Towards the end of the summer holidays we would catch sight of Barry walking aimlessly around the town. Down the streets and through the fields he would plod along and not take notice of anyone. His only concern it seemed was to find a river or large pool of water. This was not a worrying or bizarre act – the days were long and hot as we cycled and played out in the sun. We would zip past the fat boy on our bikes. Trying to edge ourselves as close as possible from striking him. Only Nick would dare get the closest. He would spit with long drawn out phlegm gurgled especially for him. “Watch out fat boy” or “Barrel belly’s gonna get ya” he would chuckle as his bicycle handlebars grazed the boys arms.
I had caught sight of Barry along the nettled bank of a stream while carrying wood for a fort. He was wallowing in the water. Letting it go up to his chin. There was a sloshing noise. Like a fish struggling on a reel. Yet there was no movement in the water. Only Barry. His eyes drifting off to some far away place in his mind. I felt it then. A kid does not know the cruelty that gathers on the edge of isolation. It warps the frayed image of a person. But I felt it then, or some shade of it. Bubbles rose from the water near his covered mouth. Then with a shiver he began to wade himself out the water.
It was only four days later when I saw Barry again. His face was hollow. He did not carry his glowing yellow rucksack filled with snacks. He was making his way to the river again. The fat and marrow of his arms and legs had melted off. Yet even more bizarre was the sudden swelling of his belly. Perhaps it was the sudden weight loss on the rest of his body that made the stomach appear so much jovially rounder. “Pot belly pig” Nick snorted and pushed Barry. He did not register it and carried on down the small slope to the water.
‘Don’t walk away fat boy.’ Nick said, slowing down his bike and parking it on the grass. He followed in pursuit of Barry.
‘Just leave him. He wants to go into the water.’ I said, standing at the top of the slope. ‘Just leave him to go into the water.’
‘I’ll let him in the water…’ Nick was especially venomous that day for no reason. He began to prod the boy from behind. ‘Let. Me. Help you. In. The.Water.’
And with that final word he kicked Barry in the butt sending him flying into the shallow muck. I thought that would be the end of it but Nick wanted more. Barry’s soaked body was streaked in brown and greens. He waded into the water with Nick heavy in pursuit.
‘The water. I need water.’ Barry said in a dull tone.
‘Piggy needs to clean himself?’ Nick grabbed the shirt of Barry awkwardly and without knowing his strength he ripped the front buttons off. Barry’s shirt popped open and belly protruded. Long and swirling shadows marked something under the skin pulsing. Barry held onto Nick as he slipped onto his knees. Kneeling infront of Barry I heard him squeal in disgust at the sight and scream for Barry to get off. The boy pulled Nick closer. Pressing his face against the protruding belly.
Barry’s eyes rolled white. His head rolled from side to side unconscious but his body still held onto Nick. And with mouth wide open and tongue laid flat we all saw something crawl from his throat. What we thought was just the steamy rising of milk and bile was infact much harder. It was smooth and buckwheat brown. What I imagine now to be the head slithered out full and rapid. Wriggling out as thick as a cucumber at a state fair, it latched onto Nick. Nick struggled with the ropes of its body unfurling out of Barry’s belly. He could not shake the fat boys grip from him. He could not stop the worm slipping around his neck and under his shirt. Spewing a great white mulch of eggs onto his hair and neck.
It did not fully leave Barry’s body. It was still controlling the boy. Manipulating him to pull himself and Nick further into the water. I watched on. Transfixed and terrified as the two boys and the worm sank under the water. I waited there on the rivers side. Fist clenched to strike anything that arose. Every thought screamed for me to run yet I could not. I stood on. Watching the river continue to flow downstream.
I never saw the two boys again.
‘Ockroot. This is the place. This is the place you can’t seem to shut up about.’ Sadie said as she slammed the boot to the red Volkswagen beetle shut. She slung the green barrel bag over her shoulder and tapped on the back window. The sun beamed down over the parking lot and reflected off the large tortoise rimmed spectacles Sadie had left on by choice while she drove. She claimed it was always by choice that she wore them. Just as it was always a choice whether she wanted to breath or not. The grey hood to her jumper could not hide the long ashy blonde waves of hair from swaying in the wind. A new place with the same assholes. She was sure all these middle of nowhere towns were the same. The locals sat at their local diner eating the local livestock fucking their neighbours. They would give a cold stare at the sight of her silver septum piercing. Scowl at the fraying denim cut-off jeans and lightning bolt yellow t-shirt. Linger on the fleshy pale legs and bristled armpits she had forgotten to shave while on the road trip to this town of turds. Only a town her father would move to must welcome strangers with such questionable character.
Dolby was twisting the volume higher to the beginning drum beat of “A View To A Kill” by Duran Duran.
Meeting you with a view to a kill. Face to face in secret places feel the chill.
‘This place is home to the best root beer floats. That’s what I’ve been told. What’s not to love when it involves sugar.’ Dolby felt her teeth itch, deep in the root, when she began to crave the taste of something sweet. The sticky sugar glaze remnants smeared over her fingers from chewing the dough. The lashing of liquorice wrapping around her tongue. A great bubbling of root beer encircling the floating vanilla scoop of icecream. Dolby would contemplate how she would commit murder to get her fix. Yet sitting there in the seat, feeling her legs peel from the leather, she couldn’t stop herself from gazing at Sadie. Soaking in the thick stretch of muscle running over her thighs downwards to the delicate opening at the back of her knees. Dolby chastised herself yet continued to look as if she was waiting for something. Was it the thrill of secretly watching her best friend? That inner dare to linger as long as possible. To capture every detail. Every fray of the cut off jeans tickling the upper thigh. Each long streak of sweat trickling down open skin. “You’re a pervert. A rotten pervert…” Some part of her repeated again and again. “Just wait though… Wait until our eyes meet.”
‘Hurry up Dolby. We have to check into the hotel before we can go meet my dad at the café.’
Dolby adjusted the dungaree straps and stuffed the remainder of her clothes into a backpack. Locking the car they strode across the quiet parking lot. As the sunlight crawled down the front of the building Dolby was caught by the words of her Architecture lecturer.
“Architecture is inhabited sculptures.” She was sure those words had been spoken a countless times or presented in the opening slide of a first-years presentation – yet she found them claw into her mind. Quotes were often spouted by the dull but Nesbo had put such passion into those four words Dolby couldn’t help being moved. Perhaps it was more the idea of “inhabited sculptures” that resonated inside her. These towering obelisks pregnant with children. Like an old god; a building could live on through the tide of generations scurrying throughout it.
A plaque near the hotel entrance stated that it was based, in honour, of the original hotel situated in England. Dolby squinted at the sign and wondered at which point the owners had given up trying to keep it to the same design. The front of the building retained the chunky English charm of red brick outlined with a white archway and window frames. Along the windowsills lay clusters of white blossomed flowers and hanging ivy. Yet this charm at the front gave way to a bloated renovation enveloping it. Like a bloated corpse wearing a dolls mask the front could not hide the modern renovations made.
The white flowers were inside too. Bundled over tables and the hotel desk. Dolby followed behind Sadie, trying her best not to gaze down for too long. Sadie rang the bell and a large lady appeared from behind the curtain. Dolby could feel the wind rush forth from several fans the lady was using to cool herself. To say she was large would be to allude she was fat. But large was all Doby could think of to describe the muscular woman. A middle-aged lady, tanned with her mustard blonde hair pulled back. The black and white vest strained to contain her physique; stretching to contain the hard ridges of her shoulders and chest.
‘Oh my, look at you two darlings. Bone-a-fide models. My name’s Maria and welcome to Ockroot.’ There was an accent Dolby couldn’t quite catch. Eastern European with a twang of americana possibly. The ladies positivity to welcome them was refreshing. Dolby was almost worried the lady would grab hold both of them for a hug and squeeze the life from them.
‘We booked a room here. Under Sadie Mapel.’ Sadie replied. Maria tapped a few keys onto the computer keyboard beside her.
‘Ofcourse, there you are. Well please take these…’ She turned around, plucked two keys from the wall behind her, and handed them over.
‘Just take the stairs up to the next floor and you should find your room on the right. Breakfast is every morning at eight until ten. I’ve spoken with the chef and we now include crushed avocados on toast.’
‘That sounds delicious’ Sadie seemed as excited as Maria. The thought of eating something green smeared over toast sounded diabolical to Dolby. She had been hoping to stuff her face full on complimentary pancakes and bacon. Even snagging a croissant to eat later in the day.
‘Do you have any questions?’ Maria asked the girls.
‘Weren’t you wondering about those floaters Dolby?’ Sadie asked. Dolby took a moment to process what Sadie meant with the term “floaters” before her eyes lit up.
‘Yes! Root beer floats. I read this place is famous for them – Do you know where I can try the best?’
‘The syrup and icecream thing? I can’t say I’ve ever tried it. I stay away from most sugars if I can; whether they are frozen, liquid, or have a sparkler stuck in them. You could try the Smoked Stack for that sort of thing. It’s in the center of town.’
‘I’ll get my dad to meet us there.’ Sadie said.
‘Let’s go drop our things off then.’ Dolby said before thanking Maria and picking up her bag. Moving through the lobby Dolby noticed some other guests in the hotel. Several men were sat in their business suits around a table with half-filled sparkling waters. She could feel one or two of the old men trying to catch hers and Sadies gaze. Coming down from the stairway Dolby saw an old lady being helped down the stairs by her grandson. Taking her time to step down, she held onto the young man by his arm. He waited dotingly for her to move. There was something about the old lady that caught Dolby’s gaze. She was not sure whether it was the funeral attire or the glossy shine to her pale right eye. She paused over each step, waiting a beat or two before stepping down.
After passing through the first floor corridor they found their room at the end. Dolby noticed the “do not disturb” sign hanging from the door opposite theirs. Beside the door were several pieces of paper. As Sadie fumbled with the key Dolby moved to the door opposite. Kneeling down she saw that the pieces of white paper were in fact wrinkled petals. It seemed bizarre at first to find them separated from the flower. She recalled the time she walked into her garden two months ago and discovering the remnants of a bird being killed. A streak of blood and burst of feathers shaking in the low breeze near the decking. Only a trace of what could have been lingered, yet instead of the passing sadness of a dead bird these petals promised romance.
‘Dolby, what are you doing?’ Sadie asked as she saw noticed the girl kneeling down beside the door with her ear to the wood.
‘I’m trying to listen…to see if they are still at it.’ Dolby replied, curious to hear what sordid acts the couple on the other side of the door were committing.
‘Eugh.’ Sadie moaned and clicked open their rooms door with enough calculated strength to have the door swing into the wall with a loud bang. Dolby fell back and recovered herself in fear of their neighbours coming to check what the noise was.
‘C’mon perv we have to drop our stuff off and meet my dad.’
A misplaced step. Twisting to the shrill echo of her voice on the wind I found myself slipping down. Down into the crevasse. Hands frantically pressing against the walls to no avail. Falling deeper until the white began to bleed into a deep blue. Slowing. The ice closed in tighter, scratching up my legs, tightening like a bottleneck. I found myself stuck. Ruffling the snow from my head I felt a warmth around the back of my skull. Pulling my hands away I found blood smeared along my fingers.
Pleading to the gods I made promises I knew I would break. Only the distant echo of ice cracking replied. I held my breath. Fearful my body heat would soon begin to melt the surrounding ice. My eyes were losing focus, softly blurring my vision of the ice into the form of clear skies…
No clouds had gathered on that last weekend I spent at home. It was a welcoming change that we took advantage of. Alice had called our daughter down into the garden. I had stepped over to peek at my wife from the kitchen window overlooking the back garden. Mindful not to linger as the bubbling risotto would need several more ladles of chicken stock. She was dressed in a pair of dungarees and an old top I had tried to throw out. She had worked so hard on this square of land we called a garden.
‘Come quick and see the bumblebees prepare for dinner.’ Alice said, waving over Madeline. Madeline lingered at the edge of the patio, squatted low with her back to us.
‘Mum, this bee is asleep.’ She whined.
I had called out for her not to touch the bee until her mum was there.
Alice hurried over and knelt down.
‘No, no he’s not sleeping. He is tired from the heat. Go ask your dad for some sugar water.’
I was already mixing the solution together before Madeline jumped into view. She tugged at my hand and pulled me over to the decking. I watched on as the struggling bee twisted its legs and paused every so often to make its way to the spoon. At that time I wasn’t sure if it was right for us to intervene. Yet seeing my family caring over the smallest of creatures gave me comfort in knowing this place was worth the struggle.
The gash on my nose left an imprint on the ice wall. The ridge of my nose did not feel broken but it had began to swell and grow tender to the touch. I must be imagining her voice out there. She was at home. I pressed my head back down. How soon will they search for me once the radiocheck isn’t answered? It was night now and the winds were growing sharp overhead. How long had I been fading in and out of consciousness? A dull ache was setting into my bones. I would have to move soon. There was a small ridge jutting out just a few feet above. Stretching out I thought of Madeline…
I wanted to be there when Alice would tell her how we first moved into that house. How we had sunk every penny we had into it. We needed a place before the Madeline arrived. That was our only incentive. We needed a place for our girl to grow up feeling secure when she knew her father would not be back from his trip for several months. Just a week after the purchase I found Alice laying on the sofa with a blanket wrapped around her. I had asked what was wrong and she had replied that this was not the home she had envisioned. The garden was a collection of weeds and rocks. Upstairs our rooms were bare and pipes rattled. I paused for a moment before asking her what she had imagined the first item her house would have.
‘A teal chest of drawers laced in vines… I was ten at the time I made the list.’ She laughed. I nodded and kissed her lips. That next day I drove around the village charity shops. Hunting through the trinkets and hand-me-downs until I came across a small oak chest; scarred with some heavy dents and chipped ridges. I sanded It down and cut a series of vine patterns onto paper for the stencil I would paint over. Alice returned later that night, flicking her shoes off on the hallway floor. She entered the dining room to see the painted furniture drying in the setting sun.
‘What is this?’ She asked.
‘This is my promise to you that this place of ours can be the home you dreamt of. We just need to work toward it.’I heard a faint sound of snow crashing overhead. I did not mind. It was much warmer here in the memory.
We used to make our way to the river when we were young. Grabbing mother’s keys while she slow-cooked the lamb stew. Running through the cracks of the suburbs we would hold our conversation until we arrived at our destination. Strumming our fingers over the bricks and railings. Other kids used to be so harsh, throwing berries as we would run past their houses. All those houses were brought down in the nineties. Snapping our swords from the trees we swiped and chopped our way to the river. He would scream “Excalibur!” and raise his sword in triumph, slashing the nettles in delight. He would scream so much I had to grab him. Hold him close to me tighter and tighter. Squeezing until all the noise bubbled away. I was his medicine for the blues. We carried on walking beside the river, kicking pebbles from the side. Sometimes he would talk about how the other kids called him names when I wasn’t around. I pushed my sword as deep as it would go into the murky mud in the river, churning up my face with thoughts on those kids. I would tell him to do the same. He gave a gap toothed smile and his eyes glinted. It was the glint of ice-cream sundaes and that first peel of the Christmas wrapping around his presents.
We had found a possible new base. A small cave beside a stream. We had spent several hours following the rocks and unknown signs. Holding our shoes up as we let the water lap at our ankles. Stevie wanted to catch a crayfish with a loose netting he had stolen from his neighbours shed and a sharpened stick. Excalibur. We stood on either side of the entrance, ears cupped to make us hear better. A tapping came from the darkness, perhaps water dripping over the ground. Then a scraping and clicking sound appeared.
‘It’s a crayfish.’ Stevie said, raising his spear. He threw the net over to me. I clutched it eagerly.
‘What if it’s something bigger?’ I had asked, knowing that we would just run away. Sometimes I worried that Stevie could not understand the dangers we were always scorned about at school. I felt a fear he would be too brave.
We twisted to the entrance and was blinded by a growing light coming towards us. Stevie dropped the spear infront of me. Frozen. I raised my hand to block out the light.
Children, do not be alarmed. A voice called out strangely clear. Yet I could not hear it through my ears. It spoke over the world. The whistling of branches in the wind, the water passing down the stream, they all drifted away. It reminded me of the headphones I would use at night. I would press the padding over my ears and all sound would disappear until I pressed play.
I shouted to Stevie but he could not hear me. I could not hear my own voice.
Stay still darlings, I will not harm you.
Light fading, I caught the shape of the thing the voice belonged to. A long one-armed creature loosely made of what seemed to be fish bones and jelly-like flesh. Translucent skin stretched smooth over the angular face. Long mouth with small black pebble eyes. It stretched out from the cave. It’s long jutting nose aiming towards Stevie.
I couldn’t move my body. Other kids would have ran away. Wailing in terror that the creatures they saw on late night television were real. I was just numb to it all. Distant to my own body. The creature was almost atop Stevie now.
‘Wh-what are you?’ I asked, barely loud enough for myself to hear.
It turned slowly to face me, shark-like nose almost stroking Stevie’s frozen cheek. It’s face seemed circular with lips so thin like a line cut through clay. Yet behind those lips, like a kid ashamed to show their braces when speaking, it hid its teeth.
God. It replied. Placing the white webbed fingers around Stevie’s skull; it spoke to him and him alone.
A woman struggles to hide the truth from a creature she believes to be her lover; a man journeys to Southern Italy in search of a witch; a child makes a pact with a voice he hears at the bottom of his garden.
From adult fairy-tales to suburban horror; dark intentions seep through this collection of tales from the imagination of Harley Holland.
Available now on Amazon and Kindle.
Licking the cigarette paper before twirling it tight around the weed and tobacco, Jamie contemplated multiple decisions. Summers unbearable length was coming to a stark ending and he still had no idea where Sasha had disappeared. Spread out on the deck chair in the shabby grass of his back garden, charcoal hood lifted up over his head. Sparks and the glow of embers reflected in his eyes, sucking in, he let his mind wander. Tapping it, the ash floated down onto the ground.
‘I’ve made so many mistakes recently Sasha,’ Jamie spoke into the darkness. Taking another drag, he packed it into his lungs. Hanging over the void of no reply. The tree’s rustled and melted together between half-closed eyes. Releasing, he let the smoke crawl out of his mouth.
Feeling light but
Shackled to the chair. Expanding with each breath, rising up. Floating down. ‘No-one knows a single thing. I should have come back that night you rang.’ Jamie felt his most comfortable away from people; he couldn’t help but live a lie in front of them. Closing himself off, eyelids tightly shut.
Three quarters through, he rolled the roach back and forth. A weight pressed onto his shoulders. Tar smeared the back of his throat. Teeth clenched tight. ‘You found me.’ He said, smiling. A single tear escaping as the wind ruffled through his fringe. Fingers covered his eyes. Jamie laughed without a sound, his body bobbing up and down. Slowing, the laughter scratched into a deeper melody.
‘I’m getting your fingers all wet hun.’ The heat pinched his lips. Her image trickled over the walls.
There is a man at the bottom of my garden where the trees grow low and the ground seems upturned. He is far below, buried deep, he tells me. I know he’s a man and what he says is true as I listen to him speak. I came across his humming one day while scratching lines into the mud to make small rivers for my toy figures to sink into. Mother does not let me into the house when her friend comes over. Often I find myself waiting for hours in the cold. It was a day like that did I hear the humming, pleasant at first, coming from the bottom of the garden. Crawling under the scratching twigs I saw where the melody was coming from. It felt like I had heard it in a dream. Sitting down I listened to it until I heard the back door latch unlock and my mother call out. I did this everytime I found myself out in the garden. Happy to listen to the singing come from the dirt. Sometimes the humming slowed and I found that if I stomped my feet on the ground it would pick up again. Maybe he was delighted he had company. A week later I found a small red root risen from the dirt. Flicking it out of curiosity I heard a whisper. I leaned in closer and to my surprise the root had a voice. It was like mine when I would not speak for a day. Croaky and garbled like a stone being smoothed on the road. “Hello?” I said, “Who is this?”
“I am the one who hums and sings.” the root replied.
“You are a funny thing. A root that sings.” I replied.
“I am not a root. I am a man. The root is just a part of me now. I made it so we could talk.” For a moment I wondered just what I could ask a man who lived underground. The root curled out slowly in the breeze.
“Are you still there?” He called out, still a whisper against the rustling leaves over my head. Boom. Boom. Boom. A thumping against the back doors window pane startled me. Three times she knocked against the glass – it was time for dinner.
“I have to go. I’m sorry.” Rubbing the dirt from knees I heard him call out once more.
“What is your name child?” I hesitated. There was power in a name. Mum had said it to her friend once, I had heard it without her knowing. Creeping down onto the stairway to listen to the music my mother was playing. I had never heard her scared before. But there was no strength in or soul being sapped from learning a name. But it felt too personal, like knowing someone’s phone number – they could call you when they wanted.