Halloween Story Finalists 2016

FINALISTS:

Maria Sledmere

Xavier Weiss

Thomas Boyle

RUNNER-UP:

James Hunter

WINNER:

Calum MacDonald


**WINNER**

Rheya

(by Calum MacDonald)

as I open my eyes the world is pitch black. Initially I feel like my sight has been robbed from me, but then the world begins to slowly materialise around me. The room is bathed in blue light, and is coated in multiple levels of ashen-looking dust. I am lying on a sofa which has been ravaged by generations of moths, wrapped in a mouldy purple blanket. The windows are filthy and broken, with serpentine ivy slithering inside through the cracks. The bookcase in the corner of this living room is a dismal sight. It used to contain a wealth of knowledge, with books ranging from Salman Rushdie to Eric Hobsbawm; now time has reduced this collection to rubble, with the precious words contained lost forever. The TV and DVD player, however, are still in good working order; I have been watching the films that Rheya and I used to watch together in better times. Shutter Island. Mulholland Drive. The Fly. Many moons ago we would snuggle up together on this very sofa and watch the precious images appear in front of our eyes. Rheya would rest her head on my shoulder as I tenderly wrapped my arm around her. The sensation of her warm breath on my neck made the pace of my beating heart increase exponentially. I’m not sure what show is running on the TV screen; they all pretty much seem to blur into one these days. But then the colour bleeds away and the images morph into static. It’s not long before I am faced with televised memories of our time together. The two of us dancing together at my cousin’s wedding; the two of us playing music together, with me on guitar and her on piano; the two of us lying side by side in the park near my house. This last scenario plays out longer than the others, as we stare into the night sky, where the stars chased each other around to recount for us the story of the world. At some point, we turn to face each other and I gaze into her azure blue eyes. Do you love me? It feels weird hearing her angelic voice again. You know I do? Say it out loud…please. I lick my lips and take a deep breath. I love you. I love you so so much. All I can see now is her face; her ebony curls which tumble down towards the ground; her smile which could illuminate the darkest caverns on Earth. But then she slowly emits a piercing screech as the flesh melts from her bones, revealing a macabre and deformed collection of osseous tissue and sinew. My eyes clamp shut and I bury my head under the blanket, trying to protect myself from this ghastly creature that invaded my memory. After what felt like an eternity, the screech dies down in volume and resembles a faint crackling sound. I lift my head up from behind cover and slowly open my eyes. The TV screen is bathed in static once more. I let out a sigh of relief and I rub my eyes. My hands feel like they are laced with sandpaper. I decide that I need to splash some cold water on my face, so I peel myself off of the sofa and head for the bathroom at the foot of the stairs. The blue light pierces my eyes more strongly when I pull the bathroom chain. I get that nagging sensation, that clawing in my guts. Nothing in this house feels right. Then again, things haven’t felt right for a good long while now. I head to the sink and gaze into the mirror, horrified by the image which greets me. My eyes are red and raw, which huge bags forming underneath. My beard has become scraggly as my hair has become dry and brittle. My skin is red and is flaking right before me. I look and feel like a corpse. I turn the cold tap and I can hear the water beginning to fall into the basin. I cup the cool liquid into my hands and splash it over my face, in an attempt to clear my head. I feel no change. And as I look in the mirror, I’m surprised to see that my face has become grimier since splashing my face. At a quicker pace I rub more water onto my skin, but the dirt keeps on accumulating. As I take another handful of water, I gaze down and see this crimson substance coating my hands. I begin to tremble; what on Earth can this be? I dab a little of this substance on my little finger on my tongue, and my brain senses that familiar metallic taste. Panic fills my body like a raging inferno. I feel so pathetic! I can hear the faint sound of Rheya’s voice in the bedroom. I climb the stairs, treading softly to prevent the emergence of the inevitable creeks. As a slowly walk across the landing strewn with broken plaster and glass, I hear raised voices behind the foreboding bedroom door. I used to love this place, with its blossoming trees and radiant sun. It used to give me a sense of freedom and tranquillity. But now the trees are barren and dead; the sun has been extinguished by the rain and the black clouds; this house is now my prison, and both you and nature have become my keepers. I just want to scream until my lungs burst! Listen to yourself Rheya. You sound grotesque. You’re always cold and aloof with me. You used to be so affectionate, and now you can’t even spell love let alone know what it means. You say I’m grotesque? Well look into my eyes; THIS IS WHAT YOU MADE ME! The voices mutate into a cacophony of shattering glass and piercing screams. Shivering with terror, I reach for the door handle and slowly open the door to find…nothing. The voices have disappeared as suddenly as they appeared. The bedroom hasn’t changed one bit since the day I last set foot in it, whenever that day was. The contours where Rheya and I used to sleep are still visible in the sickly yellow bedsheets, which I’m sure were white many moons ago. Dirt coats the pictures that adorn the bedside tables. There are more books which have turned to dust and more clothes which have provided a feast for many moths in the past. The bathroom is boarded shut; I have no intention of going back in there. I walk towards the back window and gaze out towards the back fields. The bare trees sway back and forth, like ghoulish fingers luring one to their doom. The fog is so thick that one could cut through it with a knife, and the snow perpetually falls like frozen tears. I swear that I can see a pale glow somewhere in the horizon, but it could be my mind playing tricks on me yet again. After a while, I leave this room and head back downstairs. I take a seat on the sofa where I spend my days and my head falls into my hands. I squeeze my temples with my palms, as if I’m trying to exorcise some demon hidden within. Soon enough, I feel this cold hand upon me, its fingers tenderly stroking my hair. My hands fall to my sides and I turn my head. Rheya is sat next to me, looking as beautiful as the day I met her. She is sporting the white dress she wore the day that I met her, and she is soaking wet. Her hair is sodden and her dress sticks to her body, revealing every curve and detail. I give a smile. Hello Rheya. Hello honey. We embrace for the first time in an age; I bury my head into her shoulder and we wrap our arms around each other, afraid of letting go. Rheya, why are you so wet? As I ask this, more repressed memories return to me. It is a beautiful day as I return home from work. I enter the hallway and softly close the front door. The house feels fresh and everything is immaculate. Rheya, I’m home! She doesn’t respond. Rheya? Still no response. I deduce that she must be in the bathroom. I slip off my shoes and suit jacket and I head upstairs. The bedroom is neat and tidy, and the bathroom door is closed. Rheya? I go to open the door, but it is locked. Rheya?! She doesn’t give any response, and I can’t open the door. I violently shake the door handle trying to open it, but nothing happens. Eventually, I stop, take a deep breath and I boot the door. The lock shatters and the door flies open. I can see Rheya in the bath. I think it strange that she is wearing her white dress, but then I notice things which fill me with horror. The crimson red hue of the water; the empty bottle of Tramadol on the edge of the bath; the fact that she doesn’t appear to be breathing. No No No No NO!!! I run to the bath and drag her limp body out of the water. Desperately, I attempt a crude form of CPR, trying to breathe new life into her. But nothing works. After an eon of trying to bring her back, I resign myself to failure. On my knees, I stare at her porcelain corpse, particularly at the numerous slashes down her forearms. I cradle Rheya in my arms and a waterfall of tears begins to roll down my cheeks, the salt and guilt burning from the inside out. I’m still crying and convulsing when I come back to the living room. I’m sorry. I’m so…so…sorry. I choke these words out through the tears, whilst Rheya strokes my hair in an attempt to soothe me. There’s so much I’ve wanted to say to her all this time, but now the words crumble in my throat when I try to say anything. I wish I could just wake up. What do you mean? Rheya looks at me with genuine confusion. I mean, this doesn’t feel like life to me. Spending all my days trapped in here locked within my memories, how can this constitute living? She stops stroking my hair and I look towards her. This doesn’t feel like death to me. I thought I would finally be at peace. But I spend my days wandering this sombre place, as the wind howls in pain. I never thought death would consist of this torturous limbo. Maybe le Fanu was on to something. Before I can reply to her, she is illuminated in this pale glow. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath as her features disintegrate in this sea of pure light. Soon enough, she is gone. RHEYA!! I leap up and dart outside. I look up to face the snow and the moon. I can see a shower of stars floating into the sky, crying for freedom and for peace. I stand there for a while, numb to the bitterness of the winter air, and I look towards the garden. I buried Rheya there after she killed herself; I thought she’d be able to sleep in the tranquillity of the Earth in that spot. But, as I head back inside towards the living room, I know what I must do. When dawn breaks, I shall bring the heart-shaped pendant I gave her on the night we first kissed to her grave. I shall lower it into her grave as I parting gift. I shall finally say goodbye and set us both free. But that can wait. For now, I need some rest. So I lie down on my sofa, wrapped in my blanket; I close my eyes, take a deep breath and


 

**RUNNER UP**

Perfect Framing

(by James Hunter)

Few travellers venture into the Clagan glen. Through the year a downpour conceals the landscape and on an occasional clear day, a desolate view is revealed; the soil is faded and grey, the jagged mountains bare.
It is Hell’s garden and amongst its faded bushes is a rotting hole, known by the name Fuil cave. There are no photogenic grottos that travel sites rush to recommend, but the locals know that there is nature there found in only a few places on Earth.
It had been on an especially relentless morning that Anna Park and her fellow students set out to film The Cave of the Unknown, her final university project. The sky slashed and stung at them as they struggled forward, as though intentionally impeding them.
They had spent the night at the village where she had grown up. It had been fourteen years since she had gazed upon its withered inhabitants, who remained as bleak and ravaged as their surroundings. Only their fear of the cave had changed; it had grown even greater.
They had unnerved her cast and crew. Oh it’s just a silly myth. I went there all the time when I was wee. But the truth was what she saw still tormented even the most shrouded corners of her mind.
Her dread intensified as they walked. The paths were distorted in the shape of sinister smiles, as though the land was laughing at them. The scattered trees lunged forward, grasping at their clothes. And yet she trudged forward; her love of art surpassed the power of fear. The film has to be perfect.
Directly behind her, lugging the sound equipment was the bony and timid Louise Muir. Her glasses were covered in raindrops and each of her steps was made with utmost precision. She was as untalented as they come; her work always drew unintended sniggers during screenings. Aware of her own inabilities, she maintained her duty was to assist Anna in producing cinematic jewels.
Next was Scott Sheridan, the actor Anna had found last minute after Brian dropped out. Brian’s sculpted jaw and heavy brow had been her vision of the character, but she was forced to settle for this gangly, awkward eighteen-year-old with a nasal voice.
Face down in the mud beside him was Rebecca Turnbull, who had fallen along with the unwieldy sound equipment. She was becoming slowly engorged into the ground, as though being devoured. Anna wished that she was. That fat bitch had better not have damaged those lights. She stood shaking her head as Scott and Louise helped her up, pondering how this lumbering, inarticulate lump always managed to produce the course’s best work.
At the mouth of the cave, they took a short break. The interior’s darkness mocked them, daring them to penetrate the stark unknown. This unforgiving blackness gave Anna a stabbing doubt, but she had to continue.
Once Rebecca’s breathing was restored to normalcy, they switched on their torches and wandered into the unbroken shadows.
The past and the present became tightly intertwined in Anna’s mind. Despite being through narrow corridors of scraping rock, the route would be simple. She still knew exactly where the cavern was.
“Hey Rebecca, do you think I could do the lighting for a bit too?”
“Sure I don’t see why…”
“No, Louise. Rebecca’s doing lighting.” Rebecca has to do the lighting.
Suddenly she missed a step and it was then that she knew they had arrived. Below the ledge they stood on, there was a vast cavern; she had never seen it in detail but the light would reveal everything.
“Oh my god” Scott exclaimed.
An unbearable stench tore through their senses; the scent of disintegrating gums and festering wounds; an accumulation of the thousand decaying creatures that had made this their home.
Rebecca was ordered down the disjointed steps to set up the lighting. As she did so, Anna began setting up the camera; she needed to record even before the lighting was prepared. It was what her mum had told her. They are always attracted to the light.
“Louise, set up the sound. Scott you stay behind camera, but here…” She rummaged through the bags, finding a large knife for the scene. She studied his skinny, trembling arms, unsure if he would manage. But it was too late.
A blast of orange momentarily blinded them, unveiling the intricacies of the chamber. It was a marvel, with cascading roots streaming from the roof and swirling waves of stone, morphing into a plethora of structures.
Their amazement diminished as the odour heightened. A gentle scurrying came from each corner.
Rebecca’s pasty complexion became an unearthly white as she spotted the creature rushing towards her. Terror coiled tightly round her, leaving her unable to move.
Anna finally saw it with its many legs coordinating towards one goal. She checked to see if she was recording. It felt as though a sea of ice encircled her; a combination of fear and anticipation she had never experienced.
It pounced upon the paralysed Rebecca, wrapping its limbs around her. They were the same size as a human’s. Its pincers impaled her chest and her scream of agony echoed through the cavern. Anna hadn’t realised how truly massive they were, nor that they were capable of killing someone.
The creature had six legs, all covered in sticky and matted fur. Its face was mottled, the skin trembling with black pimples. Green ooze seeped through its pores, dampening Rebecca. But most shocking was the way its entire being simmered; thousands of its children scattering across it, suckling on their mother’s ragged body.
As blood spurted from Rebecca’s neck, Scott fell to his knees and threw up. The monster’s legs began scratching at her, her flesh scattering like bloody confetti. Hints of bone began to surface. It removed its pincers from her neck as smoothly as butter. It moved to her face; they could hear the skull crack.
“Scott, use the knife! Come on hurry!” Anna screamed.
Scott remained; his hands and legs entrenched in vomit. She can’t die. She picked up the knife and ran to Rebecca. But before she could reach her, two creatures crawled down from the ceiling, clutching her at the same time. The knife flew from her hands as they fought over her. Her limbs were torn from their sockets; one of their pincers pierced her stomach; blood spewed from her mouth as she shouted “Help me! Please help!”
But Scott was still being sick and Louise was too busy filming. She had the framing perfect; she knew that Anna would love the shot.


 

The Last Stop

(by Thomas Boyle)

Come home at once, the letter said. We must discuss your future.
I kept it in my breast pocket as I mounted the train carriage, having arrived mere moments before its scheduled departure. I snapped my fingers irritably for the attendants to take my several suitcases, pulling the hat from my head and fanning myself with it. The pink-tinged morning was unseasonably warm. Even the sleeping trees, devoid of leaf or flower for so long, threatened with tiny green buds to burst into bloom of their own volition, bringing on the spring themselves. It did nothing for my headache, or the nervous shakes that were the legacy of my diversions the previous evening. Or, if speaking truthfully, that very morning. I had slept only a few snatches before dawn. After all, if my father was recalling me from my life of leisure in the city to return to the estates for a talk, then I could only imagine I would be departing for a good long while.
I collapsed into a seat in the stuffy interior of the train, trying in vain to recall anything I had done that last night. The train blew its last steaming whistle and the conductor rang his bell, too loud, far too loud, stepping onto the train himself and shutting the carriage doors with a snap. It was no use: I could not recall a thing except my own fatigue. But a smile spread across my lips all the same. I was sure, after all, it had been fun. The best nights were the ones I only remembered if the constable read the events back to me.
I resolved to catch up on my rest for the duration of the long train journey. I would arrive near home at sunset and be speaking to my father by nightfall, so I would need to be full of the same relentless energy he was sure to attack me with. The old fool, grown so worried for the future by the passing of his own age that he whittled it away ever faster with his fretting over it. He would be better served calming his nerves with a quiet drink and then getting a good night’s sleep than flying at me with ridiculous accusations. The city gave way to the fields, and my lip curled as I thought that he was likely to accuse me again of some nonsense with that girl from the village. As though a peasant girl, on our very own land no less, had the right to charge me of anything. Her parents wanted our money, that was all. And yet he had never looked at me the same afterward. As though her ridiculous fancies hadn’t been the beginning and the end of the problem.
As though it had been me who had given her the rope and taught her to tie it.
If he only knew what I had gotten up to in the city, he would weep.
With these thoughts in my mind lost increasingly to the low buzz of conversation in the carriage, I fell gradually asleep. I dreamed of nothing but the revelry I was so sad to depart, and yet found in the eyes of my ephemeral partners some glinting hint of pain, like that of the girl from the village when she had come banging on the doors in the rain.

When I woke, quite some time had evidently passed. The carriage was all but empty, the whistle going as the train made to embark on what must surely be the last leg of its journey: the sky outside was dyed pink, the sun a little red penny lost behind the peaks of the mountains. The forest on either side reached up from still-frozen earth like the hands of the dead, searching for a little warmth in the fading sun.
I shivered. That had been an odd thought, not at all like me. And even less like me in that I found it moving. I did not shiver again, but the chill remained. I almost missed the uncomfortable heat as we took a turn away from the remains of the daylight, and the shadows wrapped me in a cool embrace.
I shook my head, slapping and pinching at my cheeks in order to wake up. To arrive at my father’s tired and nursing a hangover was bad enough, but to arrive half-asleep was a fresher hell yet.
The conductor’s bell rang, and he shut the door, standing there in his uniform, facing away from me.
“You!” I called. “Conductor! What time is it? What time do we make the final stop?”
He was silent, saying nothing. The train started up again, and half-risen I was knocked gently back into my seat as though an invisible hand had pushed me.
Sit, and see, something seemed to tell me.
But as we pulled out from the station, I noticed something strange. The old iron clock by the end of the platform told me it was just gone seven, and the signs, not to mention the features I recognised, told me that this was my stop. Not only that, but the final stop of the train. And yet here I was, still a passenger, the train still moving.
The conductor’s bell rang with a different timbre and we moved through the countryside, bathed in the blood-red of the setting sun as it hung over the mountains. I thought that passing strange, as well, but reasoned that I must simply have moved to see it where it sat behind some peak, no longer hidden but found out by the train’s path.
I did not dwell on what I recalled of the maps, or of how they spoke to the possibility of such a thing.
The bell rang again, and I noticed again a change in quality. It was no longer the town-cryer’s announcement, nor the clerk called to his desk, but more akin to a church bell, tolling off in the distance. Matins, the morning prayers, wedding felicitations, funeral dirges. It rang on and on, each peal sending a shiver down my sweat-soaked back. I fixed my gaze on the conductor’s uniformed back, watching him, waiting for him to announce my stop. The carriage felt stuffy again, unbearably hot, and I began to consider seriously leaping from the window.
It would not open.
The bell tolled once more, louder still, and yet I noticed it only dangled from his hand, unmoving.
Then what had rung?
But no sooner had I embarked upon unraveling the strangeness of the tolling bell than some other sound filled my ears, and filled my heart with concern.
Music. I could hear music.
The sun hung high in the sky now, and yet as bloody red as if it were about to vanish over the horizon and leave me in darkness.
And with what I saw in that crimson light, I begged it to.

First I heard the trumpets, like the angels blowing their horns for judgment day, waking the dead from their graves. I covered my ears and screwed my eyes shut until it subsided, only to be replaced by a higher, reedier sound, like the coming procession of a king.
The train went on, picking up speed as I stared out the windows, transfixed by the scenes of revelry taking place out on the scarlet fields, beneath the red sun that seemed to draw the light out of the sky itself, blackening it like a huge sooty stain, starless and devoid of any life.
In rings they danced, men and women alternately laughing and screaming, bedecked in tattered finery like beggar-kings and -queens, holding hands with great horned devils that led them in the steps, leaping this way and that, pulling at their limbs as though to break the bones.
I am dreaming, I thought, trying to force relief into my heart with a wary smile. I am dreaming, or I am hallucinating. I am on my couch, sleeping off the effects of some witch’s brew. Truly, I may have gone too far this time. For the first time I began to consider that my father might have the right of it.
Perhaps he had the right of a few things.
But it did not fade. I pinched myself, but I did not wake. I slapped at my cheeks, but no more feeling came to them than what I had, and the vision before me did not fade.
The bell rang, and the train began to slow.
“What is this? What is all this?” I screamed, rushing to the conductor, no longer able to bear it. “Where is this train going? Why am I-”
I grabbed his shoulder and shook him, and he fell, lifeless, as though his uniform was empty.
And it was. His neat little hat rolled away across the floor. The bell sat nestled in an empty sleeve, motionless and yet tolling, on and on.
The train whistled and came to a stop, the doors opening. A procession had come to meet me from it, lining the way to an enormous bonfire, all wearing demonic masks and devilish expressions, so that I could not tell who was merely masked and whose face actually bore the scales and fangs of a thing from hell. Perhaps they all did, beneath their masks. They sang and clapped and waved torches high in the air, calling for me to come and begin the feast.
In front of the bonfire stood a single solitary figure, silhouetted and shadowed by the blaze behind her, but I could make out one defining feature.
A rope, swinging about her neck. She was playing with it, like a favourite scarf.
Even from this distance, I could feel her sad eyes on me.
In time with the bell I could hear her, weeping, pounding on the door of my father’s house.
“I’m sorry!” I screamed, tearing at my hair, falling to my knees. Tears tore down my cheeks in bolts of acid like the poison I imbibed daily was being forced out. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know, I swear, I never meant it! I’ll do anything! I’ll make it right! Only send me back, send me back, I am not ready, send me back, send me back!”
The empty-suited conductor reached out and shut the doors, and with a start and a scream I woke, back in my seat, full of contemplation and reflection, but most prominently relief.
I laughed quietly, promising that I would see a doctor first, and quit my life of debauchery second. I had heard of these sorts of visions, and yet this had been my first unpleasurable one. It left enough of a mark for me to consider the wisdom of my father, however. He would be elated, I was sure.

The bell rang, and I walked past the conductor, unable to look at his face for fear of what I might, or might not see, and I stepped out into the refreshing evening air. So cool, and so fine. The spring held no sway here yet.
It had grown dark, cloudy as well, and I could barely see my way but for the lanterns.
Not lanterns.
Torches, one after another, emerging from the shadows, held aloft by pale, corpselike hands, their bodies hidden in some darkness.
“No,” I mouthed, and then found the strength to scream as I spun to run back to the train. “NO!”
The doors of the train closed, but before they did, I saw a single beady black eye spring open in the empty space beneath the conductor’s cap, and heard him speak to me with the hissing of air from an opened tomb. “Enjoy your revels, my lord.”
The cold chilled me to the bone, and as the train sped away beneath the red moon, I dared not turn. Cold, clammy hands caressed my cheeks, and turned me slowly to meet their owner.
Her eyes no longer held that gleam of sadness. They were full of life, of joy, as she lifted the rope from around her neck and placed it over mine, pulling it tight.
“The king of the feast,” she said, placing her dead, worm-eaten lips over mine. “Take my hand, and let us take to the floor.”
And all the demons of hell roared their approval as the dance began.


 

A Realm of Chaos

(by Xavier Weiss)

“… And that is how you derive the position of a particle undergoing simple harmonic motion”

As though to emphasize the point, Mr.Wilson concluded this statement with a dramatic swish of his arm. Unfortunately, the chalk had remained in his hand while doing so and now formed a milky white mist which hovered dangerously close to my face. I peeked my ears and, sure enough, some stifled giggling escaped from the backrows.

I shrugged it off, I kind of like Mr.Wilson’s class, he has all these funny eccentricities. He’s like a magician, always adding a bunch of flair to his masterly tricks, only his tricks are equations.

Sensing that the lesson had finally come to an end, everyone started shuffling, awkwardly, jamming their books into backpacks and making a mad ―but orderly― dash for the door. Before we could do so, however, Mr.Wilson turned once more to the class.

“Before you all go, I have a little announcement to make.”

We all stopped, some reluctantly, and listened.

“Physics as I teach it and as you all learn it is rather… regimented.” Mr.Wilson banged the table as he said this, as though that represented order or something, he continued excitedly, “I do this so that you can all face your exams with the right tools to handle whatever they throw at you. But there is a wider, wilder world of the hypothetical out there for us to enjoy, one that I can only hint at during out lessons. That is why, having consulted with the headmaster, I’m introducing an extracurricular activity where we’ll travel straight to these strange places full of mind-bending theories. Now. Mrs.Williamson is off sick today…”

This last remark was received with an inappropriate amount of excitement. Mr.Wilson steamed on though, surfing on the tide of his glee.

“Mrs.Williamson is off sick today, so you can either go home for your last period, or, you can stay here for the first instalment of man and the multiverse!”

Some hesitated, others not so much. Soon all but a few had funneled out, drawn away by the unexpected allure of unanticipated freedom. Those that remained, like I, had battled it out with curiosity, and lost. Our time was now to be chained to this room. I suppose I might as well see how it unfolds!

Mr.Wilson, in this time, had returned to the board and, without looking to see if anyone had remained, began scratching at it in fine, systematic strokes. With his body turned, I could not discern what it was that he was inscribing, but as we clattered back onto to our seats whatever spell that had held him, broke.

“Thank you all for staying, I shall do my best to make it worth your time. To begin then, let us dispense with time!”

A shock of awe shot through the tiny cluster of students. The last traces of doubt were gladly expelled. This was going to be interesting.

He turned in grandiose style away from the board and as he did so exclaimed,

“Behold, for this before you is a river. But no ordinary river, no, it is the Newtonian river of time. Of common experience. It flows linearly from the past…” He smacked his hand on the board, dragging it along with the current “…through the present, and into the future.” A pause, “Is it real though? Our intuition says aye, but here it is deceiving us. When we assemble all the tools of science, the theories that have again and again stood against all attempts to dethrone them, from quantum mechanics to relativity, to the fundamental forces that govern all interactions, then we are left with a single equation…”

Enthralled by this unusually energetic outburst, unusual even for Mr.Wilson, I might add. We waited patiently, as he glided towards the board once more. While he did so we muddled over what had passed, turning to one another with quizzical looks and excited faces. Slowly, he began to chart this strange equation, with its many curls and symbols. When he reached its end, for it was unusually long, he scrolled in great big letters above it:

The Core Theory

theory

 “Now I know this is rather a bit more complicated than what we usually deal with, but bear with me. This equation simply, or not so simply, describes all of everyday experience. Not quite a grand unification of quantum mechanics, which acts on the tiniest of scales, and relativity, which acts on the largest of scales, but enough to work well on our scale. This demonstrates how our understanding thus far, already allows for a comprehensive description of everyday experience. But notice, there is no variable for time in this equation. Time is just a construct, at a fundamental level there is no distinction between past and future.”

With this statement, Mr.Wilson slumped into his rolling chair and swerved backwards as though to give us space to think about what he had just said.

A world without time? An uneasy feeling crept up my spine at the thought of this. Reeling at it, my mind began to pluck at whatever random knowledge I possessed. Surprisingly, it did snag something… and I said to Mr.Wilson,

“But what about entropy, sir?”
“What indeed! Well to understand this particular question we must first explore what entropy really is.”

“Disorder sir?”

“A bit more specific than that I’m afraid”

He grabbed his coffee cup, made of thick glass, and set it on the table, which shook actively in response. Unfazed by the tables protest, he then took his thermal can and poured hot, steaming coffee into the cup, but stopped halfway. The other half he filled with milk.

“This cup before you, although you might not traditionally think of it that way, is in a state of low entropy. Why? Because out of all possible arrangements of the particles in this cup, only a few fit the description that we see: coffee on the bottom separated from the milk on the top. Now, if I swirl this up…” He grabbed a spoon and whisked the fluids together, “…it becomes a uniform mixture and attains a higher state of entropy. Why? Because there are many ways of switching around the coffee particles and the milk particles that would result in the same macroscopic appearance.”

While we tried to wrap our heads around this, quite out of the blue, he swept up the cup and, with great bravado, gulped down the entirety of its contents; which I imagine were quite hot. Slightly out of breath, he continued,

“If we apply this understanding to the universe itself, we are left with an interesting conclusion. Shortly after the big bang there was hot, dense plasma, which – since in most states it would like to collapse– was a state of low entropy. At the end of the universe, or what we understand to be its end, lies a state of high entropy, where the space between particles is incredibly vast. There is therefore, an arrow of time, a direction from low entropy to high entropy.”

Wait so is there time or is there not? I wondered…

A flash. For a moment we were all blinded, our eyes caught quite off guard. Blurry in its afterglow, Mr.Wilson slowly materialized. In his hands, he held an old Polaroid which whirred as it printed out the picture it had just taken.

“Snapshots. Instantaneous moments, showing a particular state of a particular system. On its own it is complete, all the information about that state is revealed. Time only emerges if we chose to line them up, one after the other. So although there may be a direction, time itself is just an emergent property.”

He gazed at us with the piercing eye of a lighthouse, from one to the other. A pang of fear struck my heart as his words caught up with me, the reality he presented was not in line with the one I wanted. Perhaps something higher still reigned over the physical, but I did not wish to escape there. We made eye contact and, suddenly, his tone changed. I turned away instinctively, but the others seemed unmoved. He resumed, but this time slowly and sullenly,

“A French philosopher, Laplace, once posed a thought experiment. A vast intellect possessing all information. The position, the momentum, of every particle. Such an intellect, such an intellect would have perfect predictive power. In both directions. It is like a computer,  all of reality. Complexity could arise, thought could be, but if such a computer existed, everything could be determined, even consciousness itself…”

If the destruction of time had not uprooted me already, this sent my brain into uproar. I tried to close the floodgates with thoughts of home, of work, of movies, of anything, but it was too late. The train of thought had already departed the station, destined to collide.

 

Deep inside my mind, hidden it is innermost crevices, the microscopic realm, particles interact according to physical laws, physical constraints, physical realities. My every action. My every experience. My every thought. Even this one… the result of natural interactions. Life, like time, a mere construct to satisfy chaos and disorder. Death a mere consequence. All. Completely. Utterly. Predictable and Absolute.

All is Determined.

All is Determined.

All is Determined…

Mr.Wilson still spoke, but faintly, he seemed to recede, further and further away. The world around me turned wispy and strange, my companions turned to swirling blurs, the board sunk into itself, the room tore into shimmering strands…

__

“The system is reporting an error ma’am, section E214”

The superintendent, looked up from her work,

“An error? Well then correct it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Not in a particular rush, seeing as the superintendent was otherwise preoccupied, the assistant turned her gaze upwards. Before her swung the many, many panels that made up this computer. Though they sped at great speeds, they seemed to orbit slowly. Their orbital dance was just right, no accidents occur in the Dyson swarm. Each panel, each member of the swarm, siphoned energy from the host star, till the entire star was encompassed in layers upon layers of panels, all assembled autonomously from the materials in orbit.

This was but one of many similar installations, spread across many stars, in many galaxies, all pouring into an enormous project: a simulation of a smaller but still exceedingly large and complex universe. Perhaps this would answer questions that had always struck humanity. Perhaps it would not.

The assistant turned from the demon and, with a flick of the switch, rebooted section E214.


 

Siamese

(by Maria Sledmere)

Every morning, the sunrise grew stranger; sometimes it was difficult to tell it apart from sunset, the distinction between day and night dissolving altogether. Recently, whole hours had been disappearing, afternoons and mornings lost like cells melting in the bloodstream heat of a vein under pressure. Before getting dressed for school, Maya got up very early and stood at her bedroom window to watch the sunrise. There was something about the queer, flesh-like light, pink clouds streaked with red, which made her skin tingle weirdly. While she watched the colours change, the clouds pull apart as if exposing a wound, she sometimes forgot that she inhabited a body at all.

Often she wondered if she was actually alive; if there wasn’t some other reason for her walking across the cold tile floor at six in the morning, looking over her shoulder, pulling the scratchy woollen socks above her knees, flipping open the lid of her laptop to check her emails. Such a pointless task, the checking of one’s emails, and yet…

There it was again. The email from herself. MAYA. No surname given. At first, she had found one in the depths of her Spam folder, but now it had bounced back to her inbox. She had received one of these emails every day for the past week. It was foolish to open such a message, which she knew could be nothing but some cheap, automatised attempt at tricking her into activating a virus…And yet. The house was still dark, her mother asleep. Only flickers of yellow gold from the sunrise oozed on the floor of the kitchen where Maya sat with her laptop, the shiny varnished floor which seemed to guzzle the light, crave it. It wouldn’t bounce back its heat. Shivering, she opened the email.

***

At school, the people who were and were not her friends called her Mad Maya. Mad Maya, Mad Maya. Leaving her house, she took the familiar route through the ancient copse of fir trees and across the village green, every morning rehearsing the childish chorus, rucksack thumping heavy against her back. Sometimes she heard her classmates’ whispers in the rustlings of the trees, as if the world itself regarded her with equal harshness. Today, the voices were louder than ever. It was impossible to draw sense from that chaos of lashing language. There was a familiar tone beneath the rasping exterior, a familiar tone that jarred unpleasantly with Maya’s attempts to forget the words that swirled up around her in flurry after violent flurry. By the time she had pushed open the school gates, bumped cigarettes off Dodgy John with her lunch money and followed the ring of the school bell, she was physically shaking.

In science class, the teacher was trying to explain how blood gets pumped around the body. The girl sat beside Maya was mindlessly scribbling love hearts all over her jotter. The teacher mouthed the words at them, but no sound seemed to come out; everything had slowed down, as if underwater. Words materialised on the board: atrium, Vena cava, tricuspid, ventricle, pulmonary artery, semilunar, aorta…Lush, intangible, otherworldly words. Every time Maya tried to write them down, her hands shook uncontrollably and the pencil fell from her fingers, clattering conspicuously on the floor. The more she learned about human biology, the more foreign she felt in her own body, as if she were discovering some hideous secret from all those diagrams and lists of words.

If she lifted her book off the desk at the end—which she must have done, because somehow she got out that class with her things—she would have seen the graffiti underneath, a kind of ancient inscription in jagged letters: M A D M A Y A. She did not recognise the handwriting, but it sent a jolt through her. It was possible that she had seen this before.

***

She found herself home early. The house was silent and her mother was still out at work. There was no car in the drive, not a single dish piled in the sink. Sometimes Maya worried that her mother would disappear. How little she ate! Then there were the useless prayers she still eked out before bed, kneeling by the living room window, where on clear winter nights you could see the moon, flooding the carpet with silvery light.

O, wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.

Sometimes, the susurrations and mutters of her mother’s prayers haunted Maya’s dreams. There was a time when she stayed out later and later, wandering the streets, just to avoid them. If only she knew what single guilty thing her pious mother had done in her life; that central act of transgression that seemed to define her, irrevocably, as this fragile, selfless being. Often the act pressed itself so heavily on Maya’s mind, massive and burning like some elaborate tapestry set fire to by Satan, that she could almost unpick its outline and form. But it was possible that she would never discover the truth as to why her father left soon after she was born, why on a daily basis her mother clutched God’s cross so tight around her neck.

She tried to sit down and do her maths homework, focusing slowly on the sums, as if each one were a special code she needed to disentangle, to find the kernel of meaning, the way they did with poems in English, scanning words on a page and picking at them, as if each one was a stitch. The problem was, each time she held a few figures in her head, they were snatched away—it literally seemed as if some force were wrenching the numbers and crushing them into some dark part of her unconscious. Some day in the future, perhaps, she would again encounter those fractions, sets of ones and twos, sixes and sevens, come to divide and splice her mind. The lines and figures appeared shakily on the page. Suddenly, the phone rang.

“H-hello?”

“Yes dear, it’s me!”

“Oh, Gran. Hi.”

“I’m just checking up on you dearie, it’s been so long.”

“Yes.”

“Are you busy just now, fancy a chat?”
“Doing my homework.” It was such an effort to talk at all; the words felt garbled in Maya’s mouth, like hieroglyphs.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll let you get on then, I—”

“It’s fine.”

“You sound sad my child. You go and get yourself a wee biscuit or something. The sugar will help. I hope it’s not too difficult, what you’re doing, I—”

“Bye, Gran.”

Maya clicked off the phone before her grandmother could finish speaking. She did not replace it properly on its hook and the cord dangled obscenely from the wall. With mechanical obedience, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a packet of digestives, holding them in her hand as if they were some foreign food and she did not know what to do with them. Her hands were shaking again. Slowly she took out a biscuit, and tentatively bit it. She could not hold it in her mouth, and she ran to the sink, gagging. Some alien sensation seized her and she knew she could not eat, though something like hunger ached vaguely in her stomach, spreading up to her chest, settling in the centre as some unwelcome glow of pain.

Perhaps it was heartburn. She poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, remembering an old trick of her mother’s to cure it. She lifted the glass to her lips but suddenly stopped. On the surface of the milk was a thin, quivering skin. Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She thought of jellylike scabs, wobbling with pus and blood underneath. The smell was gross yet oddly familiar, primordial somehow, like the smell of a womb. The glass dropped from her hand and shattered on the tiles, the milk bursting everywhere, sour and white, spraying itself on Maya’s clothes and skin, where it clung like some viral, viscous substance.

She slumped to the floor, momentarily paralysed. The sound of the phone off the hook resounded throughout the house, a pulsing, crackling sound that came from somewhere else: please check and try again.

***

As usual, she had met him at lunch, by the neck of the woods where the sycamores draped over the river, the river that wound round the whole village like an elaborate, snaking artery. Every Wednesday and Friday they would skive class together and nobody had ever noticed. He was two years older. They walked into the woods together, not clasping hands until they were shrouded in darkness, and even then, it was not clear how it happened, who made the first move. At this time of year, the mid-afternoon light was very white, shining down in strange beams through the thick canopy of trees. They would find their secret place. Each time it felt new to Maya, though she suspected that the boy hardly cared. If she came here alone, she would never be able to find the place.

Gently, he unravelled her from her school clothes, her hair coming loose in his fingers, her tights scrunched to a ball on the forest floor, crumpled like a shed skin. Her body was lily-white in the cool forest light, her shoulders exposed to the shivers of the trees and the tear-like glimmers that clung to the needles. Each time, he would run his hand automatically up her stomach; he would trace the long scar that ran up her left side. He would trace it slowly, lovingly, as if he were following the seam of a secret. The mark of ruined flesh. They never spoke of it, but each time he would reach down to trace it, to read it like braille, even as they kissed. Once, the sensation had given her delicious shivers, but now it meant nothing at all. Before, it had even been slightly painful, the scar so tender under his touch. Now, she could hardly feel it at all.

“I had a transplant,” she told him, the first time he asked. That was all she knew. She had never bothered to learn more of her own body; the boy had taught her all she wanted to know.

His flesh was pale and silver, a latticework of pulsing, blueish veins, but even as he pulled her over his body, she could not feel him. He was light as air and her body was not her body.

It was as if she were watching herself from afar, a child crouching behind a tree, stricken with terror and curiosity. She felt sick afterwards, and in fact even retched a little. He passed her a cigarette. She could hear the trees whispering again, and this time it sounded as if they were calling her name. Mad Maya, Mad Maya.

***

Possibly it was nightfall, sunset, the house so quiet, her mother asleep. The email lay open on the screen, its contents splayed out and glaring their strange incandescence across Maya’s bedroom. A chorus of acid colours spilled liltingly, tauntingly through the window. The ache had deepened in her chest, so deep it felt like her own veins were strangling her heart. It was difficult to breathe, with the dust of the room and the air that filled her lungs like spider webs mushed to molasses.

There was the collage of her entire life: comically vicious stick-figure drawings from her primary school jotters, school reports, doctor reports, notes to friends, reams and reams of texts, the carefully-typed emails she had sent to the nurse, impassioned diary entries scrawled in that distinct thirteen-year-old hand. Traces of the white powder devoured at weekends, the imprints of the boy’s kisses on her shoulders and neck, captured uncannily, impossibly, as polaroid photos, the bruises glowing through the skin like ghosts. Nothing felt real anymore. Maya hitched the laptop closer on her lap and peered at the pictures. Each one was a palimpsest, layered below streams of lurid red typewritten print: Mad Maya; parasite; murderer; the wrong child; sinner and sinner and sinful and sin. She shivered and gasped. She felt the screen start to shimmer, the pixels elasticating, blurring, the LCD surface beginning to compress and open, like a portal.

For a moment, the power cut off. A reflection appeared in the darkness of the screen: there were two Mayas, conjoined at the waist and the chest, struggling for breath. As the light flickered back on, the bodies flashed negative as if under x-ray, and in that second it was possible to glimpse the single aorta, throbbing like a terrible eel, tangled between the two bodies.

The laptop’s screen had cracked, but it didn’t matter. A silver moon beamed its single slice of light, guillotine thin, upon the glass.

***

How beautiful the world is! In the mirror the girl ran her hands through her hair, she felt the lovely inky glossiness of it, the way her skin was so soft and milky. A finger ran up the length of the scar on the right side of her body; in its crosslinks of knotted collagen she could read a virginal history. She picked up a notebook from the bed and felt its pages skim beneath her fingertips, delicate and full of possibility. A whole life to be written on those lines. The girl found herself at the window, yanking open the glass with fresh young limbs. The night air was cool and ambrosial; the air smelled of wild pines and the coming snow. The heat around her heart started to liquefy, spreading a pleasant warmth through her blood. Yes. On the desk, a phone buzzed with a text: Where are you, why can’t I reach you?