|Posted on October 20, 2010 at 7:09 PM|
Frank Drummond left his house a little before six pm, just like he’d done almost every night of his adult life. He kissed his wife goodbye on the doorstep, still happy that she was there to kiss and making the same promise he made every night.
“I’ll be back by dawn, love. I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Then he closed the door and waited until he heard her turn all three locks and slide the half-dozen timed deadbolts into place. They wouldn’t release until five-thirty tomorrow morning, half an hour after the sun rose and it was safe to rely on the locks alone, about an hour before he’d get home again. Walking down the short garden path, barely aware of the dead, black earth where his immaculate lawn and carefully tended rose bushes had been forty-odd years ago, he was a little sad that she couldn’t stand on the doorstep and watch him go to work the way she had before The Change. It was only a twinge of sadness, no greater than a hundred other twinges that afflicted his heart every day but it was always the one that brought him closest to tears.
The gate hinges squeaked as he closed it behind him and he made a mental note to spend part of his next day off repairing it. His was the only house left on Collinsbrook Street with a gate and keeping it working was almost more effort than it was worth but Frank applied himself to it with the same diligence he’d once applied to his lawn and rose bushes. He also made sure that his window frames and doors were painted once a year and every six months or so he went out with a pressure hose and washed the filth from the bricks. Everyone thought he was a kook but no matter how bad the world around him got Frank knew it was important to keep his home looking nice. He just wished it was still safe to have glass in the windows but it was either the unsightly metal security plates or consigning himself and his wife to dying in their sleep.
Turning left he started along the pavement, stepping carefully to avoid tripping over the shattered paving stones or stepping in the regular piles of excrement, both animal and human. Before The Change no-one would have been prepared to allow the long, terraced road to sink into such a disgusting state and it had taken Collinsbrook a few years longer than the rest of town to give up but it had been inevitable, just like the eventual destruction of the entire town. Frank knew that but even so, every few weeks or so he went out and cleared the area in front of his house and the two on either side of waste and weeds, carrying the mess in plastic bags to the far end of the street where the corner house had become the local trash site. Sometimes a few of the other dozen or so families still clinging to life here would come out and help him, trying to recapture a community spirit they either vaguely remembered or had heard about from long-dead parents or grandparents. But that was getting rarer and rarer. Most of the time it was only his job that let Frank know there were still other people, real people, living anywhere in town but he never brought his work to Collingsbrook.
A dozen homes in a street that had nearly two hundred tightly packed houses, split evenly down either side of the street. Frank often wondered what his own grandparents would think if they could see the street they’d moved into when it was newly built in the 1890’s. The humble but proud two-up,two-downs had been constructed for the dock workers, a vital part of the town’s success in the greatest days of the British Empire. He didn’t think even his grandfather’s dedication to accepting change would have been able to tolerate the decay and rot, even though it was that dedication that had inspired Frank to keep living, to keep trying every day since The Change. To embrace his new job as fully as he’d embraced his first career down at the docks.
Halfway along the street he passed the gap where number fifty-two had been destroyed by a Nazi bomb in 1941. When he’d been a child, growing up with the post-war rations and the terror of imminent worldwide nuclear war, Frank and his brothers had used the gap in the terrace with the other children to escape into the hills around the town. For a few years in the sixties and seventies,before The Change, the local council had maintained a play-park on the slope behind the houses. Once upon a time Frank and his wife had daydreamed about their own children and grandchildren going there to play.
The skeletons of the swings and slides were still up there, accessible by a narrow track that led through the rubble of numbers fifty and fifty-four after fire damage made them collapse into the gap twenty odd years ago, but only the punx ever went there. Punx and Bogeymen, but no-one ever spoke about the Bogeymen. Even the punx, the violent, ill-educated youths that formed the greater part of society, were scared of the Bogeymen. Frank and Gerry, his only co-worker since The Change, made sure that the semi-rabid hooligans stayed scared, but it was getting harder all the time to inspire real fear. Long familiarity with anything breeds contempt, unless it was something truly special like Frank shared with his wife.
Night started to fall as he passed the foetid stink of number two, the trash site,and turned left again to follow Beaconsfield Road into town. No-one at all lived on Beaconsfield these days, not even the wrethched itinerant squatters who often took up residence in the wrecked hovels of Collinsbrook when the punx were ensconced somewhere else in town; the two groups slowly swapped sides of town about once every six months, the punx moving into the houses the squatters, clinging to the last vestiges of humanity, made semi-liveable.
The long terraces that ran down each side for half the length of Beaconsfield were little more than shells since fire ran unchecked along them three years after The Change and it was no surprise to Frank to see that another section of wall had collapsed in the few hours since he walked home that morning. Further down, closer to the centre of town the terraces gave way to semi-detached structures, he and his wife had once started a savings account to buy one for their planned family. Some of them were burnt out shells like the terraces but most were still largely intact, with a little work on sagging roofs they’d be perfectly viable as homes again but no-one, not even the punx were willing to use them as anything more than a stopping off point.
TheBogeymen liked to haunt Beaconsfield Road and although no-one mentioned it aloud everyone in town knew to avoid the area after dark. It was a fear Frank felt proud of, an obvious example of how he was protecting his little corner of his hometown. No-one knew the role he played, not even his wife and Gerry only suspected, but it was something he felt proud of anyway. His parents had always taught him that other people didn’t need to know what you’d done for you to take pride in it; if a person needed that acknowledgment then it was vanity and not pride at work in their heart and mind. His only regret, on that front, was that he hadn’t been able to extend that aura of protection along all the other terraced streets like Collinsbrook that sprouted from Beaconsfield Road, but it was all he could do to keep the one thoroughfare clear and his own street semi-civilised. No-one except punx and the like lived down any of the other streets now, mostly kept away from his street by the fear of Beaconsfield and the steep hills either side of Collinsbrook. The regular visits to the old play-park, for all the drugs and alcohol involved, were barbaric, hedonistic initiation rites.
It was the steep, short hills that had always defined the town, ever since the Saxons built the first settlement in the Dark Ages. They formed a small maze of long, narrow valleys all leading towards the coast and the enormous natural harbour that had inspired those Saxons and every subsequent generation to live and work here. Initially a fishing port the industrial revolution had turned the town into a hub for shipping of all types but the hills had saved the town from turning into a sprawling metropolis like Liverpool – without levelling entire hills there was no way for the town to spread like those others but the harbour and it’s excellent location on so many sea-lanes made it impossible for the town not to become a hub. Everything from slaves and coal had entered and left the country through the town, nothing staying longer than a few days before it was shipped out or taken further inland by train. Trade had only increased when Brunel built tunnels that ploughed for miles under the hills until they emerged in the flatter lands to the North and West.
Even in the sorry state it now existed in Frank was proud of his town, proud of the history and the way it had survived The Change better than any other town or city in the country, none of the new megalopolises had been built on the blighted wastelands of the old ones. He was even prouder of his own part in that survival, in recent years he had even taken to daydreaming about telling someone, his wife or just some random stranger, about everything he had done, about the choice he had made and the perfect contentment he felt with it. Someone other than Gerry who had different, disturbing reasons for the choice he’d made. Frank knew he couldn’t, not unless he wanted the town to die with him, but he sometimes wished people knew he was more than some crazy old man clinging to the last vestiges of a world long since gone.
He wished they could understand why it was better to live in the ruins of a real town than New Garden City, the biggest of Britain’s three new cities. Instead they wished that the obscene, sprawling mass would spread across the scant fifty miles separating them and consume them in it a flat landscape of steel and concrete, the only acknowledgment of nature and the way the world had been the places where they couldn’t tame the ocean and had to follow something like the old coastline..
Reaching the end of Beaconsfield Road, at the bottom of Crosskeys Valley, Frank turned onto Priory Hill. It was a steep climb, the road curving as it dealt with the gradient. The broken shells of once grand houses clung to the side of the road, the vanity statements of people who hadn’t been rich enough to buy land with a sea view. They were the types of houses that the postal service had known by numbers but had been given names by the builders anyway, pointless widow’s walks staring from the side of one hill to another. Most seaside towns had them, pretentious statements of moderate wealth, but only Frank’s town had stopped the punx moving in and turning them into fortified compounds. It was something else he could feel proud about, although most of the work had been done by Gerry, his pyromaniac tendencies delighting in returning to set fire to the husks again and again.
At the top of Priory Hill Frank reached the spot where he and Gerry had been standing when it happened, forty-two years ago. He stopped as he did everyday and looked at the scene, holding the image of past glory against the destruction of the present. Carefully, reverentially, he took a small metal case from the inside pocket of his jacket and took out his last cigarette. It was forty-two years old and incredibly delicate but he held it in his fingers as if he was going to light it. Then he touched it to his lips, closing his eyes like a Catholic kissing a holy relic and returned it to the protective padding inside the case. Smoking was one of the smallest things he missed about the world before The Change but it was also one of the most important, if only because the simple act of smoking a cigarette was one of the most radically different.
Through a combination of chance and circumstance this spot, where Priory Hill reached its apex and plunged down into the town centre, was the best place to see the town in its entirety. Almost directly above the entrance to Brunel’s tunnels – still standing strong after decades of abuse and neglect – you could look down the slopes to the centre of town. On either side the massive sea cliffs rose; the ruins of a Norman castle on the Eastern side and a Napoleonic fort on the other. They framed the harbour, the advantages of nature enhanced by colossal sea-walls, where the half-sunk wrecks of cargo-ships and a cruise-liner stood as mute testimony to the ferocity of The Change. Between the towering cliffs was the town, only the half-destroyed spire of St. Martin’s church remaining as an indication of how it had once looked. The rest was rubble, a twisted mass of stone and metal that looked like the ruins of Stalingrad in 1943. Frank knew people still lived down there, feral mutants and degenerates but even he didn’t dare hunt in the ruins. Like the Morlocks, they were left alone so long as they didn’t stray from their realm. In his mind at least, he knew the punx liked to hunt for fun and food in the ruins. They said mutant flesh had a natural spice, called them Jalapenos even though none of them had ever even seen a real chilli let alone tasted one.
Placing the case with his last cigarette back in his inner pocket Frank took a deep breath and waited for twilight to end and the new darkness to start. As he did every working day he wondered what it would be like if the town faced West, if the sunset still looked like it used to. He knew he only had to turn around, face the other way, and he’d have the answer but to do so would violate the agreement he and Gerry had made. Maybe when his wife died, which couldn’t be long now they were both closer to eighty than anything else, he’d turn and see the setting sun one more time but not before. He was curious to know why it was so important to them that he never see the sunset, but he had never been more than a little tempted to break the covenant. It was one of the reasons they’d chosen him, he had no real imagination but the kind of civic pride that still made him clean shit from the ruined street he lived on.
The Change started innocuously, just mist rising from the sea as it often did. The far horizon deepened to the darkest blue, the few moments between the black descent of night and the emergence of the early stars. He’d been watching it with Gerry, arguing about how many stars light pollution really obscured and whether the Americans had really landed on the Moon, even if the Russians said they did and there was no reason at all for them to confirm the event, unless you wanted to be a fascist and endorse the Protocols of Zion. It had been a familiar conversation, one they tossed back and forth the same way they argued about who was the better songwriter– Lennon or McCartney – and which Bond girl they’d fuck first – Lumley or Seymour.
“That’s strange,” Gerry’s eyes had always been better than Frank’s and he’d seen the purple hue of the mist first. “I ain’t seen nothin’ like that before.”
“Probably just some ship’s lights, refracting in the mist or something.”
“Nah, mate. That’s something else.”
A bolt of lightning arced from the purple mist on the horizon, both Frank and Gerry saw it emerge and follow the curve of the sky until it slammed into the town hall. The explosion that followed shook the ground under their feet and the flash of light that followed blinded them both for a few seconds as they fell to the ground screaming, waiting for the deadly blast to kill them where they cowered, ducking and covering even though they knew it was a futile endeavour.
“It’s the fucking Russians!” Gerry screamed, his bulging eyes and the smell of the piss and shit running down his legs the first things Frank registered as he regained his senses, shortly before he smelt the mess in his own trousers. “The fucking cunt Russians!”
Frank started to agree but through the railings designed to stop drunkards and children toppling down the steep embankment and onto the tracks he saw what was really happening. Words failed him but Gerry understood enough from the wide eyes and frantic pointing to look at what was making his friend scrabble backwards like a dog scratching its arse.
“Fuck me Jesus,” Gerry moaned as he saw The Change start to reach full force. “It’s the second fucking coming, mate. We’re fucked.”
Emanating from the strange mist on the horizon the sky was turning the angry, livid purple of a severe bruise, streaks of jet black and putrid green shooting out into the retreating daylight like fingers. More lightning fell from the jagged ends of the fingers, laying waste to the ships in the harbour before spreading out across the town. Distantly, through the roar of thunder and the exploding gas mains they could hear people screaming. Even the stars and the rising full moon were blotted out by the pulsating monstrosity, like the non-light of a disco’s UV lighting. Dark light, showing details and shapes without really illuminating anything, that’s how Frank always thought of how the sky looked that night.
“What have they fucking made?!” Gerry screamed, trying to get up and run but finding his legs turned to jelly and achieving nothing more than loosing two teeth and breaking his own nose on a kerbstone. “Oh, God, fucking help me! I never did nothing real bad!”
The strip of purple mist on the horizon had moved closer and Frank could see that it looked more like a thundercloud than anything else, just one that was every shade of black, yellow, green and purple a bruise can go, clinging to the surface of the ocean. Sheets of lightning rippled across the surface, each one seeming to lurch the cloud closer to the shore or bulge it further into the sky. The black and green fingers shot out in every direction, Frank was sure he saw ships sailing through the channel burst into flames and shoot into the sky before they were sucked into the hideous mass. It looked how he’d always imagined The Blob had in the writers mind, before a poor budget and hopeless special effects combined to make the worst movie of Steve McQueen’s career. Malevolent, enormous and eternally hungry.
“Thatt hing’s moving fast,” he said, his words barely audible in his own ears as the wind started to howl around them. He tried to grab his friend, pick him up so they could run, but his limbs were useless jelly too, he gained a slight lisp that lasted the rest of his life when he mashed his chin against the kerb. “Gerry,” he screamed into the wind, blood spraying from his shredded lips. “We’re fucked.”
He had one last look at his town, the streetlights twinkling against the backdrop of burning buildings before the cloud made landfall and everything was plunged into the purple mist. It was a sight that he’d never forget and one of the reasons that he made the choice he did, desperate never to see a cloud like this advancing towards him again. The lightning inside struck with the ferocity of high-explosive bombs, tearing houses and buildings apart, the torn bodies oft he victims silhouetted against the negative glow as they flew hundreds of feet into the air before plummeting back down. The wind and thunder was deafening, when he staggered home a few hours later blood was still dripping from his ears and it took a week before he could hear again.
Then the fog reached them, flowing fast up the hill like sea-mist. It was cold and clammy, like his grandmother’s hand when he was taken to visit her in the hours before she died, cutting visibility down to ten or twenty feet. With it came the panic-stricken, the people who lived in the centre of town and were fleeing the anger of whichever God they’d chosen. Frank and Gerry wanted to rise and join the rabid exodus, but they had been chosen for something else and they could only lie where they were and try to scream, choking on the acrid taste of the cloud as their limbs refused to work no matter how much adrenalin was pumped into them.
A few dozen people escaped past them, panting at the exertion of running up the hill –Frank honestly wished some of them survived in the years after but he doubted any did. Few of them had shoes, some were carrying children like sacks of grain over their shoulders. All of them had the wide, frantic eyes of a rabbit trying to outpace a fox after straying too far from the warren. He saw a man drop a newborn baby and barely pause before he kept on running, then he saw the baby trampled to mush by the next wave of desperate souls. When its head was crushed, he saw brain matter explode through the eyes and nose. It was wearing a white baby grow and an Andy Pandy bib, the orange stains of mashed carrot standing out horrifically well against the gloom.
With a rushof cold air, enough to chill Frank to his core, the storm front crested Priory Hill. Later, with his own eyes, he’d see the aftermath of the carnage wreaked on the fools who tried to flee down Brunel’s tunnel, foolishly thinking that the places that had saved them from the Luftwaffe would be good for this crisis, but what he saw on Priory Hill was enough for that night.
He saw The Bogeymen feast for the first time in eons, understood why blood sacrifice is essential for mankind’s survival. He hadn’t known it then, but that was when he made his decision.
Riding bolts of lightning they fell on their victims. They were ghostlike, wisps of black smoke clinging to a form as they drove the bolt into the chest of their nest meal. He saw Vikings and priests, Roman centurions and Celtic warriors. He saw SS officers and drunken GIs, suited politicians and American horror characters armed with machetes and chainsaws. He saw vicious school-teachers and Lovecraftian monsters, psychotic mothers and abusive fathers, wild west gunslingers and vengeful Navahos, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the wolfman. He saw TheBogeymen.
The victims turned to dust, sucked up into the black smoke before the lightning was ridden back into the sky, ready to strike again. The air stank of rotten eggs and rotting flesh, Frank nearly choked on his own puke before some desperate part of his mind realised it was best to act like Gerry. He curled into a foetal ball and let himself vomit, praying that he and his wife could live through this. Praying to see the sun again. He’d never liked The Doors but for that slice of eternity, listening to the screams for mercy and the explosion as another body was turned to dust and steam he sang ‘Waiting For The Sun’ to himself, sometimes mumbling a few words through his mangled lips with a tongue thick from vomit and fear.
A Bogeyman landed his lightning bolt between Frank and Gerry; they both looked up, wishing that death would be quick. He was wearing a toga, the art of keeping it up automatically making him look friendly. Frank didn’t know it then but togas are hard to wear, the raised arm keeps it in place and makes it hard to wield a weapon, a few months later he read it in one of the few books to survive from the public library. Looking down at them, green flames licking around a ghostly werewolf’s snout and scarlet eyes glaring from the pits of Quasimodo’s eye-sockets, The Bogeyman spoke, its voice like metal grinding.
“We will spare the ones you love if you feed us.”
Standing at the spot where he saved his wife, forty-two years later and waiting for the sky to turn purple as it did every night they wanted to be fed, Frank knew he had made the right choice. As the black and green fingers reached down from the places the stars normally burned he accepted the feeling of pride, boasted to himself about everything he had saved. His town, his wife.
It was easy to become a Bogeyman, to sneak into bedrooms and squats and take the meat his masters required. It was so easy as long as he could kiss his wife goodbye and keep the garden gate working. And besides, most nights they didn’t come and he could stand, watching the stars turn over the ruins of his hometown, proud as he’d always been to belong to the surrounding hills.
author's whine - it's a bit long for an online post, but not long enough to break apart. Thanks for reading to the end, I hope you enjoyed it. On a purely personal note, this is the first story my Dad has liked since we started speaking again earlier this year, so no matter how rubbish it may actually be it's got a special place in any posthumous anthologies released. Of which there will be many, because I'm great