The Hollow Road

There is a forest far from here. The trees that grow there are huge and old, they reach up, and like accusing fingers they point at the fat clouds above them. Clouds that now burst.

The sky spits rain, each drop is like a bullet fired down from the heavens. Leaves are lashed and battered, the forest is blown into chaos.

Between the trees there is a sudden darting shape; a silhouette against the fading light. The shadow’s name is Michael and he is doing what he loves best. Pace after pace after pace after pace, he is racing the rotation of the Earth. The mad beating of his heart matches the slam of each foot as it hits the ground. He has been running for hours now, the world rolling away beneath him.

The drums are sounding.

The wind suddenly picks up and pushes him on, formless hands pressing formless fingers into his aching back. He surges ahead, but his legs are tired, against his will they give way and he falls, crashing head first in to the sodden ground. He lies there, listening to it as it thunders through the trees towards him.

He hears a voice. A whisper. A memory.

He remembers…

It had been one of Michael’s infamous dinner parties, held this time, for himself, his wife, and his best friend Gabe. Michael was enjoying one of his rare nights off work.

Gabe held his empty glass out to Michael. “Fill it up Mike?” Michael stood and shook his head. “I’ve got something better.” He hurried from the room, his voice carried through from the kitchen. “I’ve been saving this.” Michael’s wife, Peggy rolled her eyes. There was the sound of a cork being popped, a cry of pain, then excited footsteps returning. Michael entered and revealed a bottle with a flourish.

“This, lady and gentleman, is ‘Le Vin Du Chemin Croux’ straight from the darkest depths of France.” He poured them each a glass then raised his high in a toast. “To culture!” He tipped the wine into his mouth and showed his appreciation by gargling and swilling it through his teeth and cheeks. Peggy was appalled. “Don’t you dare spit that out!” Michael quickly swallowed, he watched eagerly as Peggy and Gabe both sipped at their wine. Peggy was the first to speak. “Excellent Michael, it tastes like cider.” Michael laughed. “I’m not joking.” Peggy took another sip and pursed her lips in disgust.

Michael’s mouth fell open. “Do you know how much that cost me?” Peggy’s face darkened and she raised her eyebrows. “How much?” Michael just stood there, he had no words ready to save his neck. His mouth flopped open and then snapped back shut. Peggy shook her head. “Oh just sit back down Michael!”

Michael took his seat and an awkward silence followed. Gabe was the first to find his tongue, he finished his mouthful and leaned over the table towards Michael. “I found you a new track.” Peggy shot Gabe a sly look. “Have you ever heard of The Hollows?”

Michael shook his head and listened intently as Gabe told him of a run that would take him up through the hills and the forests, into the dark heart of nature. It was a run that would take him out through the pines to a place where spirituality and physicality would combine to elevate the human to a heightened awareness of misery and pain. “Some people have reported having visions. Premonitions.” Gabe paused for effect then laughed and leaned back in his chair. “They say they’ve seen the future.” Michael’s eyes lit up. “You’ve got to do it!”

Gabe had eventually left, the moment that the door had closed behind him Michael and Peggy had started to argue. “What are you doing with your life Michael?” Michael couldn’t answer; he didn’t know. “You spent how much?” Michael had sunk deep down into his seat as Peggy’s words washed over and smothered him. “What’s wrong with you?”

That night, as he listened to the endless snores of his wife, Gabe’s words had begun to dance through his mind. The Hollows. It was something new to break up the never ending days of work, something to hold at bay the bitterness that grew inside him like a cancer. The wind in his hair and the air upon his skin, surrounded by nature. Away from the complications of civilisation and technology, how man was made to be.

He sat up and set a reminder on his phone to email Gabe first thing in the morning and then lay back down. When he closed his eyes, he could see his feet hitting the earth, the sunlight through the leaves, the softness of the ground, a darkness in his periphery…

Sleep consumed him.

One week later, he had unleashed his surprise upon Peggy. Once she had eaten the meal he had prepared, drank the wine he had bought, taken the bath he had run, and relaxed from the massage he had given, he had proposed his idea. He had expected some sort of protest, but his well prepared counter argument hadn’t even been needed, she had agreed instantly.

His days became dreams. Before he knew it, Michael was sat in his car speeding away from home, Peggy and Gabe happily waving him off.

He could already feel it, the future lay ahead, it was waiting for him and here he was, head held high, racing to meet it. He had stopped at a hotel that night and spread out on the bed like an angel. A whole bed to himself, it was the best nights sleep he could remember.

In the morning he had handed the key back to the receptionist and for a second their hands had touched and she had looked into his eyes and smiled.

From a perfect moment had been born a perfect memory and it was one he had kept close to him all day. He’d been re-living it; her smile, her eyes, the smallest touch, her brown hair, when his car had suddenly been ripped from the road. There had been a screech of tires, a sudden awful pull of inertia, the shriek of twisting metal, the shattering of glass…

But that was the past.

This is the now.

The rain is subsiding; the skies have finally called a cease-fire. Michael lies in a puddle, his eyes half-open. Water runs into his mouth and rolls down his throat and he chokes. He thrashes for a moment then groggily forces himself up on to his hands and knees. His spine bends painfully as he retches and coughs up the muck from inside of him.

When there is nothing more left within, he stands on legs that shake and with muddy fingers he wipes the dirt from his lips. He lifts his head, blinks and looks around, unsure of where he is. Trees surround him, their branches reach and run and spread like nerve endings across the sky.

As Michael looks around, something in the trees moves, a heavy snort and the scent of stagnation and filth washes over him. Something watches, something dark and ugly and foul. Something that smiles as if it knows what’s to come.

Michael is exhausted but he forces himself to run again. He runs for minutes and he runs for hours. He runs until he can feel it gnawing at his heels, threatening to take him down. He runs until he cannot take another step but he knows that if he falls he will never get back up, and so he runs until his knees burn and his ankles feel as if they will snap. He runs until his lungs ache, and he runs until he cannot breath. He runs because he can’t stop…

He runs until…

The world suddenly opens up before him. Michael digs his heels in as he sees the cliff edge racing closer. He slips and falls and hears the crunch of an ankle but panic holds the pain at bay. His legs slip over the edge but Michael digs his fingers into the ground and momentum pulls him no further. He lies where he is, staring up away from the world. Numb.

The drums…

He sits up, his calves hang over the edge of the cliff, he looks like a child sat on a swing. It was right behind him now, the sound so loud that it was no longer audible. It was just a wall of pressure, pushing and pressing at the flesh of his back.

Michael grit his teeth, the future raced towards him, dirty and loveless and hollow. Michael pushed himself forward. “What’s wrong with you…” A voice from the past. “…what’s wrong…” Michael knew what the future held. “…with you…”

Michael fell.

Naughty or Nice

It was Christmas Eve and snow covered every inch of ground in this nameless town. Flakes piled upon flakes and balanced themselves on slender branches like circus performers.

Tonight the town was happy, tonight the town was asleep. Adults dreamed their perverted dreams and children dreamed their dreams of innocence and toys… but not everyone was sleeping, not tonight.

In a big house on the very edge of town there was one little boy who was still awake. His name was Timmy, and he and his stuffed friend Teddy were currently hiding beneath their bed. The mattress above them was still wet from Timmy’s little accident. That little accident was the reason that he wasn’t calling out for his parents right now, they didn’t like his little accidents at all. Timmy was a big boy and big boys didn’t do that sort of thing. Timmy couldn’t help himself though, not when he had seen that face at the window. That face that was not jolly at all. Not one little bit.

Timmy lay as still as he could and listened to the sounds coming from behind the walls of his room. The creaking and cracking of plasterboard and wood. The breathing and the whispers. Right now, Timmy was more frightened then he had ever been, even more so than that time he had glued Susan’s lips shut. When he’d been waiting at school for his parents to pick him up and take him home and punish him. He’d nearly wet himself then too. He’d been braver that time though, much braver.

Timmy looked deep into Teddy’s eyes.

“I wish that you were big enough to look after me.”

Teddy didn’t answer, Teddy was scared too.

There came a dull thump from the hall outside his bedroom door and Timmy jumped. He was here, that face was inside the house. Floorboards creaked, growing louder and louder. Closer and closer. Then, the creaking stopped and a whisper slipped through the gap below his bedroom door.

“Timmy. Timmy. You’ve been a very bad boy.”

Poor Timmy could only watch as his bedroom door slowly swung open, revealing a pair of big, black, dirty boots. It was all that Timmy could see of the figure but he wished that he could see less. Much less. With Teddy clutched to his chest he slid as far back away from the boots as he could.

He heard a deep laugh.

The boots approached Timmy’s wet bed. A red, bearded face, the eyes hidden behind shadows, came into view. Timmy could only stare and Timmy could only watch as a gloved hand reached out towards him.

Timmy felt his pyjamas grow wet again.

“Merry Christmas, Timmy…”

Out of Signal

“Evening Miss. Taxi for Brittle. Yeah? Get in.”

A moment passes as she gets inside.

“Topper street on the other side of town, yeah? Don’t you worry Miss, I know a short cut. Trust me, it will take us half the time.”

The wheels begin to turn.

“It’s a magical night tonight Miss, full moon and everything.” A pause. “Do you like Shakespeare? I don’t, I never have. I hated him in school. I still hate him now.”

Soft light illuminates the back seat.

“Is that one of those new fancy phones?”

No reply.

“I hope you don’t mind me yapping like this, it’s a bit of a habit, it helps pass the time you see. My wife says I don’t drive a taxi, she says I just drive people round the bend.”

He chuckles.

“It isn’t all I do with my life though. I like magic. You know, card tricks, sleight of hand. Illusions and things. I’d show you a trick now but it’s not the safest thing to do while driving is it? I bet there’s a niche market in there somewhere though? Magical taxi drivers. What do you think?”

Silence.

“Do you believe in magic?”

A car horn,a screech of tires.

“I believe in magic words. Nothing silly like abracadabra or izzy wizzy. Nothing like that. No, I mean magical words, words that can change a situation in seconds. Like… like the very first time you hear someone say ‘I love you’. You know what I mean?”

Silence.

“I hate you… that’s another one, a good one. Powerful words. I believe in those words.”

The wind batters at the car.

“You see this road here, it runs at twice the length as the road through town but it takes half the time. I know of no sat-nav that would tell you that. There’s no traffic you see, no lights either. It’s a fine balance between technology that helps and technology that hinders don’t you think? A very fine line. If we’re not careful, we’ll soon forget how to be people.”

She murmurs something.

“Oh,sorry. I didn’t realise you were on the phone. I get carried away talking sometimes. It’s a habit. Sometimes when I’m alone… oh,sorry.”

The road disappears beneath them.

“You done?”

Their eyes meet in a reflection.

“Don’t worry about the price. Half the time equals half the price. You’ll be able to fit an extra couple of drinks down that scrawny neck of yours…”

A glance, a moment of confusion.

“I said you’ll be able to get a couple more drinks in you.”

Silence.

“Here we are, I like this bit. See that tree there? It’s gone now but that’s where I… oh! I didn’t realise you were on the phone again. Sorry.”

The road is eaten up. The tires rumble on old tarmac. The car slows then stops.

“What’s that you say? Nope, there’s no signal up here. None at all.”

He unfastens his belt and leans into the back of the car.

“That’s why I like it.”

The Thirst

The house was as decayed as she was. A ruin.

Peril floated a few inches above the ground. She was covered in scabs that were not her own. In her arms was a man. She held him like a child as his feet tapped and danced across the floor. His dirty teeth gnashed and tore at the air. After a few more moments the man ceased to exist. Peril’s tongue probed the hole she had torn out of his neck, but he was empty. She threw his desiccated husk to the floor. Her throat was now caked with thick, congealing blood. She swallowed, but the thirst was still there…

She wanted something that she hadn’t tasted in a hundred years…

Peril sank down into the ruins of the house. Through the basement… past the foundations and through the sewer. Down, through the worms and the dirt… past the place where her bones lay. Through the layers of time and death and memories until…

Peril opened her eyes…

A garden. The sun was shining brightly and the birds were singing. The bright flowers were alive with the hum of insects. She was sat in a chair that she shouldn’t have been able to fit into. In front of her was a small table, a small tea set was arranged neatly upon it. Across from her sat her cat, Tiddles. An empty tea cup had been placed in front of each of them.

Peril reached out a small, chubby hand and lifted the empty teapot. She poured the imaginary tea, first into Tiddles’ cup and then into her own. “One lump or two?” She asked as she picked up the sugar bowl. Tiddles answered with a slow blink.

“I’ve missed you” She said.

Flip The Dog

Flip was a dog. A very happy dog. And he was a very happy dog because he got to spend all day doing what he loved best…

Flip loved to flip. From the very minute that he woke up to the very second that he fell asleep.

Flip, flip, flippity, flip.

But this flipping wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

Next door to Flip lived a fluffy cat called Fluff. Fluff couldn’t stand it when Flip went flippity-flipping.

Fluff was always saying, “Stop that Flip! I really don’t like it when you flip like that Flip.”

But Flip would ignore Fluff and Fluff without fail would fluff up in frustration.

One day Flip thought to ask. “Why do you get so fluffy Fluff?”

“I fluff, because you flip Flip, and when you flip Flip it flippin’ fluffs me up” Flip flipped and ignored the frustrated and flabbergasted and fluffed up fluffy Fluff.

Fluff furiously flailed in frustration then flopped to the floor. “Stop flipping flipping Flip!”

Flip didn’t falter as he frolicked, flew and flipped. “I flip, because I Flip love to flip and if you don’t flippin’ like it Fluff then you can flippin’ fluff off!”

Secrets

“Mum, are you there?”

Mary held the phone against her ear. Her daughter’s voice plucked at every one of her highly strung nerves.

“Mum?”

Mary took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Mum?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Where did you go?”

“Nowhere. I’ve always been here.”

“So what do you think? Should I do it or not?”

“Sweetheart, you’ve asked me this a million times and just like the other million times, I shall answer the same answer that I’ve already answered a million times! It’s up to you. It’s your life, you’re an adult now. It’s your decision to make, okay? Now, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to go.”

“I love you lots.”

“I love you lots too. Bye-bye.”

Mary gritted her teeth. Her children had left home, why was she still making their decisions for them? She removed the battery from her mobile phone, no-one else was going to steal away her time. No-one at all.

The front door was next, her expensive heels clacked against the equally expensive wooden flooring. She locked the door and barred it, then stepped up onto her tiptoes and looked out through the spyhole. The fish-eye view of the street was empty. It was her own perfect equation – no cars plus no people equals no interruptions.

She was home alone, her husband was out at work, doing whatever it was he did to bring in money. She’d tried more than once to listen to him as he explained what his job entailed, but before he’d even taken his first breath she’d be lost in her own thoughts. For 24 years they had been husband and wife and she thought she was doing pretty well still managing to be in the same room as him. He claimed he still loved her just as much as he did when they had first got together and it appeared to be true. He insisted on spending their evenings together, either alone with him or at one of their ‘mutual’ friends. The routine was always the same in each situation: drink wine, listen to inane chatter, bed, then a drunken fumble and fuck. No matter how much you love someone, there always comes a time when enough is enough.

Mary wasn’t unhappy and she knew it, but she also knew that something was missing. Her happiest memory of recent times had been her daughter leaving for university. Both her husband and daughter had been in floods of tears and neither had understood why she had not been joining in their display of emotion. Her husband had watched her suspiciously as she had just waved it off, a faint smile on her face. One day soon after, he had asked if she was having an affair, she had laughed so hard she made herself sick. He didn’t ask her again.

She turned and there it was, facing her, at the far end of the hall. The warped door that led to the basement, the door that only she had a key for (he’d never even asked what was behind it). It didn’t belong in this expensively decorated hallway, it belonged somewhere else, somewhere dark, wet and dank. She felt a shudder of excitement run through her. She took a step forward and had to place her hand against the wall to steady herself. Her legs had suddenly become weak. Was it excitement or fear? ‘Both’ she thought as she forced her shaking legs to carry her down the hall.

The key was out, ready in her hand and already slipping into the lock before she had realised what it was that she was doing. The door silently swung open, revealing a set of wooden stairs that led down into darkness. Flakes of faded paint, disturbed by her movements, floated down like snowflakes. A warm, damp gust of air rushed up to meet her, making the thin dress she wore flutter gently. Her lips parted and she opened her mouth, breathing in as much air as she could manage. She could smell and taste the stink of it from up here, it made her gag but it felt so good. She wanted to take more air into her than was physically possible. She wanted to breathe in the scent until her lungs burst inside her chest.

With a hand resting upon the door frame she kicked off her shoes. They clattered across the floor and skidded to a stop, one resting on top of the other a few feet away.

A single drop of sweat ran down her face only to be caught by her tongue.

“Ready or not, here I come.”

The stairs were old, the wood beneath her bare feet was splintered and threatened to puncture her soft skin. Mary didn’t notice, her breath was quickening and her body had begun to tingle. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the darkness that waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. She stroked her fingertips against the wall as she descended, she didn’t notice the insects that ran over her naked skin.

At last her bare feet were on the final step. She stepped down. The floor of the basement was submerged in an oily, cold fluid that was deep enough to lose her toes in. In the darkness before her something moved, it was just a change in the air, but she felt it. Her presence was known. Her fingers searched for light and suddenly the darkness vanished. A small room lay before her. A light bulb swung gently from a cord that hung from the ceiling. Shadows danced under the moving light. In the centre of the room was a rotting table, it was the only piece of furniture. The walls were dark, grey and covered in rotting plaster.

Mary waited. Seconds evolved into minutes.

A smile formed on her wet lips when she saw something move in the shadows on the far side of the table. Inch by slow inch, the shape moved towards the light. Out from behind the table it came, an undulating mass of flesh and fat that rose no higher than her waist. The sweaty grey skin that held it together was almost translucent. Mary stepped into the room to meet it, her bare feet slapping against the wet floor. The mass had no eyes yet it turned as if to watch her.

“Hello beautiful.”

Mary held out her hand, palm down and pressed gently into the cold mass. It responded by pushing its boneless form back up against her. She felt its weight against her leg and her dress stuck to its mucus-covered skin. It quivered and rubbed itself rhythmically against her. Mary squeezed her eyes shut and enjoyed the sensation, wondering if it would go any further today. She hoped that it would. She knew it could reach higher, on more than one occasion she had felt the cold, wet skin tenderly press against her lips and chin as if in a kiss. She was disappointed when she felt it slide over her feet and move behind her. She wanted to turn and look but quelled the urge.

Her body shook in anticipation, her dress clung to her skin. She wanted to open herself up and let her insides pour out, to make room for it to live inside of her. To be a mother and a host to the mass. She wanted to spread herself wide and let it clean her of all that was unneeded, throw away all it didn’t want. She wanted to give up who she was and all that she had built. To forget everything. No more responsibilities, no more husband, children or cares. No more gossip or work. Only endless bliss.

She felt it before seeing it. It was against her other leg now, circling her. Slowly the creature worked its way around until it was back in front of her. She watched it and it in turn watched her. Mary’s breasts rose and fell with each shuddering breath she took. Sweat ran down her face. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were flushed. The beast heaved as if sighing and Mary smiled. She knew that if it could it would be smiling back.