Growth 2

The police found Barry further down the river. His body snagged on a fallen tree cutting across the river. It took two more days before they found Nick. He had somehow made his way to a nearby pig farm. Bent over the edge of a water well. They could not understand what drove him to drag his body half a mile out towards the structure when he could easily have found help on the roads. What was weirder was that his jaw had been dislocated, as if some larger object had jutted it open, or writhed free. Those were all the whispering and rumours I heard from behind closed doors.

No-one listened when I told them of the worm. It was just some tragic act of playfulness. Two boys playing in the river. One boy trying to make sense of the trauma of witnessing it. Neighbors shook their head and spoke of Nicks cheerful smile and charm. He was now one of Gods angels. Mr Lance, who owned a glasshouse Nick would smash with rocks every time he chose to walk that way from home, referred to the boy as spirited. I felt as if I was the only one who wondered about Barry. Thinking back to that moment I saw him wading into the murky waters. Could I have saved him or was he already infected?

For two weeks I had been forbidden from leaving the house and garden. My father had listened to my account of the events and sat silent as Nicks family and officers called me a liar. It was only when I was getting ready to sleep that he entered my room. He sat on the side of the bed and stared at me. I couldn’t bring myself from meeting his eyes.

‘Those things you said. I don’t know if I can believe them. But I do know that Nick was a bully and you helped him do terrible things to that drowned kid. I don’t think you ever hurt him yourself but you laughed at his pain. You ever do something like that again…I’ll gut punch you myself. You hear that?’

I nodded and continued to stare at the window. He had only shouted at me a few times. He took a deep breath and patted my leg. I wanted to tell him that I felt ill when I look back at what happened. That there was no way I would let myself be friends with a bully again. That I was scared of what took control of Barry and killed Nick. That I loved him and trusted him. That I wanted to hug him. I said nothing as he left the room in silence.

On the first day of freedom I opened the shed to pull my bike out. Taking out the bicycle with care not to disturb the cobwebs gathering at the top. Each nudge against gardening equipment or slight breeze raised the hairs on my neck as if a spider had finally sprang down. A creeping thought worried me; If a worm was large enough to strangle Nick then what if there was a spider much larger?

Gliding over park fields and pavements I was finally free to explore the town again. I pedaled hard up the slope towards the hedgerows and farmlands. A slight breeze cooled the exposed skin of my arms and neck from the sizzling afternoon sun. Twisting the handlebars sharply I stopped and skidded the back tire to a slight screech. The rubber was hot on my poking fingers. I had stopped at Kim’s dads shop for a drink.

No matter how hard I stared at the coins in my hand they would not change shape and colour. The effort I took in sneaking around my home in search of money had not paid off. In the corners of dads drawers I found a fifty pence coin smothered in tacks and screws. Using my mums tweezers I picked out a few five and two pence coins. I had eighty pence in total. Enough for the can of dandelion and Burdock with a strawberry lace thrown in. It tasted like cough syrup but it was fizzy and cold.

‘Alittle light on the pocket money this month? You’re the only kid I know to buy this stuff.’ Kims Dad said while typing the prices into the cashier.

‘Just a little. You get used to the taste after a while.’ I replied, placing the coins onto the desk one at a time so I could count them out.

‘Wife said the same thing to me about Meatloaf. I still can’t touch the stuff. Feed it to my dog when she’s not looking.’ He gave a wink and smile. ‘Wait there…this is on the house.’ He passed over a packet of Galactic Invader crisps.

‘For free?’

‘Just this once. You are the only customer I have had in two days.’

‘Where is everyone?’

‘There has been some kind of festival down near Dunne River. Only had five or so people at first. Then just three days ago I saw fifteen people walking down the hill. All of them walking down towards the water.’

I cut through the back of the school field on my way to Dunne River. Dipping through the car park hoping not to get caught by the janitor or odd teacher. Not much occurred in this town so I couldn’t understand why no-one had told me about the event. Not so much as a flier partially flapping from the community cork board near the fish and chip shop and bakery. My classmates never spoke of it either. They tried not to speak to me as they walked slowly past my prison for those two weeks. I believed their parents had threatened to scold them if they hung out with me.

I caught site of a few people walking in the same direction. I recognised a few of the faces as I passed. Two worked in the butchers and another was a paperboy. Squeezing the brakes gently my bike slowed down to a crawl along the curb. The group walked quietly with one another. Head hung low as if they were only watching where there feet stood. The paperboy dragged his left foot on it’s side. Just along the inside of his jeans I saw a dark stain from the knee down.

‘What happened to your leg?’ I asked while dodging a drain.

‘It was a bike. I couldn’t ride it.’ He replied while continuing to stare at the ground. I could see his eyes following me though. The blue dots of his eyes rolling around trying to stay fixed on me.

‘You ride that bike every day. Even more than me!’

‘Better to walk. Easier to manage. Are you coming to the water?’

‘There is nothing else going on. I heard it was a festival. Will there be cool things to do?’

The paperboy smiled for a split second.

‘A festival indeed. A celebration. Be sure to hold our hands when it begins.’

I rode on ahead. Excited by the prospect of carnival games and food. I did not have enough money to join in on any of those things but I was hopeful some enjoyment could be had for free. The possibilities of free popcorn and sizzling donuts that dripped the moment you bit into them. The sugar coating your hands and mouth. The only other festival or event I had been to was the annual fair. The swirling ducks floating in a ring waiting to be plucked. I had chosen the right duck that day. A bright gold star lay under it. Then the man who works there said spoke those magical words “You can pick any toy you want.”

Just beside the public pathway near the bridge of Dunne River I caught sight of two more people. Head hung low and moving slowly. Their movements reminded me of Western films. How a cowboy would walk through the dessert. Sweating and sluggish from the high sun. Desperate for that oasis or some canteen of water. I didn’t want to leave my bike but the path on the river was too narrow. Trapped between the water and tall thickets laced with spikes and nettles. I hid the bike behind the hedge opposite the bridge. Snapping some low hanging twigs and branches I placed them over the frame of the bike.

I kept my pace to a snails crawl. Careful not to overtake or catch up with the sluggish people on their way to the festival. One by one they followed the grass clumped pathway. I stopped for a moment as something caught my eye. Atop a fence post that had succumb to the twisting vines and rot was a pool of hardening blood. I stepped closer to inspect this scabbing to see it was infact a hundred ladybirds. A writhing mass of red spotted black climbing over one another endlessly. On top of the post it resembled a dwindling red flame. The constant struggle felt captivating to watch. Taking a small twig I stripped the leaves from it and hovered the point as close to the swarm. Not trying to kill or disrupt. I wanted to see them, in all their collective beauty, react to me. The speckled whites of their heads pointed towards it gradually. Avoiding it at all cost until one finally latched on. A few more climbed over their comrade and made their way up the twig. And just then a small wave clung to it. I dropped it at the flash of legs crawling on the webbing between two of my fingers. A clump fell to the ground and instead of splashing out they scattered in all directions.

‘Looks like you’ve found a ladybird aggregation.’ A man said from behind me. He was a thin short man with rounded glasses. His ginger mustache and goatee curled outwards slightly reminding me of Mr Tumnus from the Narnia books. ‘This is quite bizarre…’

‘Why is it strange?’ I asked.

‘Well, They shouldn’t be doing something like this for atleast another two months. Scientists believe the behavior came about as a way for a solitary species to reproduce and to cope with a limited winter food supply. After fattening themselves up, and getting ready for bed, these little critters are getting together to take care of some final business — namely…mating.’ The man leaned so close to the post I was almost certain, and afraid, he was going to sweep acouple into his mouth like a lizard.

‘Are insects a hobby of yours?’ I asked.

‘A hobby no – just a general interest. I have a few friends who are entomologists so I’ve picked up their love for it. Also helps at the odd pub quiz.’ He smiled. I smiled awkwardly – there were not many adults – especially strangers – that I would openly talk to about things such as hobbies and pubs. Just nod and tell them I am doing fine at school.

I nodded as best I could.

‘I’m Johann by the way. I was distracted by that bugs to mention it.’

‘My name is Ray.’

‘Short for Raymond?’

‘No – just Ray. Raymond is my grandad.’

‘Named after a great man I imagine. So what did you think about this ladybird gathering?’ He seemed genuinely interested in what I thought. Perhaps he was a teacher – he dressed like the old scholars I would see show up in Sunday TV shows my dad would watch for hours. How could someone watch a television show about digging I couldn’t understand. But it scared me to think that when I grew old I too would enjoy something so boring. Johann was wearing some slightly faded beige cord trousers and a rolled up navy shirt.

I took a long look at the cluster of mating ladybirds. Speckled black and red bodies locked together under the surface level of black legs and hard shells parting open. An odd amount tried to find their way inside the hardening ball, searching for that slight opening they can peel back and squeeze themselves in. I didn’t think there was any right answer to what I saw in the ladybirds.

‘They seem to be working together. When I reached out towards them a small amount came together and…and it reached back.’

‘hmm…. So there is some sort of collective goal for all this chaos? You have quite the observation skills Ray.’

‘Are you a scientist or teacher?’ I asked. The only people that told us our answers were correct was a teacher.

‘Not a scientist but a professor of anthropology.’

‘What’s Anthropology?’

He took a second to answer and smiled.

‘How you observed those ladybirds and tried to think of why they were doing it. I do the same but with humans.’

A loud splash and murmur of joy from round the bend interrupted us. We made our way around the meander to find the festival had already started. Along the large curve, where the current seemed its slowest, people were dotted around the edge. Clothes strewn across the tiny rocks and grass edge. Someone had set up a small table with a set of speakers playing music and cakes. It resembled the winding down of a car boot sale.

‘What is this?’ Johann asked.

‘They said it was a festival. But it doesn’t look like much.

‘I’m sure it could be interesting.’

We walked towards the festival. There were fifteen or so people from the village. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sight of them undressing. Unbuttoning blouses and sliding down trousers, they did it in unison. Popping their tops onto low hanging branches or folded onto the ground. A strange group of bodies. Young and old, fat and firm. As I lingered by the table I tried to stop myself from glancing too long at Kathleen Mcglenne and her friend. I had seen her buying groceries several times or waiting at the school gate. What was once hidden behind jeans and a vest was now open to view. Her large butt could barely fit in the black panties shrinking as she bent over to peel the shorts bundled around her legs. As she turned to hang her jeans I saw her large breasts and slight sag on her stomach. There were dark markings around her waist.

‘What are you doing here young one?’ A man asked in a low voice. He must have walked from out of the woods behind the table.

‘I heard it was a festival.’ I replied realising me and Johann were the only two people still dressed. I saw a kid from my year floating in the shallow end. Even though he was far out on the edge I felt as if his eyes were locked on me.

The man was gruff and dirty. The dirt tracked up his feet and sprinkled his ankles. He was a tall man, with a large body. Wide and stocky. The pouch of his white briefs poked out slightly from under his hairy gut.

‘Festival it is. Take a look at all these folks. Enjoying themselves. You want to be a part of this too? Enjoy the cakes Mrs Brookes made.’ Brookes? That was Barrys surname. Was his mother here? Another person stood beside the table. An ugly woman poured herself a large glass of water uncomfortably close to my side.

‘You want the cake right? You came to have some fun. We even have prizes for anyone new who joins.’ The tall man continued.

‘What kind of prizes?’ The paperboy and the butcher had arrived now. They waddled over and accepted the glasses of water the ugly lady was pouring.

‘He’s here for the festival.’ The paperboy smiled to the tall man.

‘This one?’ The lady replied. ‘Only one way to join.’

‘He’s no the talking type. Shy boy I think.’ The tall man said.

‘I’m not sure. I’ll think about it thanks.’ I said, stepping back from the table I tried to search for Johann. He was down near the waters edge. His back to me. Three men were approaching him from behind.

I twisted back to see the tall man had came around the table. I was close enough to see the sweat sparkle off the ringlets of his chest hair.

‘Now boy. We have a game to play.’

They all spoke over me. Consumed in their own action to hear my protests. A hand grabbed my wrists but I shook it away. Before I could dart from the gap between butcher and woman I felt a force hold me in place. Like snapping turtles their fingers pinched my skin. In one swoop the tall man took control of my arms. I felt it then, much like during woodwork class where I would twist the vice on a soft block of wood, my skin and bone beginning to crush. He hurled my arms into the air. Don’t touch me. A cloth flew up over my face blinding me. The cool rush of air on my bare stomach made me choke back at the realisation it was own top being taken off. Snapping fingers on my skin. I tried to fling myself away. Digging my feet into the ground. I pushed my legs forward towards the tall man. Putting all my weight into that one kick. My feet struck some part of him and I felt myself fall to the ground.

‘Johann!’ I shouted. I was free for that moment. Pulling my t-shirt down I saw the table and cakes knocked over. The tall man was stepping back towards me. Twisting onto my stomach I turned to crawl. The group grabbed me once more. Pressing my face into the dirt. Hoisting me up. I dangled in the air up and down. My legs and arms locked into place. They carried me over. Continuing to talk amongst themselves in unison.

‘Johann…’ I tried to shout before the startle of dropping close to the rocks cut me off. Searching back and forth for him. He was the only one I knew wasn’t a part of this. They were taking me to the waters edge.

Johann was already walking to the waters edge. Letting the silt and dirt sliver between his toes. The ladies were leading him in.

‘Don’t let them throw me in. Stop it.’ I called out.

They carried me to the highest point. A large mound peeking over the edge. The willow tree that had once loomed over at an angle had been cut down. Only its stump and thick tangled roots remained half-risen pridefully out of the grass.

The men and woman no longer smiled at this initiation. I did not know if it was my constant struggling or the task itself. But seeing them now, smiles wiped away and eyes dull, I felt as if they were sending me to my death. With arms and ankles held they began to sway my body. At each rise closest to the water I glanced in. A ring of bodies. Floating pinks and browns. Tits bobbing up and down, nipples cutting the waters surface. Heads lolling back and forth. Black dots on bright white eyes. They were turning. Much like Barry had with Nick. Before the giant worm that used his meat as a puppet decided to flee.

Johann bobbed over to the circle. The ladies hands pushing him forward. The ring opened and closed around him. I would be in there too.

‘He’s not enjoying that. You should let him down. Ray are you ok?’ Johann called towards me.

‘Get out of the water!’ I screamed, my brain shook at the force building up with each swing.

Then I felt it.

Freedom. Unrestrained yet flying. I tried to pull my arms and legs close but the water caught me too quick. All consuming, I felt the water reach deep into my nose and open mouth. Clapping my ears to all sound. I burst out to breath. The water, sparkling emerald in the sunlight, rose over my vision every second. Johann grabbed me.

‘Are you ok?’

‘Get out. We gotta get out.’ I sputtered knowing it was already too late. One by one each their heads fell back. I pointed to the man infront. His matted wet beard foaming white.

‘My god!’ Johann said trying to swim forward to help the man. I held him back as my head fell under once more. Grabbing his shoulders I rose up.

‘He’s infected. They’re all infected.’

The foam spewing out from his beard bubbled together on the surface of the water. Hard and spreading. Tiny white worms hatching out their human egg sack. I darted to the others. All floating upright, hands fused together, the worms spewed out their nose and mouth, covering the face like the foam that gathers on a pot of boiling spaghetti. The ring had hardened around us. A shrinking circle of worms.

I kicked my legs hard trying to stay afloat. If I kept my head above the water they could not crawl into my mouth or ears. The floating mass was getting closer.

Suddenly I was pulled under. Something gripped my ankle. Had the brown worm that lived in Barry returned?

The dirt and brown water stung my open eyes as I reached under to free myself I could see the floating shadow of the worms on the surface. I would need to swim further down. I swung my hands down to my feet. Grasping at the worms gummy body. I felt bones and fingers instead. It was Johann. He pointed, with bulging eyes and cheeks, and swam towards the riverbed. I followed in pursuit. Kicking and swimming as fast as I could. My chest burning out through my veins. Eyes clenched I kicked harder. The worms wriggled over me. Slapping against my arms and legs. Swim faster. Like a rocket. That fire in my veins clawed upwards to my head. Throbbing pain that would burst my brain wide open. Reaching out once more. My hand slid through some metal grate. Snapping the finger back. I clenched my teeth and burst upwards.

The surface was further than I thought. I cupped the water with each swing downwards. I was a bottle rocket. That singular thought carried me. I was a bottle rocket. A bottle rocket. Open your eyes. Bottle rocket. Open your mouth and let it in. A rocket.

The air hit me. I opened my mouth to embrace it. Lungs filling out smooth like a crumpled plastic bottle being blown into. I flapped my arms harder. Still unsure if I was going to drown. Opening my eyes I saw the river continuing to carry me further out. Johann was gone.

I shook my body, trying to dislodge anything that had suckered itself onto me. I need to get out the water. Scanning the trees I saw someone by the water. He was wading out, clambering up the steep mud, wet to the bone. It was Johann. I had never been so happy to see another. A person who now believed what I believed.

I swam to him. Once I could feel the rocks under my feet I called his name. He twisted sharply. Raising a rock in his hand he aimed it at me in preparation.

‘Ray…’ He sighed, lowering the weapon.

‘You saw them right? The worms.’ I said knowing already the answer but I needed to hear it. Nothing was certain until he said he saw them too.

‘Quickly. Get out the water.’

The water hung from my clothes as I waded out. Slivers of light rippled over the water. Floating past my waist. They were not slivers of light at all. Like a limp noodle it floated past. I froze.

‘Oh my god. Get out now.’ Johann was looking at something up ahead of the river. He reached out his arm for me to grab. I took hold and lunged for the mud.

I turned to see it coming towards us. Five or so bodies still clinging to one another. They floated down with legs spread out in the shape of some otherworldly star. The women and men from the circle. I knew they were dead the moment I saw their heads. Awash with a hardening layer of worms basking in the sun. The star, fused together by the hands and wrists in fleshy tendrils interlaced, floated past us as if we didn’t exist. As if we were no threat at all. We were only a passersby glimpsing a meteorite shoot across the nights sky.

‘Can they see us?’ I asked Johann. He continued to stare at the human star as it floated further down.

‘I wonder…’ He trailed off. He was biting the nail on his thumb. Deep in thought before twitching. ‘We need to get out of here. Quickly further into the trees before anyone sees us.’

Carefully pulling ourselves up onto the land we made our way into the woods. This was further into the woods than I had been before. The usual markings and trails were gone. Replaced with clusters of mushrooms and moss covered bark. Our footsteps cracked over the fallen twigs and crisp grass for a minute until Johann felt comfortable it was safe to stop. Resting between two peeling white trees he began to undress.

He pulled the dripping white vest from his back. Freckles were scattered over his shoulders. I did not know where to look or go. I turned around to give him privacy.

‘Ray, come over here.’ He ushered me closer as I heard the zip to his rolled up trousers open. ‘I need you to help. I cannot do this all alone myself.’

‘I’m not sure…’ I did not know what to say to this man. Nick had once told me about a man in the woods. How he was walking to school when he saw two other kids huddled behind a bush. They could see a man across the field. Nick darted his head up and searched. All he noticed was some girls from the year above sitting on a bench. They were chatting and rummaging in their bags. It was a few seconds later when he saw the white smudge between the autumn trees. He said the man was bent over forward, naked from waist up and trousers between his ankles. An old man. Rubbing his body against the bark. Nick said he felt the man looking at him. He said he never looked into that part of the fields again. He said it like it was rule or law. If he looked into those trees again the man would be there looking at him.

‘These worms. We have to check every inch of ourselves for them. Look here…check my back for any marks and open cuts.’

I turned hesitantly. He walked over and turned around. I scanned the skin of his back, looking over the sharp ridges of his spine and thin arms.

‘Nothing.’

‘You sure? You checked all over?’ He said impatiently. ‘Ok…now check here.’ And in one quick motion he pulled down both trousers and his underwear. My body froze as his hands rummaged and patted the front of himself. His ass was spotted with several brown moles. A trail of light fuzz went down into the crack. The backs of his thighs marked with long purple stretch marks like a cat had ran it’s claws down them.

‘Nothing.’ I said.

‘Check here – you have to be thorough.’ Pulling apart his ass-cheeks he exposed the ringlet of darkened hair and asshole. I grimaced at the sight. Holding my breath to not inhale any disgusting smells. I glanced to make sure the ringlets were only hairs and not worms before darting away.

‘You’re clean. We need to leave.’ I said.

Johann gave a sigh of relief. But instead of pulling his trousers and pants up he turned around, hands cupped around penis and balls, and looked at me.

‘We need to check on you too Ray.’

‘I’m fine though. I will shower when I get home.’ I could feel every item of clothing on me. The socks and padding in the trainers squishing river water around my toes. The band of my boxers hugging my waist and denim clinging to my knees.

‘What if you get infected? What if there are worms on you right now? They were all around us in the water. They will crawl into you Ray. We can’t allow that.’ Johann stepped closer as I backed into the two trees. ‘If you hadn’t have warned me… I would have been just like them. Wormfood. Now take off your top and jeans.’

His eyes were red and hair matted over his forehead.

‘Just don’t touch me.’ I said. ‘You hear?’

Johann backed off a couple foot. I played with the bottom of my t-shirt, rubbing my fingers over the fabric. What if there really was a worm on me? I could imagine all the possibilities and places it could crawl into.

I lifted my top over my head laid it on the ground. Pulling the buttons of my jean apart, I slid my trainers off and stepped out. The air ran over my exposed skin.

‘I’m keeping my boxers on.’ I tried to sound as determined and strong as I could.

‘Just check yourself like I did. I won’t do anything you don’t want.’

I turned in a slow circle and Johann crouched down and inspected my body. His puffy eyes squinted and traveled along my arms and back. I ran my hands through my hair in search of anything. He moved over to inspecting my legs.

‘Nothing?’ I asked. Feeling his eyes raise the hairs on the back of my legs and neck.

‘You’re fine.’ He said, relaxing at the words. ‘You need to check your privates though. I will take our clothes and check them through.

He walked away and took hold of mine and his clothes. Laying them out on log in a tidy row.

I turned from him and pulled the elastic of my boxers outwards. With my free hand I lifted up my penis and peeled it back. Turning my balls over and feeling my behind. There was nothing there. Johann took hold of our shirts and slapped them against the tree. Deep whacks rang out as he whipped them over the bark.

We dressed in silence. I imagined Johann was just as uncomfortable in the damp clothing as me. Walking further through the woods using our knowledge of where the river was as a guide-point. Only silence continued ahead of us. It floated between me and the man. The questions I should have asked. His actions and my compliance. It was all chewed up and swallowed. Left to become that cramping ache rotting in my stomach.

Finally we arrived at a string of garages leading into a suburb. We continued to walk on, exchanging dirt for pavement. Then once the road grew wider and shops appeared we looked at eachother. I did not know the words to express myself. He looked around nervous at the sudden growing amount of people.

‘Do you think you will be safe to get home?’ He asked. ‘Do you want-‘

‘No. I’ll be fine walking.’ I had to cut off his next sentence. I needed to walk alone.

‘Ok…’ He ran his hands through his hair trying to part it neatly. Then he looked back at me. ‘I’m not sure these people are going to believe us. But they’ll believe that thing they find in the river. Be careful Ray.’

‘I’ll be fine.’ I said again.

He lingered on my words. As if wanting to say something.

I made my way home. Walking with squelching wet shoes through alleyways and across parks. I was frightened to run into the paperboy and the butchers. The woman with her hollow face and sagging tits. What I dreaded more was turning a corner to find the tall man waiting for me.

Every empty street was a blessing. The houses of friends and people I knew in the area would not be of any help to me.

When I opened the door I saw my mum moving a large ladder up the stairs. I flicked off my trainers and took hold of the swaying bottom. We made our way upstairs and placed the ladder below the attic. I held the bottom in silence as she spoke to me. Telling me to hold it tight and keep the base stable as she clambered up. I listened to the scraping of cardboard and crinkle static of the plastic bags. Then thump. Thump and thump they fell down. Often calling me to hold my arms out as a box descended down slowly to my hands. She was bringing down our old clothes. I found it funny how summer was still here and she was rummaging for jackets and fuzzy jumpers.

There was a clack from outside and my dad entered the house. Calling out that he had bought us all fish and chips. We placed the plates on the table before he brought over the greasy paper package one by one. We unwrapped our meals. Ketchup sprayed over the chips. That whiff of vinegar and fried yellow fish.

Peeling back the tab of his one beer he took a long sip. He only drank a beer on the odd day he got us takeaway.

‘Pass me your cup boy.’ He said.

I leaned over the table and handed him the glass. He gave a wink and poured out some of his beer. A steadily rising white foam rose up and settled to gold.

‘Share a glass with me.’

I didn’t want it. It was all too bitter on the times I had sneakily sipped the warm dregs from the cans he would leave on the table. I didn’t like it but I knew I had to drink it. I hoped there would never be a time when I came to enjoy the taste.

I held back until late into the night when everyone was asleep. My fear for their safety rattled me to the bone. What if everyone I cared for were taken over and killed by the worms? My mother. Father. Worm food. Riddled holes. Soft parts eaten first. Every shocking image and thought came out from the darkness. I wept and sobbed under my blankets. Perhaps the worms could not wriggle into my ears if I kept my head under the pillow.

Just keep your head under the pillow. Don’t let them hear you cry. Protect them all.

News spread of the festival at the river. Young men and some perverts ran to it at first. The gossip of naked men and women flocking to the water was a very persuading thing to watch. It was only two days later when they found the human stars. All those bodies had to end up somewhere. I think someone finally found them. The village was horrified at first. How could these men and women, almost molded into one another by the stitching of worms, look so happy? The mayor and sheriff issued curfews and locked up who they thought were influencing these people. They thought this would stop the spread of madness. My mother questioned where the government was? Why had no-one come to help us? My father simply replied “Trust the sheriff – Toms a good man.”

We all tried to continue our summer. We ignored the change in our neighbors. It was tricky to tell who was living with the worms. Swollen bellies and glands was the only thing I could link to them all. There constant need to drink water would have been a giveaway if it wasn’t for the heatwave. Passing the high street I saw three kids kicking pebbles into a sewage drain. Every so often a crackle would go off causing something to groan out from the sewer. Walking over I noticed the noise was a slow laughing. The kids turned to me with their packet of pick-n-mix in hand and party snaps in other. A trail of white long specks were trampled into the tarmac and drying out crisp in the sun. Those were worms. Same as that day in the river. The boys told me of how the old man from the newsagents let them take whatever they wanted. He had walked out of his shop and began to pull the grate upwards. Climbing down. That was yesterday and they had kept coming to eat the sweets. I knelt down towards the drain and peered in. Almost totally dark a streak of light managed to get past our heads and the bars. Illuminating a fleshy pink bulge amongst the black water and sludge. It was human but no shape I had seen. I could not tell if that had once been the old mans head now melted down into the mass. I went into the other shops beside the newsagents to warn the owners or employees but I couldn’t find any. Walking back to the kids I asked if they knew where they had gone. One of them pointed to the drain.

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Growth (Extract)

 

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.

Seeing Things Hearing Things

‘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.’

Azure Walls

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.

 

The Cave

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. 

little-black-horn-v1

 

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.

Purple Haze (Extract)

pppp
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.