The automatic doors snark an impatient hiss and he rushes out. Clots of rain thrum the sidewalks. He ducks into a phone box and it is a muddier, submerged rattle.
She is croaky and detached through the line, as if the elements traverse the circuits to wash her away.
It’s just dying a slow death, she says.
It would be a terrible shame if we stopped speaking or spending time together, though.
It would be, he agrees.
At home he lights a cigarette and different types of darkness blend and push for definition. He is visited by that same unshakeable certainty that no matter how fluid and level things appear to be, the bigger part of him will always be scrabbling around in the pit, unable to bind or thresh anything together coherently.
Outside the night sky is run through with stars, as if some greater, purer force seeking to make us better pushes against the black envelope, only to be defeated.
He approaches the lamp-blurred window. The cars far below are glistening beetles. When he looks up he sees that the winged creatures have taken their places on the tips of lampposts and the far edges of high rise buildings. He knows it is time to go to bed.
No-one quite remembers when they first arrived, but everyone knows the routine.
As he pulls on his pyjamas he wonders what she is really thinking. How horribly sad it is that people spend so much time together, then don’t.
His pupils bloom like ink stains as he lays down. He is immediately asleep. In the downpour outside, the creatures skitter, adjust and bare yellow teeth webbed with spittle. Their black wingspans unfold, snap and stretch as clouds of blue static unfurl from myriad homes, individual trails leaking from sleeping heads. The creatures, balanced precariously on ledges and sills, open their mouths and ingest these sad blue rivers.
A good person
He is drunk on the sofa. She creeps across the room, afraid to wake him. The air is dank, the darkness is of a singular kind and the walls feel too close, as if she is trapped inside the frame of a story.
His eyes peel open and he hawks a wad of drool.
You fuck, he slurs. Why are you fucking. Why are you.
She moves to turn but already he is staggering up and has her in some kind of bear grip. Time turns as a jittering arc and is by degrees a sweating face, the blackened spread of carpet, fingernails tearing a cheek, the hiss of the radiator in the hall.
The rain spatters and he is dragging her over gravel to the old well by the garage.
Don’t, she says, please.
You fucking. Why are you always fucking –
In a beat the world rotates and he heaves the weathered cover off. It clatters and rolls and she is dispensed into the gaping hole. The night sky is sheared into a perfect dark orb that narrows, recedes and remanifests as an all-encompassing vortex.
A flat whump and she is slapping about, gasping, in muddy dampness. Through the inky haze she can see skeins of light and suddenly she is aware of an intense chittering, moving in frantic cadences.
A neutral person
The darkness has come on abruptly and with it that blanket of preternatural silence that seems to amplify and distort every minute sound. His feet crunch on the path. The trees are massed watchmen, their limbs skewering like troubled children’s drawings. Bright stars seed above and by their pearl glow he sees spectral deer cutting through the branches.
He comes to a fork in the path and amongst the twiggy lattice leaks a dull light. Bracken rustles underfoot.
In a circular clearing a group of men turn to him. They are tall and still. By the crackle and spit of the fire he can see the wooden owl masks adorning their faces. The moon is a milky blind eye far above, a benign and sightless witness strobing without judgement.
The man closest moves towards him and suddenly he is running, tripping, slick branches whipping back in his face.
The following day he sits at the desk in his office, fingers worrying the stack of CV’s. Something bereft and barren scrapes at his bones. He sips coffee as if to stoke this.
The receptionist bustles in. He raises his head groggily. She motions through a man in a suit, nods to them both, and slips out. The man crosses the room slowly. He places his briefcase on the floor and eases into the chair opposite.
He is wearing a wooden owl mask.
The manager stays the finger that has started frenetically tapping the desktop. He glances again at the wooden visage and slides the CV between them. It is a sheet of paper blackened by chalky scrawls. The lines score and intersect and if he tilts his chin at just the right angle he thinks he sees the image of a great moth.
The entire universe
The courier mooches around the empty car park. The factory rises abruptly to his right, towering chimney stacks pumping drowsy scarves of smoke into the night. He cannot find the entrance, and there is no night guard to greet him.
Sighing, the courier opens the door of his truck and scoops up a package. Balancing it, he teeters back over to the grey wall and prods about, feeling for a doorway with his free hand. A light snow falls, tapering and wheeling in the wind.
After what feels like hours of groping along, his hand passes over some kind of fabric. A man separates from the wall and pads into the soft snow. He is tall, wiry and clad in a grey jumpsuit. His eyes are enormous white spoons and they bore into the courier as he shivers in the cold.
I have a delivery, the courier stutters.
The guard nods solemnly and turns to trace a long, skinny forefinger up and around the wall. An electric light burns in its wake, cleaving a clean, broad arc.
The guard beckons him and they step into the factory.
The corridor is thin and claustrophobic, but above them the ceiling stretches impossibly high. In it are set rows of strobe lights, pulsing like celestial bodies. The guard sets off at a brisk pace and the courier stumbles after him, wobbling and careering, the package cutting into his palms. They cross the endless corridor for days and in that time the courier tires and begins to question the purpose of his job and from there the purpose of his existence. His head swims with memories and comparative projection and by the time the guard clicks to a halt he has lost heart.
Turning the bottomless cups of his eyes to the courier, the guard guides him into a vast, dusty room stacked high with thousands of boxes.
Delivery check, he says, his voice scratchy and distorted.
Exhausted, the courier kneels down and tears the seal of the box open. He pulls the cardboard flaps up and an arm jerks out. The courier jumps back, crawling away in the dirt. An emaciated, bearded man sticks his head over the rim of the box, glares vacantly, and ducks down again, pulling the flaps shut over his head.
The guard nods. He turns and strides to the far end of the warehouse floor, fading into the spreading dark. There is a resounding clank and a flood of colour as he heaves two great steel doors open. Clouds of dust plume.
Shaking himself off, the courier struggles to his feet and ventures over.
Through the doorway he can see an enormous rubber conveyor belt creaking into motion. Around and underneath it laps an inky sea. The belt spans this like a bridge, stretching off into eternity.
The guard strides over to the stacked boxes and begins loading them onto the belt. The courier hears groans and complaints within the cardboard receptacles.
Wait, he says. What are you doing?
The guard looks round. His eyes are moist with an ancient sadness.
They don’t want this anymore, he mutters. It is their choice.
Yourself (May I be happy)
In the morning he wakes with a dull headache. He feels empty; last night’s aching thoughts have left him. He rises and goes to the window. In the leak of morning light he can see the creatures, bloated from feasting, flapping and wobbling into their warehouse. It is a sterile building and the walls are lined with barbed wire. They will not return until night falls.
Watching them, he feels an intense anger.
That night he waits in the shadows of the street. He observes as the creatures pour out of the warehouse and fly up to their various positions, waiting for night thoughts.
He watches for the mangy creature that stalks his own home and eats his deepest thoughts. He recognises the particular ragged clumps of its feathers, the maggoty white of its beady eyes. It flaps its wings out violently, bobs its wizened neck, and settles on the tip of a lamppost.
He runs out and scales the lamppost awkwardly, shimmying up it in wobbly bursts. The creature squats above, spitting and screeching. Reaching the top, he dives, grabbing the horrid black thing in an armlock. They slide and slump down the pole, wrapped together.
Back home, he tethers the creature to a sturdy table leg. It squawks and flaps its vast, webbed wings.
Rustling in his cupboards, he returns with a large bowl. He grabs the creature by its leathery neck.
Give it back, you fucker.
The beast gurns and spits in his face. His features darken. He releases his grip and jams two fingers into its throat, pushing down. When he yanks them out they are dripping with black bile.
The creature splutters and vomits a twisting, nebulous blue cloud. He catches it in the bowl. The awful thing retches and balks, straining on its leash.
With great care, he transfers the bowl to the kitchen worksurface. It swims with gluey images and strange whispers. There are awful things within the fluid, but they are his and his alone.
He dips his hand in and sees the crisp image of her face rise in his mind’s eye. Something darker as her splashes further. Sharp stabs run through him, pictures upon pictures.
They are necessary. The blend shakes the whole and somewhere in the mix there is brightness. Without this stolen ingredient it is a dull gruel.
He snaps round and approaches the table. He untethers the rope from the table leg and leads the bristling fiend by the leash back into the night.
At the lamppost he unties it. It limps forward, looking confused. It looks back, hisses, and takes off into the night sky. He aims a middle finger at its retreating figure and slouches home.
A good person (May I be healthy)
She gropes soggy handprints in a darkness bejeweled by thousands of flickering lights. A chirping sonic undercurrent vibrates underneath her fingers.
In a beat it solidifies to a deafening soundscape. Swarms of luminous white bugs are wriggling around her. Little diamond arthropods mass, scuttle and press curiously with waxy, slinking antennae.
She is frozen on the muddy floor, a sick terror hardening within. When she raises her head she can see the hazy split of caves in the bug’s misty afterglow, monolithic chambers festooned with sparkling insects.
They are pulling her.
She slaps, paws and sobs as tiny legs seethe around her. She is dragged in halting bumps into a cavernous chamber. Insects curtain the walls in shimmering ribbons. In the centre a great jut of rock projects from the ground. Beside this a large bug lies flat on its back, glowing with a dull hue.
The bugs fall away from her body in streams, retreating into shadowy corners. She gurns and fights the urge to shriek. There is a strange standoff in the muggy still of the chamber. The bugs glow sadly, and the chirping dies to a pensive rustle.
She peels her mud-streaked cheek away from the ground. The great bug in the centre, helpless on its back, claws at the air with its spindly limbs. Several smaller insects flit forward, trailing a phosphorus wisp between her and their prone kin.
She sits up and wipes slicks of mud from her brow. Her lips tremble. She wonders if she has ever seen anything clearly.
Edging forward, she eases the big bug gently back over and onto its feet. It skitters forward briefly and bursts into a beacon of light.
The chittering returns as a wall of noise and the bugs surge forward, crawling over and past her. The chamber is soaked in kaleidoscopic hues as she staggers out.
At the soggy base of the well she waits. The bugs are streaking in electric strands up the brick walls. They clammer and divide into shining horizontal and vertical strips.
She closes her eyes.
When she opens them there is a brilliant ladder of bugs rising up the well. She grips the softly chittering lower rung and lifts herself.
The living room is the same dank murk, as if nothing will ever change unless through some seismic force of will and urge to be. Yet it is this same undercurrent that lies lost under layers of accumulated memories and sick, familiar darkness only to hack through in minuscule chinks. As if the only reality is some kind of stratospheric, vital and complete will to go on.
He jerks awake and his eyes are desperate. He is on the floor, pawing at her ankles, sobbing.
I want to help you, she says. I want to help you by leaving.
Strings of drool hang from his bottom lip as he claws at her feet.
Twelve months later he is waking to his first sober anniversary, alone. He brews coffee and reads a letter he has received. She is coming to visit him. To see how he is doing.
He reads the letter again. He sits with it a long time. Then he puts it to one side and walks out to the garage. He unfurls a length of rope down the well, secures it, and climbs down.
The base is lit by a thousand scuttling diamonds. The walls ring with reverberating chirrups. He paces through the muddy water. His blurred reflection leads him within the puddles, like the malignant shadowself he has yet to destroy.
The bugs swarm around him as he tramps into the chamber. A large insect, a glowing queen, squats by a chunk of rock. He stops and sinks to his knees.
I’m sorry, he says.
The bugs fall silent. Slow drips echo.
I’m sorry, he repeats, and his head clouds.
The great bug scurries forward. It lifts its wormy feelers. They sway and slither down his throat. He feels their writhing deep inside, but it is a calm sensation. He opens his mouth. The antennae retract, pulling with them a black, membranous sac. It shrivels and dies on the floor of the cave, leaving a pool of oilish pus.
He stands, slowly. The bugs cheep and click. It feels gone. It feels like it has left him.
He looks back out the chamber. A spangled, squirming ladder climbs up the well. He moves towards it.
She is coming to visit him. To see how he is doing.
A neutral person (May I be free from danger)
There is a long pause. The manager is lost in the riddle of dark lines. Eventually he pushes the sheet to one side and looks up. The wooden mask stares back.
It’s… it’s certainly singular, the manager says. It’s got that going for it.
The mask turns slowly and looks about; the bookcase, the framed family photo.
The manager’s thoughts turn to the woods, the clearing, the fire. He wonders where fear stems from.
Not so sure about the mask thing, he says.
The man in the wooden owl mask returns his stare. Then, abruptly, he rises and snaps open his briefcase. He pulls a splendid pair of antlers from within it and, pacing round the desk, patiently attaches them to the manager’s head.
He returns to take his seat opposite. They stare at each other again.
You can start on Monday, says the manager.
The entire universe (May I love easily)
The courier, driven by some furious impulse beyond his knowledge, pushes past the guard and clambers up to the conveyor belt. The boxes are ticking along at pace, chugging out of the warehouse and across the great stretch of sea. He watches them receding into the distance, an infinite line of departing cardboard squares.
He looks round at the guard, loading the boxes on with grim determination.
Tentatively he steps out onto the belt. He wobbles as he adjusts to its motion. He climbs over several boxes as he is ferried out over the sea.
Above him planets cycle in the sky, immense gaseous orbs of differing hues. Everything is a curious marriage of stoic propulsion and breathtaking stillness.
It is all so weird, he thinks. It is all so weird and unfathomable.
Why would you want it any other way?
Suddenly he is running down the belt, tearing the boxes open. Unkempt figures rise from their interiors, shaken and confused. He grasps and tugs at them, whispering, imploring. As if everything that was wrong could be made right merely by trying to stand. There is more than this, he says. There is more. They stumble out and stagger after him as the belt whirs along. He works quickly, methodically.
The guard finishes loading the last box and steps back. On the moving bridge across the ocean, a vast queue of bedraggled men and women are traipsing after the courier, back to the warehouse. Back to the start.
The water beneath moves in shifting tones, as if it would be a foundation of darkness, now a foundation of love, now a lapping lacework of the two.
Stephen Thom is a musician from Carrbridge in the Highlands of Scotland. He enjoys reading and writing fiction with interpretive elements. His pieces have appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Holdfast Magazine, Bracken Magazine, Fur-Lined Ghettos, The Grind, High Flight, Don’t Do It, Words Paint Pictures, Thought Collection and Puffin Review amongst others.