An Occasional Entry in a Dream Diary: Change, Maps and Attack

I don’t often recall my dreams these days, blessed be the drugs. When I do, I haven’t slept well, and they’ve been exhausting. Since last night was unusually intact, even hours later, I guess I should release it, or what I can remember, in the order it seemed to be in…


Waking up, finding that I’m not quite person I thought I was. There is now a small chest of drawers between me and my other half’s beds. She looks disappointed that I am awake. I shamble, barely capable of walking, to the shower. I can hear her telephone conversation as I slump and drag myself across the floor tiles.

“He’s not what he used to be,” she says. I haul myself up to where I can see myself in the mirror, and I am a half-formed, or half-deformed version of myself, features spreading out, as if being averaged across my face.

We attempt breakfast, and take our plates to sit in the narrow corridor where everyone else has found a space to hunch and eat in near-silence. Inevitably, the plateful of gravy spills (despite my best efforts) and spatters my t-shirt and trousers. We head off back to the room, via the delivery warehouse. I complain that my section of ‘exclusives’ has been taken away, so we take some extra time to traipse up and down the endless aisles until we discover that it is in exactly the same place it always was, but the sign with my name on has fallen behind a shelf. There is a stack of new t-shirts with cute designs, a range of bookmarks and unopened boxes. I take a shirt.

Paris is exhausting. The roads slope steeply up and down. We’re trying to find a place to eat, but the maps app on my phone is constantly steering us off course. With a lurch the app takes hold of my mind and I’m compelled to follow its directions, while traveling at high speed. The world takes a sepia tone and is stretched taut in all dimensions; the world is almost spherical, balanced atop a pinnacle of rock. A whirlwind of motion is coming, drawing me up into it, smashing my body into other forms and shapes. I do not want this, and in a vast stormy cloud we disperse; below me the ruined shape of Thundercracker (yup, from Transformers) crashes to earth, and the immense warping shape of Devastator (yup, also Transformers) screams like a wave across a mirror, while I remain on the very edge of the curb.

I fight off the map’s influence and find myself in a backstreet, lined with ancient bricks and half-boarded windows. There is no exit to the alley, so I open the door at the top of a fire escape. Inside are tables in cabaret layout occupied by women in something very like beekeeper’s hats and veils. They are all knitting or crocheting tiny figures. They speak constantly in a hushed whisper so it sounds like the sea.

The map reasserts control, dragging me though a fancy restaurant pavilion where a man is threatening the crowd with a gun. The speed I’m moving at when I strike him hurls him through the brass and glass walls and into the adjoining train station. A blur of glass.

I climb out of the overturned double-decker bus which I’d commandeered and rammed through the streets. I descend into the cellar where my compatriots are carefully arranging their windows, each a different shape with complex frames, all giving different views of the bright and cheerful street outside.

“It’s time.”

We all sit before our windows and they slice away from the reality around them, and we fly outwards, this thin screen before us and nothing behind. We circle up into the sky and join thousands of others whose screens are slotting into the vast battle grid we’ll be using to assault the enemy.

Terrible Dreams Made Into Stories: The Swans

The Swans

The bodies were found, finally, stretched out on the battered wooden boards of the old comprehensive school. It had been closed and derelict for years, a spooky ghost house, squat or health and safety hazard depending on your age. The police had been drawn in after a passer-by spotted a line of crows noisily queueing to squeeze in through a broken window. The window had been broken by a thirteen year old boy named John, not that anyone asked. He’d found the shattering glass went some way to pacify the anger and upset he felt with the world.

The bodies were incomplete. Of the seven, three lacked heads and all were missing an arm or a leg. They had been there for some months, lined up like toast soldiers getting soggy and seeping into the floorboards. The police forensics teams took the whole floor.

None of the bodies were identified. No one from the town was missing. No one else had heard of them either. The missing heads didn’t help, but the fingerprints were no use, the DNA was a dead end. No wallets, no badges, no clothes no nothing. Aged between fifteen and forty-five, three female, four male. They lay in the cold cold morgue like a charity shop jigsaw; with missing pieces and the wrong picture on the box.

Swans

Three months after the bodies were found and forgotten again the school was finally demolished. Spurred on in part by the failed investigation and the desire to erase those disturbing memories. The site was left newly derelict, bulldozed heaps of bricks and drainpipe, window frame and blackboard jumbled and smashed in a metal-fenced pen.

Behind the wasteland rose the forest, thrusting up into the stumpy hills that ringed the north and east of the town. They were not well-visited woodlands, being curiously devoid of rare fauna and flora. Had they been more interesting something would have been built there. A few thin paths blundered through the trees, edging the hills and descending to the town’s old beauty spot, Wendle Pool.

Despite being just a short walk from the town centre the woods and pool were the preserve of squirrels, small birds and teenagers. Two such, Michael and Evan who at the empowering age of sixteen considered themselves hunters and woodsmen, ventured out early on Saturday morning to inspect their attempts at rabbit snares and toss stones into the pool.

The snares remained empty and the boys’ pen knives remained pocketed and unused. They smirked at the routine disappointment of a failed hunt; acknowledging the failure had become an important ritual in itself. In commemoration Evan exchanged a loosely rolled cigarette for a Marlboro Light. The pair smoked and talked quietly as they hiked uphill towards the cliff that lurked over the pool. Even their conversation was routine, a form of words and habits that comforted and ordered the day.

They followed their familiar trail up through the scrappy birches and bracken that bedraggled the hills. The cold chill of the morning held a mist between the trees. It cast a glamour across the unremarkable landscape, imbuing it with softness and shadowy beauty that clarity would never grant. Beneath the furrowed brow of the ridge the boys climbed, the birches were supplanted by a small copse of firs. The green of their boughs mocked the emptiness of the needled earth beneath.

As they passed the last birch, Evan recoiled suddenly. The roll-up he was confidently dangling from the corner of his mouth stuck to his lip and he sucked it into his mouth as he cried out. He fell back into Michael, who failed to catch him and they both stumbled to the needle-strewn ground. Evan spluttered out the strands of tobacco and paper and choking managed only to point. Branches stretched across the clearing and hanging from the branches in the dead centre two heads leered at them.

An ancient scream was fixed in their faces; eyeless holes matched the gaping mouth as if they too were screaming. The boys recovered their fragile teenage swagger. Once they were assured that the heads were indeed just heads, a degree of self-deprecation and bravado could be reacquired. The hills were the regular domain of Michael and Evan, its contents their dominion, surely. With fluttering heart and an unusual physical proximity they approached the heads. They swayed with a breeze the boys had not previously noticed, swinging gently on their own hair which was knotted to the tree branch. The skin on the hanging faces was weathered, their gender was hard to guess. Being apart from their bodies and the hues that should have painted their cheeks left them neuter, inhuman; at once less and more frightening.

The mist clung to the edges of the copse, confining the boys and the heads in a grey cage. Neither boy felt inclined to touch them. A terrible sense that they would bite, or talk, or scream lingered in both their minds though it remained unspoken. There was no doubt that the decapitated heads had not been there the previous Saturday. This was the way they always came. They would have noticed. Of course they would have noticed. They must not have noticed. Perhaps the heads were tied to some higher bough, of course they must have been there. Just out of sight. Of course. Otherwise they were newly placed. Weird though. Really weird.

With their conclusion that the heads had always been present came a sense of acceptance, that this was normal. Concerns that had the heads always hung above their heads that those eyeless faces would have borne witness to a number of blushing youthful indiscretions were half-heartedly laughed off. They should continue with their routine. Finding that the path out of the copse was marked irregularly with amputated forearms, feet and hands pointing in the direction of their passage failed to alert the boys. Their fears screamed below a thin veneer of calm habit.

Leathery fingers crooked as they passed, toes curled. Knees and wrists flexed, dry and worn tendons tugged by unseen puppeteers. The mist was denser, followed them along the path as if the world dissolved behind them to reform before their feet. They breathed cold smoke into the woods. The copse opened out onto the ledge that frowned on the pond beneath. The boys stood shoulder to shoulder. Neither noticed that they were so close that their fingers almost touched; their digits twitched for the warmth and reassurance just within reach.

Below them the mists rose from the pool like a cold fire, burning away the vitality of the water. It lay black and still; clotted. Thoughtless, blinded by the icy smoke wreathing the teenagers they descended the steep path that lead down to the water. In a haze Evan splashed into the water. It rose up in languid waves which cracked and bled, blackly soaking the boy’s trousers. Michael remained on the bank, mutely watching his friend wade into the fracturing mire.

With each step Evan grew heavier. His skin mottled on contact with the diseased fluid that filled the pool. The flesh of his hands and face cracked, falling away in a fine rain. Michael swayed, held up by the smoke and smell of the water. Evan’s face collapsed, sliding down his jacket leaving only cracking bone which crumbled in turn, and Evan’s naked skeleton sank into the pool.

Michael lurched on the edge of the water, unable to draw his eyes away from Evan’s hair as it slowly spread out. The smoky murk lifted briefly as if a giant breathed over the pond. Between the fingers of mist came nightmare creatures. The swans glided through the rank scum, seemingly untroubled by its thickness. They were rotting as they swam, each kick of their feet blackening another feather that curdled. The swans dipped their faces to the water and emerged with rancid treacly beaks oozing bloody waste.

The corrupted swans gathered at Michael’s feet decaying wings raised. Their eyeless faces drooled a welcome call. Michael fell forwards and was embraced by the sludge.

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Twinned With Evil – part 1

Twinned With Evil – part 4

This is the fourth part of a story – read Part 1 , Part 2  and Part 3 first (if you want).

Cedric leads me down more stairs into the restaurant. It feels like a refuge of the past – its sunken floor is pitted with pools and miniature waterfalls. A waiter leads us courteously across stepping stones. I cannot resist giving Cedric a quizzical smile: this is not the sort of place either of us have ever haunted. The waiter deposits us at our pavilion where two men wait for us. One is the inspector from years ago, I sigh inwardly. The other man is large and perhaps in his twenties. I find him immediately aggravating.

“Old neutrals are new friends now,” Cedric offers as we take our seats, “you remember Clement.” I barely notice him. Cedric and Clement accept their drinks from the attentive but unobtrusive waiter and settle back on the other side of the table. I stare at the other man. There’s something in him I recognise. He stammers, makes some attempt at conversation. Then he finally meets my eyes and I know what he is, and why Cedric wanted me to meet him.

~

The second my eyes met hers the restaurant seemed to fall away. I’d been here with the inspector for perhaps half an hour, chatting quietly and enjoying my beer. When they arrived I felt my heart stir and I knew they were Clement’s guests. They approached us with a sense of inevitability. An older man, and a slightly younger woman. At first I thought she was old because of how she dressed, then young when she sat down, quickly and sullen. She sat in silence while the other man greeted the inspector.

The woman just stared at me, without a hint of feeling. Her eyes bored into me. I try to strike up a conversation but she totally ignores me. The waiter lays the table between our moments of awkwardness and leaves. The inspector and the man in the hat have arranged themselves on the other side of the table and are just watching us. Me. I’m sitting right next to the strange woman. It makes me nervous. The edge of the world shudders.

That’s when I notice that the water around our pavilion is receding from us and the air feels darker and heavier. I look into her eyes and they’re like black holes – the darkness in them devouring the skin around her eyes. Tendrils of night stream out of her face. I lurch backwards in alarm as black cracks striate her face and clothes. I seize the knife from the table and slam it into her chest. She screams, and doesn’t stop screaming.

The skin in her face unravels becoming just one terrible mouth lined with teeth all the way down the back of her throat – the teeth hum at me hungrily. I rip the knife back out and plunge it in again as she bucks and twists in my grip. She gets too hot to hold down, the fires within pierce her smouldering flesh and she bursts into a flaming corpse. She won’t stop screaming, I can feel it tearing at my mind.

The restaurant is gone, fallen into the darkness that has enveloped us, it is just me and the screaming. With a brutal and impossible contortion of her spine her back rotates to face me and splits; a black carapace ridged with blue and red spines forces its way out of her burned flesh and swells in size. Her limbs stretch, crack and reform into a nightmarish crab-like thing that becomes enormous, looming over me dripping ichor and shaking with hatred.

With one claw it tears the roof away and the gloom clears a little – we’re standing on the roof of an old church. The monster that the woman has become squats with its hind legs gripping the steeple, its fore-claws and mandibles still shriek the horrors of the world at me. I dive under it and jab upwards with the knife again, under the jaw where I can reach. The creature involutes itself impossibly, its jaws opening underneath me. I fall down into the night.

 ~

The restaurant is quiet save for the distant chatter of other diners. I take a small sip of water and glance at my boss. He raises his eyebrow. I straighten the dinner service. “Good instincts,” I say. The man next to me is shiny with sweat, eyes wide and shaking. I hand him his knife back. He looks terrified, justly. “Don’t worry,” I say, “you get to choose”. The dark-faced man nods. “He’ll do,” I say.

I left the city that same night, the same way I came in. It feels like the last time. I don’t think there will be anything to come back for. One more point of force inside the city won’t help it now. Together, perhaps, we can stop anything getting out when the city finally does die. Until then, I’ll be here. Watching.

Twinned With Evil – part 3

This is the third part of a story – read Part 1 and Part 2 first (if you want).

My dream takes me past the security doors and its grim faced personnel. The corridor into the building folds back and forth in a paranoid maze until I reach the stairs and descend into the subterranean bureaucracy. It is cool and airy in the modern way, with no receptionists in your face and the offices muted and private. My feet lead inevitably to the Map Room. The room is swept periodically with light, illuminating the wood-panelling that surrounds the huge table. It supports a detailed map of the city; my eyes are drawn to the lines of force that arc and twitch around the city’s landmarks. Two wooden figures stand on the map.

We’re here to supervise the voting process. Now that good and evil are viable terms for social policy some measure of them is required in politics and the wheels of civil governance. It is not yet acceptable to build a party on such philosophical nightmares though, and that in part, was cause for our attendance. Still religion and economics attempts to take the fore. My boss, Cedric, in his constant suit and hat calmly regards the map.

We had a visitor present, from the inspection committee. He was a dark-faced man with a temper and no patience for our talk of good and evil. I felt nothing but contempt for him and pointedly ignored him. The map is more than enough to focus on. We made it together, Cedric and I. We infused with the forces we can sense; it exactly represents the City and its mood.

As the voting progressed the figures on the table grew steadily. We were watchful for deformation, sparks of colour and speed – all of which would indicate the influence of evil, or good on the proceedings. The feeling of mirrored energies surging across the table map and into the two men’s figurines was exhausting. We spent the day watchful for those sensations to which we are equally but diametrically attuned. We guard each other in raised eyebrows and significant glances.

The election seemed to go well, though the inspector offered constant distractions from our quiet vigil. He fussed and huffed until we could assure him that the figurines on the map were untainted by excess, that they contained a normal degree of good and evil, and that neither of us had exerted an undue influence over the outcome of the election. That showed how little he understood – our job was to monitor each other for our own sakes. The temptation to encourage your nature, tease it out from its hidden corners is powerful and we helped each other to curb ourselves. I don’t even recall who won. It hardly matters – they were ordinary men, equally subject to our extremes; the future was not within our remit and that future was beyond a mere election.

The day left me restless and unhappy. I spoke quietly with my boss, we touched hands and I left. I knew that I was a danger to the City. Despite our influence on each other I could still feel those coils of darkness in the City. They were drawn to me, and I to them. It was not safe for me to stay.

I wake. It is not an election today but the dream of it lies heavy in my mind. It has been years since the election and as I predicted, events have overtaken politics. The City fell to the darkness and it has spent the last ten years consuming everything. On the outside I was insulated from those curlicues of violence in the night. With the City sealed in a bubble of its own decline my role has been to watch from the outside, detect any escaping dread that might infect the rest. The emigration from the cities has been effective, there have been no more desperate purges, riots, terrible acts of rage and fear. The threat had been contained, or so I believed.

Having already made the trip in my dream the journey to the office smacked of deja vu, but as if through smoked glass. Parts of the city I remember fondly are gone, unseen by the residents. There are more people about today and I watch them ignoring the gaps in their City, taking extreme diversions around blacked out streets and buildings. Even the crawling death across the paving slabs is nimbly stepped over.

It all feels wrong, and yet so right. The evil inside me thrills to this subsumption but it is exactly that which persuaded me to join the agency. I know to be wary of that feeling, it is seductive. I regret my return even as I am welcomed.

I meet my boss at the office. He seems much older than he should. We exchange weary smiles and touch hands. The office is precisely as I remember, until we reach the map. It is riven with darkness like a cankerous parasite clawing the City into itself. He raises an eyebrow and makes a dismissive gesture.

“Let’s go out for dinner” he says, “there are some people I’d like you to meet.”

The sky’s blue is fading already and the birds are playing their speed stunts again. A warm wind blows sepia through the city. We walk down a street of restaurants and bars. Many are closed, but several are lanterns in the night, full of cheerful faces and happiness. We don’t look at the other side of the road where the houses disappear in a ragged darkness and barely coalescent shapes haunt the shadows.

Part 4 (finale) coming next week… I’m sorry…

Twinned With Evil – part 2

This is the second part of a story – read Part 1 first (if you want).

I am relieved to find the old apartment building still standing in the light. The street lights flicker and strobe as I walk towards it and I will them to remain lit. They do. My hand hardly shakes at all as I fit the key into the lock. The shadows rush out past me; I feel their passing against my skin. They flee to join the night and the bleakness that infests it.

The flat is dark and empty. But still mine. Not much more than a round table and a bed. It is clean and the cupboards not as pitifully bare as I left them, so my boss must have had it maintained; he always feared I would need to return. Night falls heavily outside, the darkness reaching up to pull the blanket over itself. I draw the curtains to keep it out.

Dreams torment my sleep. Being here brings all my memories of the last time back in a flood. It is one of those awful dreams where I dream of waking and am still asleep. It takes me back to the last time I was here: before I banished myself my role was to adjudicate in the election. I wake in the narrow wooden bed and the light is plowing through the air above me, painting ghosts and nightmare figures on the scarred wallpaper. Breakfast is a nauseating lurch across the flat and back, puppeteered by the dream. My mind seems intent on replaying the details I have cast aside; the ashen taste of cereal, the sourness of milk. My clothes do not fit properly.

The door slams behind me, beating an echo into the air which travels before me. The distance between the flat and the office goes by in long stutters of treacle slowness and flashing speed. The city had not gone bad then, but it was surely on the way. Even by daylight the streets were subdued, the people reclusive. Just a month earlier the last music hall had burned to the ground and the football stadium had closed. We no longer wanted to associate with others. Quiet bars, and oddly, the libraries had even had a resurgence of interest. The shadow of imminent violence hangs over everything.

I pass the staring faces that watch me as I walk down the roads to the office. They had relocated the government offices underground after the murder sprees started. Bloody, awful affairs that ended hundreds of lives. Shop workers, wives, teachers, electricians. There seemed to be no pattern until we looked at where they lived or worked. “Frequency of contact” was the official conclusion, and it held true for all the later events. It was as if we’d hit the maximum number of people we could see and still care about and yet society just kept pushing more in our faces. There was that, and something more.

I was recruited when I survived the Beynemouth Slaughter. That was when I discovered the kind of threat I, and those like me are. We can talk about good and evil, light and dark and get all philosophical about what makes a woman good or evil, we can euphemise as much as we like. It doesn’t change the facts, only hides that some of us revel in the violence and in the darkness. Our existence made it worse – people already hated being near each other but we thrived on it, instigated it. If we’d known we were doing it, if I’d known that was what I was doing… well. I didn’t, and in our ignorance we hit a critical mass of hate and fear in the City, and made it real.

Evil became a presence, and people succumbed to it. The community purges which followed as religious and political leaders, as well as the damaged people already waiting for an opportunity, incited further fear, spreading the darkness and ensuring that blood was spilled. I could feel it, almost smell the hatred in the air. I’d never really felt alive before. I attended a rally where I found myself shouting and shaking my fists. The darkness moved with me, like streamers from my fingertips and I cast it over the crowd with my words.

The Beynemouth Slaughter that followed tore a hole in our world, a place for the bleak consuming hate to live and fester like a gash in our City. The agency was formed shortly afterward and I was one of its first agents. Cedric knew what I was, had picked me out of the photographs of the riots and turmoil. I was scared and repentant. I’d relished the sensations that surrounded me as men bludgeoned each other to death, loved watching the dark blossoming from the mob. But I saw that it lingered, saw it become part of the city. I watched it grow, felt it grow and stretch, distort and gnaw at everything. Despite my lust for it I realised that it was destructive. I’m not a bad person, just an evil one. That’s what my boss helped me to understand.

Part 3 coming soon…

Twinned With Evil – part 1

Brambles and branches try to hit me in the face and water soaks into the hem of my dress from the filthy puddles I trudge through. I am returning from overseas. This narrow, overgrown ditch is the last entrance into the City that I know of. It is not welcoming, but then I would not wish for one anyway. I do not wish to be here and, if the people here knew I was returning, would not want me here either. The silence is absolute. No animals dwell in this abandoned corner. Even the brambles are dead and brittle; their thorns fall in a shower behind me.

I have been summoned. It has been a long time since I was here last. I had hoped that I would not be needed. I drag my satchel free of the thorns in a soft explosion of brick dust. Despite my reluctance I am curious about how the City might have changed without me. The last turn necessitates hopping over a thick root which has some slight sense of life left in it. I can feel it pulse, deep in its heart as I clear it. My dress slaps wetly against my boots.

When I land on the other side of the barrier everything feels different. No longer dead, but dying. This place is afflicted with a terrible blight, one we were unable to heal when last I was here. It can be tasted in the air, cold and damp. If I couldn’t feel the sparks and shards of life scattered through the City like slivers of glass I would think it a graveyard. As it is, those slivers are all too few. Once the City had a population of hundreds of thousands. Now it is in the tens of thousands. All that change in a generation. It still looks the same.

The tall fantastically arched buildings rising from the grey flagstones on either side of the road. The alleys loom dark and threatening between them. I stick to the middle of the road. I’m impressed that the streets are clean, if empty. This side of town is quiet but not too bad. Despite that I walk quickly, hooded and with my satchel drawn in close. Shadows move behind windows. I know that I’m being watched but I don’t feel threatened.

The people here are right to be wary – there are no strangers here. The City has been locked down – sealed on one side and consumed on the other. Ways in and out such as those I used are known to very, very few. Of course most of the survivors don’t realise this; they know it, deep down but how can you live in fear all of the time? They continue to live, for as long as they can and forget those who disappear and the streets where they used to play and work. The empty houses pass me by and I see a few souls making their way home from work, most likely in the power stations to judge by their clothing.

It’s a long way to the flat I keep here. I assume it is still there though my summons made no mention of it. My boss – I still call him that, though our relationship has not been one of employer and employee since we first met. But I don’t have any other useful way to refer to him. His name has all the wrong connotations for how I feel about him. Cedric is not a name to inspire respect, or fear. Both are deserved for my boss. His summons was short, terse even in its single word “Come”.

That I should be needed here again can only be bad news. Since my self-imposed exile I have dreamed of the City, feared it, made it into a monster. At first glance it doesn’t appear to merit that – it’s just another fading city, depopulated as so many are now. We came to fear the intimacy of society and spread out, back into the countryside and the compact communities which our species can cope with. Put us together for too long and we turn… bad. I know I did. This place is where it all started where it began to go wrong twenty years ago.

I am thinking too much about our history and am not paying attention to my route. My feet know where to go. I pause briefly to look up at the moon which has risen while I crossed the City. It hangs, a ghostly impression on the slowly darkening sky. I’m sure that’s a sneer across its face. The sight makes me nervous, I should be inside before full dark.

Gazing at the moon I am startled by a sudden racket in the hedge that thrusts between the railings behind me. A volley of thrushes launches out of the greenery and wheels up into the sky – scant millimetres separate them and they fly impossibly fast, twisting and turning in tight loops before rocketing back into the hedge. I watch their aerial curlicues and count the runes they inscribe in the sky. A man nearby is staring at them too, alternating his attention between the birds me. I keep going.

Part 2 coming soon…