It’s Halloween, I’m stuck here on poison-distribution candy-distribution duty while the kids are out trick-or-treating, so what better time to share with you my horror(ish) short story, At the Gates, which was first published in Black Static, oh, almost nine years ago now? Here it is. Enjoy!
At the Gates
Grace heard the whimpering before she saw the dog.
She was on her way home from school, hands shoved deep into her jacket pockets, head hunched down, watching the pavement. Her iPod buds were in her ears—it made people leave her alone—but the music wasn’t playing. She’d forgotten to charge the iPod last night, and it was out of power. It had cut out half-way through ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’, leaving her ears ringing with the silence.
If it hadn’t been out of power, she would never have heard the dog. And if she hadn’t heard the dog, everything would have been different.
The whimpering was coming from the alley. High, close walls of Victorian brick enclosed the alley in deep shadow. Most people would have hurried past, but Grace had never been able to turn away from an animal in distress.
Her mum would kill her if she brought another dog home. But what else could she do? It wasn’t like she could leave it there.
There had been a time when her mum wouldn’t have minded, when her mum would have even come out and helped Grace carry the dog in. Found a blanket, warm milk. Would have sat up half the night. Before. That was how Grace thought of that time. Just, ‘Before.’
Taking a quick look around, Grace stepped into the mouth of the alley. The shadows closed in, like black cobwebs drifting down. She shivered.
Jeez, Grace. Still afraid of the dark?
She dropped down into a crouch and held out the back of her hand for the dog to sniff. If it was hurt or frightened, it might snap to protect itself.
The dog was huddled against a bin, wrapped up like an old, balled blanket. If it hadn’t been for the whimpering, Grace wouldn’t have even recognised it as a dog.
“Come on, old thing. I won’t hurt you.”
The dog turned its head to look at her. The whites of its eyes were sharp in the darkness.
“You really are a poor old mutt, aren’t you?” Grace said, keeping her voice soft.
Its coat was matted and dirty. In places, its skin was bare. If it had been clean, Grace reckoned it would have been white and brown, but that the moment, and in the poor light, it was a near-uniform grey. The dog whimpered again, then stretched out its muzzle towards her.
The dog licked Grace’s hand with a dry tongue.
“So,” she said, “will you follow me, or do I carry you?”
Her mum wasn’t in, and neither, thank God, was Malcolm. But Sean was running wild with little Craig from across the street. She bumped the door closed behind her with her hip. Two eight-year-olds let loose and uncontrolled. Perfect.
The headache that had settled behind her eyes after she’d left the alley thumped once, like a giant heart.
“What the hell are you two doing?” she snapped.
The two boys stopped in mid-shriek. Craig’s eyes widened.
“You’ve got a dog.”
Grace shifted the poor beast in her arms. “You don’t say.”
“You have,” Craig said, excitement pitching up his voice.
“Mum’s going to kill you,” Sean said.
“No, she’s not,” Grace said. “Because you’re not going to tell her. Okay?”
“She’s going to kill you.”
Grace pushed past the boys. They parted.
(Like dry bones under iron wheels).
She stumbled. Where the hell had that come from? She didn’t feel well.
She would put the dog in her bedroom with a bowl of water and something to eat. Rice. She’d heard that was good for sick dogs, and this dog was really sick. She was shivering in Grace’s arms, and her skin moved loosely over her bones.
“I’m going to call you Hope,” Grace whispered in the dog’s ear.
“You better go and see Mr. Uri,” Sean called.
Grace closed her eyes. “Why?”
“Because he hasn’t paid his rent. Again. Malcolm’s getting mad.”
“And he’s making smells,” Craig added.
She heard their footsteps slap on floorboards.
“Don’t go outside,” she shouted, to the sound of the slamming door.
Craig had been right about the smell. The corridor stank of boiled vegetables, or worse, boiling laundry. Between the smell and the headache that was still swelling behind her eyes with every pace, Grace felt sick.
Mr. Uri was her mother’s tenant. Somehow, they’d inherited him with the house when her mum had bought it. Grace didn’t really understand how that had worked. She’d only been a kid when they’d moved here. But she did know it had made the house cheap enough for her mum when they couldn’t afford anywhere else. That had been ‘Before’. Before Malcolm and before his money. Grace was glad. Mr. Uri was the best thing about living here. Sometimes she thought he was the only good thing.
She stopped outside Mr. Uri’s door. The smell here was atrocious. If Mr. Uri was cooking in his rooms again, Mum would have a fit.
She laid a palm on the hard wood of the door. She could feel the rough grain against her skin. Her nerve endings seemed hypersensitive.Fever, she thought, and hoped she was wrong.
There was a virus going around school. Half her friends had come down with it. She had almost hoped Dean would catch it so she could have an excuse to go around and nurse him, but no such luck. She’d been sure she hadn’t got it, though. She never got the flu. And the last thing she needed right now was
(…bodies choking on swollen tongues…)
to be sick. God!
She let out a breath. She was not going to give in to this virus.
“Mr. Uri?” she called gently.
No answer. She hadn’t really expected it.
Still no answer. She smiled. Here we go.
She tried the handle, and of course it was open. He’d told her that he never worried about burglars. “What can they take that I haven’t already lost?” he’d said. But she knew he really left the door unlocked so that she could come right on in.
She pushed the door open and stepped through.
The window was open. Bright late-afternoon sunlight slipped between the swaying curtains. Grace could hear birdsong from somewhere outside, but she didn’t know where; there were no trees in this street, no parks nearby. Mr. Uri sat in his armchair, head resting on the wing. He was dozing, and snoring slightly. His thin white hair haloed his wrinkled scalp in the sunlight.
Funny. There was no smell in here. It must have been something else. Not the drains, she hoped. God, how she hoped. She’d be up to her shoulders in them before Malcolm would even consider calling a plumber. Good for her character, Malcolm would say, but Grace knew he was just tight.
She crouched in front of Mr. Uri and took his frail hand.
He let out one final, shivering snore, and then blinked at her.
“You were sleeping, Mr. Uri.”
He smiled. His smile always made him seem far more frail, like he was a shed skin held up only by memory.
“I had just closed my eyes. To enjoy the silence.”
Grace backed up and seated herself in the chair opposite. Mr. Uri frowned. “You look pale.”
“Maybe a virus.”
He shook his head. Whenever he did that, she found herself worrying absurdly that his head would come tumbling off and she would have to catch it.
“You should be in bed, not visiting old men.” He laughed. It sounded more like a dry cough.
“It’s Monday,” Grace said. “You forgot your rent.”
He straightened slightly, a dry stick unbending. “Not at all. It is on the table.” He gestured, shaking.
“Admit it,” Grace said. “You only forget so I have to come and fetch it.”
Mr. Uri looked away. “An old man gets lonely here.”
She leaned forward and took his hand again. “I know.”
When Grace got upstairs, there were raised voices in the dining room. She thought about just heading on past, up to her bedroom. But she was still carrying Mr. Uri’s rent money and she didn’t want to get him in any more trouble.
Her mum sat at the over-polished table, her fingers making tight circles above the surface, as though she was polishing it still. Sean hunched in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around his knees, forcing himself into a small, shocked ball, as though if he could squeeze himself tight enough he might just disappear. Why did neither her mum nor Malcolm ever think about Sean when they had their shouting matches? He was eight, for God’s sake, and he looked shell-shocked.
“What the hell is going on here?” Grace demanded.
Malcolm swung away from the window. His hands were clenched into white fists.
“Watch your mouth. I’ll have no swearing in my house.”
Oh, no. Grace wasn’t letting that one past. She raised her eyebrows. “Whose house?”
She saw Malcolm’s teeth clamp down, like he was chewing on wood, and his face redden.
Her mum cut in, before the argument could really let fly. “Your dad went down—”
“He’s not my dad.”
Her mum let out a long, silent breath.
“Your dad went down to see Mr. Uri.”
“He missed his rent,” Malcolm said. “As fucking usual. Thinks this is a free ride.” He slammed the side of his fist against the wall, making the pictures shake. Sean flinched. No one except Grace seemed to notice. “I know he was in there. I hammered on his door. Bastard pretended he was asleep.”
“Maybe he was asleep,” Grace said.
“Yeah?” Malcolm lifted his chin. “Then he needs to wake up. We’re not a charity. He’s missed his rent. That’s it.”
Grace shoved her hand into her back pocket where she’s put Mr. Uri’s money. Her head hurt, she had a sick dog to look after and this arsehole was making everything difficult again. “He hasn’t missed his rent.” She pulled the money out and flung it at Malcolm. The notes scattered, like a flock of birds bursting before a cat. “There it is.”
Malcolm’s eyes flattened and stilled, fixed on her. Grace knew he wanted to hit her. He might even have tried to, if her mother hadn’t been there. She glared at him.
He snapped away, as abrupt as a gunshot, turning on Grace’s mother.
“He should be in a home.”
Grace knew she should stop. She knew she had pushed it too far already. But she couldn’t.
“He is in a home. His home. It’s been his home for a whole lot longer than it’s been yours.”
In the silence that followed, the air was thick, frozen.
Pins and needles prickled across Grace’s skin, and for a second she thought she was seeing through smoke. Through the soles of her feet, she felt the ground shake, like
(…flesh splitting, boiling, breaking apart…)
an earthquake. Fuck! She was not giving in to this virus. Not when she had all this to sort out.
Through dry lips, she managed, “Longer than it’s been home to anyone of us. If anyone should leave, it’s us. Not—”
The sharp, incongruous sound of her phone cut her off. She plucked it out of her pocket and flipped it open.
“Dean,” she said. “Hi.”
Being best friends with the hottest guy in school should be fantastic, right?
Grace and Dean had been friends since they’d been two years old. They’d done everything together, right from the start. They’d been in the same classes right through to high school, and they still were. They’d played games together, slept over, been bathed together, holidayed together. For a few years, they’d not talked much, because boys and girls didn’t, but they’d been friends anyway. And then, unfairly, three years ago, Dean had got hot and she hadn’t. His shoulders had widened, the puppy fat had burned away over his cheekbones, his eyes had darkened. And all he would ever think of her as was his friend.
They could walk down the street, arm-in-arm, and they were only friends. They could go to movies or cafés, as friends. He would tell her about his girlfriends. She knew when he’d started having sex. She’d had to look happy for him. Be happy.
It was killing her.
Maybe she could have tried to be more like the girls he liked. Blonde, thin, tight clothes. Too much make-up. She hadn’t. She’d gone the other way. She’d dyed her hair black and grown curves where she wasn’t supposed have curves.
Dean wanted to talk about his new girlfriend. Rachel. Grace could have told him Rachel was a bitch. She could have told him it was going to end badly. Instead, she pretended to be pleased, and tried to think of how she could make Dean see.
Her dog, Hope, was worse. She hadn’t eaten the rice Grace had cooked for her, or touched her water. She scarcely lifted her head when Grace came over. Hope wasn’t shivering anymore. Grace didn’t know if that was good or bad.
Grace wasn’t feeling that great either. She lay down next to Hope and wrapped herself around the poor creature’s thin body.
It wasn’t rent day, but Grace went to visit Mr. Uri anyway. The man didn’t get any other visitors. Grace couldn’t imagine how awful it must be to be too old to do anything by yourself and to have no one ever coming to call. She didn’t know how he could stand it.
Mr. Uri was in his chair, where he always sat. Grace had never seen him anywhere else, although she knew he must move about. He ate. He kept himself clean and shaved. He wore a clean shirt every day. It was just hard to imagine him doing any of those things. He looked too delicate, like he was made of tissue paper and could blow away or crumple up in a breeze.
His eyes opened as she came in, and he smiled. She drew up a chair next to him.
“You’ve got a new dog.”
“Yeah… How did you know?”
“I always know,” Mr. Uri said.
Grace looked down at her folded hands. Her fingers clenched each other too tightly. “She’s… sick.”
The old head bowed, and again Grace was scared his neck would just snap with the movement.
“I know,” Mr. Uri said. “There was a time I could have done something about that.”
Grace looked up. “You were a vet?”
A frown creased Mr. Uri’s papery forehead. “I… I don’t remember. Maybe. Something like that. But… I stopped. It wasn’t worth the price. I stopped.”
Grace leant close. “What do you mean? What price? Where are you from, Mr. Uri? Who are you, really?”
But the old man’s eyes were already fluttering shut. An old man, dreaming old, confused dreams. That was all he was.
Grace adjusted the pillow under his head then tiptoed away.
“You know what I think?” Malcolm said. They were sitting in the kitchen, eating breakfast. Grace’s mum was at the stove, frying bacon. Grace hadn’t eaten meat for years. Neither had her mum, before. “I think he’s one of those Nazis. One of those war criminals.” Malcolm had rolled up his newspaper and punctuated his words with short snaps on the edge of the table. It was setting Grace’s nerves on edge.
“For God’s sake!”
“Why not? He’s old enough. He’s got that weird accent. That’s what they did, the Nazis. They ran away and hid. Pretended they were normal people. Changed their names.”
Grace slapped her toast down, suddenly not hungry. “He’s just an old man. Why can’t you leave him alone?”
“I think we should call the police,” Malcolm said. “Get them to take him away. Get him out of here. I don’t want no Nazis in this house.”
“Sounds like we’ve got one already,” Grace muttered, but too quietly to be heard.
When Grace got back to her bedroom, Hope didn’t look up. She didn’t open her eyes. She lay there, unmoving. Her chest wasn’t rising or falling.
“No,” Grace whispered. “Don’t be dead. Don’t die.”
She dropped beside Hope on the pile of blankets. With a trembling hand, she touched her dog’s nose. It was dry and too cold, but air feathered against her hand. Grace let out a shaky breath. She pushed herself from her knees, unfolding carefully, not wanting to disturb Hope, and crossed to the other side of the room. She pulled out her phone and punched quick-dial.
“Dean?” she said. “I need a favour. Can you come over?”
“You look shit,” Dean said, as Grace opened the door.
“Thanks.” Dean didn’t look shit. He looked fantastic.
“Seriously. You’re pale. Are you sick?”
(…the weight of rusting metal, crushing, cracking, breaking…)
a bit… weird.” Understatement. Her skin felt both hot and cold, pricked by a thousand separate needles.
“You need to see a doctor?”
“No. That’s not why I asked you around.” She indicated with her head. “Upstairs.”
He followed her to her bedroom. If they hadn’t been friends, that would have meant something.
When he saw Hope, Dean looked at Grace. “The broken, the beaten, and the damned, right?”
“You. You want to save your mum. You want to save me from Rachel. You want to save that old bloke downstairs. You want to save this dog.” He reached out a hand and touched Grace’s cheek. The touch made her shiver. “You can’t save everyone, Grace.”
“I don’t want to,” Grace whispered. “Just her.” But she was too quiet, and Dean didn’t hear her.
Dean sighed. “So what do you need?”
“Help me get her to the vet,” Grace said.
The consulting room stank of disinfectant and fear. Air-conditioned coolness washed from the ceiling. Grace laid Hope on the rubber-covered examining table and stepped back.
They had started by taking turns carrying Hope, but by half-way, Dean had been doing all the carrying, and Grace had had to lean on his arm. Her legs were shaky, and she could feel sweat on her cold skin. (Weren’t viruses supposed to move faster? This one had been hanging around for days.) Dean hadn’t complained. Even though Hope had fouled her bedding during the night and Grace hadn’t been able to get her completely clean, and even though Dean was missing school.
The vet’s practiced fingers pressed over Hope’s scrawny body, checking her stomach and bones and skin. At last he straightened up, refolding his stethoscope.
“Well?” Grace demanded. She felt Dean’s hand resting lightly on her shoulder.
The vet shook his head.
(All will be ash.)
Grace’s knees lost their strength, and the virus kicked through her system. If Dean hadn’t been touching her, she might have fallen.
“She’s too sick,” the vet said. “It would be kindest if you let me put her to sleep.”
“No,” Grace whispered. She shook her head. “No. You’re a vet. She’s sick. Do something about it.”
The vet sighed. “She’s malnourished, probably with some kind of internal injury. She’s got fleas and an eye infection. That’s just the start of it.”
Hope turned her brown eyes up to Grace, showing the frightened whites like twin crescent moons. Grace put her hand on Hope’s flank, and the dog leaned hard against her, trying to press itself into her.
“You wouldn’t say that if she was a person.”
“I’d need to do a full work-up. CBC to rule infections. Blood chemistry profile. Urinalysis. Some X-rays. If there’s something serious wrong, the tests and the treatment could cost thousands. You can’t afford that, can you?”
For once, Grace didn’t know what to say. Behind her, she could feel Dean’s warm body against her, holding her. Hope pressed against her stomach, bones like sticks against Grace’s hand.
The vet sighed. “Look, this is what I’ll do. I’ll keep her here, keep an eye on her, try to get her to eat and drink something. There are a few things we could try. You can pick her up this evening. If she’ll keep eating, she might regain enough strength. Then we can take another look at her, see if anything is clearing itself up. Otherwise…”
(All will be ashes.)
That evening, when they brought Hope home, they met Malcolm on the stairs. He shouted. Grace screamed and held Hope tight.
In her bedroom, Hope lapped at the water and took a lick of the rice.
Grace had to leave school early. In her fever, she couldn’t hold a pen. Dean helped her home and tucked her into bed.
She cried when he left.
She was in love. She was sick.
She shivered under her covers. Across the room, Hope stood, stumbled to the bed, and clambered on.
The house was dark and still when Grace awoke, her bedroom painted streetlight-yellow. Hope’s warm weight was gone from her legs. For a moment, her heart stopped. Then she saw Hope curled up in her own blankets.
Grace’s fever seemed to have broken some time in the night. She felt weak, but the wrongness that had swelled in every cell of her body was gone. She swung her legs over the edge of her bed, pushing off her tangled covers.
Hope was sleeping, but she’d eaten the rice Grace had left for her. Grace felt tears dampen the corner of her eyes.
“You’re going to be okay,” she whispered.
Hope’s eyes opened, and her tail gave a single thump.
“Come on,” Grace said. “Let’s get you out to the garden. Then I’ll find you something more to eat.”
When they came back, Grace found some chicken in the fridge, warmed it in the microwave and fed it to Hope, one sliver at a time. Hope’s bright eyes watched every piece. Towards the end, she started to jump for the chicken.
In the house, everyone else was sleeping.
“Tomorrow,” Malcolm said, “everything’s going to be different.”
Grace put her fork down warily. “What do you mean?”
“The Nazi. If he hasn’t paid his rent by nine o’clock, he’s out of here. We’ve got a contract. I’m fed up with him ignoring it. And you’re getting rid of that dog. Take it to a shelter or put it down. Whatever. It’s time this family started acting like a family, and that means you’re going to learn to show me a little respect.”
Grace slammed back her chair. “You’re not part of this family. You’re not our dad. You don’t get to decide.” She stood. “If you touch my dog, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
She spun away, heading for the door.
“Tomorrow,” Malcolm called.
Hope was curled tightly into her blankets, a ball of patchy fur and bones. Grace could hear the sighing of Hope’s breath. The bowl of chicken and rice next to Hope’s bed hadn’t been touched. Grace dropped down beside her and placed her hand on Hope’s neck.
“You’re just not hungry, right? Right?”
Hope didn’t open her eyes.
Her fever had returned with a vengeance, sometime in the night. Grace’s skin felt clammy, and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. She rolled over in her bed. The sheets were damp with sweat.
Ten o’clock. Shit. She’d slept in too late.
She tumbled out of bed, pulled on her jeans and a sweater. Her hair was tangled and dirty, the T-shirt she’d slept in crumpled.
Hope was lying where Grace had left her. She didn’t look like she’d moved at all. The bowl of rice and chicken was still untouched. She hadn’t come to Grace in the night when her fever had returned.
(Everything will be different.)
“Not you,” Grace whispered. “You’re going to be okay. No matter what, you’re going to be okay.”
(Everything will be different.)
Grace hunched down next to Hope, her body held in tight against her shaking chills. Hope’s fur felt dry beneath her hand. The dog was scarcely breathing, but now they were touching, Grace could feel the shivers rippling across Hope’s frail body, to match Grace’s own. Hope cracked open a sticky eye. It drifted shut again, and Hope’s breath sighed out. For a moment, Grace could feel nothing in Hope. Not a movement, not a shiver, not a breath. Then, with a shudder, Hope drew in another breath. Grace pushed herself to her feet.
The vet. She had to get Hope to the vet. They could feed her somehow. A feeding tube or something. Build up her strength, test her, treat her. Make her better.
And it would cost thousands. Grace had nothing. Just a few pounds. She could sell stuff. Her iPod. Her computer. Malcolm would be furious, but Grace didn’t give a fuck. Except it wouldn’t be enough, and it would be too slow.
(Bones will splinter under heavy wheels. Fires will burn. All will be ashes.)
She stumbled, the fever stealing the strength from her legs. With a grimace, she forced the muscles in her legs to lock firm.
Malcolm had money. Lots of it. Grace didn’t know exactly how much, but she did know he was loaded.
There was no way he would give her a penny of it. Not for Hope.
Dean would give her money. He wouldn’t even ask why. But he had even less than she did.
She wanted to scream. Who else? Her mum? Not without Malcolm knowing and putting a stop to it.
Tears stung her eyes. “You’re not going to die! You’re not.”
Mr. Uri. Mr. Uri had money. Maybe not much. He was an old man. But he paid his rent every single week, no matter what Malcolm might say. Maybe he could lend her enough. She could work, pay it back. Even the idea of asking him made her feel sick, dirty.
(Skin torn away. Iron jaws closing on muscle. Screams in the darkness.)
“Stop it! Please.” She could hardly stand.
(Everything will be different. All will be ashes.)
She had no choice. He was the only one she could go to. He was the only one who could help her.
She dropped to her knees
(…flesh bursting with sores…)
and scooped Hope into her arms.
“I’m not leaving you,” she whispered. Tears were running down her face. She wiped them on her shoulder, then staggered to the door.
Malcolm was outside Mr. Uri’s rooms, hammering on the door. He wasn’t alone. Two men—friends of Malcolm’s—were leaning against the wall, almost blocking the corridor. They watched her as she descended the stairs, not saying anything.
“What are you doing?” Grace demanded.
Malcolm turned from the door. His look of satisfaction made his face almost pleasant. “He missed the rent. That’s it. He’s out.”
Grace gripped Hope tighter and felt the bones push through her thin T-shirt. “What’s he supposed to do? Where’s he supposed to go?”
Malcolm leaned in close. “I. Don’t. Care. He can sleep on the streets for all I care. And that fucking animal can join him. It stinks.”
She took a step back. Malcolm turned to the door and shook the handle.
“Fucker’s locked his door.” He hammered on the wood, the sound too loud in Grace’s ears. Hope let out a whimper, but she didn’t open her eyes.
“Wake up, you old fucker, or I’m kicking this door down!”
Grace closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. She forced the fever back a step.
“Let me talk to him. Just for a minute?”
Malcolm gave her a disgusted look. “Yeah?” He considered, then shrugged. “Please yourself. But if he’s not out of there in an hour, I’m going to get him out myself, and it won’t be pretty.”
Grace squeezed past Malcolm. He didn’t move back far enough, and she felt the hard muscle of his leg against her thigh.
“I’ll tell you this much,” Malcolm said. “He’s awake now.” He thumped once more, hard, on the door. “Aren’t you, you old bastard?”
Balancing Hope in one arm, against her chest, Grace reached for the door handle.
It didn’t surprise her at all that the door opened beneath her hand.
Grace clicked the door shut behind her. Mr. Uri wasn’t in his usual chair. The window was open, but she couldn’t hear the birds singing.
He had left a couple of blankets folded into a dog’s bed by the door.
He knew we were coming.
She shook her head. Maybe he had just hoped. She lowered Hope into the bed. Hope laid her head down, eyes closing.
Grace straightened, and the movement sent her fever sweeping up through her, the room spinning away.
She stumbled forward a step—
And her feet came down on a path of bones.
They were blackened, splintered and ground and crushed.
(The bones of your family, your friends, of everyone who ever was and ever will be.)
(He is awakening.)
Skulls stared blankly up, eye sockets dark and lost. Above her, a smoke-stained sky stretched from horizon to horizon.
A scream built in Grace’s throat, pushing itself up, over her tongue, past her lips.
It was impossible. It was the fever. She was hallucinating.
She could feel the hardness of the bones beneath her feet.
It was real.
It didn’t matter. She had to find Mr. Uri.
(If he wakes, all will be ashes.)
“I don’t care,” Grace whispered. “I don’t care.”
To the left of the path, a single tree, stripped of its leaves and bark, stood skeletal and white against the heavy sky. Grace saw no birds, no stars, no moon or sun. Just the shroud of smoke. She smelled ashes and rust.
Something immense and metallic groaned.
(Nothing will stand. Nothing will endure.)
(He is awakening.)
(He is awakening.)
(He is awakening.)
(Bones crack, blood turns to steam, diseased flesh burns.)
Grace shuddered. She bowed her head and took a step along the path of bones. Then another.
Far behind, she heard the sound of a fist hammering on wood. She ignored it. She kept walking.
In the distance, something grew. First it was a line along the horizon, then a strip, then a wall. It stretched as far as she could see and cut across the path. She kept walking.
(Blackened worlds spin in a dead sky.)
The wall was vast, taller than a tower block. It blocked out the sky, as black as obsidian, but dull, as though the thin light from the smoky sky sank into it, unable to escape.
In the centre, at the end of the path of bones, stood a pair of iron gates.
The gates were ajar.
Bones slipped and crumbled beneath her feet. Grace kept her eyes fixed on the gates. The path rose towards them.
On the blackened earth before the gates lay the bodies of eagles. Dozens of them. Their wings were broken, their feathers charred, their eyes blank.
(Nothing will endure. Bodies will be broken.)
Grace stepped over the bodies, feeling her way past them. She laid her hands on the iron gates. They were cold beneath her skin.
Behind the gates, behind the wall, something was growing. A mountain of darkness. Storm clouds piled upon each other, up and up and up, leaning towards her, towards the gates. She could feel their weight and their fury even from here. Metal creaked.
The gap between the gates was too narrow for her to slip through. She tugged at the gates, pulling them further apart.
Screams tore the burning air. Weight piled upon her. The clouds rolled forwards.
(All will be ashes.)
“Mr. Uri?” she called.
If she could reach him, he would help her. He would change everything. Fix Grace, get rid of Malcolm, save Dean. Make it all right. He could do that.
(All will be ashes.)
Just an inch more.
Wind howled, hot and dark and fierce.
From behind her came the sound of furious barking. Grace turned.
Running up the path of bones came Hope. Her head was down, drooping, but still she barked.
“No,” Grace whispered. “Go back.”
Hope stumbled, her weak legs failing her. Grace saw her dog’s jaw smack into the bones.
Hope struggled to her feet again, took another step forwards. Fell again.
Grace ran. She leapt across the bodies of the fallen eagles, raced over the blackened bones.
Hope tried to rise.
Panic gave Grace a burst of strength. She lunged forwards and caught Hope before she could fall again.
Hope’s body shivered helplessly and violently. Grace gathered her and hugged her tight. Hope’s head dropped and her body went limp.
Slowly, Grace rose and turned towards the gates.
Step by step she made her way back.
The storm clouds shrieked. Hot wind blasted her.
Mr. Uri could help her, but all would be ashes. He had said it wasn’t worth the price. She squeezed her eyes shut, and tears spilled onto her cheeks. “Hope,” she whispered.
She knew what she had to do.
She opened her eyes and leant her shoulders against the gates. Tendrils of storm clouds reached through the gap between the gates and licked across her skin like icy fire. She pushed the gates shut.
At the gates, among the ashes and the bones and the death, she slumped to the ground. She buried her face in Hope’s thin fur and waited for the end.
In the dead world, all was silent.
Hope’s body twitched, once. Grace’s eyes popped open. She looked up.
Light streamed in the open window. She could hear birds singing. Mr. Uri sat in his chair above her. He gazed down at her with eyes of pure black. Inside them, Grace saw storm clouds churn.
“Your friend was right,” Mr. Uri said. “You can’t save everyone. You never can.”
“I don’t want to,” Grace said. “Just her.”
Mr. Uri’s frail hand descended and rested on Hope’s neck. For a moment so brief Grace couldn’t be sure she hadn’t just blinked, Grace saw blackness lick over Hope’s skin like icy fire.
“You already did,” Mr. Uri said.
Hope looked up at Grace with clear eyes. Her tail thumped against Mr. Uri’s carpet.
When Grace looked back up, Mr. Uri’s eyes were drifting shut.
“I’m tired,” he said. “Tired.”
“Sleep,” Grace whispered.
Grace settled Mr. Uri’s head on his pillow, making sure he was comfortable and wouldn’t wake with a crick in his neck.
He had left his rent money on the table by the chair. She picked it up and strode to the door, Hope dancing along behind her. The fever had gone from her body and taken her weakness with it. She pulled open the door.
Malcolm was standing behind it, fist raised. She shoved the rent money at him.
“He’s paid his rent.”
Malcolm’s mouth opened, but Grace didn’t give him a chance to answer. She remembered the storm clouds in Mr. Uri’s eyes and the fire that had touched her skin. She reached out with her memory to touch them. She met Malcolm’s gaze. “Everything is different,” she said. “Everything. You’ll leave him alone. You won’t touch him.”
She stepped past and left Malcolm standing there. Everything was different. It was going to stay that way.
And, yes, I’m putting this up for free on my blog, but it’s still copyright, so please direct people here to read it rather than posting it elsewhere. Thank you!