Out of the Shadows (21/7/17)

Sorry for the silence on this blog! I’ve been busy with work and trying to finish my manuscript, so I haven’t written many short pieces!

This is a short fantasy story I originally wrote for Shift Zine. It wasn’t selected to be part of the zine but I had a lot of fun writing it so I thought I’d share it! It’s set in the same world as my manuscript, but takes place in Dublin, Ireland (my second home!), ten years before the events of the novel (which takes place in Hampshire, England). These characters are all new and don’t appear in the novel – though I might let them cameo at some point! Hope you enjoy 🙂

 

 

Mam wouldn’t let me tell anyone.

“It changes nothing,” she told me when I argued, and that was that. It was still just another secret for me to hide away with the others; like how I chewed gum in Mrs Byrne’s History class, or how I spent all my birthday money on red shoes with high heels that I hid at the back of my wardrobe, or how Eva Sheehan’s bright blue eyes made me feel a bit fluttery inside.

So I shut myself in my bedroom all weekend and read articles online, trawling websites for the tiniest updates. I spent hours staring at that picture: the skull-like face and the curved horns, the beast looming over London as it scooped up helpless commuters and tipped them into that gigantic slash of a mouth. I don’t know what I felt when I saw the photos for the first time – some twisted, crazy bundle of emotions. It felt like terror.

It felt like freedom.

“You’re not tellin’ anybody, you hear?” Mam said roughly as I hitched my satchel onto my shoulders that following Monday. “And that means Eva, too! Do you hear me, Claire?”

“Yes, Mam! God!” I slammed the front door behind me.

Eva was waiting for me at the bottom of the road, sitting on the wall with her skirt hiked up to her thighs and a cigarette dangling from her lips. Just like always, like my world hadn’t turned upside down these past two days. She was the one wild constant, like the tide crashing into the Sandymount walls.

“Did you hear that shit on the news?” she said, jumping down as I approached. “About London Victoria? And why didn’t you reply to my texts?”

She gave me a gentle shove, her red hair already tumbling out of its braid. Eva didn’t believe in tidiness – her locker was a jumble of gum wrappers and notebooks, broken hairbrushes and stained photocopies. Her cluttered house was worlds away from mine, where Mam went loopy over a single unwashed mug left in the sink.

“I was…it was crazy,” I said, plucking at the sleeve of my school jumper. “You know how my Mam is. She thinks the world’s gone and ended.”

I wished I could tell Eva. She always told me everything. On the first day of secondary school, she sat down next to me in Maths and told me how she’d walked into her father’s study to find him touching a woman who wasn’t her mother. I’d come close so many times, so many instances where I could feel the truth hanging from my tongue and just waiting to drip, but no matter how many secrets she told me and I told her, I always kept two locked away. I still couldn’t tell her what I was, or how I felt when I thought about touching her soft freckled skin.

“Maybe it has!” Eva slipped her hand through the crook of my arm, kicking at a pebble on the pavement. “Dad said that Father Aidan was saying that Hell is open, and all the devils are here.”

“He reads Shakespeare at mass now?” I asked. She squinted at me.

“Well, maybe Dad misremembered. He got hammered Saturday night, surprised he made it to the church. Look!” She shoved her phone under my nose, and I read only a few words off the screen before pushing it away in disgust.

“Thought we were talking about the news, not Michael Lynch,” I said irritably. “And if he wants to touch your lady parts so bad he should learn how to spell them-”

“Not that bit! You didn’t read.” She gave me another shove, her face bright with amusement. “Party at his house on Friday night. You gonna come or nah?”

“I dunno,” I replied, scratching my neck. I wasn’t keen on the idea of watching Eva spend an entire evening sucking face with Michael while I sipped mystery punch out of a plastic cup. “I’ll see.”

“You better,” Eva said, poking me in the cheek with a red-painted nail.

When I went to the toilet before registration, I looked in the mirror and saw that she had left a little pink moon-shaped mark in the skin. It had faded by the time Maths was over, but I could still feel it there, lingering like a stain on my face.

 

“How was school?” Mam asked at dinnertime.

“Not bad.” I pressed my fork into my mash, leaving the imprint of the tines in the soft white potato. “I know what you’re going to ask. I didn’t tell anyone, don’t you worry.”

“Good.” I looked up at her. She stared back, her stare intensified by heavy black eyeliner. It was all smudged into her wrinkles like tobacco stains around her eyes, and I would have believed that it was actually from cigarettes had she not given up the habit three years ago.

“It’s all coming out now, anyway. Won’t be hiding much longer.”

“You had better keep hidin’.” She spooned diced carrots into her mouth, her eyes not leaving me as she chewed. “People are never going to stop fearin’ us. And you’re better off without throwin’ yourself into danger with those monsters.”

“How do you know? Anything could happen.”

“They’ll never accept you. And what are we supposed to do? Fight the beasts, only to be met with horror by those you’re protectin’? Nonsense. Don’t get involved, I say.”

“People died in London!” I snapped. “They need us!”

“Yes, and our kind died fightin’ ‘em,” Mam said coldly. “And you know what I hear? O’Leary at the market, sayin’ garbage like ‘they can’t be trusted’. Trusted! They died protectin’ shitstains just like him and that’s the thanks they get?”

“Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight! Are you stupid? That’s what we’re meant-”

“Don’t speak me to like that! Apologise!” Mam’s fork clattered to the table.

“Nah, I won’t.” I shoved one last spoonful of mash into my mouth and kicked my chair back with a screech. “I’ve got homework.”

“Claire-”

I left my half-eaten dinner on the table and ran to my room, to the comfort of my homework and my headphones. After a half hour, there came a knock on my door.

“Go away, Mam!” I called, but she opened the door anyway. I scowled and turned back to my books, staring at the words until they blurred.

“You know I just want you to be safe,” Mam said, sitting down on my bed even though I hadn’t invited her to. “That’s all.”

“Pretending not to exist doesn’t mean safe.”

“It does, for us. Keep ‘em all in the dark, as much as we can. And it’s stayin’ that way, Claire-”

“It won’t stay that way!” I span round in my desk chair, my neck hot under the collar of my blouse. “Look on the internet! People know now, they know we exist, they know what we can do, all we’ve learned-”

“The internet?” She blinked. “It’s on the computers now? All our knowledge?”

“Yes!” Excitement bubbled in me. “It’s all out in the open now, you know, since London. Everyone’s talking. There’s forums, and articles, and whole websites about it. Some people love it! They think it’s amazing, like we’re superheroes – we don’t have to hide what we can do any more! We can-”

“We can’t,” Mam said, pressing her lips together for a second. Her dusky pink lipstick bled into the deep lines around her mouth. “It’s not safe. Even if they accept you, you’ll just be throwing yourself in harm’s way for their sake. And if you start on your Dad’s path you’ll be puttin’ yourself in the line of danger, and not just from people. You really want that? You want to – to go out and fight those things-”

“I just want to use what’s mine! I want to learn again-”

“No,” she said, standing up. Her dark hair, usually stringy and limp, seemed charged with static. “You know why you can’t.”

“Dad would’ve let me,” I muttered, swivelling back to my work.

“And that’s why he’s not here.” She left the room, shutting the door with a slam. I felt tears prick in my eyes but I dragged my sleeve across them, trying to shut out the memory of the man who taught me what little I knew. The man who made me pancakes on a Saturday morning, the man who taught me what the black marks on my skin meant, the man who didn’t see the beast coming until it tore off his head in the Wicklow Mountains.

 

“Claire. Claire!”

I stirred, nudged awake by Eva’s poking. Her blue eyes were peering at me, her plucked eyebrows cocked.

“Have a good sleep?” Her breath smelled like cigarette smoke and bubblemint gum. “Never knew the library chairs were so comfortable.”

“Shut up,” I muttered, and she snorted and turned back to the computer. Instead of the World War II project we were supposed to be working on, her screen was loaded with a news article.

“You seen this?” she said, pressing her nail-bitten finger to the screen. “They’re forming mobs in London now, it’s nuts.”

I blinked to clear my bleary eyes and looked closer at what she was pointing at. A photo of a group of people in a busy street. People…carrying someone?

No. Dragging. My stomach lurched as I studied the picture. A woman was being pulled forward by two men, her clothes in tatters, her face streaked with dirt. Underneath her tangled hair and the smudges of muck, I could see the black cracks. And her eyes were midnight: devoid of pupils, of irises, of whites. Just solid black.

“What’s up with her face?” Eva squinted at the photo. “Reckon she’s got those weird coloured contacts?”

I shook my head.

“Read the caption,” I told her, then pretended to be rummaging in my bag for my phone to hide the tears pricking in my eyes. Mam was right.

According to the caption, that woman was the fifth one to be dragged to her death. London wasn’t freedom. It was execution. And it was only a matter of time before it spread like a ripple in a pond across the British Isles and stirred up violence in Dublin.

“What even is this, the Middle Ages?” Eva was still staring at the article. “Think they’ll start burning them? Or chucking them in ponds to see if they float and shit?”

My gut cramped with anxiety and I stood up from my chair as she looked round at me for a response.

“You OK?” she said, her expression softening.

“Fine.” I shoved my hands into my blazer pockets. “Why do you keep looking at that crap, anyway?”

“You what?” Her eyelids fluttered. “Everyone’s looking at it, not just me! Michael sent it to me-”

Of course.

“I don’t get why you’re not looking at it, though,” she continued, her cheeks pinkening in that way they did when she got huffy. “I mean, demons! People with weird black eyes and whatever! How are you not giving a shit?”

She kept looking at me with her cornflower-blue gaze, and my heart was sinking like a rock. I was so obvious about how I felt for her that I could never be sure if the boys who jeered and called me ‘lezzer’ were just calling me names or could actually see the truth. But this? This was crazy. I wish she could just…see.

“It…it scares me, OK?” I said roughly, pulling the strap of my schoolbag onto my shoulder. “I don’t like looking at stuff like that.”

The woman’s face, contorted in fear while those men dragged her to her death, was infinitely more terrifying than the beast that had slaughtered so many.

“Oh, yeah, forgot you’re a wuss.” Eva chucked her scarlet hair back as she laughed, showing her chipped white front tooth and her pink tongue. “You threw up halfway through Saw.

“Ha. Yeah.” I looked away, my stomach still tight. “You coming to class or what? Bell’s going in two.”

“Ah, shit.” Eva turned back to her computer, and tried to exit the window. “Oh my God, it froze. Why can’t they get some machines that aren’t from the Stone Age?”

She tapped the PC tower under the desk with her foot as she clicked, but it was fruitless.

“I give up. I need to go to my locker, I left my Bio books – see you in class?” she said as she jumped up from the chair, slinging her bag over her shoulder. She gave me an affectionate ‘whap’ with the flat of her hand on my cheek as she moved past, oblivious to the jerking movement I made as electricity shot down my spine. “Bye!”

Rooted to the spot as I tried to keep my composure, I watched her leave. When the last red wave of hair disappeared through the library doors, I glanced at the computer. The photo of the woman was still there, and she was looking at me, her pale face pleading, as if she knew it was too late for her but she wanted to warn me all the same.

Hide, I could hear her saying. Hide, or die.

 

That night, Mam found my copy of the prospectus for University College London and threw it in the bin. She said that I’d go to university here, in Dublin, not in England like most of my classmates wanted to go. Well, Eva didn’t want to go to university at all, she just wanted me to be the one to go so she could come and crash at my student place in London while she kept going with busking rude covers of chart songs on high streets. She was just doing her Leaving Cert to keep her dad happy, she said, and then she’d piss off out of that house as soon as she could.

But still, I felt like the only teenager in the country who wasn’t allowed to leave, until I heard Mary Donovan and Sara Gleeson in the toilets after History, talking about how Mary’s parents wouldn’t let her go to see some musical on the West End because of what had happened at London Victoria. And Mary wasn’t like me. She was just normal.

“It’s spreading,” Mam told me, shoving that day’s copy of The Irish Times under my nose. I skimmed a headline about demon attacks in Bristol before I looked back up at her face and glared. “Don’t you look at me like that. Hope they deal with this plague before it crosses the sea.”

“So it’s OK for them to deal with it, but not for me to learn,” I retorted.

“Claire, I’m warnin’ you.”

“You warn me every bloody day.” I pushed the newspaper away, headed into my room and shut the door.

I found more about the attacks on the internet, away from Mam’s patronising stare. More of them happening, every day. It was like what happened at London Victoria was a catalyst, setting off a chain reaction across Britain. That monster who destroyed the train station was the leader, and now all the smaller, lowlier demons had been given the confidence to crawl out of the woodwork and follow its example. But while they were smaller and lowlier, they were still vicious. I zoomed in on a photo of a bite that a man had gotten from a rat-like demon lurking in his basement, and almost blanched at the sickly green mush which had once been his forearm.

Mam used to be able to treat wounds like that, until Dad died and she stopped practicing. But before all that, she and Dad were going to teach me everything that they’d learned from the Sandymount coven.

I pulled out Dad’s picture from its hiding place in the false bottom of my desk drawer. Mam purged the house of the photos after he died, like she was trying to stamp out the hurt by erasing every trace of his existence. But I saved this one, taken on grainy old film at the Sandymount coven meeting-house, and he had a drink in one hand with his other arm up towards the camera, sleeve rolled up past his elbow, exposing the black lines on his skin. He got them tattooed over where the real ones tend to appear.

“Don’t be ashamed, Claire-bear,” he told me once. “One day we won’t live in the shadows anymore. When the regular folk see what we do for them, how we protect them from the dark – they’ll see your marks like an angel’s wings.”

Like an angel’s wings.

I wished he was right. I wished they weren’t dragging people like us to their deaths just across the Irish Sea. I wished he hadn’t been so sure of his duty – God-given, he said it was – that he went off and got himself killed and drove Mam to give it all up, to hide everything away and pretend it never existed.

The doorbell went, ridding my mind of wishes.

“Claire! It’s Eva!” Mam shouted down the hall, as I took one last glance at Dad and shoved the picture into the pocket of my jeans. The door opened and Mam stuck her head in. “Don’t be out too late tonight, if I catch you sneakin’ in at three in the mornin’ I’ll have your head on a pike.”

“I’ll keep her in check, Mrs McCarthy,” Eva joked, swanning into my room in tight black pleather trousers and a cream sequined top that made a swishing noise when she moved. The gaps in the swaying fabric let her stomach peek through, letting me see the gleaming stretch marks on her belly. She’d lost a lot of weight in third year and still rubbed cream into the marks to get rid of them, but they hadn’t faded. I thought about pressing my fingertips to the silvery lines, and bit my lip. “Claire! You’re not even ready yet!”

“Sorry,” I said, mouth dry. “Got distracted.”

Eva’s gaze fell on my laptop, at the article about the Bristol attack. I shut the lid.

“Erm, clothes.” I opened my wardrobe and chucked a few items onto my duvet. “Help me out.”

She clapped her hands together as I continued to throw tops and dresses down next to her.

“The black!” she barked as I chucked a red t-shirt back into my wardrobe, and she snatched up the sheer top. Her nails glittered with dark, shimmering polish. I wondered if they’d be raking through Michael Lynch’s hair later. “You look good in black. All vampy with your hair. You got a skirt?”

“I’ll stick with my jeans,” I said as I pulled off my t-shirt and took the sheer top from her. “Do my makeup?”

An hour later we finally shuffled up the drive to Michael’s house, Eva wobbly on her chunky black heels from the secret gulps of vodka that she’d had on the bus. Being seventeen and a lightweight didn’t stop her from guzzling in public until she was plastered. I let her lean on me and breathed in the smell of her Charlie spray before reaching up to push open the door which had been left ajar, letting the sound of dance music leak out into the street.

“I want another drink,” Eva slurred into my ear, her sticky gloss brushing my cheek as we stumbled down the dim hallway and into the living room. I swallowed, momentarily paralysed by the scent of her as I scanned the crowded, tiny room for a seat.

“I’ll get you one in a sec, just trying to find a place to-”

“Eva!” Michael swooped towards us like a lanky, overgrown vulture, draping himself over Eva’s other shoulder. I nearly gagged on the smell of his aftershave. “Nearly thought you weren’t coming!”

“I like to keep you waiting,” Eva drawled, then giggled in a way that made my stomach feel funny. The music pounded, and I looked around for somewhere, someone, to escape to. But there was just a load of faceless strangers, grinding to Rihanna in a dimly lit room.

“Here you go,” Michael said, holding out a can of Carlsberg for Eva – none for me, of course. She took it and cracked it open, letting go of my arm. Michael glanced at me as I looked at the can in distaste. “God, Claire, do you always have to look like a slapped arse? You could at least try smiling, you know.”

“Leave her alone,” Eva said, pushing the can back into his hands. “And I don’t like beer. I told you.”

Before either Michael or I could respond, Eva was dragging me away, into the middle of the tightly packed room, between sweaty, shadowed bodies.

“Dance!” she called out as someone turned up the music. “Come on!”

I don’t know how long we danced for. Michael tried to shove himself between us, trying to get to Eva, but she wasn’t having any of it, turning away from him whenever he tried to push up against her. His hand rested on her hip and she shifted away, taking my shoulders and wrapping herself around me instead. She kept ignoring him until he left in a huff, his grey t-shirt and gelled hair disappearing out of the room, leaving us to dance alone.

“God, now I really need a drink,” Eva said loudly in my ear, pulling me into the hall and towards the kitchen. “Men are exhausting.”

“What even was that?” I asked, as we headed through the kitchen, past a couple making out on the counter, and towards the back door. “Michael-”

“Hos before bros,” Eva interrupted.

“I – I think you got the expression wrong,” I said, my heart thumping. “It’s bros before-”

“Whatever.” She shook her head of red curls and stepped outside into the evening air, pulling the half-empty bottle of vodka out of her bag. “You know what I meant.”

“Yeah, but…” I sat down with her on the step, and she unscrewed the cap and took a sip. “If you’re interested, you don’t have to blow him off ‘cos of me.”

I cringed as I said the words. I knew she could do miles better than Michael Lynch, but if she found his vulgar texts and greasy hairline attractive then who was I to get in the way?

Eva just snorted, then handed me the bottle.

“I can’t drink this straight. Burns my throat.”

“Wuss.” She stood up in her chunky heels. “I’ll get Coke.”

She left me on the doorstep and went back inside, the music blaring out before the door swung shut behind her.

I sat there on the step, looking round at the tumbles of weeds and shaggy grass. I was about to get up and follow her back into the grubby little house when I heard it.

A growl.

I froze in a half-crouch, hoping that it was just a pissed-off cat or a fox lurking in the bushes, but I knew I was wrong, even before I saw the two blank white eyes staring out at me from the dark jungle of Michael’s garden.

It moved. A claw creeping out of the shadow, nestling in the wild grass. Scaly and dark, with bone-white talons that made me realise instantly what it was.

“Babe!” Eva burst through the door, swinging a bottle of Coke. “I got some…” Her voice tailed off as she took in the sight of the monster on the lawn. “What-”

“Get in the house!” I shrieked as the demon lurched from the bushes, and I shoved Eva back through the door and slammed it behind her, only to see her horrified face staring at me through the glass before the beast’s claws sliced across my back and sent me hurtling across the lawn.

“Claire!” I heard Eva’s muffled voice through the glass as I lay there in the weeds, gasping in pain. From the corner of my eye, I saw the beast advancing, and I rolled over, yelping as the plants that had stuck to my bleeding back were ripped away.

I staggered to my feet as the demon drew closer, and in the dim light I knew that I’d identified it. A long, snake-like thing with glistening scales of dark green, it resembled a massive serpent, except for the two enormous claws – one of which was now tipped with my blood. The white eyes were fixed on me, gleaming as brightly as the needle-like teeth that were bared in a terrible grin. Dad used to tell me about them, the dragon-types, draconian demons. Péist, he called these ones, the kind with dark emerald scales, the kind that used to roam Irish shores and terrify our Celtic ancestors. But this one was smaller than the ones he showed me in the books – barely two metres high.

But still big enough to kill me.

The péist slipped across the lawn, the scales hissing against the grass as it approached. Flame licked around its lips and before I could react it opened its maw and expelled them.

I dived. Back into the bushes as the flame hit the leaves and dead twigs around me. I wasn’t burned, but I was trapped by the fire which grew from a few licks of flame to a blaze within seconds. I stumbled further into the bush, the heat rising as the shadow of the demon approached me. I was coughing, smoke filling my lungs as the crackling flames rose higher and higher-

“CLAIRE!” Through the branches I saw the kitchen door open, and Eva tumbled down onto the steps. “Get away from her, you – you-”

The reflection of the burning bush danced in the péist’s blank white eyes, and then that empty gaze turned from me in the overgrowth to Eva, shivering on the step with a kitchen knife in her hand.

It charged for her.

“NO!” I hurled myself through the burning branches and threw out my hand, summoning all the memories of Mam and Dad’s teaching from all those years ago. I collapsed onto the grass as a solid wall of ice blasted up from the ground, between Eva and the demon. The péist slammed into it, screeching as shattered ice rained down onto its serpentine form. It reared around again to face me, the cavern of a mouth stretched open wide, and then those claws were hitting the ground, the snake-like body following and the forked tail whipping through the air behind it. I threw my hands up into the air, bracing myself to throw up another shield, but the péist shot past me and with a gigantic crash, burst through the wooden fence and out into the road.

“C-Claire?” Eva gasped from the step, as the péist’s tail disappeared around what was left of Michael’s fence. The flames were still crackling in the bushes, and I couldn’t believe no-one had heard the racket, but a Lady Gaga song was still pounding away indoors. “You – you’re-”

This was the part where I was meant to deny everything, the way Mam would have wanted me to. But I couldn’t. I’d fought the demon, scared it off. Who cared what Mam wanted me to do?

“Yeah.” I looked down at my top, at the black crack-like lines visible through the sheer fabric. Markers of what I was, what I could do. There was no hiding them now. “Um. Now you know.”

“What the shit.” The yellow-orange light of the flames made her red hair gleam like gold, and she dropped the kitchen knife to the ground as she took a step towards me, her eyes fixed on what remained of the shield of ice. “You’re…you’re a Witch?”

“I guess.” I flexed my fingers, watching the black cracks begin to fade. A surge of confidence burst through me, just like the magick that I’d summoned only moments before. “I didn’t tell you because Mam wouldn’t let me, because she didn’t think it was safe. I’m sorry. I hid.”

Eva stopped in front of me, and her eyes slid from the shattered ice to my face. I couldn’t read her expression. In the distance I could hear shouting, a car alarm, a crashing sound. I had to be quick.

“I get it if you’re scared,” I said. My throat constricted but I kept talking. “If you don’t want to be around me anymore. But I…I couldn’t let that thing hurt you. And I should go after it. Finish it off.” I turned away, towards the broken fence and burning shrubbery.

She pulled me back, then. Pressed her lips – lips that tasted like Coke and vodka and cherry lipgloss – to mine.

“For luck,” she said as she released me, the corner of her mouth quirking at my stunned expression. “And scared? Of you? Come off it.”

“But you…you know I like girls?” I said, voice quivering. “That I like you?”

“Wouldn’t have kissed you if I didn’t, would I?”

I could only blink at her, and then the back door opened.

“What the actual shit did you do to the garden?” Michael yelped.

“Don’t tell anyone,” I whispered to Eva. “Not yet. I’m not ready.”

“Shut up, Michael,” Eva said as Michael cursed behind us. She was still looking at me. Another car alarm, quieter this time, and more distant yelling. “What now, Claire?”

I could still taste her on my lips, even as I smiled and moved towards the fence. Michael squawked on the doorstep as I stepped over the broken wood. Eva followed, and we looked down the road, at the dented cars and the debris that littered the street. She took my hand, looked at me for an answer, and I remembered Dad’s photo in my pocket. I smiled at her.

“I’m going to fight a demon.”

 

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Chance (25/9/16)

This is a short story I wrote for my MA, lightly inspired by Angela Carter and George Saunders – it’s called Chance and it’s a dark fairy-tale romance with a slight steampunk aesthetic edge. It has also been printed in the University of Southampton’s MA Creative Writing Anthology 2016.

I. 

If a little girl will not quiet and sleep,
A Clockwork boy will take her soul to keep.

Before he drowned in Spectre’s Lake, my father told me the three truths of the Timekeepers.

“First, Susannah,” he said as I sat in front of the open fire and played with my dolls, “You can tell a Clockwork One by their eyes. Watch for the cogs that turn and you will never be fooled.”

I was six years old and I laughed and went to bed and dreamed of men with clocks for faces.

“Second, Susannah,” he said when I was twelve and simpered after freckled boys who worked in the fields, “A Clockwork One can lie through speech, but not through the written word.”

I was seventeen, still sore from my mother’s death at the hands of plague, when he told me the last truth.

“Third, Susannah,” he said, and I saw sadness in my father’s eyes, “The Clockwork Ones do not love like you and me. To love a Clockwork One is one of the most terrible fates to endure.”

“I have heard the rhymes,” I told him. “I know the old wives’ tale. You do not need to remind me.”

“It is only for your protection, Susannah.” My father took my hand and held it tight. “They serve us with the knowledge of the universe, but there is one thing they have no understanding of, and that is love.”

“I know, I know.” I pulled my hand from his and opened the door for him. “They will be waiting for you at the cathedral.”

“I suppose they will.” My father brushed a lock of my hair back from my face and lingered in the doorway for a moment, before he stepped outside. “Goodbye, Susannah.”

“Goodbye,” I said, and watched him leave for the cathedral, for the Timekeepers, and I shut the door behind him.

But he died that night, on his way home, a terrible accident. Fell through the frozen ice on Spectre’s Lake. Drowned.

A terrible accident.

My father’s funeral was a small gathering in the graveyard on Saint’s Hill, and I watched the people as they passed me by, murmuring their apologies for my loss. I could not tell which of them were Timekeepers. Still, I looked the men and women up and down as they passed me, dressed all in black, and wondered which of them would go back to the cathedral to continue their gathering of knowledge from the Clockwork ones.

I stayed there for hours, feet planted, unmoving, in that patch of scrubby grass that slowly began to freeze as night drew in. The other mourners had long since left, leaving me standing alone with tear tracks marked on my face, and only clad only in my white dress embroidered with snowflakes. I owned no black clothing, and my father had always liked this one. He had gifted it to me for my sixteenth birthday, an expensive present that soon won me the envy of every girl in the village. We had no worry for money – the books of Clockwork knowledge sold well enough.

I soon found that my attire matched the weather, for snowflakes began to fall, and dusty white snow began to gather on my father’s grave. The cathedral bells rang out for midnight, and I finally laid my lilies before the headstone, and turned to leave. I had left my shawl at home, and pimples began to spring up on my arms as the soles of my boots crunched on the fresh snow, and my breath formed a mist that danced on the air. I took a few steps, the hem of my dress dragging on the ground and beginning to take up water, and to offer some protection to my freezing neck, I reached up and pulled the pins from my hair so it fell in waves around my shoulders.

And that was when I saw you.

You stood by an oak tree at the edge of the cramped graveyard, cast in shadow, and you stayed perfectly still as I approached. You were dark-haired, slender, with eyes a cold blue like the frozen river that ran alongside the graveyard. Your thin face was blank, your back rigid and your arms straight down by your sides like a soldier reporting for duty. Snowflakes had settled in your hair like a crown made of ice.

“Are you a Timekeeper?”

I don’t know what made me ask you that question. Perhaps I saw sadness in your eyes as you looked towards the freshly dug grave, and thought that you must have known my father well.

Your head jerked at the sound of my voice, and you looked straight at me.

“Are you Susannah Engelhardt?”

“Yes. But you did not answer my question.”

“No, I am not.” Your eyes flickered back to my father’s grave. “But I knew your father. A rich man of fortune, and famous for it.”

“Jacob,” I said. “Jacob Engelhardt. He was a Timekeeper.”

“Yes, that was the name.” Your skin seemed impossibly smooth. I tried to peer into your eyes but it was too dark for me to make out the details that I was searching for. “I am sorry for your loss.” Your sadness seemed sincere. “He was kind to me. And to so many others, though they did not deserve it. I heard Timekeepers speak of envy, craving your father’s gold. It is a shame that their sinful ways could lead to the death of an innocent.”

My eyelids fluttered.

“Their sinful ways?” My mouth had become dry despite the fervent cold. “Do you know something about my father’s death?”

“I know only what I need to know,” you replied. “And I know that your father was a much-envied man.”

I shivered in the December breeze.

“What is your name?” I finally asked, but you looked away from me again with no response. I took your arm and pulled you out into the moonlight. “Tilt your head.”

You did so, slowly, and I looked into your right eye. The shadow of a cog, turning behind your iris, telling me all that I had to know.

“You’re a Clockwork One,” I whispered, my grip loosening on your arm. “You’re real.”

“I served your father,” you say, your voice barely louder than the rush of the wind through the trees. “I was bound to protect Jacob Engelhardt, and I have no name. He said he would name me, but he died before he did.”

“And no-one else has given you one?”

You shook your head.

“They cannot.” You fixed me with an intense stare. “I am bound to the Engelhardts. To protect you from the evils of this world. I served your father, and now I serve you.”

 

II.

A Clockwork man has no heart,
Just a machine made of silver parts.

I named you Chance.

I took you home with me. You were easy to care for, as you ate nothing, and did not require a bed as you could not sleep. You worked as you had done for my father, filling paper with intricate diagrams and maps of the heavens, naming stars that could not be seen even with the most expensive of telescopes, and you wrote it all in a strange language that I could not read. Your letters were far more complex than the ones I knew, and as I tried to decipher the tiny shapes, I finally understood my father’s work with you: translation. Without guidance, I could not do what he had done.

So I left you to your work and you wrote all through the night, covering reams and reams of paper with star charts and mathematics, and finally I could not bear it, and one morning after many moons, I asked you why you did what you did.

“This is what I was built for,” you said. “For knowledge.”

And I looked at you with my arms full of laundry while the soup bubbled in the pot, and I forgot what I was going to ask you next. As I returned to my chores, there was a sudden banging on the door.

“Are you Susannah Engelhardt?” the young man in the doorway said as I opened it. He was about my age, blond and well-built and handsome in a bland sort of way, though I noticed that his front teeth were unusually large, giving him the appearance of a rodent.

“Yes.”

“Do you have a Clockwork One on your premises?” the man continued, his face beginning to redden as he drew himself up to his full height, puffing out his chest. I narrowed my eyes, pulling the door a little more shut.

“Who is asking?” I glared at him. “Who told you this?”

“The Timekeepers, and many have seen him at your windows.” He grabbed the door so I could not close it any further, and stuck his foot through the doorway. “I know you are Jacob’s daughter, but I must advise you to relinquish the Clockwork One to us.”

“No,” I said. “Chance was bound to my father, and now he is bound to me.”

“Chance? You named him?” the man spluttered. “You are not a Timekeeper!” His voice rose in anger. “You cannot be his caretaker-”

“He was my father’s!” I almost shout, and that was when you appeared, your hand flying out to grab the man by his collar, and you pulled him back then shoved him so hard that he went toppling across the dirt path, coming to a standstill in a dirty puddle.

“I am for your protection now,” you murmured to me, then stood back.

The man got to his feet, seething, as he shook the mud from his clothes and dragged a filthy hand across his face.

“You will see!” he shouted, looking so much like an angry rabbit that I had to stifle a laugh. “The songs are true. You will see. We keep people safe from them, and you are too stupid to listen-”

I shut the door and turned back to you. You stood there quietly, your feet bare and your hands balled into fists, but your face was peaceful, and I looked back at the table where you had been working, the paper stained with ink and piled high.

“You are mine,” I told you, and your lips curved into the gentlest of smiles, and you were about to go back to the table when I grabbed your arm. “I want to learn your language. I want you to teach me.”

 

III.

They came here from far, far away
To give us knowledge and to stay.

No-one had worshipped here for years, but the cathedral had always been here, for as long as anyone could remember. Even Old Man Edmund, who lived down near the swamp and was nearing ninety, said it had been here long before he was born.

As I took a step across the stone floor, I felt the gazes of the grotesques upon me. They were carved like demons, one twisted in agony as its tongue lolled out and its eyes bulged, another with wings unfurled like it was about to take off from its plinth, and another clinging to its ledge and fixing me with the carved slits of its narrow eyes. Rays of moonlight illuminated the stained glass windows and threw long shadows across the floor, and the arched roof stretched for what felt like a mile above me. The paint of the walls had peeled and faded long ago.

“Your father worked in the eastern transept,” you said, pointing to a set of stone stairs that ascended into darkness. “I imagine what is left of his work will be there.”

I followed you to my father’s office, and for the first time I could gaze upon the secret work my father had undertaken for twenty years. In the tiny, cramped space I could see papers covered in your writing, in those same, strange shapes, and I picked up a tome from the polished wooden desk, marked with my father’s name, and as I flicked through the pages, I saw what I needed to know – your language and mine, side by side.

“This is it,” I said quietly, and you collected papers from the desk, and I so desperately wanted to leave this office, this tomb of my father’s legacy, and I rushed out into the corridor so quickly that you barely had the time to register it. My boots thudded on the floor as I hurried down the corridor, hugging the book to my breast as you followed me.

Suddenly your arms were around my chest, crushing my ribcage in your grip, and you pulled me back into the shadow of an alcove as I heard the sound of footsteps and voices, and a small group entered the corridor.

“I wonder how much of his gold is left,” one man said.

“Probably little. His daughter has most likely spent it all. He was always too soft.”

“She keeps his Clockwork One in her own house, did you know?” another said, his voice dripping with a sickening glee. “She has even named it. Do you think she knows of the danger?”

“I do not think she cares,” one woman piped up, almost jovial. “But it will be her own undoing. She only endangers herself.”

“I’m sorry,” you whispered, as the group, dressed in black, passed us without noticing our presence. My heart, squashed behind my ribs, was banging like a wild thing. “If they see me here they will try to take me away from you.”

I did not move, and all I could feel was the ticking of your heart in the metal cage you called a chest, and I finally looked up at you, and even though you were in the shadow I could make out the line of your face, and I hated those Timekeepers who would sneer at me and my choice to keep you, and I reached up and pulled you towards me.

 

IV.

A Clockwork man will never die,
But in written words he can never lie.

I would not let them take you.

I slowly learned my father’s methods, scribbling out clunky, awkward sentences that only caught the wisps of the truth you had written down.

“Can you not speak them to me?” I pleaded, but you shook your head.

“My mouth cannot be trusted. You know the rhymes, you know that I must write down all my truths.”

I scrawled on, copying your diagrams with my badly-translated labels, and I forget when those nights of writing turned to nights of your arms around me and your mouth on mine. The villagers stared at me in the market-place, at the orphaned girl who fancied herself a Timekeeper and lived with a man made of metal, and I let them look at me because I was proud and I was complete again. My work was slow but my father’s fortune was plentiful, and I never had to buy you food but you sat with me and watched me eat at every meal. You never left the house but they all knew of you, and soon children goggled in our windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fairy-tale, but the only fairy-tale they saw was that of true love’s kiss.

“My father said that you cannot love,” I told you one night, and the fire that burned in front of us illuminated your face with an orange glow. I touched your cheek, you were almost warm. “That none of you can. The stories say it, too. Is it true?”

You reached down for the papers you had cast aside for the evening, and picked up the quill and ink, and you wrote something in your scratchy language, and you handed the paper to me. The fire burned in your ice-blue eyes, and I looked down at the symbols covering the sheet, and even with my shaky knowledge of your words I knew what they meant.

 

V.

A Clockwork man has no need for breath,
And he’ll never know true love or death.

I was wrapped in my white sheets and your white arms, and there was light streaming through the curtains, and your eyes were open as they’d always been, as they’ll always be.

“What are you thinking about?” you asked as I stared at the ceiling.

“Nothing.” And it was true. My mind was quiet and all I could hear was the ticking of your heart. I wondered what you thought about. Did you think at all, with your brain of cogs and screws?

But even with a mind of metal and a heart of silver, you chose to love me.

I pulled myself from the bed. My white dress lay crumpled on the floor where you had peeled it from me, and I made myself decent again, smoothing out the wrinkles of the skirt, and twisting my long hair into a braid that I pinned about my head and threaded with flowers. I sat in front of the mirror, crowned with posies, and I had never felt beautiful but you had made me radiant.

Your hands landed on my shoulders, and you crouched behind my wooden chair and pressed your glass lips to the base of my neck. Metal and glass. That is what you were, that is all you’ll ever be. I will be dust in the ground one day, and you will stay young and polished, as long as your silver heart ticks.

“Where did you come from?” I whispered to the mirror.

“Somewhere far away.” You brushed my arm with your fingertips. “Somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore.”

It was the first time I asked you that, and I asked you every morning after. And you always gave me the same response. I don’t know why I asked over and over. I think I found solace in the way you wouldn’t change, the way you always answered with the same exact words.

Every morning I woke entangled in your arms and every morning came the same exchange. Every morning I saw that your eyes were as wide as they’d ever be, never needing to close.

But one day it was different.

“What is marriage?” you asked me, your hands lying flat on the wood of the table.

I almost choked on my bread.

“What? Why do you ask?”

“I have heard the word many times. The children talk of it when they linger at the windows, asking if the orphan girl will marry the Clockwork One.” You looked pensive, almost wistful.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a human ceremony.” I tucked one curl of my hair back behind my ear. “It’s what people do when they love each other. When they want to be together forever.”

“Is it the ultimate expression of love?” you asked, and I was taken aback by the determination in your voice, as if this was the only question you had ever wanted to ask.

“I…” I could not meet your eye for a moment, but then I did, and your blue gaze was soft. “I suppose it is.”

There was silence for a moment, and all I could hear was the tick of your heart. Or maybe it was the clock. Your eyes held me.

“Should we wed?”

I thought of the rhymes, and I thought of the stories, and I thought of those Timekeepers in the cathedral and their sneering, and I thought of you and your arms around me in the middle of the night, and I thought of my father, and how empty this house would be without you.

I think you already knew what I would say. Maybe that is why you said it.

 

VI.

If a maid should fall for a Clockwork man
Then forever will her soul be damned.

Do you know how many days we spent together? I counted them all.

Two hundred and seventy-nine. And on the two hundred and seventy-ninth day, you married me at the Saint’s Hill Church, with only a graveyard for a witness, and a priest who did not know that he was joining a beating heart to a ticking one.

If he had known, he would have told me to run.

 

VII.

If a Clockwork man takes you to wed
Then you shall surely end up dead.

It is our wedding night and you are in love with me.

“I love you, I do,” you said as you stood at the window, and I sat on the bed in my nightgown, and waited for you to come to me.

And I am still waiting, and you are unmoving, your posture as stiff as your metal bones. The clock strikes midnight and finally you turn and come to me, and there are tears in your glass eyes, the water clouding the surface so I can no longer see the cogs that turn behind your irises.

I never knew that you could cry.

“I have given you all I can,” you whisper as you sit beside me, and slip your cold hand into mine. “This is all the happiness I can offer you.”

“I don’t understand,” I respond, but your lips have met mine and you are pushing me back onto the bed. I try to sit up but you block me, forcing me back down onto the bedcovers.

“Chance, wait-”

“I don’t want this,” you are saying in that cracked whisper, and before I can ask why, you give me a small kiss, and pin me down by my shoulders. “I love you, but I have given you all I can. I have given you the ultimate confession of love; I can give you no more happiness, and I can no longer protect you from this world.”

“I-”

And your hands that once caressed me, they are diamond claws around my neck, and you have pain in your clockwork eyes and I know you are still filled with love, but it is a love that I do not understand, and your mind is not made for this world of flesh and bone. You belong to the dark and the metal and the glass, not to me.

“The Timekeepers craved your father’s riches,” you whisper, as I feel the veins on my temple begin to strain against the skin. “They would have stolen it all. I only sought to protect him from their envy.”

If I could speak I would ask you how my father died, but I am choking and I can see it in your alabaster face, the cracked ice and the black water and you, waiting like a drowned ghost, your hand dragging him down into the depths of Spectre Lake. You don’t need to breathe, and my father was a Timekeeper, and Timekeepers can never afford to be clumsy.

“I love you, Susannah,” you are saying, but my vision is blurring and I can no longer see you properly. “I will protect you from the evils of this world.”

Your grip tightens on my airway and the world around me fades to grey. You have written your truth in red around my neck, and I know what it says, even in that language that I still cannot completely understand.

I love you.

Banana Bread (1/2/16)

I haven’t been posting poetry as I’ve been writing new material and editing for my poetry collection, but here’s a quick short story I wrote as an exercise for my Art and Craft of Fiction class.

“You have another letter from your sister,” your mother says as I close the door behind me. She hands me a beige envelope, her eyes glazed, and I go to my room with it, glancing at the front of it as I do so. Postmark says it’s come from Berlin, over a thousand miles from your last letter. No return address.

Your mother’s been baking banana bread in the kitchen, and I can still smell it even with my bedroom door shut. I wonder if you miss banana bread. Surely you must. You made your mother make it for you all the time way back when, and you were the worst at baking, so making it for yourself is out of the question. It’s not like they sell the stuff in stores, not your mother’s kind anyway – you’d make quips about the amount of cinnamon that your mother uses in her baking. You’d say that if you went to the border with it, you’d get stopped for trying to smuggle spices. Maybe that’s why you didn’t take any with you when you went off to the train station that night. Well, maybe.

I have not opened your letter yet. It took me three days to open the last one, trying to prolong it for as much as possible. Your mother has turned on the radio in the kitchen and I can hear her singing off-key to that Sinatra song she loves so much. If you were here, you’d turn it off or change the station to some incomprehensible rave music, or whatever that weird electronic stuff that you like is. I’ve never been good with music, but I still have all those CDs you left.

But I haven’t got as much self-control this time.

Max, you have scrawled in your gigantic loopy writing. Everything has been a whirlwind. How’s Mum doing? Wait, don’t answer that. Not that you can. I tried spätzle today. It had sausage and lentils with it – tasted like ass. I can see why we don’t eat German food more often. Aaron said it was brilliant but he’s a tool.

If he’s such a tool, leave him.

We’ve got a couple of other places planned. Say hi to the old fart for me, will you? I know he doesn’t want to hear from me but it’d make me feel better to know that I can still piss him off.

Love you. Savannah xx

Short and simple like always. I toss it on my desk and sit down on the corner of my bed. I think about what Dad’s face would be like if I could tell him that his step-daughter had sent her regards. I keep a picture of you and me and him on my desk, when I was ten and you were twelve and Dad was less angry. You still have scabby knees and pigtails.

I try to imagine your face as you wrote this letter. Your writing wobbles at times, German almost illegible, and I see you sitting on a bus, huddled in your winter coat as you lean on your backpack and scrawl the letter with a biro. Maybe you posted it on your way to the airport, with Aaron by your side, wittering on as he always does. I wonder if he still has that stupid goatee. I bet he does.

Your mother sticks her head around the door.

“I made banana bread,” she says, like I don’t know this already. But that’s not why she’s here. “How is Savannah?”

“She’s fine. Like always.”

“No address this time?” your mother says hopefully, approaching my desk. Her fingers are inching towards your letter. If she was smarter she’d have steamed it open before I got home, or she could even have just read it herself and never given it to me. I twitch it out of her reach, not trying to hide that I don’t want her hands on it.

“She’s always on the move.” I pick the envelope up and shut it in my drawer. There’s a slight slam as it closes, and your mother blinks.

“Well. I wish you’d be a bit nicer, Max,” she says, her pale eyes watering a little. She doesn’t look like you. You’re prettier than her. “We’ve only got each other now.”

She leaves the room before I can tell her, I never asked to have you.

I didn’t ask for her eight years ago and I didn’t ask to be left with her when you boarded a midnight train. I didn’t ask to spend the rest of my college years in a cramped apartment because I can’t afford to move out after I quit my job at the drive-thru and I let your mother use half my college fund to pay the medical bills. I did it for him, not her.

I did it because you weren’t here and you should have been.

I yank open the drawer again now that your mother’s gone back to her Sinatra, and flick through the envelopes I’ve put there. You write often, I can’t fault that. My fingers skim over faded postmarks. Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, France, Russia, Australia. You always said you’d be an explorer but I thought you’d take me with you. But you ran away with a rich boy who stole from his parents to fund your great escape, and you left me behind.

You never got on with Dad, I know. He wasn’t yours and you weren’t his, and your mother wasn’t mine and I wasn’t hers. But they loved each other for some inexplicable reason, and we were friends and that made perfect sense. I knew it was his fault, he got so mad at you and Aaron after you stayed out half an hour past your curfew even when you called to say you’d be late. And it was the last straw for you, wasn’t it, you slammed the door behind you with the finality of I’m never coming back.

But that was over a year ago now, and you weren’t here when Dad got cancer of the bile duct, and I know you’d think it as stupid as I did, but stupid diseases with stupid names take lives too and you didn’t have to quit your job and comfort your step-mother while your father wasted away. And I could never let you know that he asked for you nineteen times (I counted) in his last week because you never leave a damn address, you never stay in the same place. You don’t even know he’s dead and I can’t tell you because you won’t let me.

The door opens.

“Here you are,” my step-mother says, and hands me a plate of banana bread. It’s still warm, fresh from the oven, smells like cinnamon. She shuts the door behind her so quickly that the draught ruffles my hair.

I look at the picture of you and me and Dad. I close my drawer again. I pick up a piece of the banana bread.

I eat it.

Darren (26/12/14)

The zombie apocalypse genre is one of my favourite media genres – I love The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, all that stuff – so I wrote my own short zombie apocalypse micro-story. This is a little old, found it in my notes.

Darren isn’t listening. He hasn’t listened for a long time.
I’ve been clawing at the wood for hours, and now my fingers are all bloody. Or maybe they were already bloody. I don’t even know anymore.
Why won’t you let me in?
Mum’s gone now. So has Dad. I don’t really know what happened. All I know is that Mum never came home from the supermarket and Darren put an axe in the back of Dad’s head one Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t long after that that Darren stopped talking to me.
But I’ve got to try. He’s my brother, for God’s sake.
Fists pounding on the door. I can’t turn the handle, my hands are too slippery with blood. I don’t know whose blood it is.
I try screaming for him, but he won’t respond. I know he’s in there, he’s trapped, maybe, and I need to help him. I need to get him out. We both need to leave; this town isn’t safe anymore.
My throat is sore now. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for days, and I know that I stink. There’s crusty brown stuff on my shirt, and the bottoms of my jeans are ripped. I haven’t been able to change. I went out to get supplies a few days ago, and there was an attack. I only just made it home. I know he’s in there. I can hear the music playing. Angry rap stuff, like he always likes to play.
But he won’t answer me.
I fear the worst. Maybe one of those things got in. Ripped his throat out and now he’s lying in a pool of his own blood. No. I heard someone moving around inside, but now there’s nothing. Maybe he became like them. Like Dad did.
Dad went crazy pretty quickly. He’d been attacked on the way home from work – muggers, he’d said – but it didn’t take long for death to claim him. And what happened next was even weirder – he’d been officially dead for about five minutes and then it was like someone had plugged him into the mains. He went batshit. Kicking, grabbing for us, biting at me and ripping out the doctor’s intestines before Darren grabbed that fire axe and nearly severed Dad’s head from his neck.
There’s a shuffling noise, and I know Darren’s by the door. I can smell something. He’s got food. I’m so hungry – I haven’t eaten anything for a day and a half. It smells like meat. My stomach growls.
I slap my palm against the door, hands slick with red stuff, and I try the knob again, but I still can’t turn it. It’s only when I give up and let it go that it starts to move, and there’s a click as the door starts to open, and I almost throw myself inside.
He looks like death.
Darren stands in the doorway, his face white as a sheet. There’s dried blood matted in his hair, and his clothes are dirty and torn. The rap music blares, disorientating me for a second, but not before I notice the axe raised in his hand.
“I’m sorry, sis,” he finally chokes out, before he buries it in my skull.

Creative Writing Response to an Image (30/11/2011)

Sadly I have lost the original image that I was given for this piece, but it was very simple – a medieval painting of a group of men sitting around a table with various books and manuscripts in front of them. They looked to be discussing something.
This piece was written as part of my application to Royal Holloway University for a Creative Writing degree – they must have liked it, because I was offered a place, though I ultimately decided not to go there.

“This book, it is complete and utter tripe,”
Said the first, a well-learnéd man of wealth.
“Guidelines on how to live a moral life.
My mind is already in perfect health.”

“You misunderstand the author’s intent,”
His companion, the second rich man, said.
“He means that with our possessions we must be content.
For we only have them so long before we are dead.”

”You’re both wrong,” The third, a scientist, broke
“He shows us that objects have no value
To the living or the dead, any mortal folk
To him, not even him, or me, or you.”

“May I suggest,” said the fourth, so slowly,
“That it symbolises God’s Kingdom come?”
“You may not,” the fifth, the merchant, told him.
“Your claim is irrelevant, you are wrong.”

Then the servant, who had come to assist,
Looked at the page with a sudden idea.
“Excuse me.” He held up the manuscript
“But does it not show the recipe for beer?”