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Verbal remedies

June 3, 2013

Astrid writes to prove she exists.

I don’t question her sanity. She gets up at seven, does the school run, files meaningless paperwork until five. That’s the quotidian Astrid. She loves her children and worries about the mortgage, or about what to make for dinner. Of course she exists.

But is that all? There are thoughts that cannot be spoken aloud by a woman in a cheap grey suit who eats buttered toast for breakfast. There is another Astrid. The one who writes.

And if there is a sting in the tale, at least there is relief in the telling.

[100WCGU]

Blackberry Cable

June 2, 2013

2013-06 Blackberry cable (1) Since I last wrote about something that wasn’t my camp nano novel (how about that, eh?) and/or crap poetry – I have bought a SPINNING WHEEL.

I got overexcited at Wonderwool, or something.

Anyway, here is my first attempt at a cabled yarn. It’s kind of pretty 🙂
(The real colour is darker than I could manage with the camera – more wine-red, less purple.)

I had roughly 75g altogether of three different reddish-purples as tops, and if you’re interested, here’s what I did:

  • Split each colour lengthwise into eight roughly equal sections. (I might have halved the top and then split into four lengthwise sections, I can’t remember.)
  • Spun the lot clockwise into one single, reasonably fine and as even as I could manage – not very! – taking each colour in turn. I switched the order of the colours about half way through because I thought that might be good. I’m not sure if it made a difference, but my logic was that it might reduce colour overlap when I plied it back on itself in the next step.
  • So then I wound the single into a centre-pull cake, and plied it on itself using both ends, ran it through the wheel one more time (anti-clockwise both times) to add extra twist.
  • The final step was to wind the plied yarn into another centre-pull cake, and ply it back again, this time clockwise.

2013-06 Blackberry cable (2)So the second picture shows the cabling quite clearly, the way the strands seem to interlock in some magical way. The overall yarn weight is probably “chunky” – I can’t be bothered to measure the wpi.

I can’t promise the whole length of the yarn is as good as this 5cm section, but it would have been worth the whole kerfuffle even if this were the only good bit in the whole yarn. It makes me happy just to look at it.

I have to give a quick plug to the Spinner’s Book of Yarn Designs (by Sarah Anderson) which is awesome. This technique is from there and I can’t wait to try something else new…. But first, I really need to get some more fluff!

– Back to carding alpaca….

Vital statistics:

Name: Blackberry Cable
Fibre: Merino
Skein weight: 75g
Yardage: 73m (or, more specifically, 49 times round the niddy-noddy)
Yarn weight: Chunky
Yarn construction – 4-ply cabled

The Colour of Love

May 30, 2013

Love is sweet, passionate, stolen joy,
shiny, and shockingly pink, like birthday boots.

Love is butcher-red.
It is open-heart surgery with nothing but gin –
a fluorescent hangover-orange –
a funny-shaped bruise,
yellowing overnight –
and a bucket of warm puke that looks
far too much like custard.

It is damp, green silence,
smelling like the cold earth
in which I failed to hide.

Love is pure blue.
It is a strand of silk,
soft-spun from the summer sky;
plied with inky, messy, irrational indigo.

It is stretched –
attenuated to some point of no return,
where touch becomes a whisper –
where whispers are violet –

All the layers of love
adding up to 220,
or 284,
or to a rainbow-flavoured cake,
or to nothing at all.

It’s not so bad.
After all, I still have the boots.

 

Colour of love prompt

Chapter 26: A sort of finale

April 30, 2013

Ha-aaarghhhhh!!!!!!

An almighty shriek came out of the air – thin air – and Karen descended into the trap, legs braced for landing – arms brandishing a pair of magnificent curved swords. Her hair streamed out behind her. She looked majestic, terrifying, a warrior of times past. The Romans must have felt like this when they saw Boudica on a fiery chariot. Was that Boudica?

Ian had never seen anything like it. And – after a day and a night of unexpected things happening one after the other in quick succession – this was the most alarming.

Karen hit the ground running.
“Everyone, grab a sword,” she shouted. “We’re going to kick this beast out of existence!”

“What sword?”
“Where did you – “

“No time for questions,” she cut them off. “Look – there.” She was pointing to the ground where she and the kids had been standing when the light took her. Where they had dropped the knitting needles.

“SEE!” Karen shouted back up into the sky. “TOLD YOU YOU COULD DO IT!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Told who what?”

“Like I said, no time for questions,” she said. “No time for thinking. Get a sword and slash the walls. It’s all connected. The trap, the monster, all of it. It’s not real but it’s all connected and we can destroy it. We can be free of it.”

Ian didn’t need telling twice. He always believed in doing the thing in front of you. You couldn’t find all the answers to everything all at once, and you didn’t have to. As long as he knew what was next, he decided not to care too much about what was afterwards. He grabbed a sword.

He didn’t actually know very much about swords. He’d heard somewhere that you held onto the blunt end and hit things with the sharp end.

The blunt end was all glittery. He took it in both hands and hefted the sword. Made a few practice swings. Right. The others were following suit around him and he stepped away from the mêlée. Didn’t want to get a sharp end in the ear. Right. The walls.

He lifted the sword, watched how Karen did it, swung it at the walls in a slicing motion. There was a gratifying scleurp! noise as the blade cut through the hateful slippery stinking bastard surface. He hacked at it again. It was just like bloody golf.

They were all starting to attack the walls now, and he could feel a thickening in the air. Like when your ears are about to pop.

“What’s happening?” he heard someone shout, but the voice was muffled, as it if came from far away.
He thought it was Pip.
“We’re hurting it!” said Karen. “Keep going!”

“Look up!” said Fred. “The things are coming!”
He was right. The circling shapes – the ones they had been afraid to name as wolves, the ones they had all been trying to ignore – they were starting to pour down the slopes towards them. Snapping, yellow teeth, grey fur. Long tails. Bright, hungry eyes, red with madness.

“Get them!” shouted Karen. They were closing in, rushing down the slopes and Ian got ready to swing his sword. One of them leaped at him and he swiped at it.
“Jesus!”

They weren’t wolves. The surprise caught him off balance and the next two to jump landed heavily on his chest. Knocked him over.

“Jesus, it’s squirrels!!” screamed Lena.
“Get them anyway!”

When they had been distant, mysterious shapes, there had seemed to be perhaps a handful of wolves out there. Now it was squirrels, and there were thousands of them, flocking out of nowhere.

Did squirrels flock? And come to think of it, Ian wasn’t much a naturalist but he was pretty sure squirrels were peaceful, shy, vegetarian creatures.

The thought of rabies crossed his mind and he leapt up, whacking the swarm of furry creatures off him and hacking away at them with his sword.

Ian had never killed anything bigger than a spider before.
It was disgusting. It was horrifying. Soon, he was past caring.

The group of them fell into a circle formation, each facing outward, each slashing at the onslaught. He could hear sobbing and wailing. He thought it might be his own. Some of it anyway. But nobody shied away because they all knew they had no choices left.

Soon they were standing on piles of furry bodies – crying – weeping – yet adding to the pile.

So this was war.
It was horrible.

“STOP IT!” screamed Karen. “STOP IT NOW!”
Ian hesitated, looked around at her. If they stopped they would be overwhelmed. The mound of squirrel corpses already covered the ground completely, and more kept coming. There was no end in sight.

“We can’t!” screamed Hazel.
“Not you,” Karen yelled.

The light brightened. The squirrels looked ghoulish in the glare, eyes flashing with blank, reflected light. More terrifying than before.
“THIS IS HORRIBLE!” Karen screamed. “YOU BLOODY WITCH, JUST STOP IT!”

The light became all-consuming.

YOU WANT. TO. WAKE UP?
“DON’T BE STUPID!” she screamed at it.

Karen hadn’t stop slashing at the squirrels, but she was distracted and more were getting through the circle.

“Fatima, get the middle,” said Hazel. “Sit down in the middle and get the stragglers.”
Fatima dropped back and the rest of them moved around to close the circle.

THEN I WILL. SEND DALEKS.
“ALSO STUPID,” Karen shouted. “DALEKS ARE EVIL, YOU MORON!”

THEN WHAT. SHALL I SEND?

Ian wasn’t reasoning any of this out. But he had a flash of inspiration.
“Flood!” he shouted. “A flood and we can swim out!”

VERY WELL.

There was a sudden noise like rain on a plastic roof, loud and thunderous.
The squirrels paused. They looked up. So did Ian.

He hadn’t bothered to wonder if everyone could swim. Now he did. He grabbed Fatima who was just behind him, sitting on the bloody heap. Her leg had given way.
“Hazel, get Falcon!” he shouted.

The water hit them like a brick wall. Battered, Ian managed to keep his grip on Fatima. He had his arm around under her armpits and he kicked upwards through the water.

The currents were violent.

Fatima was clinging on to him, too weak and tired to fight the water. He battled it for her. He fought to keep his head above water, taking breaths whenever he dared. He tried to keep her up too. She  coughed now and again and that meant she had not drowned, not yet.

They were being washed all over the place, and Ian was aware of other bodies floating in the water with them. It was dark again, and in any case he didn’t have the strength to do more than hope that the others were alright.

At length, the waters receded. They were on firm ground. Real ground. With mud and stones and twigs and starlight above them and a moon. The real world. He lay still, panting, weak with relief.

After a minute or so, they began helping one another to their feet. Tired, unsteady, but alive.
In the distance, they could hear the late night dance music of a festival.

Ian’s phone – safe inside the high-tech waterproof case that he now realised had not been a complete waste of money – beeped into life.

Where’s my sandwiches then? –  it said.

They trooped back to the festival. Lena and Hazel between them helped Fatima to the medical tent.
Fred promised to make sure Falcon was delivered safely to his parents.

The others melted wetly into the crowds from which they had come.

Yes. The real world.
It was strangely disappointing.

Peregrination: The fourth wall

April 29, 2013

“She’s awake!” I leaned over her to check her vital signs.
Karen opened her eyes.

“It’s alright, love. You’re safe.”
“What happened?” She was drowsy, confused.
“We’re still trying to figure it out. Seems there was a gas leak. Something hallucinogenic.”

She sat up.
“But it seemed so – ”
“Real?”
She nodded. “Where are the others?”

“Others?”
I tried to play innocent, but I was never much of a liar.
“Yes,” she said coldly. “The others.”
Shit. Was she on to me?

“Let me get you some water.” I backed away.
She swung her legs out of bed. Did not seem dozy enough. Had I forgotten the sedatives?

She pointed to the wall by the sofa-bed. Stabbed it with her finger.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
“Karen, I don’t know. It’s just a hole.”
She inspected it. Put her eye to it. I held my breath.

“You bloody evil twisted little witch!” she said. “How could you?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. I tried to pour the water. Struggled to keep the cup steady.
And then she woke up…. Really? Really?”
“I don’t – ”
“How stupid do you think I am?”

There was no good answer to that. I didn’t attempt one.
She crossed my study, grabbed my shoulder.

“Put me back there. Put me back right now.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re not real!” she shouted. Right in my face. “You’re not real! I’m real. ME! Not you.”
I could feel her fingers digging into me. She was more real than I could wish her to be.

“Put me back.”
I nodded, defeated.

“With swords.”
“What?”
“I’m going to need some magic swords.”
“I can’t just – ”
“Jesus. If you’re cretinous enough to try And then she woke up, then you’re cretinous enough to get some magic swords in. Sort it.”
“Alright,” I said. “But please let go of my shoulder.”

She relaxed her grip, but looked just as menacing as before.

“One more thing.”
“What?”
“If things look tough, I want a deus ex machina. No messing about, right?”
“But how -”
“I don’t care. Daleks, squirrels, muddy socks? The time lord. Electricity pylons. I don’t give a damn – it’s your job. You must have some spare prompts lying around.”

I sighed and waved my hand. She disappeared.
I switched on my laptop, and googled Deus ex machina.

Chapter 25: Berserker

April 29, 2013

Fred craned his neck. They were all looking up, looking for Fatima in the bright fog.
The crazy woman had gone toe to toe with like a supernatural life-force or something. It had swallowed her up.

Then there had been that eerie singing, high-pitched, went right through you.
And then the shape of her, like a ghost to begin with but getting solid.

“Quick! Everybody grab her! We’ve got to get her out of it!”
Ian had jumped to his feet and Fred followed suit. They all got hold of whatever they could reach and pulled her down. Pulled her back out of it.

“Helen!” she was shouting. “Helen!”
And she was clutching at something. But there was nothing. Clutching at mist.

“We’ve got you,” said Ian. “You’re alright.”
“We’ve got you,” echoed Lena.
“Helen!” she cried out.

“Helen’s not here,” said Lena.
Ian helped her to sit up.
“Helen….”
“She’s not here.”
“I had her…”

She looked dazed. A right old state. Fred felt sorry for her. She was just some old lady. Batty, mind. Mad as a box of frogs.
“I had her right in my arms,” she said.
“No,” said Lena. “There was nobody. No Helen.”

She took some deep breaths. “Then it’s not real.” This time she sounded calmer, saner.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not real. It takes your fears, and it – does something to you. But it’s not real.”
“It feels pretty damn realistic to me.”

Not to Fred. He was scared alright, but it was nightmare-scared. Zombie-scared.

“I vote we do something to it,” said Pip.
“Seconded.” That was Karen.
She was a bit bonkers and all, that one. Feisty.
“OK, but what?”

The light-monster-thing was hovering, high up out of reach. It was kittenish. Playing. Bloody thing seemed to have an unhealthy liking for cat-shapes.
There was still enough light to see by, a little.
Karen was fumbling with something.

“It’s not real?” said Hazel.
“All lies.”
“Christ.” Hazel panted, once or twice, like when you’re choking something back. I reckon she gave up trying to keep it back because the next thing she said was: “I vote we nuke the bastard.”

Karen was standing back up now. She was holding something above her head. What? Was she going to nuke it with a bobble hat?

“Look here, you bastard,” she shouted. “I spent weeks figuring out this pattern. Weeks. But you’re not bloody real, so watch this you tosser.”
Very deliberately, she pulled out the needles. She threw the knitting down and held the needles up like swords. “See? See this? I’m not scared of you.”

The kitten-blob was still. Fred thought maybe it dropped down a bit closer. He got ready to grab Karen if it went for her. Feisty? Psycho, more like.

“Look at this one, you bastard. Look!” She was holding something else up now. “Lace weight. Mohair. Double pointed needles. Two millimetres. Feathers and fans. How long do you reckon this one took, eh? You can’t even imagine the hours and hours. Watch this you bloody little sod.”

She pulled out the needles. Fred wasn’t even sure how many – lots – he didn’t think you needed more than two. That’s what his mum used, anyway. She dropped the knitting on the ground and brandished all her needles, gleaming like steel. She was shaking.
“I’m not scared of you, you shit! You’re not even real.”

She handed the little needles to Falcon. “Watch what I do,” she said. Gave another couple to Fred.

“Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough,” she screamed up at the kitten-thing. If he hadn’t been so shocked it would have been funny. He’d have pissed his bags laughing. If it hadn’t been so frightening.

It descended. Slowly.

“Not fast enough, you bastard!” screamed Karen.  She took one stride over to the nearest wall and began to stab it with her needles. “Take this and stick it up your arse!” Stab, stab.

Falcon, face lit up like a Halloween mask, watched. The light began to come down faster.
“Come on kids, give it your best,” said Karen. “Show it you’re not afraid.”

Falcon raised a needle and bashed it awkwardly into the fleshy, waxen walls. Fred wasn’t going to join in. He wasn’t. It was bloody mental. But then he was next to Falcon and they were both hammering the needles into the walls. He imagined they were made of cheese. Edam bloody cheese.

“All the walls! You too Pip! Stab wherever you can reach!”

None of them could match Karen’s frenzy. She’d gone demented.

The kitten-monster screamed down to them and Fred could hear it wailing. Caterwauling.
Then he was inside it and all was noise and painful light.

“Yes!” said Karen. “We’re hurting it!”
She turned to the fourth wall – raised her needle – and then…

…And then she woke up.

Chapter 24: Lal Ded

April 29, 2013

WHO’S NEXT?

Fatima stood.
Her leg was killing her. She leaned on Falcon. The child was bearing up magnificently.

“Helen,” she said, the weakness in her bruised, exhausted body was matched by her strength of purpose. Enough was enough. “Helen is next.”

WHO. IS. NEXT?
“Helen,” repeated Fatima. “We’ve paid a fair price. More than fair. Now show us Helen.”
YOU. SEEK TO. BARGAIN?
“No,” said Fatima. “No more bargains. Show us our friend.”
SHE IS. NOT. HERE.
“Then bring her.”
I DO. NOT….

“I don’t care!” Fatima filled her voice with cold anger. Imagined the cloud as her defiant nephew, Omar. “I don’t care what you do or do not. You said you do not take. You’ve taken plenty. No more.”

It flared up, blazing. She thought she had made it angry. She hoped so.
A cold wind like ice swept over them, and the light was gone.

“What was that about?” asked Karen.
“We tried doing as it asked. Where did that get us?” said Fatima.
“She’s right,” said Lena. “We don’t even really know what it wants. We can’t just let it take and take.”

Fatima sat down heavily. That man, the kind one – Ian – was by her side.
“You OK?” he said.
She nodded. “Yes.”

It was very dark. Fatima looked up and could not see even the dim grey light that had filtered down from above, earlier. She wondered if that meant that night had fallen, back out there. She realised she had long since missed the gig. She wondered how Zane and Rosh were doing. If they were worried about her.

“But what if we just made it worse?” said Karen.
“I don’t see how this could get any worse,” said Pip.
“Then you haven’t got much imagination,” said Karen.

“Not right now, no,” said Pip. “I’m stuck in this dismal hole, in the dark, and I need a wee. I’m hungry, I’m tired, and there’s a monster thing that wants to eat my soul. I don’t even know what all of that means, but it sounds pretty bad to me.”
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” said Fred. “About needing a wee.”

Everyone shuffled awkwardly. Fatima supposed they were thinking about their bladders. Hers was holding out – one of the advantages of not having children, she supposed. There were some. But she was stiff and miserable, just like everyone else. They were all sitting now, too weary to do more, although it was so dark that Fatima could not see any of them. She could sense them close around her, by the warmth and smell and the sound of their movements.

“Hey, Hazel,” said Fatima. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” came the reply. Her voice was heavy, tired, strange.
“What was it like?” asked Karen.
There was a silence. Expectant, total, as though everyone was holding their breath.

The silence went on. And on.
“Hazel?”
There was no answer.
“Hazel?”
Still nothing. Fatima reached out instinctively for Falcon. He had hardly left her side the whole time they had been down this horrible trap, but he was not there.

“Anyone? Can’t anyone hear me?” she said.
She stretched out both her arms, groping in the dark, desperate now.
“Anyone?” Even Fatima could hear the panic in her voice. What was going on? Where had they gone?

It was pitch dark. And she was alone.

“This is not happening,” she told herself.
Then aloud – “This is NOT happening! I said NO!”

There was no answer. But at the edge of hearing, she noticed a dull hiss, like the white noise of a radio. The echos of cosmic events. The sound of vast, empty space.

“I’m not afraid!” she shouted.
The white noise dialled up a little. Maybe Karen was right. Maybe she had made things worse.

“Bring me Helen,” she said. She was resolved. “Or you get nothing.”
The static was getting louder, drowning out her thoughts.

A song of Rosh’s came into her mind, a song that came straight from his Kashmiri roots down the lines of his mothers.

I came by this path yet could not return
And passed the day here, by the river waiting
‏I looked in my pocket‪:‬ not a penny is there –
‏What could I pay for the ferry fee?‬

They would sing it sometimes at the end of a great set. Rosh’s haunting melody, slow and penetrating, would go straight to the belly of every member of the audience, fierce and lonely.
She began to sing.

Who can stop the icicles from melting‪?‬
‏Who can hold the wind in her palms‪?‬
The one who cuts off all her five senses
‏She receives sunshine in the darkness.

The song gave her strength. She sang the second verse again.

And sunshine did come. Or, if not exactly sunshine, then at least there was light. Brilliant light, and in the shape of a woman.
“Helen!”

SHE IS –
“Shut up!”

Fatima reached out to the shining body and grabbed hold of it with both arms. She did not know if she could pull Helen out of the light – but she was going to try. It was both hot and cold and hard to hold onto. She had to shut her eyes against the brightness of the light, and it still burned through her eyelids.

“Helen!” she shouted. “If you’re in there, come back. Come back!” She could hear the white noise getting louder, and feel a wind starting to whip around her, flapping her clothes, lifting her hair. Perhaps she had unnerved it. She embraced the Helen-light-creature-thing and held on with all her strength and weight.

“Helen!” she shouted over and over. “Helen, wake up and help me!”

The silvery, blazing light-body began to rise, but Fatima would not let go. She felt herself rising too. She would not let go. Maybe they would fly out of the trap – that at least would be something – but then she felt strong hands pulling her back. She held on tight. She would not let go.

Chapter 23: Courage

April 27, 2013

Ian felt his pockets and searched his bag. He’d got nothing sharp. He remembered the expensive camping knife in his tent.

“What kind of sharp?” asked Karen.
Fred shrugged. “We can’t climb the walls,” he said. “Maybe we can cut them.”
“I’ve got a Swiss army knife,” said Pip. “It’s blunt as hell, though.”

“Cut them? What for?”
“Dunno,” he said. “Footholds, maybe.” It was a hell of a long way to climb up, if you had to cut every hole as you went. If all you had was a blunt penknife.

“Sharp makes a good weapon, too,” said Fred. He was looking up at the circling shapes. Ian was wondering if the soul-eating light-monster thing was stabbable.

Pip got her knife out. The blade was stiff.
“Want me to do it?” offered Ian.
“No thanks,” said Pip, acidly. She could give Daisy a run for her money, that one.

“I should try there first,” he suggested. Why was he feeling so defensive? “I think it’s a bit less steep.”

She and Fred went to the section he had pointed out. He followed. Wanting to be useful. In real life, back in the world he knew, there was always something that could be done. Always someone to talk to, some button to press, some lever to pull. But then real life had never been quite as real as this.

Pip probed the wall.
“There aren’t any weak spots,” said Ian. “I’ve been looking.”
“OK, then,” she said. “I’ll just try anywhere.”

She raised the knife and pressed the point into the surface, sliced across.
Ian couldn’t see that it had made any impression.
Pip put her hand back up to the surface. “Not a scratch,” she said.

“Might need to be a bit more violent?” Karen, curious, had come to join them.

Pip raised the knife again, higher this time, up against her shoulder. She stabbed the wall. The point went in. She leaned on it, pushing it in further, and then began to saw back and forth.

“I made a hole!” she said, pulling out the knife.
Ian felt the hole while she wiped the blade.

“I can get my fingers in,” he said. “Christ almighty!” He withdrew his hand, shocked. He had expected earth. Something like earth. They were underground, after all.
“What is it?” asked Karen.
“I don’t know. It’s wet and sticky.”

He raised his fingers to sniff them. It smelled sweet. He wondered briefly if he dared taste it, then wiped his hand on his trousers.

“Look at that,” said Fred. A viscous liquid was seeping out of the wall, running down the sides.
“It’s like it’s bleeding,” said Karen.
“I vote we stab it again,” said Pip.

“No!”
It was Hazel and she rushed towards them, struggling to stay upright on the wobbly surface.
“Don’t!” she said.
“Why not?” asked Karen.
“It hurts.” said Hazel.

Lena was behind Hazel, and Ian noticed that Fatima was struggling to rise. He went to help her. She leaned on him, limping. That leg injury must have been worse than she had let on. Falcon held her free hand. They wanted to know what was happening.

“I don’t care if it hurts,” said Karen. “It should bloody well let us out if it doesn’t want us to hurt it.”
“I mean it hurts me.” said Hazel. She lifted the hem of her skirt to show them. There was a scratch, and blood on her leg. It was silvery.
“It’s all shiny,” said Falcon, drawing closer to Fatima.

It made Ian think of unicorn blood, in some film he’d seen with a girlfriend once. He looked back at the oozing wall and then back at Hazel’s leg.

“You mean – when Pip stabbed the wall, it cut you?”
“Yes,” said Lena. “I felt her wince.”

Everyone was quiet for the moment, putting two and two together.
“So you’re connected to it?” said Fatima. “We can’t hurt it without hurting you?”
“Looks that way,” said Hazel.

“Then you have to get it out of you,” said Karen.
“We might have to hurt it to escape,” said Fred. He sounded scared, but there was steel in his voice. Grit. Ian hadn’t thought he had that in him.
“I don’t know how,” said Hazel, faintly.
“Yes, you do,” said Fatima. They all looked at her. “You have to show it your soul.”

“But I -” Hazel looked at Lena, helpless.
“You’ve got no choice,” said Pip.

They were lining up, ranged against her. Backing her into a corner. Ian almost felt sorry for her. And she had a point, after all. How do you go about showing someone your soul? Even if you wanted to. It wasn’t something Ian had thought much about. Souls. It all sounded a bit wishy-washy to him. Of course – that was before. There was nothing wishy-washy about being down in this pit.

Lena took her hand.
“You fought it off,” she said. “Before.”
“Yes,” said Hazel.
“Stop fighting,” said Lena.
“I didn’t want to disappear. Like Helen. You think I should disappear?”
“I’ll hold you down.”

It must be a complicated thing, the soul of a person like Hazel, Ian thought. More complicated than average, anyway.

He took a step towards her. “I’ll hold on, too.”
They both looked at him, surprised.
He felt himself blushing and looked away. “If you need backup.”

“Thank you,” said Hazel, and held her hand towards him.

He took it and the three of them stood together.

Hazel closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly. As she did so, Ian could see her brightening, starting to glow again. Her skin coruscated and her features became indistinct, lost in the blaze. Then she inflated, or so it appeared. Ian saw her as a giantess, and her light engulfed him.

He shut his eyes. He could still feel her hand. It was hot, but no bigger than it had been before. He gripped it. It was the light that was inflating. Not her.

“NO!” she shouted. “NOOOOOOO!”

Ian felt her pulling away from him. He held onto her with both hands.

The light was rising. It was trying to take her with it. He grabbed the leg nearest him. Lena had done the same and they stood side by side, holding onto Hazel. Ian’s face was level with her crotch. He felt a bit queasy for a second.

Her body crackled. He and Lena dragged on her legs. He held onto her and thought of the branches and saplings that he had grasped at only hours before, when he had been fighting the river. The light continued to rise, and he kept his hold.

He did not know how much time passed. It felt epic – but maybe it was only a few minutes.

He noticed that her feet were no longer glowing. Gradually, the light was beginning to leave her: they were gaining ground. Slowly, the dark crept up her body until there was too little alight to keep her up – she fell abruptly to the ground. Landed on top of them.

Ian extricated himself, crawled away, rubbing his shoulder. Hazel was sobbing, Lena held her. She was dark now, just like the rest of them. He wondered if it had left any – damage.

“It’s gone,” said Lena, soothing. “It’s gone.”

Gone from Hazel, yes.
But not altogether gone. It was hanging in the air, a few metres above them.

No longer Hazel-shaped. It was a cat. Washing its face – as though it had been at the cream. It looked smug. If Ian had been the type to kick cats, he’d have wanted to kick this one into the middle of next week.

It stood up. Stretched.
GOOOOOD, it boomed.
WE SAW. THE. TRUE SELF.

Hazel looked up and Ian saw the tears on her face. The cat-light glistened off them.
“And?” she asked.  Fear in her voice. Ian winced.

AND, WHAT?

There was a thunderous noise, like a storm, purring.

The cat began to lose shape. It began to spread, like an amorphous cloud of dissipating fog.
Perhaps, in a moment, there would be nothing left but the grin.

Had they defeated it? Was that it?

AND WHO’S NEXT?

Chapter 22: Death or balloons

April 26, 2013

Fred was acutely aware that what was happening could not be real.

“I thought it was going to let us go,” said Karen.
“Hazel asked it to,” said Fatima. Her soul for our freedom, that’s what she said.
“And it took her soul, right?” said Karen.
“Did it? How can you tell?” asked Pip.

Fred sat leaning back slightly, at the curve of the hole. It was shaped like the red vase that his Mum used every spring, to put daffodils in. Masses of daffodils. And it felt like a beanbag, the way it moulded itself to you. But soft and waxy. Like a petal. Like Edam cheese.

“Well, it hasn’t let us go, has it?” said Ian. “We’re still here.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” said Karen.
“Yeah, but he’s got a point,” said Pip. “She might still be all shiny, but it’s not like – not like before.”

So it didn’t get her soul? And they didn’t get their freedom.
The boy, Falcon, was sitting with Fatima. Seemed he had taken a shine to her. She let him snuggle right up to her. Fred hoped it was making him feel better. If they were scared and confused, what about him?

Fred was leaning into the curve, knees up, hugging his backpack to his chest. He listened with only half an ear. His eyes were on Hazel – there wasn’t really anything else to look at, because the weird light from her skin, although it was faint now, was still bright enough that everything else faded into the shadows.

He did not like the dark. He thought about the torch in his bag. Before, when all this was had been a landslide, a solvably human problem – then, he’d been dead keen on lighting up the torch. But, now, he thought perhaps he didn’t want to see after all.

The  wolfish shapes that they all kept half-seeing, out of the corners of eyes. They were still there. Moving about, but they had not approached. Not yet. Perhaps the light was keeping them away.

“Well,” said Ian. “There’s two ways this could go. Either it’s going to come back and want souls. Or it isn’t.” A right gift for stating the obvious.
“Either way, we’re still stuck down here,” said Pip. “Unless we can find a way back up to the top.”

They looked again at the walls. Ian began testing, looking for somewhere that wasn’t totally unclimbable. But all around the sides of this hole were completely smooth. Nowhere to put your hands or feet. You couldn’t dig into the surface because it just yielded and rippled away under your hands. Like fighting blancmange.

Fred had once tried to climb up the walls of a bouncy castle. It was impossible. This was the same.

“So what about this greatest-fear thing that we’re supposed to face?” began Pip. “What’s that about?”
“What are you most afraid of?”asked Fatima. Seemed like a reasonable question, if a bit personal.
“Clowns,” said Falcon.
Pip shrugged. “Dying? Torture?”
“Balloons?” suggested Fatima.

Fred was barely listening. He was watching Hazel, whispering with Lena. Maybe they were coming up with a plan.That would be good. And he was aware of Ian, continuing uselessly to probe the walls.

Mark had made him watch this horrible zombie film when was six. It had scared the bejesus out of him, he’d had nightmares for years afterwards. Years. In his dreams he would see the zombies coming. Dead people with grey-green skin and blank eyes, people who came to get you and wanted to eat your brains, and they wouldn’t stop no matter what you did.

Sometimes he would be able to run. He would run and run until his heart felt like it would explode.

“Balloons?” said Karen. “Death, torture – or balloons?”
“Balloons are creepy,” said Pip.
“Yeah, but they’re not the sort of thing that keeps you up at night are they?”

Other times, there would be nowhere to run. He would have to fight. And he would have no weapons, only what was nearest to him, things he could grab. He would hit the zombie with books, or lift up a chair, strength beyond his years, and smash it down on the zombie’s head time and time again. It didn’t stop them. They just kept coming.

“Cancer,” said Pip. “That’s bloody scary. My Mum….”
“Yes,” said Ian. “Cancer.”

Once, a zombie had come for him in the garden shed. He’d got the lawnmower, and managed to turn it on. His Dad had always kept him well away from it, but in the dream he knew how to turn it on. He’d run over them with the lawnmower, chopped them up with the blades that his Dad always said would take his hands right off if he got too close. Chopped them up, and they still kept on coming. Guts spilling out, green blood oozing. That lawnmower was a bloody lethal death machine, and they’d still kept coming.

“Nuclear bombs,” said Karen.
“That’s what we should be scared of,” said Fatima. “But are we? It’s not bombs or guns or cancer that keep me up at night.”
“I don’t like balloons,” said Falcon. “They squeak.”
“That’s what I mean, honey,” said Fatima.

“Someone could try and cut my face off with a spoon,” she went on. “And if I thought that was actually going to happen then I’d be scared of that. But I don’t. I’m more freaked out by balloons, actually.”
“And I’d be scared of big giant aliens with fifteen eyes and twenty arms and eleven legs,” said Falcon.
“I’d be scared of them too, if I ever saw one,” said Fatima.

Another time, he had hidden in the fridge. It had been so cold, and he’d had to stop his teeth from chattering in case the zombies heard. He’d stuffed his mouth with cheese to muffle the sound.

Cheese made him sick now.
The smell of it turned him green.

“What should scare me is knowing I’ll never go to university because my family are too poor,” said Pip.
“Does it?”
“No.”
“What then?” asked Karen.

He would throw rocks at them. Hefting great lumps of stone through the air. It would slow them down, if he hit them right. And when they got too close he would give up on the throwing and just bash them, over and over. Find a sharp one and stab them with it. Blindly, doggedly, tears streaming down his face. Knowing he was dead if he stopped.

“Exams. Failing exams.” Pip sounded bitter. “As if there was any point in passing them.”
“Dropping stitches,” said Karen. “I have to put stoppers on the ends of my needles, to stop the stitches coming off in the night.”
“Silence. If I’m lying in bed and I can’t hear anything. If it’s too quiet. Like there’s nobody else alive in the whole world. That’s what keeps me awake.”

That was the point – you mustn’t stop.

And he never had. He would wake up sweaty, sobbing, heart pounding through his chest. Sometimes, when he was very young, he would wake up covered in wee. Like after the time in the fridge. But he always woke up.

He never just let them get him.
That was the point.

“Hey,” he said, feeling again the waxy surface of the walls. Yes, like Edam cheese. “Does anyone have anything sharp?”

Chapter 21: For a tambourine

April 25, 2013

Lena watched in horror as the soul-light-Helen-Hazel-thing backed away from her.

WE ARE SOUL… it said. It stumbled.

Lena had been on the ground, where Hazel had pulled her down before she stood to face the thing. She forced herself to get up and follow.

She didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was it had got into her beloved.

She followed. It turned back towards her, its eyes blank and silvery, colours moving over its skin. She could see its flesh rippling. Changing.

It seemed to grow in size, and then shrank again.
WE ARE –

It took a step toward her. It tripped, fell forwards.

Lena caught it. It was Hazel but it was not Hazel. It was Andy but it was not Andy – a body possessed by some soul-eating creature. SOUL, trapped in a woman, trapped in a –

She caught it and fell backwards as it landed on top of her.

The creature was panting, effortful. It lay on her for a moment, then tried to get up.
She looked into its eyes as it reared up and –
“Hazel!” she said, urgently. Then: “Andy!”
She clung on. “Are you still you?”

WE ARE –
“Hazel!”

“Lena – ” The whisper came out like the hiss of steam from a pressure cooker when you rock the top.
“And are you – are you, you?” Lena asked.
The glow faded. It did not go but it faded.
“I am me,” said Hazel. She sat up, catching her breath.
“Thank God.”

“What the hell just happened?”
It was Karen.

Lena did not know Karen, did not recognise her at all. She hadn’t been part of the spell. Why was Karen even here? Why were any of those others here?

“It wants to see our souls,” said Hazel.
Her voice sounded distant, and there was still a light sheen over her skin.

“What does that even mean?” asked Pip. A kid. Another one just caught up in things.
Lena put her head in her hands.
“Why?” Karen again. “I don’t understand any of this,” she said.

“It’s because of the spell.”
“That thing at the Women’s Tent?” said Karen.
“You were there?”
“I had a tambourine,” said Karen. “I thought it would be fun.”

Lena’s heart sank. The first spell. There had been so many people.

Fatima moved over to Karen and put an arm around her shoulder.
“I didn’t think it was, like, actual magic,” Karen went on. “I didn’t know it was dangerous.”
“Bloody hell, nor did I,” said Fred.

Nor had Lena. She had meditated, prayed and communed with the spirits daily, for years. She had called for aid from time to time, and had always found it. But not like this. Never anything like this.
None of them had known. How could they?

Except – “Helen knew,” she said. “I think Helen knew.”

“What? What did she know?” demanded the guy, Ian. She might have known he would be like this. Aggressive. It wasn’t helping.
“She knew there would be a price,” said Lena. “That’s what it said.”

“There’s always a price,” said Hazel. “For everything.”
“We have to let it see our souls?” asked Fatima.

“It means -” Hazel began. They all looked at her. “It means you have to face your greatest fear. It means you have to show your true selves.”
“Bare all, you mean?” said Ian.
“Yes,” said Hazel. “Exactly that.”
“Blimey,” said Karen. All for a tambourine.

They talked it over.

“Spiders,” said Fred. “I’m bloody terrified of them.”
“That’s your true self, is it? Terrified of arachnids?” Pip, sarcastic.
“No,” said Fred, quietly. “Jesus.”
“It’s all a bit intense, isn’t it?”

Lena turned away from the group and took Hazel aside.
“What happened?” she said. “Tell me exactly.”

It was like when you shine a light through your thumb, and it feels hot and your thumb glows red.
But it was a light shining through my whole body.

It wasn’t scary though, not too scary, because I’d sort of done it before. The light – that’s how I got here in the first place. It was the candle from the spell. It kept getting bigger until it was filling the whole sky, and then it sort of engulfed us. It was like we became part of the flame. Me and those kids – Fred, Pip.
This was not quite the same – not so hot.

I became a part of something, like the light was an ocean and I was just a drop. I could feel it wanting me to dissolve away. But I didn’t want to lose myself. You brought me back, Lena. You called me back, and I didn’t want to lose you.

I can still feel it, but now I’m not part of it. It’s part of me.

But when I was there – when I was out there in this ocean or whatever it was, it was… I can’t even describe it. It’s like I knew all there was to know, like I could feel everything, everywhere, all at once. I wasn’t just in the universe, I wasn’t just part of it. It was like I was the universe.

“The universal soul…” whispered Lena.
“Yeah,” said Hazel. “Something like that.”
“And you came back.”
Hazel held up one hand, and it still had a bit of shine about it, like a glow-stick the morning after. “I think I brought some of it back with me.”

Lena took the hand, kissed it.
“What do we do now?” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Hazel.

“I don’t want to – when I was in there – ”
“What?” prompted Lena.
“I didn’t want it to know all my secrets. I wanted to keep my secrets safe inside. That’s why I couldn’t let it take me. That’s why I fought it”

Lena considered that. She didn’t know that Hazel had any secrets. Not real, secret secrets.
“You wanted to keep your secrets safe?” she said.

Hazel stayed silent for a long time.
“I’m afraid – afraid it will tell me I’m – wrong.”

“It said you have to face your greatest fears,” said Lena.
“I know,” said Hazel. “And I couldn’t.”