Circumpolar

📅 Published on January 4, 2022

“Circumpolar”

Written by Tom Farr
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 21 minutes

Rating: 6.00/10. From 2 votes.
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With her sledge held under one arm Cassandra battled her way up the slope. Halfway up she paused to rest against the frost-crept trunk of a crooked birch and stood listening to her torn breathing, the soundless hush of the fields below filling up with snow.

‘Come on!’ Stephanie called back, a flash of red winter-coat swallowed up by the plum-gold light leaking over the crest of the hill. Where birches jutted like splintered teeth in the underjaw of some gigantic sleeping beast.

Breathless with cold and haste Cassandra hurried after her. Where the trees stood, their skeletal branches clawing at what she could see of the sky with spider-leg angularity, the dimming light of sunset was burning away a steely grey skiff of cloud; as though the sun had touched some flammable corner of the heavens and, in doing so, had set the entire firmament ablaze.

The icy astringency of the birches filled her nostrils as she ascended up and through the trees. When at last she gained the crest of the hill she thought for a dizzy moment that she’d emerged out into Greenland or Antarctica—those boreal terrains that void the edges of the varied world. From the summit she could see for miles. The shiny gleam of the railway tracks bisecting barren fields, winter trees bent-backed in starker silhouette like a race of ancient giants labouring across some primordial glacial plain. And the snow-embattled outline of the edge of town beyond; a small metropolis kept by ice and winds. All of this presented as if in a globe of glass, each and every flurry subsequent conjured by the shake of a grandmother’s palsied hand.

Stephanie was grinning, her blue Fairisle bobble hat pulled low over her eyes and brick-red roses glowing in her cheeks.

‘Last ride,’ she said, staring off at the snowy still-life where it lay spread out below them. A flock of blackbirds hung in the sunset; small, desultory m-shapes scribbled into a crocus-coloured eye. Snow seesawed down like flakes of paint scraped from the ceiling of the world. Cassandra tried to think: were there treestumps on the slope, or fences?

She was still thinking when Stephanie said: ‘Cassie, look.’

There, cutting into the field from the farthest edge, curving slowly car by car with its louvred black chimney spouting steam all along the fiery rim of twilight, was a train. And not just any train—a steam train, a locomotive. The engine exhaled a long, thin, grieving whistle that floated over the white snow and echoed up into the white sky; cold, dead, gone like a moribund breath.

‘Woah,’ said Cassandra, her own breath shoaling palely about her in a billow of dragonsmoke that fogged the air. And then came another sound: a ghostly jingle-jangle that almost reminded her of sleigh bells. But the bells were so faint, so faded by distance, that a moment later she was sure they must have sounded only in her overactive imagination. It was nearly Christmas, after all—and, for a nine-year-old girl, Christmas was still a pretty big deal.

‘Look at the cars.’ Stephanie pointed, her plastic sledge forgotten at her feet. But Cassandra had already spotted the colourful harlequin designs painted across the sides of the cars; sure, she couldn’t quite see them from that far away, at least not properly, but she could make out enough of the rich and colourful bedaubings to receive a vague impression of the scene depicted on their wooden sidings: a sleigh massive enough to rival a Roman chariot, pulled by a team of equally enormous reindeer and attended by lively green-and-red figures whose spindly arms were thrust upwards, proffering bulging sacks or gaudily ribboned boxes as if in pageantry, or praise. And mounted atop the sleigh . . .  a hulking, murrey-clad brute, bearded Zeus-like with the thick, abundant clouds of a bleak December afternoon, the flaccid cone of a stocking cap undulant across the wood and imprinted onto it bright as a brushful of paint.

‘Do you think it’s, like, a circus or something?’

‘Maybe.’ Cassandra stared at the strange train as it continued its centipede-crawl across the stunned fields, the breeze razoring all about her cheeks and tugging softly at her pale un-braided hair. Even from this remote perspective she could hear the harsh iron thunder of the wheels along the tracks and the angry bellow of the engine, and what she couldn’t hear she could well imagine: open boilers roaring with hellish reds and leaping photoelectric oranges, scarlet flowers limned with steely ultramarine like the flames of a well-fed fireplace in winter; gigantic furnaces ravenous for dark tumblesome mountains of coal—

‘Come on!’

Cassandra started, then glanced at Stephanie, who was already slogging her way down the long snow-choked slope of the hill to where it tended gradually out into a gentler gradient and here she halted. Before Cassandra had even passed through the ragged palisade of birches in their funeral shrouds of white, her friend was gone, sledge-bound, leaning backwards for balance as she slewed downslope through the quilted snow, the red of her coat picked out with startling technicolour vibrancy—a droplet of blood runnelling into a gaping inundation of white. Cassandra followed. Possessed of a kind of weightlessness and what seemed to be a complete and utter denial of friction—an antifriction, almost—she hurtled in a graceless rush down the sloping hillside, clinging to the pull-rope with both hands and eyes slitted against an onset of frozen air and powdery snow that sandpapered her cheeks and forehead until she was sure her features must have been worn smooth to a faceless mask—like names on a gravestone that weathers have eroded, forever erased. Now she was plunging flume-wise into the newly shaken heart of that cold snowglobe, and as she skidded to a halt not far from where Stephanie stood swatting snow from her coat and jeans, she saw that the train, a thing portentous, had stopped in the middle of the suddenly tenterhooked field as though someone had shorted its circuits

Silence descended. But a palpable silence, like a pianist playing a piano whose strings have been cut. And then, hollowing out this abrupt abeyance of sound came the faint jingle-jangle of bells she’d first heard at the top of the hill; haunting their way across the field and through the winter gloaming as first the hazy amethyst terminals of sky and then the train itself slipped into the blue penumbra of a swirling vortex of snow that seemed to rise from the ground like vapours. And at the same time, she noticed something else—something worse—that sent a shudder shuttling straight down the staircase of her spine.

The figures on the side of the train, whose bestial qualities she’d failed to discern from a distance but now, up close, with their bony forelegs and scruffy torsos more closely resembled upright animals mimicking mime artists, while others bore the uncanny trappings of limp-limbed dolls or puppets fused with flesh—those figures began to liven; then they began to move. They grinned at her from wooden siding that seemed now more like the glass of a fishtank, jostling and crawling over each other for prominence as they seeped out of the wood like pus from a suppurating wound, this Punch & Judy mob of semi-human nightmares gathering pondlike on the train-car’s somehow distending surface. Something that could have been a hare, albeit one with the curved black fossil-claws of a lizard, bared its yellowed teeth at her. A clownish figure with a bright ceramic face pranced beside it, capacious garb twisting in a mass of molten colours. A tall, conical dunce’s cap hove into view, followed by the drooping triple-peaks of a jester’s hat—

—and then the snow engulfed her, engulfed them both; engulfed the field and the hill and the bony frieze of birches standing sentry at its summer; and swallowed up in its cavernous gullet the train and its attendant menagerie miswandered out of a demented taxidermist’s dream. Everything around her was howling snow. She dropped the sledge and threw her arms across her face to use as a shield as she staggered towards Stephanie, who stood out as barely more than a blob of red beswirled about by white—by an avalanche minus its mountain.

‘Steph!’ Cassandra stumbled, nearly fell, and seized Stephanie’s arm just as the jangling of bells began anew, louder now and all around them, a disorienting ordnance of sound; a thousand tinkling melodies composed and performed and lost forever, lost to that ivory gloom.

A swift flutter of movement inked the hoary canvas of blizzard. From out of that infernal whirling maelstrom an angular shadow with an almost absurdly oversized head approached, growing rapidly in depth and definition like an image  on a screen solidifying incrementally through a sandstorm of static. It was at once the shadow of a person—someone in a mascot costume, maybe, with long ears spearing skyward from its massive head—and the shadow of some herky-jerky puppet strutting across a stage in a ridiculous yet eerie pantomime of tiptoeing. Something springy and light on its feet. Her mind dredged up an image of a ballet dancer leaping wildly to absent music, a marionette jerked gracelessly about by a fistful of strings, first this way, then that.

A vicious gale of high-pitched laughter rang out bright as the edge of a knife. The laughter became a moan which in turn became a whine with eagerness behind it, a horrible phlegm-gloved gurgle. The wind died down then. Collapsed almost instantly to nothing. A brief entr’acte in which the noise of the bells frayed the moody silence that followed and the girls huddled closer against one another, their hearts seeming to lag a beat behind or else gripped to sudden hebetude by the ropy veins that bound them as the snow opened like a theatre’s velvety curtain upon the dreadful act at its darkened heart.

* * * * * *

Heather closed the cash drawer and glanced at the on-screen clock. 6:15pm. She sighed. Even through the closed doors she could still make out every word of Band Aid’s seminal Christmas hit, a muted roar she could more feel than hear, booming endless and looped through the shopping centre’s speakers—as if time itself were a spring with ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ twisting backwards down the coil. As if all of Dante’s Hells and torments had been distilled and recast in that single fucking song.

Making her weary way across the sales floor to the back office, she caught sight of her reflection in the silvered depths of a convex mirror positioned at the end of a dim aisle defined by the looming outlines of half empty shelves of bonneted animals and glassy eyed dolls tumbled and scattered about like refugees of some terrible disaster; harrowed survivors with their thin little limbs outflung, asprawl, furred and powder-pale faces starting shellshocked at each other, at her. A sign above the aisle read WELCOME TO PARADISE with a painted bundle of primary coloured balloons clumped beneath the gentle arch of the letters. She took a moment to study herself in the mirror. Messy blonde hair with a couple of inches of dark brown roots sprouting through; flat, lustreless eyes and careful makeup barely disguising a face crinkled with exhaustion; and a black apron faded to grey with a small round badge that read, Hi, I’m Heather! pinned to the front.

‘Yeah,’ she whispered. ‘Welcome to paradise.’

After she’d deposited the day’s takings in the safe and checked the following week’s rotas pinned to the corkboard on the office wall, she recrossed the sales floor, lanyard in hand, and finally, finally swiped her clocking-in card along the groove of the till. For a few seconds she just stood there staring at nothing. At the foily red-and-green garlands looped among the ceiling lights, the ravaged shelves and mauled displays of Lego sets and action figures, cardboard stands demolished, Christmas trees knocked down, trampled, baubles broken, crushed; all of it like the aftermath of some fearsome battle between countless armies with a penchant for the season’s hottest commodities—entire garrisons of petulant toddlers and entitled parents at war over the latest Holiday Special Spider-Man.

The sound of a scream punctured her frowning abstraction, snatched away to silence almost as quickly as it had begun. Well, she thought unkindly, almost managing a smile, at least somebody’s having fun.

Down to the locker room to get her coat and then back across the sales floor and out through the front entrance. As she was locking up, fumbling her keys with their multitude of keyrings back into her coat pocket, she realised abruptly and with something akin to joy that music had stopped. Then she frowned. There were voices—a whole host of voices rising from the centre’s lower level, layered and indistinguishable, babbling over one another like an eager stream over a bedful of pebbles, all trying to talk at once. She went along past the neighbouring bookshop, its dim window display of artfully arranged bestsellers dusted with artificial snow, then the lingerie store with its female mannequins placidly benign despite their smooth enamelled contours having flaked away in countless places to reveal the yellowish moon-flesh beneath, and so on past the shuttered ice-cream parlour and down the escalator to the bottom floor.

It took her a while to weave her way to the heart of the crowd, and when she did she came upon what at a cursory glance could have been another mannequin, one that had fallen far from some sentimental Christmas scene or perhaps door-duty at Santa’s Grotto; paid minimum wage to keep the kids at bay. But no—the longer she stared at it, the quicker her perplexed intellect lost all grip on its rented idea of the thing’s identity. The lithe human form was clad in baize-green breeches and an olden tunic of tattered and faded felt—or what Heather took to be some kind of felt until her vision resolved a fine crazing of dark cracks in what must actually have been horribly ancient, leathery skin; a wizened pelt of moss or lichen cloven to kindlingwood bones. A long tail—sinuous and plated as the tail of some edacious Chimaera roaring lion-jawed in Homer’s antique verse—lay strewn about its feet like a lifeless whip without any hand to wield it. Its legs, thin as a pair of stilts and angled somewhat goatlike at the knee, ended in what appeared to be the gore-encrusted remnants of a pair of curly toed winklepicker boots ingrown to the creature’s feet. And its head—no, she could do little more than spare a brief glance at that lumpy, ill-formed visage, that misproportioned interpretation of what might once have been a human face.

‘Heather.’

She bit down on a shriek as a hand clamped her arm. Phil stepped up beside her, adjusting his silver spectacles higher on the sloping blade of his nose. He was wearing an open denim jacket over a red polo shirt stitched above the pocket with the words Ed’s Book Barn. He had a sort of dry musty smell about him, but not in an unclean or unpleasant way—more of an end-of-day smell of books, a subtle effusion of print and pages and paper.

‘Sorry,’ he said, releasing her arm. ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s just—I mean, shit, what the hell. . . .’ He trailed off abstractedly, staring past her at the person—the monster, on the ground.

‘It’s someone fucking around.’ Heather shook her head, but even her voice sounded tentative and unconvinced as she tried to stuff the word monster back in the box it had come from. She scanned the crowd for familiar faces. ‘Manny. Hey, Manny!’

Manny glanced around but didn’t seem to notice her. She was just about to call again when he turned his head and found her. He had a walkie-talkie in one hand, was holding it a few inches away from his slightly parted lips; a heavy-set statue chiselled in an attitude of indecision. She gave him a look that said, what the hell, but he simply shook his head slowly a couple of times, his mouth impacted by a mass of words unspoken, unspeakable.

Before she could say or do anything else a half choking, crystal-sharp shriek lacerated the muted confusion of the crowd, attenuating to a wretched crescendo that dragged every fearful gaze towards the source from which it emanated. Backed up against the railing of an overhanging seating area on the upper level was a woman in a cantaloupe-coloured overcoat with dishwater-blonde hair falling in ringlets about her shoulders. One moment she was there, screaming like some latterday banshee, and the next she was over the railing with the scream stuck in her throat like a piece of food she’d swallowed and which had choked her to death. And between those two moments, in a span of seconds that were simultaneously subdivided into small eternities and the shortest thing that ever was, Heather had glimpsed . . . something, real or imagined, she wasn’t sure what. A man-shaped shadow but with a mouth like a shark’s painted red. Already some people were backing away while others advanced cautiously towards where the woman had fallen with a sickening craash among the pronged mob of a coffee shop’s upturned chairs. Gone now to that province of eternal dark and inexhaustible sleep of which none alive may speak. A land of perpetual twilight, an endless autumn sculpted with winter’s frost.

‘Heather . . . Heather.’ Phil was there, tugging her backwards, away from the unravelling knot of the crowd. His eyes were very wide behind their gleaming lenses and he was breathing so fast he sounded on the verge of hyperventilating. A few errant flakes of snow floated down from some high window open to the breeze and, somewhere beyond, whisper-faint yet travelling with the exigent clarity of a minister’s voice in a spacious church, came a spirited clashing of bells that seemed to engender a change in the atmosphere throughout the place—to grey the very air, and perhaps the listeners’ souls, with winter.

‘Come on,’ Phil said in a strangled voice. ‘We gotta get out of here—Heather, come on, we gotta go.’

They half ran, half stumbled past the darkly drowsing shopfronts as, behind them, a voice began to scream—oh god, it said, oh please oh god—and then the sound was taken up by other voices, bright freezing shards of fear like the torturous keening of some demoniac choral not intended for human ears. Heather’s inner stream of thoughts, now as ill-freighted with muddled detritus as a swollen river in the wake of a flood, had led her to the conclusion that Phil was steering them towards the rear fire doors at the far end of the centre, the ones that let out onto the eastern edge of town.

‘. . . heard someone scream,’ he panted as they lurched awkwardly along. ‘I’d just locked up, don’t know what happened . . . heard someone say it got hit by a car . . . came in here to die. . . .’

They slowed to a halt before the fire doors, semaphored by a diluted green glow that seeped down from the sign above.

‘Hey,’ Heather said, hauling in a ragged breath. She grabbed Phil by one shoulder and turned him towards her. ‘Hey. Listen. Back there, when she . . . fuck, did you—’

Something moved in the opaque reflecting glass of a vacant shopfront off to their right. Heather whirled around, caught sight of something thin, pale-skinned, and decidedly rotten-looking that seemed to by gyring about in a manner that reminded her of a saturnine street performer she’d beheld as a child: a ghoulishly articulate figure whirling and leaping in the dank, odorous gloom of a London Underground pedestrian tunnel. And its head . . . its head was encysted with myriad unshut eyes, the lower half of its face grotesquely distorted by a clown’s red grin stuffed with razors—an outsized mouth smeared on the belly of a bloated balloon. She’d had her ears attuned to the screams but now she noticed a new sound: a sort of metallic, whining timbre that rose to a hoarse grating screech as the dancing thing drew nearer. Everything seemed suddenly touched by sepia. A subtle greying of their environs which, she realised with a ghastly sensation that yanked her stomach inside out like a sock, was frost—glittering crystals forming rapidly on walls, windows, planters of faded plastic foliage; an icy mica-shine fanning outwards and crawling over everything like the slow-moving seep of some noxious cloud of radiation.

Her confusion was gone now, swept to the back of her mind like shards of a broken plate by an icy touch of terror finger-walking its way from the pores of her scalp to the tips of her toes, threatening to smother any lingering sense of rational thought or reason in an immediate suffocation of panic. But of the countless impressions lost to that sibilant spring of darkness, one of them snagged a corner of aplomb and told her, quite firmly, that she needed to move—to get as far away as possible from this spreading grey void of winter.

With her heart going like a hammer on steel, she turned and dragged Phil with her and, together, they crashed through the fire exit—the push-bar already covered in a thin icing-sugar glaze of hoarfrost—and spilled out into a abyssal nothingness, utterly bleak; a howling zoetrope of ice and dark and snow.

* * * * * *

When Cassandra saw the first of the streetlights reared against the vacant street like some sinister contrivance of ice and aluminium, or perhaps some insectile emissary of the cold, isinglass stars dispatched to know the race of men and so assess their worth as specimen or provender both, she did not linger but simply ran on into its snow-flecked cone of hazy yellow radiance. She glanced back, once—a gesture reminiscent of Lot’s ill-augured wife at Sodom—and saw, at the limit of her meagre field of vision and where it tended away to a hazy prediction of snow and shadow, the leaping motion of a spindly form, a pallid blur that gathered itself low to the ground before rising again to vanish through a crack in the crumbled Sistine vault of night.

She was crying and some small part of her brain unoccupied by fear thought it a wonder that the tears tracking her cheeks had not frozen there like jagged grooves and ridges delineating the facial features of some ancient Aztec mask. Her side was stitched with pain because she’d never run this far or for this long; not even on sports day at school, nor in all the summers she’d passed in play. The rows of houses facing out on either side of the street clocked past half blurred and spurious as cardboard stage-props that might at any moment be yanked away into darkness; each house a family, gathered about the dinner table and thus bastioned against the otherworldly weathers and their otherworldly freight; each family a communion of unbroken normalcy and reality that Cassandra could no longer share. Interpreted by terror, outdoor Christmas decorations loomed ominous and surreal in the properties’ attendant gardens: a trio of frost-locked reindeer with shredded fur and rusty wire ossature showing dully through; an inflatable Santa Claus already losing his air, melting into a more protean guise which might well have dripped mercurial from the tip of Dali’s fabled brush; next, a snow-heaped nativity whose swaddled Christ was a bristly, tattered gremlin stained the colour of a smoker’s teeth and presided over by a Virgin Mary herself nunlike and palely vampiric in the icy red blush of a string of fairy lights flickering spasmodically along the shingled roof of an old bay window—all of it dishing and shuddering with Cassandra’s bolting steps, the night itself strangled by a silence that seemed almost unreckonable, as if somehow she’d trespassed into a world no longer her own.

On she went. Left, right, along a little narrow fenced-in cut that ran behind an old neglected allotment where sheds and greenhouses had fallen foul of time’s ineluctable predations and where snowflakes dodged through gaping holes in prolapsed roofs. She’d compassed herself for home but now abruptly and almost against her own volition—heeding perhaps some primal ingrained urge to go to ground—she found herself squeezing through a rip in the rhombus-shaped chainlink fence and scurrying down the nary kept plots of barren tillage, batting her frantic way through clashing gardens of stalk and stem, or else ducking past vine-crept portcullises of cane leached pale as those horrid contrivances the eldern races of men did fashion from the bones of their enemies and also the bones of their dead. Crashing up against the side of a rotten shed she span, breathing hard, to scan her dark surroundings—a sparse harvest bleared and veering through tear-filled eyes. Wire fences. Branches whittled bare by winter winds. The softly sifting hiss of falling snow. Telephone wires stitched the farther night, a gloom-sewn tapestry of black trees and rooftops and tall brick chimneys. A crescent moon hung cocked and slightly askew like something suspended on wires, a yellow eye narrowed in—

There. Her eyes darted back with barely enough time to register a blur of motion as a perfect black silhouette flung itself off the gable of a neighbouring house with the unnatural, disjointed agility of a figure in a stop-motion film. What she’d glimpsed of the form had suggested long, prehensile limbs like those of an orangutan or chimpanzee, as well as a chalky impression of a hairless hide surmounted by the scruffy black head of a wolf.

She never even heard the thing land but she heard the bells when they rang. Their lively dissonance echoed hollowly through the paralytic silence of night—over brittle nettles and dying plants, frost-slain ferns and branches deleafed by purest cold; echoed against the grimy glass of greenhouses and the blackly rotted boards of sheds and tool stores. The dread she felt at hearing that sound—here, alone—was like ice-water syringed into her veins. She shrank against the side of the shed. As if in doing so she’d somehow escape the notice of what she knew was coming, or else through sheer force of will might cypher herself away into some occult sanctuary of shadow. And as a ravenous caul of hoarfrost crinkled the withered corpses of unkempt weeds and grass, and as a sour scent came into the air, as of food and other things gone bad, all she could think of was Stephanie—Stephanie, and the train, and a shrivelled hand the colour of a magician’s glove with knitting-needle fingers that had painted the white snow red.

* * * * * *

The wind blew gritty and razorous out of the mouths of alleys, shipping the snow with a saw-toothed edge that cut right through your clothes. It transformed your immediate surroundings into a near-sighted blur and made everything beyond a matter of conjecture. Bells jangled in the empty streets—horrible figures in bright baggy habiliments slouched around the corners of buildings, emerged quietly from the depths of night to scuttle on all fours up vertical walls like spiders that sought a way in. Other figures pranced in the murk. Their garb was that of travelling performers clad for the stage, or sad-faced Pierrots with sharply pointed dunce’s caps. If you squinted hard enough into the snow you’d likely catch glimpses of pale painted and ceramic faces, yellowed teeth, rouged cheeks. Long furred arms and loping canine legs. Waxen nightmares enacting a dreadful rattling pantomime; clack-clack, would go their icy wooden parts against one another as they cavorted there on that stage of snow-bounded dark—clack-clack, clack-clack, accompanied by the phlegmy gasps and dreadful rattlings of monstrous things groping their way fro and back.

Clack-clack.

Clack.

Fro. And Back.

* * * * * *

Heather and Phil hid in the alcove and waited breathlessly for whatever dark thing was passing, to pass. It moved in utter silence save for that faint unearthly carillon of bells—a sound that stiffened every step of her spine to ice. She stared fixedly at the wall’s scabby façade while that unknown something shuffled past the mouth of their hiding place. She glanced away once: when, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of what looked like long black hair trailing across the snow-locked pavement. Then she saw a colourless china or porcelain hand with heavily chipped fingers hanging at the end of a thin arm tightly bound in colourful cloth. Then the hand vanished. She stared at the wall for a while longer—noting every nick that pocked its icy surface like holes in the body of a sponge—until she was sure the hand had gone for good. Her heart thudded like a gavel; she could hear Phil beside her, breathing hard like a sex offender outside of a school. When she glanced back at the entrance to the alcove she saw in the snow a wet furrow of slop or slime that you could’ve ridden a bicycle down—a slug trail bereft of its slug. Her mind immediately set about trying to piece together a picture, but the hand, the hair, the trail in the snow . . . none of it seemed to lock into place. They were the corners of a jigsaw puzzle of which she was missing the middle.

‘This isn’t real.’

Heather flinched, snapped from her discomposed reverie. Phil was pushing himself woodenly to his feet. ‘I’m dreaming this,’ he said in a matter-of-fact tone, glancing out at the ephemeral curtain of snow skirling past; dissolving, reforming, shrouding the street like fog. He turned back to her and smiled and readjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. ‘And I’m dreaming you, Heather—or maybe you’re dreaming me. That’s really the only way to explain any of this.’

A conceit of calm acceptance touched his features. His breathing slowed, levelled out. ‘Yeah, I’m dreaming. What other diagnosis is there?’

‘No,’ Heather said, slowly shaking her head. She tried to rise but the muscles in her legs weren’t working, felt numb and leaden with cold like a pair of legs hewn out of granite.

Phil took a step towards that, out there, and then stopped. He took off his spectacles and carefully folded the arms closed and tucked them in his trouser pocket. As if he’d rather remain ignorant of the finer details of whatever might come to confront him or whatever it was he himself sought to confront. In her mind’s eye and not unlike a grainy film playing out on a darkened screen Heather saw again with horribly lucid clarity the twirling figure, the colourless hand—the trio of oddly shaped silhouettes they’d snuck past just minutes before and which had appeared to be comprised of flamingos’ backwards-bending legs and the busty torsos of too-tall mannequins that narrowed hideously at the waist.

‘No. No, Phil—’

But by the time she was on her feet he was gone. Taking the final step he’d been poised to take and then—slow as a somnambulist, measured as a man in a dream—letting his legs carry him away, into the veil of white. Vanished. Gone. As if he’d never existed at all, or else had been transmuted to powdery dust and whorled away like a handful of nothing by the bitter, uncaring wind. For a while there was a dead silence; even the night seemed to be holding its breath. Then came a scream of such unbridled terror that it almost shattered all the glassy parts of self that Heather was still holding together. It was a truly awful sound unlike any a human’s vocal chords should have been able to produce. A high-pitched yet coarse giggling followed. The snickering laughter of guilty children indulging their appetite for violence.

Any courage or impetus that had carried her this far seemed to blacken and draw, crumbling to ashes like a corner of paper touched to a flame. If she heard anything more of that laughter she suspected whatever selvedge kept her sanity would fray or unravel completely—or perhaps, she thought, it already has. Her fear began to dwindle then. Or more accurately it was numbed away by the very real possibility of her own imminent demise. And what did it matter? What else could she truly do? In the midst of this—the world suddenly transformed into a climate of phantasmagoria, a nightmarish dissolution of the concrete and real—confronted by such mutant ultimatums of fate, she supposed that the best she could do was to be an active participant in her own demise and not to perish a dumbstruck voyeur to whatever imminent doom might come her way.

Through the darkened streets she wandered, beneath a Medusinites whorl of stars like remnants of some enormous fossil embedded in the ceiling of that lightless cosmic cave. She moved past snow-mounded gardens and crooked gates—past doors shattered and doors hanging from their frames and lighted windows that betrayed only the aftermath of the hectic struggles enacted within and past cards parked kerbside seized to icy immobility. Occasionally a vague silhouette would move through the crystalline beam of some streetlight or the semi-luminescent glow of a storefront. Ill-proportioned apparitions her brain refused to catalogue, awful wasted figures slumped beneath the weight of lumpy, bulging, overflowing sacks. At one point she came upon a dismembered arm that must have belonged to a life-size puppet or marionette, hanging suspended by silvery wires that glistened like strands of spiderweb played out among the branches of a skeletal sycamore tree. The fingers of that wiry appendage had clenched themselves closed then reopened at the sound of her passing.

Near a certain streetcorner not far from the edge of town she sensed more than saw or heard the presence of something uncanny approaching out of the snow-sick night. Taking refuge in the shadowy cape of a stairwell that clung to the side of a short parade of shops, she strained her eyes at the murk of the street and listened as this premonitory thing drew closer. An almost incorporeal scraping sound grew louder and louder, resolving itself into a squalid groaning as of the unoiled hinges of some medieval cart or carriage. But this was immediately overcome by another noise: an infernal tinkling of bells that seemed to envelope the night entire, a discordant glockenspiel rising out of the greyness; and then suddenly she could see the huge whelked horns of some enormous beast, then another, a whole team, their size and form diminished by tones of snow and gloom—next came a corpulent figure sprawled on its wooden seat as if asleep, garbed in the innumerable folds of a filthy white and crimson-smeared robe with a limp stocking cap spilling down the side of its head and a face like wrinkled newspaper. The figure moved out of sight and the vehicle which it captained hove into view. It was a sort of cross between a wagon and a sleigh, with massive runners sunk deep in the snow and a long, flat bed overloaded with horrid flesh-stitched sacks that seemed to be leaking a chorus of anguished moans.

As this dread contraption crawled away out of view, Heather could’ve sworn that amidst that delirious percussion of bells and creaks and groans she had heard a faint familiar voice call her name. By the time her tortured brain had informed her that in fact, yes, she had heard it it was already too late. She was running then, stumbling full-tilt through the tarry bitumen darkness in the direction the vehicle had gone. She reached the edge of the field just as the train was pulling away. The glary red light of its fires flushed the snowy world to silence. She knew then—she knew what had happened, and could only kneel sobbing in a slush of ice and snow as the train went chuffing across the field until finally the rearmost carriage shuttled ghostly beyond the limits of her sight with only the long, shrill, piercing echo of its engine whistle to say that it had ever existed at all.

* * * * * *

Lodged in an obsidian maw of darkness Cassandra heard a door slide, then after a moment slam shut. Her body was contorted grotesquely and her heart was gripped by such terror as she’d never known. All there was was darkness and bodies and arms and legs and the horrible foetal mewling of children suckling for life—a grasping climate of breathless oppression that she could feel constricting her lungs in panicstricken self-suffocation. Her bones ached and flared with pain; she’d sobbed herself sodden and the cold had frozen her tears. There was a low background-level roaring sound and abruptly it swelled to a calamitous, ear-splitting thunder; and, seconds later, the hard surface upon which she lay ticked nervously then lurched into motion. The sour reek of sweat that surrounded her seemed suddenly to intensify then, as if countless bodies were perspiring the very elixir of fear itself. She struggled to regulate her ragged breathing as that abounding kinaesthesia of limbs began to thrash and seize and a scrabbling hand knotted itself in her hair as though she were part of some sculptured human amoeba, reconfigured and grasping, clutching blindly at the very ether for some concept or metaphor to frame its truer form.

Rating: 6.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Tom Farr
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Tom Farr


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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