Svartskerry: Part 3

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

“Go on.” Abigail commanded. “Read it to me. While we’ve still got daylight.”

Sophie squinted at the battered paper, as it flapped in the wind. She felt a bit dizzy as she looked down again to the surging sea.

“Can we go inside?” She asked. “It’ll be easier to read, and it won’t blow away.”

“Sure, whatever.”

Sophie was kind of relieved to step back inside, into that strange, decaying Crystal Palace. She wasn’t going to plunge however many feet into the writhing foam from in here.

She could read that semi-cursive scrawl much more easily, too, when she wasn’t struggling to keep the trailing strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail out of her face, and the wind wasn’t stinging her eyes.

“I was born in Liverpool, in the year 1859, the son of a sea captain. At the age of 18, I travelled to Manchester, to study Mathematics. Though I do not mean to boast, I proved to be rather adept in my studies. Some said I could go on to be one of the greatest mathematicians of my generation.”

“This is so fucking Alex Jamieson.” Abigail interrupted. “He’s always fancied himself as a writer.”

For some reason, Sophie didn’t want to keep reading. She felt something in her head, telling her to put the paper down, to get straight back on the boat and leave this Godforsaken place.

She kept going, nonetheless.

“That was until I met Elizabeth.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”

“I first saw Elizabeth through the window of a cab as I was on my way to a lecture. She was the most wonderful creature I had ever set eyes on. Her blue eyes gleamed like sapphires fixed in her pure-white face.”

“That’s fucking terrible”

“I know, right? You want me to keep going?”

Somehow, Sophie really didn’t want to keep going. The paper seemed to have grown genuinely heavy, and her arms were getting tired. Every word she read seemed to add to this. The paper grew heavier and heavier, as if the meaning of the words had their own weight.

“Of course you keep going. This is fucking great.”

“I met her as she disembarked outside her house. It turned out she was none other than the daughter of Professor William Scott, one of the university’s foremost scholars of Mathematics, and that she would be at…”

Sophie’s hands were shaking now, and she was struggling to keep her eyes on the page. It was like staring into the Sun.

She couldn’t bear it any longer, and threw it to the floor.

“What’s up?” Abigail asked. “I mean, it’s shit, but it’s not that shit.”

“I don’t know. It’s just… it’s just… I’m tired, that’s all.”

“I’ll read it then.”

Sophie bent down and picked it up. Her movements became slower. Her hands were shaking. She fumbled with the pages, finding the place where Sophie had left off. She skimmed over the rest, clearly struggling to keep her eyes there.

“He asks her out. She says yes. He gets scared and fucks off up here.”

Abigail threw it to the ground.

“I’m not reading it all out loud, it’s too shit. It’s all just Alex Jamieson’s crap, anyway. It’s his fucking handwriting.”

“Wasn’t it, like, hard to read? Like you kept wanting to look away?”

“I know. It was shit, wasn’t it?”

“It was shit, I know, but wasn’t there something else? Like there was something in there that wanted you to stop reading?”

“No, it was just shit.”

“That’s probably right.”

It was stupid, it was definitely stupid. It was just something Alex Jamieson had written. There was nothing about it to suggest it was an authentic document, and if it was, someone would have already found it.

“Come on, Soph, you’ve got a degree in Physics. You know this is silly.”

“I know it’s silly. It’s just, it’s just, it was definitely there. I’m probably just making it up, but it was definitely there.”

“You’re just making it up. This place is fucking with you, or something like that. Let’s get downstairs.”

Abigail was quick to leave the wad of teabag-stained paper behind her on the floor and scamper round and down the rough and crumbling staircase and out of sight, but grabbing five cans of lager from the crate on the way and drinking heavily from the first, with the other four cradled precariously under her left arm. Sophie was glad to follow, and to leave behind that nightmarish, distorted greenhouse.

The shafts of light from the narrow windows, punctuating the staircase were getting fainter and redder as the sun went down. Sophie was struggling to find her footing, feeling blindly for each little foothold. She made it, though, and saw Abigail, sitting, curled up, against the wall, with three empty cans next to her.

“Good evening”, Abigail said to her, loudly and assuredly, standing up, and then sitting back down again almost immediately.

“Good evening”, Sophie muttered back. She collapsed to the floor next to Abigail, propped up against her shoulder.

“Hey, get the fuck off me.”

Abigail nudged Sophie off with her shoulder, and she sat back up.

“That sure was shit, wasn’t it?” Abigail eventually said.

Sophie grabbed the one remaining beer and took a big enough gulp that she felt sick.

“It was shit alright”, she sputtered back as soon as she was able.

“I feel like heading outside”, Abigail said. “You want to join me?”

“Sure”. Sophie was, as much as she would never admit to Abigail, desperate to get out of that accursed place. They both staggered to their feet and stumbled through the doorway into the biting wind.

The deep blue-grey of the clouds faded indeterminately into the black of the roaring sea, and, from far off in the murky distance, the light at Sulaness flashed, and flashed again, and flashed again.

Svartskerry: Part 2

See also: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

The heavy, rust-riddled door to the hut at the base of the tower had been left hanging open. Abigail was the first inside, dumping the crate of lager on the worn and uneven flagstones just inside. Sophie stopped just outside and looked in.

The room was bare, with the wind whistling out of a crumbling fireplace just to the right. There were two small, grimy windows. The once-whitewashed walls were streaked with bird crap.

“Are you sure this place won’t fall down on us?” Sophie said

“It’s been OK so far.”

“Does anyone know we’re here? You know, in case…”

“Alex Jamieson knows. He recommended the place to me. Didn’t spend the night, though.”

“Come on, we both know you’d rather die stranded out here than get rescued by Alex Jamieson.”

There was another door, opposite the fireplace, gaping into a cavernous darkness, pierced by a faint shaft of dusty light. Abigail seemed to have forgotten the grown-up poise she’d had on the boat, and gazed around the room in childish wonder, before walking quickly, with a sort of hop-skip in the middle, towards the doorway.

Sophie left her to it and wandered back down the rough and slippery steps onto the rock, pulling her hood back up around her face. She walked forwards, about 30 paces, and stopped abruptly, as the ground disappeared in front of her, leaving nothing but the waves, rising and falling against shattered slabs of rock.

She turned right and kept walking, keeping quite a way back from the edge. At this point, the furthest from the jetty where the boat was moored, the jagged edges gave way to a glistening sheet of rock, sloping into the writhing sea, that slid up and down the surface, pouring in and out of the rockpools.

Right at the top of the rocks, just where the earth broke off, there was a pod of seals, almost motionless. Sophie tentatively walked towards them. They remained still at first, and then one by one, their heads turned, they noticed her presence, and they fled, clumsily, to the safety of the sea, their heads bobbing on the waves.

“Hey! Soph!”

Sophie turned round and looked up. Abigail was standing on the narrow, ancient platform that ran around the edge of the light itself. Her bright blue coat stood out boldly against the grey of the lighthouse and the grey of the sky.

“Are you coming up or what?”

“Is it safe?”

“Should be! The view from here’s great!”

Sophie walked back over to the steps and slowly ascended. She’d have to do this at some point. She might as well get it over with. What could there actually be that would hurt her?

Warily, she stepped into the base of the tower.

This place had a strange feel to it. It was one of those places that just sort of feels like you’re not meant to be there. Almost like it sort of belonged to someone else, or something like that. This place had been abandoned to the fulmars and the gannets, and humans were no longer welcome.

She walked across, quickly, and straight through the door at the other side, before the fear that she felt could really get to her. Abigail had left it open, and it led to a staircase that spiralled into oblivion.

Egged on by the image in her head of Abigail’s face if she didn’t go up, she kept going. Up into the deep unknown.

Occasionally, there was a small window, usually with the glass broken, through which a dusty shaft of light poured, along with wind and rain and spray and the rasping shrieks of the birds.

She kept going up. What could there be that would hurt her? Abigail had gone up and seemed fine? And she was right. The building was unlikely to collapse after having stood for so long. She knew that. That was not what she feared.

Then what was it?

She kept going up, keeping her hands on the damp walls. The walls were solid. The walls were there. If she could feel something, then she knew she was still there, still real.

There were doorways, as well. Leading into empty rooms with rotten, wooden floors that even Abigail surely wouldn’t dare to test. She was foolhardy, but not suicidal.

Sophie was relieved when she saw light streaming down from the top of the stairs. She was still in darkness, but could see the light where she was headed. As she entered the pool of yellowish-white, she knew she had made it.

She stepped up into a shimmering realm of glass. She blinked in the light, as her eyes adjusted. There were four walls, each built of scratched and yellowish glass. On each side, there were the concentric rings of a Fresnel lens. The lamp’s mount was there in the centre, but the lamp itself had long gone.

“Hey! Soph!” Abigail shouted, through the glass.

Sophie looked round, and saw her face, distorted through the rough-edged prisms of the lenses. Abigail walked away, and then emerged from behind, inside the glass room.

“Come on. Get out here.” Abigail said, leading Sophie out through a little door onto the perilously-balanced balcony, overlooking jagged rocks and thundering waves.

“Look what Alex Jamieson’s left us”.

Abigail plunged her hand into her coat pocket, and retrieved a battered and stained, yellowish wad of folded paper.

“Grab a beer, and let’s read it while we’ve still got light.”

She walked round to the other side of the balcony, the side overlooking the rock rather than the sea, and returned with two cans of lager from the crate that she’d presumably somehow hauled up these stairs.

She cracked one open herself, and handed the other to Sophie. She sat down on the balcony, opened up the paper, and began to read. Sophie read over her shoulder.

There was a name at the top, and a date:

“Josiah Rose, Assistant keeper of the lighthouse at Svartskerry, January 14th 1877”.

The Darkness

Entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018

Nobody knew what was in The Darkness.

People had gone in, but nobody had ever come out.

People had experimented. There had been a clip shown on the News of someone plunging a big metal pole part way into it. When he pulled it away, it was severed perfectly cleanly, exactly on the line that The Darkness had reached.

Nobody knew what happened to the other end.

Both sides had deployed it repeatedly during The War, leaving patches of black oblivion on the sites of military bases, weapons factories and the occasional hospital, as the UN just sort of looked on.

Then it had started growing. Nobody knew why. Nobody knew how to stop it. Nobody knew very much about it at all, except that it was an extremely effective weapon.

That was about a week ago.

The Fox Inn had not yet been swallowed up. It had been there more than 400 years, and was still there now, a lonely outpost by the road that twisted and wormed across the brown and purple moors, 6 miles from where the nearest town had been.

It was a nice day, considering the circumstances, and Chris and Charlotte were sitting outside.

“How long do you reckon we’ve got?” Chris asked, knowing exactly what Charlotte was going to say.

“No idea.”

“Fair.”

Charlotte took another gulp of 23-year-old Scotch.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get through all this.” She remarked.

“You can’t drink the whole pub, if that’s what you mean.”

“You don’t know how long we’ve got left. We could be here for weeks.”

“Fair. Have we got food?”

“We’ve got a whole kitchen with a big freezer full of pub crap.”

“Fine.”

The Darkness was lurking in the valley, stretching out gloomy tendrils among the heather. There was definitely more of it than there had been in the morning.

“What’s it you do?” Chris asked, trying to make conversation as Charlotte topped up his glass of whisky. “I mean, when you’re not working here.”

“I’m a student. At least, I was until I graduated in June.”

“What did you study?”

“Maths.”

“Impressive.”

“It would be if I’d got better than a 2:2.”

“I’m still impressed. I were never any good at Maths. I always hated it in school.”

The Sun was just touching the horizon, turning the moor a thousand shades of gold. There was darkness coming from above, and Darkness coming from below.

“You were probably just taught badly.” Charlotte replied. “Anyway, when you think about it, this whole thing’s worked out quite conveniently for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now nobody’s going to have to find out how badly I fucked up Uni,” she drunkenly slurred. “Enough about me. I don’t want to talk about me. Tell me what you did, before all this happened.”

“I were a carpenter, me. I actually did some of the work in here when they were doing this place up a few years back.”

“Nice.”

“I’m not smart like you.”

Somewhere on the shrinking island of peat and heather and tough, brown grass, a grouse shrieked “Go back! Go back! Go back!” and then was silent.

“You know, this whisky’s the best I’ve ever drunk.” Chris said, to break the silence.

“It’s the most expensive we had. It seemed a shame to let it go to waste.”

“Hey, Charlotte?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you got any family?”

“Well, I did. I’ve not heard from my parents or my brother or my boyfriend or my nephew since I went out to work this morning.”

“Fuck, that’s rough. Sorry for bringing that up.”

“It’s fine. Did you have anyone?”

“Sort of. I mean, my wife left me 6 months ago. She took my 2 kids. I’ve not seen them for a week now. I’m assuming they’re gone. I mean, basically everyone’ll be gone now.”
Chris dug into the pockets of his fleece and fumbled a bit, taking out his phone, a set of keys, and his shiny, blue passport, and placing them in front of him on the table. Eventually, he got to his wallet.

He took out a picture of two small children, with cheesy smiles on their faces.

“Here they are,” Chris said, handing it across the table to Charlotte.

“They’re adorable.”

“Aren’t they just.”

“It just came so suddenly.” Charlotte said, out of nowhere. “This morning, it was a long way off. It was just something happening somewhere else. Then it took over everywhere. There was no way to know where it was going next.”

“It’s moving a lot slower now.”

Then there was no sound but the gurgling of a stream, flowing blindly into that deep Unknown.

“What do you think it feels like?” Charlotte asked.

“What does what feel like?”

“When it… you know… when it gets you.”

“I saw on the News a guy somewhere who’d lost his hand in it. He said he didn’t feel it when it was in there, but when he took it out of course it just felt like he’d had his hand cut off.”

“That’s fine, then, if we’re going all the way in.”

“Only if you stay totally still. I you move away from it at all when it’s coming over you, then…”

“That’s a point. You’d get bits of you cut off.”

“They made a big mistake when they used this shit in the War and they didn’t know what it were gonna do in the long run.”

“I don’t think that’s very controversial.”

The Darkness was advancing faster now, and from all sides. It had obscured the Moon, and was encroaching on the weathered walls of the inn.

“You’ve been great today,” Charlotte said, heaving herself unsteadily to her feet.

“You too.”

Leaning on each other, they staggered a few paces forward. Chris took a swig of whisky from the bottle, and passed it to Charlotte, who finished it off, before smashing it on the flagstones.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

And, back-to-back, they faced The Darkness.

Svartskerry: Part 1

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

“How much do you know about what happened at Svartskerry?” Abigail asked, casually stepping off the pier into the little dinghy, bobbing in the murky harbour.

“I don’t know anything except it’s meant to be haunted.” Replied Sophie, tentatively stumbling onboard and quickly sitting down.

Abigail started the engine, and the boat began to pull away.

“It’s haunted as fuck. There’s a pretty cool story behind it as well.”

“Go on.”

“You see what happened was, while the lighthouse was still working, there were two people living there, right? There was the lighthouse-keeper, and his assistant. Now the lighthouse keeper was pretty standard, right? He was just a guy who’d used to be in the Merchant Navy. But his assistant was more interesting. The thing with his assistant is nobody knows who he was. The name he was calling himself was almost certainly fake, and he never told anyone his real name. But he didn’t t in at all. He was very well-spoken, obviously educated. Going off his accent, he was English. But he barely spoke to anyone. He kept himself to himself, and nobody knows how or why he ended up out here at all, working at the lighthouse. I guess they were just desperate for people to work there and didn’t ask many questions.”

“Then what?”

The boat roared through the voe, cutting through the bluegreen-brown waves, as the village became nothing more than a series of white specks beneath the lowering clouds.

Sophie would never admit it to Abigail, but she was starting to feel seasick.

“What’s that, Sophie? You want me to slow down?” Abigail taunted, over the hum of the engine and the roar of the waves against the bow.

“No, keep going. What happened to these lighthouse-keepers?”

The boat turned round a towering, grey headland, and into the open sea. Abigail, standing proudly, feet wide apart, at the helm, with the raging sea breeze whipping cold and salty spray across her face, turned her head back towards Sophie.

“So what happened was the two of them had been working there for a couple of years right? And one winter a storm blew up. You seen the storms out here? Waves 60 feet high crashing against the lighthouse, wind so strong it’s hard to stay standing. etc. etc. So anyway, the light’s on in the lighthouse one of these stormy nights, and in the morning it just stays on. And all day into the next night and the next day, until it starts to run out of fuel. So of course the lighthouse-keepers were meant to put the light out in the morning and light it at night and keep it topped up with fuel, so now people knew something was up.
“The problem was the sea was very rough, and there was no chance of landing a boat there, so they couldn’t get anyone to the lighthouse for a few days. When the sea had calmed down a bit and they got a chance, There was nobody there.

“They looked all over the lighthouse, but they didn’t find any traces of anyone. No bodies, nothing. Sort of a Marie Celeste kind of thing. The strangest part, though, was that the boat that they’d had moored at the jetty was still there. If the boat had been gone, you could have said they left in that, but it was still there. It was still tied up to the jetty. It didn’t look like there was any way they could have left, but there they weren’t.”

The shore was now nothing more than a black stripe on the horizon, beneath the brooding clouds. Abigail laughed as the little boat lurched up and down and up and down, bounding over the choppy water. Sophie tried to bury her head in her coat in an effort to keep of the frigid wind and biting spray.

“A few lighthouse keepers came and went, but none of them could handle it. The place was abandoned in the ’30s.”

Before long, their destination came into view – a mass of black slabs of rock, rising up from the water, and a dirty-white column piercing the menacing sky. Abigail turned off the engine, and the boat just bobbed, silently, as the waves rolled around it. She stepped up to the bow and stood there, like Washington Crossing the Delaware, as she surveyed the rugged skerry, looking for a landing site.

The rocks on the near side of the island had been beaten into a precariously balanced arch, and Sophie became briefly mesmerised by the waves rising up, crashing around inside it, foam racing up into the crevices of the layered rock and then back out. In and out and up and down and in and out…

“Hey! Sophie!” Abigail shouted.

Sophie lifted up her head and looked over to where Abigail was pointing. She couldn’t help but smile as she noticed a big, blubbery seal roll over and slide and drag itself off the rocks into the dark water.

Abigail returned to the helm, and the engine sputtered back into life. She began slowly steering the boat round the skerry, eventually pulling up alongside the rusty remains of an old iron jetty.

She vaulted up onto the bent metal platform. Sophie, eager to stand on firm ground again, tried to stand up.

“Hold on a moment, will you?” Abigail reprimanded her, as she secured the boat to a post, caked in rust, and did the same at the other end.

Sophie took her hand and heaved herself up, staggering onto the uneven surface. Abigail leapt back into the boat and pulled out a carrier bag full of food, a crate of lager, two sleeping bags and a hurricane lamp, passing them up to Sophie.

Slowly and cautiously, to avoid slipping on the rocks that gleamed with rain and spray, the two adventurers scrambled up towards the windswept lighthouse.

The Chain Gang

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

In the distance, a bevy of snare drums beat a harsh and unrelenting tattoo.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The crowd of onlookers pushed forward against the barrier in front of the pothole-ridden road, each excited breath forming a wisp of water vapour in the crisp, clear winter air.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Two children darted among the forest of legs, trying to get a better view of the spectacle that was to come, their enthusiastic shouts piercing through the cold above the sharp and ever-approaching beat of the drums.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

A dead-eyed soldier watched the crowd carefully, pacing back and forth in heavy boots, her rifle angled towards the ground.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Then the grim procession began to come into view. A stern-faced officer goose-stepped at its head, a row of medals on chest, glinting in the low, pale Sun against the dark-green wool of his dress uniform. The tassels on his epaulettes swung in time to the beats of his brightly-polished boots against the rough tarmac.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Next came the drummers, in a perfect row, each in an identical, maroon beret. The sticks became a blur, vibrating in that beat that just kept going and going.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

It was only then that I saw the prisoners. Each shaven head, bruised and bloody, staring at the manacled feet of the next. They shuffled steadily forwards, occasionally prodded back into line by a rifle-butt.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And a murmur spread among the crowd, growing to a roar, and becoming a low, steady boo. An incomprehensible shout pierced the monotone every few seconds. Coherence was soon lost, and the air began to writhe with jeers and shrieks and rotting projectiles, as the pathetic chain-gang passed, headed for the train that would take them away to the far-flung North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

One of the wretched train glanced up, away from the shabby road surface, before catching the eye of one of the ever-vigilant guards and fixing his eyes sheepishly on the ground once more. But in that moment, that one, fleeting moment, I saw, among his gaunt and emaciated features, his eyes. Startling, bright-green eyes.

I had seen those eyes before. You would never forget eyes like that. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about them, but there was something extraordinary.

I had seen them before, on a wet April afternoon, just outside the station. He had been muttering something. Nobody caught what it was that he said, but that was beside the point. He had breached Protocol.

Within seconds, he was lying on the shiny-wet flagstones with a black boot on his back and blood pouring out of his nose. As he was dragged away, silent, accepting a terrible fate that he must have known, accepting the prospect of suffering that I could not imagine, that was the moment I noticed the eyes.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And now he was heading back to the station, back to the place where his life had disappeared forever, then to the wild and distant North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The others would have been similar. Maybe they had taken too long to answer questions. Maybe they had admitted to an attraction that had turned out not to be reciprocated. Maybe they had greeted somebody who they had not known well enough. Anyway, they were Enemies of Society and had to be removed.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tara…”

The Desert

Lika was like a diamond. Not because she sparkled or looked pretty as an ornament or anything like that, but because she had withstood years being crushed, stretched and twisted, in the intense heat, and had come out unbreakable.

And now there was only the sandy asphalt and the desert night, the clear, navy-blue sky scattered with billions upon billions of flaming balls of nuclear fusion.

Kasim lit a cigarette, and I coughed, as the dusty wind in the open window blew the smoke back into my face.

“If we break down here, it’s 300 kilometres to the nearest town, and it could be days before anyone else comes along here. Can someone just make sure we remembered to pack the water?”

He laughed. Nobody else laughed.

“Just kidding. It’s in the glovebox.”

I caught a glimpse of Lika’s face in a flash of moonlight in the window, before her head moved and was again lost in shadow. She was smiling, but it was not a smile of naivety, it was a smile that had seen just about everything there is to see. And those eyes seemed to hold secrets older than the world itself.

When we had lost Leo, she said nothing. Amid screams of terror and anguish, surrounded by gunfire, she had simply stood there, still and silent, like Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in Babylon’s fiery furnace. When Kasim had pulled her into the car, she did not resist. She simply accepted what was happening. She let the universe carry her through, observing.

Little Andrea woke up in his mother’s lap.

“When will we be there?” He asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

Leo was gone, which was lucky, since we wouldn’t all have fit in the car otherwise. But then, if Leo was still with us, we wouldn’t need to be here at all.

I’d seen them with him, but I’d just kept walking.

Lika said nothing. Lika always said nothing.

Kasim had finished his cigarette, and let the still-glowing butt fall from the window. A pinprick of bright red light, borne on the warm desert wind, rose and fell and curled and spiralled, as it drifted away onto the empty sand and darkness.

It was impossible to tell whether it had gone out, or simply drifted out of sight.

The road to the south still streaked on, black against black sand, straight and dark and unending.

Lika was under the bed. I was breathing heavily. The spring rain hammered on the window, running down the street, churning the sun-baked dirt of the town square into a mire of mud and filth. A lizard, escaping the rain, crawled in through a crack in the window. She ran across Leo’s unmoving, unfeeling hand, and onto his bare torso. He moved, and then was still again.

And there was the moon, cold and silent, looking out over everything. Occasionally, it lit up Andrea, sleeping in his mother’s lap. Occasionally, its light fell across Lika’s motionless face. She might not even know what she’d done. There was no way to tell.

For the first time in however many hours or days, the headlights fell on a junction. I didn’t notice which direction Kasim took. All I noticed were the crossroads. I suppose it didn’t matter. Whichever way we went, I would never know the other way.

I dragged Lika out, stood her up, looked her in the eye, whispered in her ear, and let her fall back to the ground. Leo woke up.

“When will we be there?” Andrea asked.

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

I hadn’t noticed before, but the door was slightly ajar. I could see a narrow strip of the peeling white paint on the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. A thin, slightly diagonal beam of sunlight cut it in two. Footsteps came down the corridor. I could tell instantly whose they were, in that way you sometimes can. There are subtleties in footfalls that you don’t even notice you notice, but they build up to tell you everything. Perhaps we’re more intelligent than we think.

Kasim’s shadow briefly blocked out the sunlight on the back wall, and he just kept on walking.

I smelled smoke in the air. Another house in the town was burning. Everyone just sat there. I just sat there, while all of someone’s worldly possessions were transformed into smoke and ash. But then, what could we do?

The wind picked up, and sand started to blow in through the open windows. We closed all except the front passenger window, where the mechanism jammed. It was no use, so we wrapped whatever cloth we could find over our mouths and noses. I used my kaffiyeh for myself, and Andrea’s blanket for Lika. The kid was asleep. He wouldn’t miss it.

Kasim loved Lika. He never let her out of his sight. But for now she was mine, in the stuffy little room, with the peeling plaster and the cracked window and the occasional cockroach or snake.

And Kasim just kept on walking.

I tied Andrea’s blanket at the back of Lika’s head, over her tangled, black hair, not that she noticed or cared, or that it would do any good. It just seemed like the right thing to do. In the process, I moved her head, she faced me, and in the moonlight, I glimpsed her still, silent face and her eye, her eyes, deep and mysterious, staring into mine. Eyes that had seen so much as to extinguish whatever youthful spark once flashed there, and that now looked at me with a sort of cold knowingness. She’d knew everything I’d done, and she knew I knew she knew everything I’d done, and she knew that I thought I knew everything she’d done, but she also knew I had no idea of anything she’d done.

That was the first time I realised that. I knew nothing of her.

“When will we be there?”

“We’ll be there soon, darling, we’ll be there soon.”

The sun began to rise over the town, as I looked out of the window and saw Leo running, running, running. I never found out what he was running from, only that he was running. I kissed Lika’s cheek, went downstairs, and ran out to meet him. Then he was lying on the bed next to me with a lizard crawling over him.

The sun began to rise over the desert, cutting, golden, through the deep blue and casting strange shadows on the sand.

Saying nothing, Kasim stopped the car, opened the door, picked up Lika, with surprising ease – she did not resist, she just let it all happen. I could have fought back, but I didn’t. Sometimes, there’s no point. Some things are just meant to happen. Some things you can’t fight, some things you shouldn’t fight.

And Kasim just kept on walking.