Original Fiction: EVERETT SMILES

PrintE-mail Written by Neil John Buchanan

Sheila finds a way into the department store, as I knew she would. She pours through cracks in the broken roof, slithers down smashed walls and flows across the rubble-strewn floor. She settles in the shadows, away from the firelight and faces float within her oily skin. There’s Mum - younger than I’ve ever seen her - next to Dad, who still has all his hair.

“You’re embarrassing us, Paige,” Mum’s voice is a mix of bubbles and drains. “You know what you need to do.”

Dad slips an arm around Mum’s waist. “What will the neighbours think?”

I don’t respond. Instead, I nudge the fire with my boot, making sure the flames dance in the pit.

Dad leans forward; he runs a hand through his long hair. “You’re letting the side down. Don’t you care?”

“I never told you, but I trashed your bike.” I point to the Harley parked in the shadows. “Rode the hell out of it from London. Total write off.”

He doesn’t glance at the bike. I knew he wouldn’t, but I’m disappointed all the same. Dad loved the Harley. Maybe more than he loved his wife. Definitely loved it more than me.

“It won’t be so bad,” he says, “think of it as . . . one more step on your journey.”

One more step? That’s a good one. But I’m not quite ready to let the bike go.  “You told me I’d never ride it. ‘Over my dead body’, were your exact words.” I shrug. “Looks like you’ve got your wish.”

“Don’t you love us?” Mum chimes in, her eyes wide and hungry.

Love? Sheila must be dragging the bottom of the barrel if she thinks she can win me over with love. “I found Mr. Dudley, my English teacher, tapping your arse, doggy-style once. Do you remember, Mum? It’s not the type of thing you forget. A real sunk to the nuts occasion. After he’d scrambled around for his clothes and put his little man back in his pants, he told me never to tell. ‘Not a word now, or as sure as shit don’t fly, I’ll fail your grades, dig?’ Yeah, he used the word dig. It wasn’t in fashion then, but Mr. Dudley trotted words like dig and Daddy-o out before his students because he thought it made him cool. We all thought he was a dick. That was his nickname: Dickhead Dudley.” I glance at Dad whose expression hasn’t changed and sigh. “And that’s the real reason I never told you or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t want anyone to know Mum was shagging a dick. I mean, more of a dick than you at any rate. How do you feel about that?” I arch an eyebrow. “Don’t you care?”

The eagerness, the wet, unabashed need that shone in my parents’ eyes flickers then fades. Sheila, at last, realises I’m not playing her game, and with a faint, sultry hiss my parents disperse like paint in water, absorbed back into Sheila’s skin.

We watch the shadows recoil and shrink, curdle and reform. What’s left of the department store is lost in the night, almost as if it had never been, like the whole world has closed up shop and the last vestiges of reality have become my private slice of hell. Sheila keeps a respectful distance from the fire pit, any closer and she’ll burn. We both know it. But she makes a point of swallowing Everett, just to let me know that I haven’t completely won.

Everett’s mannequin smile is smothered by Sheila’s black mass. I won’t see him again until dawn. He’s made of wire and wood, sawdust comprises his innards. Children clothes preserve his plastic modesty. One hand is positioned above his head, as if searching for something his painted eyes will never find.

“Goodnight,” I say.

Time passes and as my wood pile dwindles, Sheila finally grows a pair and creeps into the light. Tendrils of smoke curl from her seething black body, but she can take it – her hunger drives her on. I shove a burning stick her way, and she recoils with a start. In response, she pumps smoke through the roof, laced with her eggs. I’ve seen a hatchling grow from a man’s gut inside an hour, what’s left isn’t enough to full a jam jar, all liquefied mush. But there’s no way on God’s green earth I’m going to allow that to happen to me. I’ve stoked the fire high and sparks fly. Those eggs don’t get anywhere near close. No impregnating me, thank you all the same. She snaps back like an elastic-band, I snort with laughter, and we settle into our familiar positions – like an old married couple.

Time ceases to have any meaning. Was there a beginning? Will there be an end? Reality becomes abstract: a surrealist’s impression of what once was. There is only Sheila - nothing more, nothing less. She towers above me like a wave filled with oil and poison poised to break. Take comfort in that, I tell myself. Because no matter what happens, keep the fire burning and Sheila will remain in the shadows. Where she belongs.

I add another log, my last. Sheila retreats, bubbling in irritation and I try not to stare. If I look too hard, I’m reminded of deep fissures in the earth and wind-swept mountain caves where the darkness is so complete to be an end to everything that ever was, or has yet to be. Instead, I focus on the fire and catch the fragrance of pine in the smoke. I think of forests: the swaying of branches in the wind, and warm sunshine upon my face. But most of all I think of Jason. He runs through the trees, his red jumper a marker in the green. “Come on, Mummy,” he calls. “We’re almost home.”

Sheila’s body ripples, and a foul gas blows against my face like the caress of an aged lover. We sit in silence, until the howl of a destitute beast echoes through the night, and Sheila rolls away with a regretful sigh.


I move Everett towards the window to meet the dawn. The frozen marsh glitters in the emerging light, and the motorway with its tangle of charred cars is visible through the petrified trees. In a sky brushed through with copper, the dimensional rifts shine like lumps of frozen snot, and the distant city of Bristol continues to burn.

The rifts are larger today. Three new ones have formed in the night. The biggest floats in the air and drips brackish liquid onto the side of an overturned bus.

Everett’s head droops.

“When winter passes we’ll walk to the city.” I lift his chin. “Take a pack of beer. You won’t want any, but I’ll bring them just in case.”

Everett manages a smile. I often wonder how he came here. He won’t tell me: always the strong, silent type. Perhaps his pain is too great? I’ll respect his silence. He knows I’m here if he needs to talk.

The department store must have been something back in the day. Anything you’d want, anything you’d care to mention, right under one roof. It’s all gone now, of course. The top two levels are missing: not smashed and scattered about the marsh, just gone. Plain and simple. As if something impossibly huge came by and tore it clear. And perhaps something did. When the creatures first came, when they slithered and fell from the rifts, I saw monsters the size of jumbo jets hooting in the sky, watched things that would have given old Tyrannosaurus a run for his money. Giants strode through Camden market shoving people by the handful into gaping maws that could swallow a bus whole. No touching the sides, straight down. See one of those bad boys and it’s enough to curl the hair on your toes and make a Christian from an atheist. Course, the bigger ones are gone now, either sleeping in the earth or passed back through the rifts. Just the young, the shadow crabs and night spiders, left to pick over the carcass of the world.

In the morning, I lick damp from the walls and eat my remaining leather glove. I vomit into my shirt and surprise myself when I cry. I’d honestly thought I was beyond tears, as if a well inside had long since dried. When my sobs fade, and I’m left drained from fatigue, I set about the tasks for the day. Life goes on, as they say, even one as crappy as my own.

Stacks of newspapers line the walls on rusted shelves. Pictures of the rich and famous are slapped across covers of magazines. I forget their names and their purpose. They belong to a world so removed from mine to be obscene. Hair products, creams, cars, and holidays – what does any of it mean anymore?

Only a photograph of the London Spawning makes me pause. It’s a black and white aerial shot I’ve not seen before. Looks like a vast monstrous eye casting its baleful gaze across Parliament. It shows none of the horror in the streets when the creatures came, none of the deaths, or the harvesting of flesh.

It doesn’t show Dad’s head exploding or the driver with no face trying to start his car. Soldiers screamed in the streets. Policemen convulsed while shadows devoured their legs. The list goes on: a summary of death at the end of the world. It’s not how things were.

There’s a vague report on the reasons for the rifts, citing each possible theory from terrorism to global warming. The truth is no one knows why: not the reporter, not me, not even the creatures. It just happened. A quantum improbability that dealt in death and misery. Do the rifts lead to the same place, the same world, or is each one different: an endless number of possibilities forever in the sky. I stuff the paper into the smallest hole available. Fold it into a tight wad, so the picture is gone - like London.

Like the world.

When I return to the window, Aunt Sal has come for a visit. She floats amidst the frozen skin of the marshlands.

“Morning.” I give a small, hopeful wave.

Sal tends to pop up near mid-day (when it’s warmest) she’ll be gone again by nightfall. She wears the fatigues of a soldier and holds her rifle within a rictus grip. Her face is round like a football and her eyes bulge in their sockets.

“We should give her our respect.” I tap the glass and look to Everett, who’s dipped his chin once more. “She tried to help.”

How long will Sal float for today? Her stomach is extended; the buttons of her shirt have popped. I spy pale flesh and swollen veins. It reminds me of blue cheese.

“Coming in?” I say.

Sal’s throat ripples. She belches.

“Suit yourself. I’m just being polite.” If I’m honest, Sal’s response hurts. After all, we might be the last people left on the planet, but there’s no need to be rude.

A flash of brilliant white from the city and smoke rises into the sky. The explosion rattles the window and cracks the glass. There hasn’t been an explosion in Bristol for days. When I first arrived they were going off like fire-crackers. Now, like then, I think of Jason in the suburbs. My hands feel clammy and cold, and I lick my dried lips, waiting for the smoke to clear. A tower block has collapsed. Nowhere near Jason’s house. Never mind anyone still in there. It wasn’t my son, and that’s what counts.

“We’ll go home soon,” I say to Everett. “I promise.”


That afternoon I dream of cheese platters and eggs. Then I dream of the dead. Always the dead. They gather around the department store in their billions.

“You’re letting the team down,” they say through puckered holes where their mouths should be. “Come back to us, and we can all move on. No more ripples in the pond.”

“I’m not ready yet. Everett needs me, and I can’t find Jason.”

The dead laugh: the sound dry and rasping. They have no eyes, just ruined holes that leak black fluid. Their bodies are malformed, crudely constructed, as if made from memory and then dimly recalled.

“Jason’s with us,” they say.

“Show me.”

A ripple passes through the crowd. Their bodies twist into new shapes: young, old, male and female, but no Jason.

My turn to laugh.

I awake to find Everett smiling. The sun is low in the sky. Its thin light plays across the wall in a mix of shadows. The fire has long since gone out and my wood pile has been reduced to twigs and scattered leaves.

“Why so happy?” I wipe sleep from my eyes and prop myself up on my elbows. My gums ache, and I can taste blood at the back of my mouth. A tooth wobbles when I probe it with my tongue. Despite that, it’s good to see Everett smile.

He doesn’t answer, and that’s when I notice Sal has moved closer. She bobs like a discarded cork, her rifle caught in the stunted growth of a hawthorn tree.

Sal won’t take the plunge tonight. Which means Sheila will have her. She’ll smack her lips on those juicy thighs; she’ll lift Sal’s shirt and run tendrils across cold, white flesh.

“You wouldn’t want that, would you?” I shout through the window. Sal’s swollen tongue lolls within her mouth. I think she wants to kiss me.

I could eat her up. She could do her duty even in death. It’s not such a strange concept. It’s not. Many people have eaten alternative foods in difficult times. Their names escape me, but they did what they had to do. Why should I be any different?

Everett’s head dips.

“No. Don’t be like that.” I lift his chin and look him in the eye. “I have to eat.”

My head feels heavy from sleep, my legs ache from cramp, and my bladder is fit to burst.

Barely manage to get to the toilet in time before I go, soaking my crotch as I pull my pants down. My urine is all dark and red. It’s not big on dignity and as I squat there filling a plastic bottle with half-piss and half-blood, the stench is near-awful. I wish for adult diapers. You know the type: big wrap-around-your-butt ones that the old dears wear in Nursing Homes. The ones your mum would hurry you past in the supermarket aisle before you started laughing. But what did I expect my piss to look like? I’m no piss connoisseur, mind. But to hazard a guess: no food, water you wouldn’t let your dog drink, damp and cold all must have played their parts. A group mugging between circumstance and situation. The bastards. I’ve done well to get this far - better than most. So what if I pass blood. It’s nothing a course of antibiotics wouldn’t put right. Must stop at the next Pharmacy and stock up on supplies. The Pharmacy here closed forever a few weeks back when the ceiling took a tumble and the shop above it, hardware and supplies, moved in instead. Managed to scavenge a few aspirin since and a half-torn packet of lactulose, but nothing more inspiring. But you never know what tomorrow may bring.

The room sways and the ground turns unsteady beneath my feet. “Falling apart. If I don’t eat, might not see tomorrow. Certainly won’t manage the night.”

Sal continues to float, her skin the colour of lard.

“Don’t worry, I’ll save you some. You’re not a big eater; I can see that.” I pinch Everett’s arm. “Hardly a scrap on you, but Sal could keep us full for days.”

He doesn’t answer. I can’t blame him. It’s a difficult decision to make, and he hasn’t been outside since coming to the department store.

The others – when there were others – all died in the open. They were fellow refugees finding shelter from the chaos the world had become: shop workers still in uniform, commuters, a couple of gangly teenagers. When the food ran low they left and promised they’d return. None ever did.

And Aunt Sal comes each lunchtime without fail. Everett looks up to her. God knows he needs a mother in his life. I can’t be expected to do all the work. But without food . . .

I rest my head against the wall and close my eyes. Jason waits within the woods, between ancient trees, underneath a curious orange sun. He waves me on.

Everett will have to understand. I’ll make him understand.

And making another torch helps. I lash together sheets and curtain poles. There’s enough gas left within my Harley’s tank for the task, but afterwards it’s empty. My bike’s gone anyway. Pointless to try and fix it: two flat tires, engine ruined. I’m no mechanic, and even if I were, without spare parts there’s nothing to be done. I give Everett a hug, turn him towards the window, and without giving myself time to think, step outside.

The coldness of the air catches my breath, and I’m aware of every sound I make, like the world is watching. It’s impossible to be quiet: each footfall echoes within the stillness of the late afternoon. Sheila sleeps during the day – or at least is inactive when the sun is highest. She will come if I make too much noise.

I think of Jason. It will be his fifth birthday soon. I’ll buy him a bike when I get into Bristol. Hell, I’ll buy him one for each day of the week. It’s been two months since I’ve last seen my kid. Luke made sure of that.

“You’re a dreamer, Paige. You’ve got no money and no brains,” Luke had said. A semblance of a smile curled his lips as he spoke. “Your head is so far in the clouds you can’t see the world around you. Why would I want my son to be raised by a woman like you?”

“But I love you. I love him.”

“It isn’t enough.”

Sal rolls within the water, her eyes fixed across the marshes. Despite myself, I glance in that direction. A white object gleams in the ice and winks between the trees.

“What is it, Sal?”

Sal isn’t speaking. I don’t know what I’ve done to upset her. I’m sure she’ll tell me in her own time.

Inching forward, I push aside the dead branches to get a better view. I’ve not been out this far before. The cold needles my skin. It hurts to breath, like I’ve swallowed glass. I could die out here, and who would know? Everett’s still there in the store, watching. I could make it back. There’s time.

The white shape floats upon a frozen river: small, round and unobtrusive. I crouch down, rest my torch across my knees, and pull out a human skull joined by ribs, spine, and a rusted pocket watch that slips free from the bone and slides out across the ice. Despite the odds, it produces a faint ticking sound.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pocket watch, and I cross onto the ice, my intention to pick it up. The watch is a memory, one I can touch, hold, fee--

With a powerful crack, the ice breaks beneath my feet. Stupidly, I tense like an animal sensing danger, thinking that if I don’t move it’ll somehow settle. But fate has other plans and I watch thick lines sneak past my feet and the ice snaps into smaller sheets. There’s time to lunge towards the nearest tree, but I’m not Wonderwoman, never really bothered with the gym and I get nowhere close. On the way down, my head strikes a protruding branch in mockery of my failed lunge. I open my mouth to scream and get two lungs’ full of water for my trouble. The cold rips my spluttering breath away and makes my limbs feel like lead. An iron clamp tightens across my chest, and I clutch at roots and broken branches. Anything will do. Spots of garish red explode before my eyes like a private firework show, and I sink beneath the surface.

The world dims, as if the light has been funnelled out, it’s not an unpleasant sensation – like coming home. I wonder how Everett will fare without me. He wouldn’t survive a day. He’ll die. Then I think of Jason. I want to hold him and say: “I’ll never let you go again. Never let you out of my sight.” His hair smells clean, freshly washed. His jumper is made from wool, rough against my fingers. He still wears those stupid over-sized Wellington boots. If I could only catch my breath. It’s difficult. I want to. Can’t seem . . .

My feet hit something solid. I want to live - oh, how I want to live - and kick out. The barrier breaks, and water explodes amongst the trees.

Near frozen, I’m deposited on the banks. Can barely move my fingers – like five brittle branches, easy to snap. Tongue feels odd: bloated and big. I can’t feel my legs. Should cut them off and eat them. Always recycle, why stop now, just because the world has come to an end doesn’t mean I should stop doing my part. My laugh sounds like the sudden cawing of a crow, takes a while to recognize the sound for what it is.


Won’t cut my legs off. Stupid. I slide onto my stomach. The ground is odd, hard and white. There’s a stench in the air, the charnel smell of meat, the sharp tang of blood. The ground gleams ivory in the half-light.

I’m lying on the dead: hundreds of leering skulls, broken bones and shattered lives stretching into the depths of the earth.

Into the pit.


A sound like paper being shredded breaks the silence. A faint grunt of satisfaction – of a job well done - and a hand appears from the gloom.

The flesh is yanked away like a magician’s new trick. The rigid muscle, congealed blood, and shrunken veins exposed for an instant, then they too are gone, suckled into the dark. What’s left is discarded like a child’s broken toy.

Sheila watches from the shadows. She is the shadows.

I want to run, but my legs won’t work. Fear swells inside me like a monstrous growth, and I’m rooted to the spot.

“Don’t,” I manage to say. “I’m not ready. I’m your friend.” The words just come out. I’d say anything to stay alive.

Sheila ripples as if in the grip of an alien tide. If she wanted, she could kill me in a thousand different ways. But she doesn’t. She hesitates, unsure of herself, and a crazy thought occurs - an impossible thought.

She’s afraid of me.

Faces emerge across her surface. Hundreds at first; each jostle for space until it becomes difficult to distinguish them apart, and they burst like pustules from a necrotic wound. Two faces remain, larger than the rest and both recognizable: Mum and Dad, their expressions a mix of sympathy and pain.

“No more ripples in the pond,” I say, remembering the dead from my dream. “It’ll be night soon. Wait until then. No more fires. I promise.”

Sheila clucks, and my parents move in and out of focus. They seem swollen, gorged, and flushed crimson. A reddish stain swirls through the darkness like strawberry sauce stirred into chocolate.

“Save me for later,” I say, “when you’re hungry. I’m worth the wait.”

Sheila reaches out a tendril of black tar and caresses my cheek; her touch is cold like the space between stars. Yet my cheek smoulders then burns. The pain doesn’t seem real. Like it’s happening to somebody else.

Not me.

“No!” It comes out in a hot rush of air, more force than noise. I grasp the first thing that comes to hand – a skull – and send it spinning towards Sheila. It passes straight through as if she were no more real than a ghost.

Then it’s Sheila’s turn. She lashes out, strikes across my chest in a fluid blur, and I tumble into rocks. Something gives in my side: the wet snap of a rib.

I grab the walls and try to stand. A black tentacle whips out and sears flesh from my shoulder, passing through cloth, sinew and muscle. My screams turn high-pitched before the pain leaves me breathless. Half my shoulder is missing, sliced free as if under a surgeon’s knife.

Sheila lunges forward, and the blow takes my feet away. I experience a sensation akin to flying before crashing back to earth with enough force to make the world shift out of focus.

Blood, hot and sticky, runs down my face. Two of my teeth have been knocked out, and I spit them onto bone like twin red dice. They bounce across the dead to stop against my torch.

My torch! How could I forget my torch? My hands are heavy and unresponsive. I need my lighter, but groping inside my pocket is near impossible. Sheila slides towards me, enjoying the moment, playing with her food. The lighter’s cold edge brushes against my fumbling fingers and I pull it free. It’s wet, soaked from my time in the marsh. Please, God, let it work.

A strike against my knee: nothing. Sheila rears back, she blocks out the day, small bulges like writhing teeth squirm inside her. Mum and Dad watch, their expressions one of rapt attention.

The lighter strikes, it flares and the flame springs into life. I throw it onto the torch and – whoosh – a beautiful orange nimbus. The sizzle of soaked curtains - has there ever been anything more beautiful?

I launch the torch like a javelin. My strength has faded, and the torch carries a few yards at most. Sheila tries to pull away, but the torch drops into her dark folds. Mum and Dad’s face explode into flame, and a rolling wave of blue fire shoots across her body. She gives a high shriek and writhes on the ground, black tentacles flailing.

“Burn,” I whisper. “Just fucking burn.”

Sheila drags herself back into the pit, whimpering and grunting as she goes. The top layer of her skin has gone. Thick smoke curls above the pit. The smell of oil and charred meat hangs heavy in the air. Still the flames dance, melting away her innards. Slops of burning liquid are deposited in her wake. She gives one last mournful cry and slithers into the dark. The light in the pit flickers for a moment before going out.

In the silence that follows, I’m reminded of my pain. My legs don’t want to work. They tremble and spasm. The skulls now regard me coolly, as if uncertain of what I shall do next.

“Me too,” I say. The skulls shift, blend into each other, becoming an indistinct blur. My shoulder feels cold and itches like crazy. I want to scratch it, reach into the ragged flesh and get my fingernails into the spoiled muscle, but one sight of the torn shirt stained crimson is enough for my stomach to buck.

The sun has almost set: a sliver of light amongst the half-drowned trees. It’s dangerous to be out in the dark.

Far away there is a soft murmur, like a stirring of leaves. A babble of voices follow, a gibbous mishmash of sound, part human, part animal, part something else. Nothing human could make that noise, but it doesn’t come from Sheila, or the pit, but rather out there . . . in the marsh.


Fear prickles my back and turns my bowels to water. Sheila is on her way, and there’s no stopping her. Her cold fury is a black spot on the edge of my consciousness, as if she can worm her way like a burrowing maggot into my mind.

I stagger on. Branches whip at my face, my shoulder burns, and the ice shifts beneath my feet. The half-light smudges the marsh so the trees become one. The stench of rot is a repugnant gas I can’t escape. Death surrounds me: the purifying remains of the world. I wade through it all. Then I see Sal, afloat in the water. Her eyes roll at my approach.

“I know; I know.” I run over and crouch by her side. “But you won’t believe what’s happened to me.”

Her head slumps forward; her hand floats to the surface and points towards the department store. She’s right. Talking will bring Sheila straight to us.

Sal’s a big girl with heavy-set shoulders, and I strain to lift her clear of the water. My strength has fled. I’m no more than a bag of bones, my arms weak, next to useless. Her rifle’s strap remains entangled in the hawthorn tree, as if the swamp’s not ready to let go. I twist back and forth, and my grip on her fatigues slip. Eventually, I’m forced to drop Sal and rip the rifle from the branches. But it’s heavy and wet and slides between my fingers before vanishing beneath the water. Sal stares at me, her mouth open, black tongue wedged between cracked teeth.

“You may be a soldier,” I say, “but I’m not. So unless you want to dive in afterwards . . .”

Sal doesn’t move.

Dragging Sal across the swamp is no easy task. Sal doesn’t help, and I push, shove, even kick her back to the store. She’s colder than the ice, heavier than she looks. Water sloshes from her mouth and nose; she catches on brambles and snags in the exposed roots of trees. Holding her feet, one regulation army boot under each arm, I drag her through the worst. Her mouth opens and closes in rapid succession as her head takes every twist and turn. A stone, invisible in the dark, slashes open her cheek, exposing the frozen flesh beneath. She doesn’t complain, and I feel a surge of pride.

“You’re a good girl,” I say, stroking her legs. She smells like chicken thawing on a kitchen’s side. “You’ve done well.”

The department store appears through the trees. The window and Everett just visible in the gloom. Not far to go.

A boulder careers out of the night and smashes into the trunk of the nearest tree.  A column of wailing darkness follows.  Sheila has arrived. A second creature emerges from the marsh, skittering forward on masses of rotund legs. Two pseudopods lift above its flat body, swaying first one way then the other, before angling towards myself and Sal. It gives an excited grunt of pleasure and scurries forwards.

I kick the door open and drag Sal inside. There’s no time to lock the door behind me, and it creaks back half-shut. Everett stands by the window, frozen in place, eyes locked on the spectacle unfolding in the marsh.

“Come away,” I shout, and - upon hearing my voice - both creatures dart towards the department store like snakes.

The fire pit is my last chance. I search my pockets for my lighter. The kerosene’s gone and there’s nothing left to burn. Everett hasn’t moved.

“Get away.” I race over as Sheila bursts through the window. The frame shatters, and fragmented wood explodes past my face.

I pull out my lighter and strike it against my leg. Nothing happens. A tentacle of shadow shoots towards me. I stumble, sit down hard and it smashes into the wall over my head. I strike the lighter again and a wavering flame appears.

Sal’s on the other side of the fire pit. Alone in the dark. Sheila seizes her chance and sweeps forward. Sal’s eyes roll to find mine, then she’s dragged into the shadows. Moments later there is a sound like the tearing of cloth and the wet thunk of an axe in meat.

“Why can’t you just give me a break?” My hands shake. The flame flickers.

The doors open and the second creature slithers in, a vague shape amongst the darkness.

Mum and Dad swim to Sheila’s surface. Dad has no eyes, and Mum’s face is a charred mask.

“You little bitch,” Mum says. “You couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Then make it right.” Dad points towards the lighter, his leather jacket has fused to his flesh, making it impossible to work out where one begins and the other ends. “Let go, and we can be complete.”

I want to, but Jason’s waiting for me. “Where’s my son?”

Sheila lashes out, her tendril burns in the light, but she catches Everett’s legs and rips them apart. Sawdust sprays across the store in place of blood.

Everett stares at me, his eyes wide with shock. I press his head into my chest. “Don’t look.”

The lighter burns my fingers, but I don’t let go. The department doors are to my right, nothing back there but dusty corridors and smashed rooms. There’s nowhere else to go. Falling backwards in my panic, I knock open the doors.

My breath is ragged, my heart beats too fast. “I’m sorry, Jason. I let you down.”

“You’re the last.” Dad rubs his blackened hands together. “There’s no one else.”

“Where’s Jason?”

“There are no others.”

A tentacle of oily smoke peels away from Sheila’s bulk, one end round like a bud grown from a diseased stem. It expands, then opens, and within its centre an eye blinks against the light, its pupil black like coal. Her skin bubbles and wisps of smoke drift into the air. She shows no sign of any discomfort: a small price for the promise of the meal to come.

Then Everett nudges my arm. His wooden hand touches the lighter.

“What are you trying to do?”

The flame licks his wooden fingers, and a single curl of smoke passes between us.

“Stop it.” I push his hand away.

For the briefest of moments his eyes find mine. It’s a sacrifice, I realize. Everett’s time has passed. No legs, and only one arm, he’s not going to survive. But I’ve got Jason. One of us needs to die, so Jason can live.

“I love you,” I say.

His hand caresses the flame, and an orange fire roars into life.

Sheila moans, and her eye retracts. But Everett’s sacrifice won’t be in vain. I won’t let it. He was a good friend. His death - just like his life – has to mean something. And Sheila is a monster escaped through the cracks in hell. She’s taken everything from me, from Everett, from the world.

I lunge forward and grasp Sheila’s eye. My fingers burn, the flesh dissolves. No pain. No pain. Her eye stalk goes taught like rope, and she tries to pull away. Too late, and I thrust Everett deep into her body.

The stalk combusts in a rush of searing heat. Sheila’s shouts turn to shrieks, and she smashes into the roof. Flames leap and dance, sizzle and burn. Smoke fills the corridor. It becomes difficult to breathe, and the heat rises. Sweat beads my forehead, and my skin blackens and smoulders.

Sheila dies as my hair catches light. She burns with the other creature, wedged into the corridor unable to escape. Strike one for humanity. For Everett. And for Jason.


Daylight seeps through cracks in the walls: a thin slice of grey. It hurts to breathe. My shirt has melted to my arms. Flesh hangs in congealed loops between my fingers. My hair has burned from my scalp and in its place my skin has blackened like a sausage left too long on the grill. The pain has dimmed, shifted to a cool numbness. Which might be worse. I try to curl my hands into fists, and I’m surprised to find I can’t. The nerves are shot; I should be dead. But I’m not – at least, not yet.

Soot swirls through the air, and my foot nudges something hard. It rolls across the corridor and stops at the doors, small, black and round. On impulse, I pick it up.

It’s Everett’s head, little more than a charred stump, his face melted away.

“I’ll miss you, old buddy.”

Outside, several rifts have formed. One – the largest – shimmers low to the ground, cutting through ice and earth alike, and in the distance I hear the gibbering of Sheila’s kin.

I wash Everett’s head in the marsh, takes longer than expected, difficult to focus and my fingers feel like they belong to someone else. Part of me screams I need help. That my burns are terrible, that I shouldn’t be alive. And the other part doesn’t care. I’m beyond caring. Using a chubby marker pen from the department store, I draw two eyes, a nose and a smile.

My old friend looks back at me. It makes me laugh, until a coughing fit has me clutching my stomach and spitting blood. Everett, of course, doesn’t say anything. And I vow to give him a new body. From the petrified trees of the marsh, I drag a log for his torso and branches for his arms. I lose consciousness twice, waking up half in the doorway the first time and clean outside the next. No idea of how much time has passed, but the sun has jumped forward in the sky and another rift has opened. In its green light stars roll through an endless void, as if the universe waits.

People have tried to enter the rifts. None ever came back. Perhaps they couldn’t; perhaps they died. Or perhaps whatever waited on the other side was so great, so wonderful, that they didn’t want to come back, or they had no choice. There was nowhere else to go. I take an old T-shirt and slide it over Everett’s head. He looks better, masking tape keeps him in place, and I lift him into my arms the way one might cradle a new-born child.

The rift sighs as if alive, and I realize I no longer know where life ends and death begins. Jason is waiting for me, someplace – somewhen – beyond the rifts. Staggering close to its edge, I feel a strange pull as if the rift wants me to step through. And go where? Different universes, different earths. Could be anywhere? Could be nowhere? A warm breeze traces my face. Everett snuggles in close to my chest and I struggle to catch my breath. I worry that if I close my eyes I won’t open them again. I know what I should do, if I’m honest I’ve always known.

“Come on then.” One leg refuses to play ball and I end up dragging it behind me. Blood trickles from my nose. My skin cracks and sheds, melted goblets of flesh slither from my arms and trail behind me like half-remembered dreams. The closest rift seems to swell upon my approach, beyond is endless darkness, endless possibilities. Surely in one such possibility Jason must be alive. I watch creatures stir in the marsh, things creeping out of holes and ruined trees. This is their world now. Once I’m gone, they’d be no one left. The dead told me that. And how long before the cities fall, how long before the earth reclaims all that has been lost. The creatures are welcome to it. Perhaps that was what they always wanted, and perhaps it gave their lives meaning, meaning which I lost in mine. The only thing I got right, the only thing that made sense was Jason. And he’s out there between the stars. That’s what the rifts represent, that’s why no one has ever come back. The rifts are freedom. In its purest form.

And I so desperately want to see Jason.

I blink and one eye refuses to open, a small part of me closed forever. Feels like something is caught in my throat and my insides have melted. Even standing still costs a supreme effort, the type they pin medals on your chest for. “Not sure I can do it, after all, little buddy.”

My legs give out and I slump to the ground. Everett wriggles in my grasp. I look at him and he gives a lingering smile. He’s right. Anything is possible. I just have to try.

And slowly, I topple forward into the rift.


Illustration: Rylan Cavell

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