* Winner of the 2018 Story of the Year Award *
When was your first? That is always what we ask one another. When and what? When in your life was that moment, the time that revealed the world to you and sent you scurrying under the bed sheets? When I think back, the thing I always remember is the house. Not the inside, where the shadows gathered and hid. Those memories came later. I remember the front, the black and white Tudor facade with roses growing around the door, and the crunch of a gravel driveway under car tyres. God only knows how my father afforded such a place, although I suspect the Devil might have a better idea. Not a grand house, but beautiful and caught in my memory in a moment of eternal summer. Memory can be an ironic little bastard when it wants to be.
We moved there when I was about eight. I don’t remember much before that, which is odd as eight is old enough. I know some people who claim to have memories of their time as babies, of flashes of food upon their tongue, the smile of a mother’s face. I don’t have any of that. Mother never really smiled much in any case; she never seemed up to the challenge. Father laughed all the time, a laugh which echoed around that house and bounced from basement to rafter. The days there were full of laughter, though I didn’t join in.
My room overlooked the garden, such as it was, fenced in on all sides by the encroaching houses of modernity. I liked to watch the moon shining on that small patch of grass. But soon I couldn’t see out the window. There were too many handprints on it. Father got very angry about those. He said I was being naughty, that I shouldn’t make such a mess, and didn’t I know how much it cost to clean windows? Then he would laugh and raise his fist. I said nothing, through the tears. I hadn’t touched the glass. The hands had just appeared.
As the clock struck midnight, Feng-jing shifted in his chair. He was having a small snack, just a bite of sticky rice cake, when the wooden chair lifted up and he soared out the window. His sweater sleeve snagged on a branch, but he barely felt the rip. He dropped his half-eaten cake. “Hey,” he heard from below, as the pastry hit the helmet of a motorcyclist. His heart palpitated as the breeze whipped his black locks.
“Dad!” he yelled. No response.
The chair dodged Taipei’s various glowing signs and street lamps. As Feng-jing passed above lanterns held by a single string at the temple front, he remembered that thin thread of bracelet on the fortune teller’s wrist. Years ago, Mom took him to the night market, like she did every Friday. She had her fortune read and, on that day, made him do it too. She ushered him into the crammed booth. All he wanted was a scallion pancake, but as he looked at the fortune teller’s gaunt face, he shivered and forgot about that flaky treat. He wrote his name for her, at her request, in his messy elementary scrawl: 馮敬 Feng-jing. The fortune teller stared at it, her lips unmoving.
She looked at him with luminous eyes, “Twelve/twelve,” she said finally, tracing the strokes, counting them aloud. “Your twelfth year, when the hours are even – twelve/twelve – you will realize what you long suspected.”
I don’t have magic. And I don’t smell either. Well, not smell in the sense of pee, or BO. In fact, if Mum didn’t insist all her phoney potions need a drop of jasmine or sandalwood, I wouldn’t smell of anything other than lavender shower gel.
I’m reminding myself, so that when I see Miss Snippy-tits – sorry, Miss Snippleton, the headmistress who makes Hades look like fun – I have my story straight.
God, I hate to be called by my full name. I get to my feet and face the secretary and make myself breathe calmly.
“Yes, Miss.” They’re all Miss. It’s the only way I remember them.
“You can go in now.” She manages to make it sound like a favour.
I went there to kill myself, not to solve the mystery.
I kind of hoped it was true, that there really were ghosts in the old railroad warehouse. Maybe they would grab my soul and keep it there, and I could hang around and see if anyone missed me. Then again, leaving was the point. Nothing good would ever happen in this shit town.
The stories had been going around for weeks, bigger every time because people here did nothing but talk. Odd flashing lights. Noises – rattling, a dog barking, a baby crying. They said the ghosts of the old railroad’s dead had come back to ride the warehouse down into hell.
I said this town was hell, and it was just trying to get away like the rest of us. Besides, the reservoir was its destination; the river had eroded lower and lower into the canyon over the decades, leaving the warehouse perched on the edge of its seat, waiting for something to happen. One of these days, the warehouse would escape. Tonight it was my turn.
Victor sat on the edge of the bed, surrounded by underwear and socks and ladies’ things that he wasn’t quite sure what they were or where they were meant to go exactly. He frowned and blinked once, slowly. He tore his gaze away from the chest of drawers and wondered if he should call his wife…
…Elsa lost socks. Not purposely – it was just something that happened, something that happened to everybody, so she didn’t mind or take any particular notice. Except when she had to buy new socks, or worse, when socks she’d just bought went missing. There was nothing worse than being mildly inconvenienced. Elsa lost other things too, on occasion, but Victor always remarked upon the missing socks. There were supposed to be two socks after all, a pair, so one sock on its own was not right.
“Connor, put that down, poppet, there’s a good boy,” Elsa said, looking away from her washing basket for long enough to stop her grandson swallowing one of her Wade Whimsies. It was the owl one too, her favourite. She would hate for him to swallow that one.
She cleaned toddler drool from the porcelain owl and set it back on her Welsh dresser before lifting Connor from his chair and placing him on the kitchen floor. He gurgled happily, said, “Na na na,” and then proceeded to pull dirty laundry from the basket.
The muttering and murmuring of a thousand angelic voices filled the stark white space. Seleniel smiled at the newbie and patted the chair beside her. “Come, sit down.” She picked up her headset and switched on her computer. “Our shift starts in a minute. It’s 5 a.m. on the US East Coast. That’s our region. What was your name again?”
“Amiel.” The newbie sat, adjusting her bright new halo self-consciously.
“Welcome to comms central,” Seleniel said warmly. “So, did they explain the job?”
“We… warn people of things?” Amiel answered hesitantly. “The mortals, we pass them messages?”
“That’s right. We catch them when they’re in that in-between state, not quite asleep, not quite awake. That’s why they call us the Dawn Chorus. It’s remarkably effective. The mortals never listen when they’re conscious, and they always seem to forget their dreams. But at the awakening… It’s perfect.”
Dawn. The time of day when the sky is a dangerous shade of red; day has almost arrived but night has not yet left. I’d been out all night and not caught a damn thing. In fact, all I’d managed to do was lose my best knife down a drain and get a bat caught in my hair. Okay, it didn’t get caught – it just startled me.
Monster hunting’s supposed to be glamorous. I was bitten by a ghoul last week and my arm damn near went septic.
I jumped down off the wall I’d sat on and made my way home. I’d have to sharpen up a knife from the kitchen and use that. I didn’t have time during the day to go to the supermarket, and unfortunately my local Monster Hunter’s Hardware Supply Shop doesn’t exist.
I was shattered and wanted my bed, and preferably a hot drink as I was bloody freezing and had pretty much lost all feeling in my toes.
The watcher was back, an unseen presence that sent prickles of warning racing across Eilish’s skin. The horse fidgeted and snatched at the bit until Eilish soothed her with a hand on her neck.
‘Easy, Lady. It’s just me being silly.’ She glanced at her wristwatch and turned for home with a slight shiver.
The girl had the look of his Eithne: creases at the corners of eyes that easily smiled, and the toss of a head that cared not for convention. The watcher’s earth-chained spirit had felt no warmth or cold for three hundred years, but loneliness? Yes, he felt that.
On the evening it began, the Internet was acting strangely. Backgrounds were darker. Icons jittered nervously. Response was slow, like a plodding zombie. Judy could barely read the latest inspirational and politically charged memes from her Facebook “friends.” Feeling out of touch with the world, she reluctantly reached for the shutdown button. That’s when she received the first tweet.
It was a simple message from her old friend Molly: “I’m coming to see you, Judy.”
Normally this would delight her. Molly was one of her dearest and oldest friends. The problem was Molly had passed away over three months ago. She had actually seen Molly in the casket.
Admittedly Judy was a Twitter novice. She did not fully understand all the ins and outs of the ‘Twitterverse’. So when she received this tweet, she was not initially concerned.
At first she was confused. Could old tweets hang around and get recycled from time to time? Maybe it was a Twitter glitch. Then she grew gradually more disturbed and kicked herself for not shutting down her laptop sooner. Now she would have to go to bed with that chilling message haunting her thoughts. How was she going to sleep?
Captain Dunstan heard the footsteps approaching his cell. He eased himself off his prison cot and rubbed his forehead. A prison guard stopped outside and opened the cell door. A priest entered, followed by a tall man in black robes who carried a thick scroll in his hands. Captain Dunstan almost laughed, but decided he hadn’t the energy to do so. “My sins?” he asked, nodding towards the scroll. “You sure it’s thick enough?”
The tall man didn’t answer. The priest held out his hand towards the captain. A bracelet of prayer beads dangled from the priest’s fingers. Dunstan shook his head.
The priest spoke softly. “Take them my son. They shall be a comfort to you.”
Dunstan glanced at the priest’s face, then down at the beads. There was little point in offending a man of the cloth. He gave a shrug and took the beads. “Thank you,” he murmured.
The priest nodded, made a Sign of the Hand. “Use each bead, for each question,” he said. He gave a curt bow and exited the cell. Dunstan watched him leave. What questions? And where were his last rites? Was he to die without a blessing?
“Are you ready, prisoner?” The tall man asked, unfurling the scroll.