Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
The soggy heathland hugged itself underneath a dome sky. Tracts of mire lay sunken in some places, valleys of soft earth unable to withstand the oppressive atmosphere above it, while other acres were crumpled against the high rock beneath them.
Dry and tender grass creased by an icy warm wind, which seemed, rather than broaden the vast plain, to make it like a ventless room. The fetid smell of peat wafted through dead reeds.
The land whispered fearful things; a thousand hushed voices hissed perilously, and there hung always the suspicion that someone, no more than an outline lost in the myriad of earthy drifts, stood and watched you.
On a low ridge of one of those nameless slopes, risen like a crude and alien mausoleum, was a miniature cottage. The house was preserved by walls of ancient rotwood. The original tenants had been aged and humble, with gnarled hands and thick woolen cloth draped over their figures. Whatever possessed them to look over that landscape and find home is now decades gone. Perhaps they were wanderers, whose brittle legs and loose flesh were no longer enough to carry them out of that squalid and barren land. They collapsed down onto the earth, trapped by the same force that shaped and depressed the ground itself.
In the house that remained since those wretched souls expired, behind a pane of glass that ran thicker at the bottom from age, stood a woman.
She was tall and swaying, a figure which leaned towards the window, clutching at her elbows, as though willing to press through it and out into the decaying countryside. She was dressed in a thin woolen cardigan and a long starch dress with faded floral print. The wispy rain tattered against the window, spotting her face with silhouettes. She stared without seeing, while her lips pressed together absentmindedly, or maybe from a mind that could not bear to be present. Her hooded eyelids fluttered, and she hardly breathed.
“Come away from the window, Myra.”
She didn’t move. Only held herself away from him, as the rain drummed quietly. “You know where we are, don’t you?” she said.
“It doesn’t matter where we are, because we are officially on the radar,“ Ian enunciated carefully. He was bent over a map at the table, measuring a distance between two fingers. The gas lantern above him hung motionlessly from the weak ceiling panels.
“That sounds awfully dramatic.” She couldn’t keep a note of contempt out of her voice.
He looked up suddenly, his handsome eyes now lightless. “It’s the fucking truth! Who cares how dramatic it sounds? This is going to land on our doorstep if we’re not careful!”
Myra shut her eyes. The room was deathly still.
Ian looked back down. “You have thought about what might happen to us if we’re caught, haven’t you?”
“Who’s going to find out?”
“The railway station is full of cameras. They’ve already put us there. It’s just a matter of whether or not they have a clear picture of your face.”
Her hand ran unconsciously to her mouth. “I’m trying to fix this.”
“You’re doing nothing now, that’s what you’re doing.” His hands were spread wide over the table. “Standing at the window like an ugly mannequin.” His face became acerbic, suspicious. “And what is it you’re trying to fix, exactly? It can’t be you’re worried about covering our tracks, can it? No, you would never be so careless if you gave a shit about us. What I think,” and he lowered his head slightly, his eyes narrowing, “is that you’re looking for a way out of this, completely.”
Myra looked out of the window across the sodden field, and she saw them.
Three of them, through the soil and filth of Saddleworth Moor. Three small bodies, encased in earth in varying stages of petrification. Two boys and a girl.
She felt wasted then. The worst part, she thought, was that this was the best she could wish for them. She couldn’t help wondering if they had ever been well. It was a silly thing to wonder, but it’s difficult when all you’ve seen of someone is the thrill of panic, of mortal agony, and finally, withering soul, to imagine that they’ve ever been happy. Their lives, it seemed to her, were only miserable, forced marches to an acute and consuming end.
Myra had found a wrinkled copy of a children’s book in Keith’s backpack, after Ian had strangled him on the side of the road. It was titled The Swish of the Curtain. It was about a group of children, each with a unique talent, who band together to form a theater group. She remembered her mother reading the same book to her.
The night they killed him, she went home, to her parents’ house. She knocked on the door, her fingers involuntarily wiping at her clammy palms. They didn’t have time to react as she moved swiftly through the doorway to the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“No phone call, no what?” her mother burst out. “Who do you think you are to kick in the door like–”
But she didn’t hear them. She held her coat close around her as she climbed to the top of the stairs and swept down the hall past her sister Maureen’s old room, which also stood empty after Maureen had left for college. She flicked on the light in her bedroom and felt a pang when she saw the walls. Once covered with tacked-up posters and shreds of paper on which she had written lines of poetry, they were stripped bare. The room was nothing; an ugly, desecrated ground.
Her father was bounding up the stairs after her, blustering deafeningly, “-you turn your back on us again! This isn’t your house, Myra! Hettie, get the phone, I want to call the police-”
She turned to her closet and flung the door open. In it were several worn cardboard boxes, some nearly bursting with Myra’s childhood clothes, toys, dolls. She yanked down one, which seemed to be full of books. It toppled from the shelf over her, crashing to the floor and spilling its contents. She threw herself down and pulled books from the box, flipping them over to scan the covers, looking–
“Bitch girl!” Her father was standing behind her, bearing down. Myra continued to look, had to find it. As she upturned the box, the rest of the storybooks spilled out, she saw one which looked like–
Powerful hands closed under her arms, yanked her up before she could find her footing.
“–want you out,“ he breathed into her ear.
“Mama!” she screamed, dangling. “Mama! Help me! I have to find it!”
But her mother was downstairs, contemplating actually dialing for the police. Tall as Myra was, her slight build was useless against her father’s stout, thick body. He dragged her down the steps, yanking each time she grabbed the railing, pulling her across the foyer to the door and out into the yard. There he let go of her, and she collapsed to the lawn, sobbing, hacking.
“You get this straight, you,” he huffed at her, again on the ground. “I don’t want to see you on our property ever again. We told you, if you leave with him, you won’t be welcome back.” He grasped his chest.
“You destroyed her when you left. And for what? Some treacherous piece of rubbish.” Myra continued to moan, face down, breathing in the grassy smell of the lawn.
“I don’t know where we went wrong, Myra,” he said, eyeing her, “but we don’t want you here any longer.”
* * * * * *
She stared through the window, unaware of Ian’s growing tension. Tears began to burn under her eyelids. They spilled out and over the dark bags under her eyes, through the minute channels of her ashen face.
Though her back was to him, Ian understood. He tensed his jaw. “Don’t play guilty conscience now, Myra. You knew what you were doing, I never forced your hand. You could have stopped before we brought the Reade girl out here. But you didn’t. You forfeited your life.” He concealed a smile. A hot pulse beat in his wrists, filling him with a kind of neutral energy, one which might yield an intense elation or a fierce madness.
“As far as anyone is concerned,” he continued, “you’re as guilty as I am. Nobody’s going to care that you didn’t kill them yourself. You were here, you saw it, and you said nothing. There are no trade-backs this time, Myra, you’re here now and you’ve got to-”
“To WHAT?” she screamed, wheeling around. “What have I got to do?! Stay here with you, Ian, while the country’s in an uproar, while the police are searching for us and no one else, while we keep taking people’s children, while–”
She realized she was leaning towards him, pointing at him with her teeth bared, but it was too late.
Ian rounded the table, seamlessly pulling a knife from his belt loop. The shrill terror of his form pounding towards her made her heart quiver convulsively. Before she could flinch away, he had a fistful of her hair.
“Ah-” she gasped. Bending her head backwards, he laid the blade across her face, his coal-black eyes boring into hers from their deep sockets.
“I promise you,” he said, trembling, “if you ever speak to me in that way again, I will cut the tongue out of your mouth.” The knife point twitched. “That I have not killed you already is a blessing, a blessing,” he swallowed, “that you would do best never to overlook.”
She cried through her closed lips. The world in front of her began to blur. Her vision closed in on her in a haze of gray. All she could see was Ian’s semi-silhouette in front of the lantern.
“If,“ his eyes flickered, “I so much as dream that you are considering going to the police, or to anyone,” and he was whispering now, “I will make no attempts to cover up what we’ve done. What I will do, is I will find you and kill you the same way we killed them.” She could see his front teeth glittering, as his upper lip rose savagely.
As though to illustrate the point, he brought the edge of the knife over her Adam’s apple and pulled. Light though it was, she felt a burning sensation which told her he had decided to make good on his threat now. His hand cupped over her mouth as she screamed.
Her muffled scream reverberated around the cabin. It continued, however, for a second longer than it ought to have. Myra and Ian froze, their eyes brought up to meet one another’s. From the shabby bathroom attachment came a shrill, fitful noise. It halted and resumed unevenly, coupled with a low erratic thumping as though against hollow porcelain.
Ian released her suddenly and strode to the bathroom door. He opened it and peered inside. He stared, fixed, for a moment, then shut the door and looked back at Myra, pressed up against the glass.
His eyes were those of a sedated man. He grinned at Myra, whose throat was so tight it pinched when she swallowed. Her heart spasmed madly inside her chest.
“She isn’t finished yet,” he said gently.
Myra’s skin stretched taut over her spine. She fell back against the wall, her arms pinned by her sides and her fingers clenching. Hot nausea spread through her bowels, threatening to bring up caustic acids. She shut her eyes, willing it down, allowing it, instead, to brand ulcers into the sides of her stomach.
They stood against opposite walls, gazing at each other. Ian’s smile grew, then, faltered, as his eyes clouded. He appeared as though he were having some sudden revelation. Myra waited, holding her breath. She stared at him, wishing madly for something to happen, but not being able to think of what that something was. She had the sick feeling of being told to put her hand in the curtained box and guess what lay coiled within.
Looking at her again, Ian slowly turned the knife over in his hand, gripping the blade so it faced handle-out towards her. He said nothing.
Myra’s thoughts seemed to fragment. Something in her brain seemed to ignite, like a huge and complex engine had fired into life. It revolved, whirring faster and faster, as though a cog had come loose from the greater clockwork and spun freely.
Ian looked patiently back.
Her heart pumped so hard into the vessels it became painful. Her head and body throbbed in different tempos, becoming discordant, producing in her a sour feeling akin to that of poison. The protective faculties of her mind tried to shield her, to find some alternative, any alternative, to what Ian was about to make her do. They burned out in the process, every unconscious measure penetrated by the magnitude of what was about to happen to her, what she was about to make happen to–
The cog slipped off its gear. It fell out of sight, out of reach. The engine ebbed, waned, and died.
Myra’s face slackened. Her eyes unfocused, sending the room into a soup of borderless colors. Hate and fear and dread, ripping through her moments before, now drifted formlessly over its surface. Like drops of dye in water, they dissipated into gossamer furls that slowly spread into nothingness.
She saw that she was no longer anywhere but in a room. Across from her was the figure of a man, a man who held something small in his hand. He seemed to want her to take it. She did not quite know what this man wanted with her, but she knew what he was. He was a spinning void. He was a brilliant sun, eclipsed by a mortal shape. In him, though, she saw glistening malevolence bubbling on the surface of that blinding star. It churned throughout, a liquid composite of two elements that mingled but dared not mix.
She was alone with a Demi-God. He was perhaps as old as the ash from which man arose, and he possessed within him power so sovereign gravity itself seemed to bend toward him. Indeed, she felt herself drawn to him by a force she could not quite convince herself was her own. She looked at him, and the venom that laced itself around him began to subside. She glimpsed a benevolence so absolute she would have liked to drown herself in it.
He loved her, but his love was not without condition. She yearned for him. He would accept her, and love her with a passion that could consume the world, if only she were to serve him this once.
The thought propelled her into motion. She crossed to him, hand outstretched, fingers trembling.
Suddenly, a voice arose in the deep recesses of her mind, beyond the layers that had been whited out by his influence. At first it was light and soft, as though from far away. As she walked, it became louder, as though someone was falling out of the sky right above the house. The voice was screaming. She couldn’t make out who it was, it sounded so familiar, so many–
She heard it. The voice belonged to her mother. To Maureen. It was Pauline, screaming with her final breath. It was John, howling from a shallow grave. It was Keith. It was herself. All of them, shrieking, begging her to come back, screaming with all their force in protest of that unnatural unity, of that bestial marriage.
She heard them and she saw that she was walking, and what she was walking to. She was entering a night blacker than her most vivid nightmares could have painted for her.
But she couldn’t stop. His coal-black eyes, beckoning her. There was nothing and no one to save her. He could not be won, could not be bested. Could he?
As her hand closed around the hilt of the blade, whose glittering tip lay inches from his abdomen, she looked into his eyes. They were as gentle and naked as the world in its infancy. She smiled, and her hand ceased to tremble.
Credit: Colin’s Home for the Damned
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