On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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Another brief visit to the world of a protagonist I come back to from time to time, who I think probably has a book series in him. It’s been five months since we saw him last.
There are many places within the realm of human habitation that are ordinary and functional when inhabited, but which become strange and unsettling in silence and the absence of people. At those times, it’s easier to believe that the line between the mundane and the otherworldly is very much thinner — and closer — than we tend to think.
The air at the docks reeked of diesel, and DNR inhaled it as deeply as he could. He’d heard that the fumes would lower your IQ, and he thought that the fact explained most human behaviour pretty well.
Besides, he could do with a less vivid imagination.
It wasn’t a big place, but it was at least a small town rather than a village. He’d seen a lot of villages. All different in detail, and all the same in character. Places that were havens for their residents, far away from city life and its pressures and annoyances, but also hiding places for those who needed or wanted one. You could usually tell which kind of person somebody was with just a glance.
He reached into his pocket and took out his mobile phone, checking the screen for notifications. There were none, and he wasn’t particularly surprised. The request for help had come the usual way: anonymously, via email to an address that nobody knew about. No spam to deal with. If you knew the address at all, it had been given to you by someone DNR trusted. That was how it worked.
His life’s work wasn’t glamorous, but it at least had the benefit of profound danger. He didn’t care. One of these months it was going to get him killed, and that would be fine, but he wasn’t going to accelerate the schedule. That would be a huge mistake.
The wind was bitterly cold, but it pushed the diesel fumes away to reveal the reek of seaweed, salt water, and maybe something else too. He slid his phone back into his pocket, and his bracelet shone weakly for a moment in the fading light. It was silver, both its colour and material, and engraved on it there was a bright red medical cross and three words.
Do Not Resuscitate.
He heard the sound of a car somewhere behind him, up the hillside that the now-deserted fishing town was built on, but it went by on the only road that led to this place, continuing on to somewhere else.
“Good decision,” he said to himself, and a seagull perched on a jetty post that was caked in the excrement of its own kind glanced toward him for a moment.
DNR knew that twilight would soon arrive, and he also knew that twilight was both a transition and a window. It wasn’t quite time yet, but that didn’t matter; he could wait. He lit a cigarette, and watched the fragile smoke curl into the air for a moment before being snatched away by the breeze. There was a metaphor for something in there, but he didn’t care to dwell on what it might be. His wife would have had something beautiful to say about it. His wife would have, he corrected himself. Maybe he would get the chance to ask her sometime.
Long minutes passed, and still no-one joined him. He didn’t expect anyone. In almost every case, they just left him to do what he did, and perhaps they’d be good enough to say thank you afterwards, from a position of safety. DNR didn’t mind that either.
He looked at his watch, then at the rapidly bruising sky, and nodded to himself before taking a final long drag on the cigarette. It would still burn for a few minutes, but he didn’t need it to. Instead, he reached into his jacket now, and took out the fist-sized chunk of carved, greenish soapstone. It had been fashioned into an idol of singular grotesqueness, showing a creature which was like something from the sort of nightmare that only troubled artists or the outright deranged could ever fear to have.
Though it was less than fifteen centimetres tall, its overall aspect gave a disturbing sense of vast scale.
DNR stared at the thing with weary determination. He noticed that the wind had died down, and that the seabirds for a mile in every direction had fallen silent. That was entirely normal when the stone was exposed to the open air and sky, especially when it was near water. The birds were wise to draw as little attention to themselves as possible.
He began to mutter the old words to himself under his breath, and the wind started up again immediately. A flock of gulls perched on a cliff face at least three miles down the coastline rose panicked into the sky and flew away inland until they vanished from sight. DNR kept speaking the incantation, feeling the familiar coldness and strange heaviness of the idol both increasing from moment to moment.
The tide surged, as if driven by something unseen below, down deep, and waves broke angrily against the weathered blocks of the harbour wall. Finally, after a full minute, they abruptly receded, revealing slime-covered steps leading downwards.
DNR had seen the trick before, years ago, but it never failed to impress. The Old Ones knew their magic. The ocean first puckered and then fell away in one isolated spot just in front of where he stood, leaving a liquid-walled trapdoor that led directly down into the heart of the sea. He felt his ears pop as air rushed into the void, and he placed the idol back into his jacket.
Alright, priest, he thought, taking a last glance at the disappearing light of the sun that was already far below the horizon, it’s time you and I had a chat.
He flicked the smouldering cigarette into the waves, missing the strange void by barely a metre, and then he walked down the steps and disappeared beneath the surface of the waves.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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