To celebrate my last (working) day in the Army, here’s a short story I wrote late last year. Hurray!
“Ally? Are you ok?” It was the first time he’d spoken since they’d entered. “Art… We could always just leave.”
Her whisper echoed. She winced as it returned to them, hushed and sinister, and looked around the gaping walls, the hungry bare floorboards. The huge sandstone clocktowers in the heart of the city began to toll midnight and both children started. Over two blocks of heavy old brick buildings separated them, yet the clanging fractured in the room as though they stood in the heart of the Victoria Tower bells. Ally shuddered. Helplessly, her eyes returned to the doors. Whispers of moonlight snuck through the slatted blinds to break into wavering lines amongst the dust, disrupting the darkness. It was getting late. They planned to be in and out again by now.
Art frowned, unsure. Ally had never hesitated before.
“It’ll be fine Ally,” he said, grabbing her shoulder. “Just a coupla doors, right?”
Ally winced as his fingers dug into her skin and looked over at him. The house was bound by two main roads. They were on the ground floor and there was nowhere for this portal to go that could hold any danger for them. They were only going to open some doors. Yet the room shifted around them as though it breathed in time with them and the doors loomed over them, menacing.
Art discovered the doors by accident. Well, kinda – he wasn’t exactly in the house by accident. The front door had been boarded, with some notice about the perils of ‘structurally unsound buildings’ nailed to it. He’d managed to jimmy open one of the arched windows and toss his body through the gap straight into the rotting wooden shutters. They had splintered as he tumbled to the floor in a shower of sharp fragments.
“Damn.” Should have looked first. He brushed at the slivers of wood that clung to his uniform. It looked undamaged by the stunt. Thank God. It was brand new for his first year of high school, and Art wouldn’t rule out his mum disembowelling him for being careless. He glanced around, grateful for the sunlight that his hand-made entrance allowed to pierce the gloom. This must have been the lounge; a couch, sagging and covered in mould sat next to the splintered table in the corner. Art patted the pocketknife clipped to his belt, just to check, and flicked on his father’s torch. Nothing much in here really. And the next room wasn’t much better, a scored and dirty kitchen table marooned amongst pockmarked linoleum benches and scorch marks above the stove, but nothing worth lingering over. Art scuffed the tip of his sneaker against the floor, leaving a shiny swipe in the dust. One more, just to see.
And that was when he found the doors.
Dwarfing the room, towering to the high ceiling, they devoured the whole Northern wall, nymphs and mermaids cavorting across the ancient expanse of oak. But from here, in this room, in this house?
Where could they lead?
It was always night here. The girl stood alone, enveloped in a shroud of darkness. It made no difference, for she had never known light. Ahead, the tunnel stretched into the distance and her loping strides ate up the ground, sure-footed and swift. There was no danger. Her burning eyes could see for miles through the inky blackness of the Below and she had tread every path, it seemed, more times than she could remember. It was her home and her domain and nothing here was greater than she was. Yet when the thunder echoed from above, she dropped. Rocks and dust tumbled down, coating her and the long silky hair that covered her body; she shuddered, rippling muscles one after the other to remove it. It was the 3:30 tram to Glenelg, though that was another thing she didn’t know. She only knew that the floor and the walls might shake and should she become small and stay still, it would not harm her.
And on the same day that Art found the wooden double doors, the girl Below found light. Far above, glinting softly at the end of a roughly hewn stone shaft.
There was a flicker.
Ally wasn’t meant to be there. She twirled in the centre of the upstairs bedroom, head tilted back to watch the play of sunlight through the glass reflecting in the dust motes that hung thick in the air. Art’s stomach twisted: a girl. Girls were cruel, horrible creatures. Escape. Hardly breathing, he began to inch backwards. The door was within reach when he placed one foot gingerly down and a floorboard creaked. He flinched as the girl stopped and glared.
“Who the hell are you?”
Art couldn’t help but grin at the memory. She’d nearly decked him. It was, strictly speaking, his parents’ house now Aunt Molly had died, but Ally, startled and furiously defensive, had almost taken to him task anyway. Caught unawares, she’d whirled on him, fists clenched at her sides, every muscle coiled tight, ready to pounce. She’d tilted her chin, jaw ironclad in the afternoon light and he’d been floored. They’d brokered a wary peace for she’d done just as he had, creeping out of school in the early afternoon to investigate the huge creepy house on the corner. Her curiosity had bested her yet again, a recurring issue for her, he’d quickly realised. Art had never met anyone like Ally Thompson before; all the other girls he knew wore dresses and hated getting dirty, and laughed at him behind his back. He’d always been relieved he didn’t have a sister, that moving into St Peter’s meant he could avoid them entirely. But Ally… Ally was something different entirely. She was absolutely fearless. Fascinated, he’d found himself power- less to keep from telling her about the doors and summarily being dragged downstairs to show her. She too, felt the energy emanating from them; before he knew it, Art was promising to meet here again to explore the house further. And then she was gone, as quickly as she’d appeared, braid bouncing over her shoulder as she dashed towards the red and white checks of the ER.
Art’s legs pumped hard, narrow white pistons working inside black cargo pants. A sheen of sweat came to his skin and the night air was cool as it rushed over him. His nose burned slightly as he drew it into hungry lungs, but the sensation just made him grin. It was quiet along here as he rode away from home; no doubt children were abed and parents relishing the opportunity to do nothing. Or, as his parents were, out and about for some function or dinner or drinks or something. Friday nights seemed to be full of that kind of thing. No doubt the city would be noisy. He heard the rhythmic thud of bricks beneath his tyres change to the whir of bitumen and the intersection loomed before him. The junction seemed empty and he pumped hard. Closer. Closer. There. Art flew through the intersection amongst screeching brakes and the cursing of a car horn. He swallowed against the desert in his mouth and laughed, fingertips trembling with adrenaline against the handlebars. The thought of the doors made his stomach clench with something unnamable. They’d finally agreed to open them together. Weeks of skipping classes to meet up, learning every corner of the house and straining to ignore the siren call of the basement. And now…
The city was abuzz before him. Streetlights illuminated the paths and restaurants ate up passing adults only to spit forth those who were done for the night and moving on. Gaggles of students hung clumped around bars and queues were forming for nightclubs. No one noticed Art, gangly and unobtrusive.
North Terrace was brightly lit enough that he could almost see the house from the corner of King William and the corners of his mouth twitched at the sight. Golden lamplight splashed on the ground, filtered through naked spidery branches to form shifting ghosts on the sidewalk. The museum, then the campuses (one, two) were dotted with circles of light, but as deserted as a ghost town. Even the hospital wasn’t overly busy right now, the red-white-red-white-red-white of the ER disappearing behind him.
Ally met him at the door, her grin wide enough to make her face hurt, and tilted her head towards the door. Finally, her eyes declared as eagerly as his own. Art grimaced back playfully, pressing his hand to the stitch in his side.
“Don’t be a baby,” Ally said, shoving him. “Let’s go inside already.” Art rolled his eyes, but the grin didn’t falter. He followed her in.
The girl stretched. Strung between the walls of the shaft, her body was as taut as piano wire, thrumming with tension. It was a smooth and monotonous landscape to ascend, only occasionally broken by jagged outcroppings of concrete. Then, large, calloused hands clung to the anomaly whenever it appeared, a relief from the endless fight to climb without any hand-or footholds. The ragged edges bit into her, despite the toughened skin, and her flesh tore from holding her weight against the cruel stones. Yet, relief. Flames licked at the ragged skin of her palms and they grew slippery with blood. She had to wait for it to dry before pressing on, or fall to her death when her hands skidded, unable to hold her, along the slippery sides of the well. She had no understanding of time, nor of distance, but the powerful haunches were slick with sweat beneath the fine dark hairs, the sharp lines of her shoulders trembled and it seemed as though the gleam above grew closer. It changed, flickering, deepened and gave momentary pause. She had always suffered from wanting to know more, even amongst the reprimanding teeth of her litter and, deep inside her, a tiny hunger gnawed. Hunt, it whispered, find.
On the lowest level of the empty house, in the cold darkness of the cellar, two spindly white spiders appeared at the edges of the manhole. Scrabbling for purchase on the worn flagstones, torn fingers searched blindly. The girl from Below hauled herself onto the floor and lay panting, her muscles quivering. There was no rest. The mild glow of twilight and the cold evening air assaulted her, alien and cruel. Her eyes squeezed shut, headlights of passing cars crept beneath the wooden doors so that starbursts of light exploded like a shotgun in her brain. With senses aflame, the girl flinched from the onslaught and her body curled into itself like a dying autumn leaf.
The room was as silent and cold as a tomb. Their clasped hands were an anchor in the gloom. Though sweat made their palms slick, slithering between their fingers, neither let go. Art gulped. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, but it was though the room absorbed it, suffocating any sound. His skin tingled, rippling with tiny goosebumps as cold air whispered from beneath the doors and across their flesh. Ally tried to jerk away from it, her breath coming in jagged shudders from her shrinking body. Art risked a glance. She was white as bone, eyes wide and staring.
“We came all this way,” Art said, and he squared his shoulders against the fear. “I want to know.” He tugged at Ally and wrapped his fingers around the handle, inhaling sharply at the icy shock of the metal. Ally reached out and grabbed the other, teeth clenched. They yanked the heavy doors towards them and the ancient wood groaned. Resisted. Gave.
The portal opened. Swallowed.
The girl waited. Waited until the trembling stopped and the flashes of white came less and less, the city settling its bones for the night. Waited until there was no noise, the house cocooned from the outside by thick brick and old wood. Waited until she could coax her eyes open to form dark slits against the pallid angles of her face.
The night air was repugnantly cold. She drew her lips back in a snarl, revealing needle-like teeth which filled the dark cavern of her mouth, jagged shards stained with decay. The smells were foreign and over-whelming, but beneath it all, she could scent the delicate iron tang of blood. In the silence, the thump of another’s heartbeat called to her. Saliva pooled in her mouth as she strained towards the smell, nostrils flaring into wide hungry gashes that led her to the door. Warm air seeped beneath it and through the cracks at its edges. Drool hung like a glistening strand from her mouth. Dropped to leave a smear on the stone. Muscles tightened in anticipation of the hunt and the long dark hair bristled. She pressed a shoulder to the door and felt it give a little. A little more.
She lunged, snarling, into the darkness, towards the irresistible flesh that called to her.
Art shut the creaking front door and ran a gentle hand over the faded and peeling notice he’d so blithely disregarded. It seemed so long ago now. The window was still cracked open and the faint tinges of light heralding dawn allowed him to see the rotten shutters dangling from their moorings. Neither spoke. Art knew he’d never come back here. Above, a magpie warbled the morning song and Ally reached out to touch the tips of her fingers to his. Art looked at her, wan in the streetlight and a smile ghosted across his face. Together, they turned from the house.
From the storm gutter across the street, eyes glowing, the girl from Below watched them leave.