t take it anymore.

Gareth tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t ignore the tossing and turning of Tina in the bed besides him. He opened his eyes briefly to see if she was just dreaming and chasing rabbits, as it were, but her eyes were very much open.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Tina slowly tilted her head to meet her husband’s eyes and said calmly, and steadily:

‘No. I’m not okay. And if you don’t sort that thing out right now, not only will I smash it into tiny, weenie little pieces and give it to the rag and bone man, I will also be staying at my Mother’s until I can find a man who has more going for him in life than A DEFECTIVE ROBOT DOG!’

Taking the hint, Gareth got up and powered down Bernie II completely and placed him on his predecessors old cushion. Gareth told himself that it was okay, and that Bernie II was just sleeping like a normal, real dog. Just like back in the days before the thing that had stopped people ever having normal, real pets ever again.

But it wasn’t okay, not really, and that night Gareth went to bed more depressed than he had been for a long, long time.

***

When the morning came the wind had settled down and Gareth had almost forgotten the trials of the previous night. That was until he came downstairs in his dressing gown to find Tina as usual nursing a cup of hot coffee, and the still  deactivated Bernie dumped on the table with his lead and open bag of food stacked unceremoniously on top of him.

‘What’s this?’ Gareth asked while blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Tina had barely managed to cover up the ever increasing semi circles under her eyes, even with a heavy foundation, but still she seemed calm and poised for work. She was dressed in her black skirt, striped shirt and long cream jacket with her burgundy gloves peeking out from the pocket.

‘You’ve got nothing else to do today have you? So you may as well take it back, see if you can get your money back.’

Gareth squinted back at her.

‘By it, I take it you mean Bernie II?’

Tina nodded.

‘Why would I do that?’

Tina lost her demeanour.

‘Because it’s useless junk!’ she whipped back at him, slamming down her coffee so hard a small tidal wave leapt out from the cup and onto Bernie’s tail.

‘Watch out!’ cried Gareth as he looked around fruitlessly for a tissue and then began to wipe up the hot steaming fluid with his sleeve.

Tina watched him as he fussed and fawned over the innate piece of metal covered in synthetic fur.

‘Pathetic’ she said, shaking her head. ‘What’s the point of him?’

Gareth drew a deep breath and turned his head away from her for a moment before standing up to his full height, which when he didn’t slouch, was imposingly greater than hers.

‘The point, if you had any inkling of such things, was to try and feel like I used to back when the real Bernie was alive, back when all the pets were still alive.’

‘But it wasn’t alive, and now it doesn’t even bark, or eat, or move for that matter.’ Tina waved a dismissive hand at the lump before her.

‘Only because you told me to switch him off, piece by piece! The whole idea was to believe in him, faults and all. Real dogs made mess. Real dogs were noisy, and Real dogs sometimes smelled bad!’

Graham found himself red in the face and shouting at his wife only a few centimetres from hers unconcerned smirk.

‘And real wives,’ she said with a wicked pout, ‘tell their husbands when they are being pathetic!

Graham couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t make her see. He could never make her see. He realised that now, and knew what had to be done as he reached his hands around her throat.

‘What are you doing?’ she whimpered as his grip tightened.

‘Maybe you’re right’ he said gently to her as she struggled against the force of his hands. ‘Maybe there is no point in trying to make something that’s fake ever feel real.’

And with that he twisted his hands sharply, removed the panel from the back of his wife’s neck, and went to fetch his little screwdriver.

THE END.