A sword, glum and without sheen. Too ugly to be a display piece, but there it was, above the mantelpiece. Dormant, without its scabbard.
“Why’d you keep that hideous thing up there, Uncle Vernon?” I ask. He had invited me for dinner, unusually. We hadn’t spoken in years. Not since our argument. He called me a wastrel, pissing away his dead brother’s nest-egg. He wasn’t completely wrong. Two years later and I’m penniless.
“There’s an old family legend, lad,” he says over his brandy. “That this weapon must take a life every fifty years, or our house will fall into ruin.”
I drain my drink to the ice. “You said this dinner was about a job opportunity, Uncle,” I say with impatience.
“It is,” he says, unblinking. “Let’s wait for our dinner to go down first.”
I and the other boys bet small change on what Ms. Mountfield hides beneath those scarves. Her voice moults each of us like a current smoothing riverbed stones. If she hadn’t moved here from an obscure stretch of the black county we might actually know her real age. Not one appliance outside her store works. They slope in the rain and snow and gather companion weeds.
It draws business for those looking for unique and discontinued items. She has a knack for locating the forgotten. Write your bounty down onto a scrap of paper and press it into her paper-bag skin and she will drag herself away into a dark narrow doorway and root in an abyss for time unspeakable and surface with what you lost.
When I went inside with my little slip asking for a way to know myself she retreated to the lightless hall and returned with nothing. She’s never come back with nothing for anyone before. I stand outside the shop and stare into its orange lights on my evening walks, too afraid to enter a final time.
The Procurement Service figured some of us born since The End’s beginning have a genetic memory of a time when summer was real. Of orange-lit afternoons, chimes of now phantom bells that passed through windowpanes to ears primed with subliminal triggers. Bodies bursting out of doors with sudden discovered change and purses prized from parental digits. That was their reasoning behind their choice of van.
“You lads,” the officers called from the vehicle. Headlamps glared the dawn and wheels snaked the tarmac. “What kind of road is this to be on by yourselves?”
“Start running, don’t look over your shoulder,” Badger nestled his words in my ear. He pressed the keys to my hand and gave it a squeeze which I did not know at the time was his last embrace. The vans were now something to be kept clear of. Feared in the way that dogs no longer trust human voices.
The sand blonde hair of a man who used to ride a BMX and gave me my first cigarettes in his waygone youth greeted me at the doorway. Still in the company of the same friends. Their names return to me now. Big and Little Sam, and Vick. We passed our days sat on sodden timber benches in a shroud of sycamore around the sports centre and passed white lightening hand to hand. How coincidental to happen upon them in this pub, so far from our old lives.
One of the great hardwood roofbeams had fallen in and exposed the room to the blackened sky. I looked at the way the snow wrapped their clothes like bedsheets of fine ash. They lay huddled around a dormant campfire built under the ruined roof and their lashes were crusted with frost and I imagined how their last pleas to the world were met only by the air that froze their lungs once the life had passed out of them.
There was no way to take their wedding rings but to sever the fingers.
He sat there like something summoned by hasty orisons wept in the near darkness of the backwoods. The brute half reclined before a fireplace that he fished at with his bare fingers for an ember to light his pipe and kicked away a gutted bowl of acorn gruel.
He made not a move unbacked by the chinking of the countless rings and ornamental chains that hung off his neck and biceps on ropes of braided human hair and he polished a heavy-bore revolver with a grimy rag until it turned back images of himself in the glaring firelight. On the rough wooden floorboards aside his mismatched boots slept an oaken club with all manner of curious stains. The side of his mouth on which he clenched his pipe sagged at the point a knife had found him but failed to finish the job.
Furtive in the creeping fireglow another man, thin with worry, bent himself in a chair at a dining room table among the wet and cowering eyes of three children. A single seat on the far side of the setting stood prominent and empty.
“You can take the house and everything in it,” the father said to silence. “Just get us south.”
The brute’s calloused hand sheathed the pistol into a shoulder holster sheared from a leg of old denim and plucked the pipe from his teeth.
“Ye just let me take freely from the ones gonna hunt yer,” he gravelled, spewing smoke. “I don’t have need for nothin else.”
The youth swung himself over and over the climbing frame bars in the hope that if he inverted the world enough, something would change.
He watched the river upended. Across the stream padding over the decade-moulded pebbles to the vast floodplain cut by a storm years past. Mud and silt half submerged a pair of goals on a pitch that once had been. With a finger he traced the spot where the diamond plates lay buried like headstones after an avalanche.
Righting himself, he wondered what it would be like to see a child again. A pushchair rotated in the current.
They called it a rescue mission but I saw none. It returned a train of human misery. Their feet churning ankle high slush on the peeling tarmac. Headed by satchel-burdened horses they traipsed a line through our town. The ranger at the head a man who wanted to see no more.
Behind, the purposely blinded clutched the rope he towed, or the shoulder of the man in front. Some with requisitioned garments for blindfolds while others bore hollow darkened stares.
Those who had clothes had parts stuck to them by moist black patches. On the naked you could see for what purpose they were kept. Raw strips on their calves and thighs. Some hobbled by slices taken from their buttocks. Some wept while others said nothing. Finally came the wagons and carts drawn by the militia, carrying all those who could no longer walk. Women who held their stomachs with furrowed brows. And stretchered shapes cut short at knee and elbow. They most of all had no sound to make.
I observed with a low feeling in my stomach that there were no children. I watched fully clothed and healthy. Like a stranger witnessing my own funeral.
There had been a time when he didn’t feel afraid of his phone. He searched the crowds at intersections with eyes that had not greeted sleep in days. Faces loomed and then drowned again. His heart heaved knowing that somewhere, she was watching.
He had to rebuild his life in the height of her shadow. Every motion still carries her spirit. The idle fear that she will be around the next corner follows him all the way to the witch’s office.
The sorceress apologised in drifts of incense.
“I cannot help with hauntings by the living,” she lilted. “That is a mortal curse.”
“What do you do with the heads then?” the crone spoke through the gaps in her teeth. Mister Tratchten handed her order over the counter in a plastic bag. It still moved against the clear film.
“Madam?” he said, taken aback. The woman tapped her cane on the glass case in front of her. Pointed to the array of suction-cup studded tentacles, bright red and curly under tube lighting.
“They’re not fit to eat,” he asserted with a hand on the counter.
“The hell they aren’t,” she frowned, “I’ll give you the case of scotch the lodger left behind.”
“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Briggs,” Trachten said firmer now, “other customers are waiting.” He gestured with a knife across the terracotta tiles to the shadows queued outside the dust-streaked window.
Once business was done, Trachten extinguished the lights to the shop floor and went upstairs, gathering the metal bucket on his way. He pinched the petite yellow key to the guest room door out his pocket and unlocked it. The entity therein could not be returned, but it would not die either. He had elected to make the best of it.
All remaining students of Trinity Faith School waited without coats on the grassless sports field. The children, so nearly not children, stood in a dozen silent rows with their hands red with cold by their sides. Uniformed police made sweeps up and down the human lanes, sometimes stopping to grab arms and pore over hands.
“Is this how you imagined your job turning out?” The chief watched atop a makeshift platform drawn together from shipping palettes.
“Can’t say I did,” the officer beside answered, ashen faced. “If we find all the culprits who consecrated the buried altar here,” he rubbed one of his darkened eyes, “we can prevent further sacrifices.”
An officer on the ground dragged a boy still in his early teens out of rank by the hair. He fought not at all, his shirt sleeve up over his elbow exposing all manner of telltale scabs and deep maroon grooves. As they marched him out to the podium in front of the other children, a smile crept across his youthful face.
“Such a waste,” the chief sighed. She looked down to the darkly stained chopping block by her feet, and handed the axe to her subordinate for a fourth time. “Try to do this one cleanly.”