HORLA FICTION (February 2019)

 

STUCK ON REPEAT  

By Melanie Smith

JACK remembers a time when the light from the corridor outside would creep around the edges of the door. Only slightly. A drip. A drop. A small wash of blue-white that spoke to him of the world outside of his third-floor flat. A place where people traipsed up and down concrete stairs carrying snotty kids and carrier bags of Two-for-Ones from the local Spar.

He remembers a time when the phone didn’t ring –  before he’d even unplugged it and shoved it in the side-board where it threw its high-pitched notes against the worn-white Formica where, to his surprise, it still kept ringing.

He stands in the hallway and watches. Blackened vines crawl through tiny gaps in the doorframe and creep along the walls like serpents. They wrap themselves tightly around the cracks and the crevices and fill everything they can – the keyhole, the letterbox, the place where the light once got in. Jack wonders how long it’s been. In this flat. Behind the door. He looks at the mound of unopened letters on the floor, covered now with leaves and twig.

The phone is ringing. It has rung and rung and he hardly even notices it anymore. Only the occasional thump on the wall from next-door and the ‘Pick the fucking phone up!’ that follows even alerts him to it. He shuffles into the living room and stops. When he looks back he sees the vines are following him, patterning the dusty carpet with their twists and turns.

Slow.

Everything is slow now. Time is playing with him.

Ring… ring. Ring… ring.

His chest thumps. Jack finds himself at the cabinet, reaching in through an open door towards the handset. He can feel the notes buzzing on his skin as he picks it up.

‘Tomorrow,’ says the voice, calm and clear, no hint of delay. It is from another place. ‘Tomorrow, he’ll come.’

Jacks knows it is time.

‘Tear up everything you know,’ says another voice from behind him and he can feel the words on the back of his head, dripping down over his shoulders. ‘Put it in a box. Place the box behind the chair – the red one – stained and frayed, that your father sat in every night for forty-years, stinking of beer and fags and resentment. Put a lid on the box and seal it tight. Then wait. When he knocks say, “I’ve been expecting you,”’ and you’ll feel his smile growing as if it is your own skin stretching, wider and wider, until it breaks.’

It is time.

A smile. A tingle of excitement in the pit of his belly.

In the kitchen he finds a box and empties it onto the black and white vinyl. Then he places it behind the chair as he was told, before lowering himself onto the red fabric. Something rancid wafts up into his nostrils but he breathes it in. He is used to it. The stench that was left by his father, that now belongs to him.

Pick. Pick. Pick.

The seam splits open. He even gets down to the foam underneath. His father never managed that. Ha!

Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

(Cont. next column)

The phone has stopped ringing and there is no thumping. He rolls the foam between his fingers, over and over. An amber glow peeks in from behind the thin, worn curtains. His eyelids flicker back and forth. What? It feels strange and new. He hasn’t slept in – how long? Next to him on the arm of the chair is the TV remote which he flicks. Nothing. A blank screen. He sits and watches. He waits.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll come. Told you he would.

The hum from the kitchen fridge hangs in the background. The TV buzzes and casts shadows around the around the room. Into the box Jack places it all. Everything. All that he can remember. All that he knows. Every last drop. Regurgitates the whole lot until he wonders if the box will be big enough. When he comes tomorrow he will drive a hefty bargain. He seals the box tight and drifts off into sleep.

Three knocks. He feels his heart quicken. He jumps to his feet and stumbles through the vines to the front door.

‘I’ve been expecting you,’ he calls, and pushes his hand through the leaf and wood towards the door handle; he hardly remembers where it is. The branches part and in he walks. Is he a man? A creature? What? A man-creature. The vines twist and twine and wrap around him, as if they are his pets.

His face is long and drawn and when he smiles it reaches up to where his ears should be, to the tiny holes at the side of his head. Papery skin is stretched across them, threaded with small dark veins.

Jack feels his own skin stretching; splitting and cracking just as was foretold. It hurts but he smiles. I knew you would come…

The excitement begins to change; becomes rotten, as if a million maggots are starting to gnaw at it. The man-creature is changing. His face is shifting, his eyes are changing colour. He recognises that shade of green. His insides swim; he can’t breathe. The man-creature’s smile gets deeper and deeper and Jack feels the rupture of the skin on his back. He isn’t smiling now

Vines stretch out from the arms of the man-creature, they feel their way through the air and travel to the floor behind the red chair. His father’s chair. His chair. The box is pulled out and it makes Jack sick as it passes him, as if he can smell and taste every foul thing that is inside.

The thing places its nose close up to the sealed cardboard. Its grin is now bigger than ever. Teeth protrude from behind those thin lips and sink into to the box, tearing into the contents. A long serpentine tongue makes its way into the hole that has been created, tasting the contents of Jack’s life. Eating. Devouring. Savouring its flavours.

Now the vines search for Jack. They are pulling and tugging and dragging him toward the creature and back out to the covered front door.

He knows he has no choice. It shouldn’t be like this. A thousand screams pierce his head, ricochet around his body.

Jack looks up into sharp green eyes. Yes, he recognises that shade. It is the exact same colour as his father.

MELANIE SMITH lives in Wales with her family. She writes fantasy and dark fiction for children, teens and adults, and is the author of The Twist in the Branch. She is currently writing her second novel, a YA horror set in Wales, as well as undertaking an MA in Creative Writing. She has a love of folklore, myth and legend. If she’s not reading or writing dark tales, she is usually watching them.