No nice way of saying that many of us are having a right crap time of it. Here in England the weather has decided to be a bastard and churn out some clear blue skies while the populace goes on lock down.
As for myself, it’s been difficult to write much with my little boy at home (along with everyone else), but I’ve managed to put together a little something.
It was always a plan to write something seasonal along the lines of the Christmas Crow story I wrote a while back, but there are a load of excuses for why it didn’t work out.
However, this story seemed to come together, so over the next month I’ll be posting it in sections to give me time to finish all the edits etc.
The sun was setting in an orange haze beyond the rolling hills of southern England, its light hitting the pregnant belly of the Moon. Under its pellucid light a car wended down narrow country roads, a young woman in the passenger seat staring out the window into the night sky.
Ellie looked at the rabbit – or was it a hare? – and reminded herself that the Moon was waxing. How she knew that she had no idea. Perhaps some sliver of knowledge gleaned from a nature documentary……
Next to her Jon, the driver, started tapping the sat-nav with a finger. “Damn things on the fritz again.”
Ellie didn’t reply, just kept on staring out of the window as she wondered why they had to come out all this way. There were perfectly good parties in town they could have gone to. This was just another one of his random whims.
Jon cursed, meandering across the road.
“Watched where you’re going,” she chastised him.
“Did we pass the turning?” Jon replied, ignoring her.
Ellie pursed her lips in irritation. The sat-nav had been his idea because he thought that her ‘impeccable sense of direction’, as he called it, made her uneasy. It didn’t really because it was something that she had learned to live with. She just knew which way top go, what path or road to take on any given journey and normally she could just turn it off, or ignore it, but just like that she could switch it on as if it were just in sleep mode. No, it didn’t bother her.
What did bother her was having an issue made out of it, and it was something that he was pretty good at. For the most part she loved his enthusiasm, but sometimes he just couldn’t see the harm he was doing out of his good intentions.
And while it irked her, the gift remained indifferent in its slumber, just waiting to be woken. It was as easy as a quick look out the windscreen. “No, it’s coming up, just around this bend, on the left.”
A moment later Jon swung the car into the narrowest lane yet, lined with high hedgerow. He was theorising out loud: “Must be the hills blocking the signal.”
They drove on in silence until Ellie spoke. “You know, we could have just gone to the Warehouse.”
Jon glanced over and shrugged. “Yeah, but this is gonna be way more interesting. Spring time costume party! Who could say no?”
Ellie sighed as she stared out the window. She liked the Warehouse, it was familiar and there’d be friendly faces there. Instead, Jon was dragging them into the middle of nowhere for some secret-not-so-secret Spring Surprise. “Just don’t know why you have to do something different all the time. It’s like some kind of fear of missing out.”
“Hey, the FOMO is real,” Jon quipped. “You never know until you know.”
“But I like the Warehouse,” Ellie continued. “We don’t always have to get out of the comfort zone, you know?”
“Come on Flower – ”
“I told you!” Ellie snapped, “Don’t call me that!”
He shrugged, lapsing into brooding silence. He always called her that when he wanted to annoy her, and then played the victim when she snapped back. Jon just didn’t seem to understand how horrible she found that name. It reminded her of her mother……
“Hey, I think we’re nearly there,” said Jon suddenly. He pointed and over the tops of the trees Ellie could see large, industrial chimneys rising up like fingers into the twilight, their long digits pointing to the Moon.
Still irritated, all Ellie could managed was a caustic mutter: “Great.”
* * *
The twilight was settling into evening as Ellie and Jon followed a couple of other cars up to a pair of rusty old gates. Up ahead the dark bulk of the building loomed amongst the trees and on their left a sign read: Welcome to Three Moons Ice Cream.
“You didn’t say it was in an ice cream factory,” said Ellie.
“I didn’t know,” Jon replied, grinning, as he slowed the car and slotted it into the faded remains of some old office parking spaces. ““Does it matter? It’s abandoned, which means a free licence to tear it up.”
Ellie huffed, willing that she could be anywhere but here. “This better not be boring.”
“Mask?” Jon asked leaning into the rear and rummaging about for a moment before passing her the pale oval of her owl mask. For himself he wore a badger.
“Looks like a skunk,” Ellie remarked.
“Oh, you doth wound me,” Jon retorted. “Keep it up and I’ll spray you.”
“Now there’s an image.”
Ellie opened her door and the night air was a cool wave compared to the heated box of the car. Coming around she followed Jon towards the silhouetted bulk of the factory, then paused in its shadow to take a hit on her vape. She stared up at the crumbling façade where the dirt had washed over the building, along with moss and small plants that sprouted from cracks in the concrete. As the flavour of cappuccino rolled off her tongue, she shrugged and hurried after Jon into the maw of the old building.
Inside they traversed a musty, long corridor where fairy lights hung in loops from nail hammered into the crumbling masonry and illuminated a mixture of street art, crude graffiti cocks and obscene suggestions in perpetuity. A few guests leaned against the walls, phones out as they smoked. One or two glanced up as Jon and Ellie passed by in a gaggle of revellers, all heading toward the inner grotto, gravitating towards the heavy thud of drum and bass.
At the end of the corridor a pair of heavy double doors waited with green paint peeling and lights flashing though their small windows. Jon pushed on through and Ellie followed, wondering why the doors reminded her of an abattoir as a blast of heat and music washed over her.
The room was huge, like a warehouse but all the a-gleam with abandoned steel piping gone mad under a cornucopia of disco lights. On a gantry in pride of place was the sound system as if raised up upon an alter above the churning masses held in the central floor space.
“Awesome!” Jon enthused, and she knew what the word signified; she had lost him then and there to the pumping atmosphere. His hand slipped from hers and she’d no doubt have to rescue him from the dance-floor later. That was his bag, while hers was finding the bar…. because there had to be a bar, right?
As Jon disappeared down the stairs Ellie instinctively drifted along the landing, took a left through a passage to where a dark room beckoned in revellers with more twinkling lights. The bar inside was decked out like some kind of fairy tale woodland.
“Kinda weird,” Ellie muttered, but she had to concede it was pretty neat compared to the blandness of the Warehouse. She sauntered over to the bar and perched on the railing to wait while a man in a crow mask served up beer, wine and spirits out of a variety of ice packed cool boxes. She smoked some cape and soaked up the ambience; the bean bags and odd lighting, the soft eastern music that was as hippy as the curling patchouli incense.
“And what can I get you young lady?”
Ellie turned to the bar tender. He was regarding her with an intensity she found slightly unnerving, and his mask was so life-like she wondered where he had got it. “Beer please, and a shot of rum if you’ve got it?”
“Sure do. Ice?”
“Coming right up,” and he reached under the counter for a glass. The rum was from a bottle she didn’t recognise, but whatever, as long as it wasn’t Captain Morgan’s, right? The barman started talking as he poured, “So, how do you like the place?”
“It’s growing on me,” replied Ellie, reaching for the glass. The bartender dug out a beer from a cool box. The rum was like liquid fire, sweet and smooth. “Wow.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, just something I picked up on my travels. I thought you looked like you might appreciate something a little more refined.”
Ellie put the glass down, examining the man and not knowing what to say; it was a bit too up front. Was he coming on to her? Or was it something else….
“No problem,” said the crow, and poured the beer into a pint glass. It was also not a brand she recognised. He pushed it across the counter.
The crow shrugged. “What do you have?”
Ellie fished in her pocket, quite happy to slap any amount she found on the counter just to get away. She found a £20 and popped it down. The barman stared at it with those strange, dark eyes, then picked it up and examined it against the illumination from fairy lights. Then he slid it back across the counter and waited with crossed arms.
“What? Isn’t that enough?”
The crow cocked its head at her again. “It’s not shiny enough.”
Ellie laughed nervously. “What are you, a real crow?”
“That’s what they call me. Crow.”
“Well, you got the right mask for it.”
The stranger inclined his head. “As do you. The owl is an interesting choice.”
Ellie shrugged. “Is it?”
“Oh yes. Often thought of as a symbol of death, but that is perhaps a misunderstanding,” said the stranger. “The owl is many symbols, depending on who you talk to; ruler of the night, seer of souls, incarnation of intelligence and learning.”
Ellie smiled nervously behind her mask. “Really?”
The crow nodded as he continued, “but I have often considered them to be the guardians of the dead.”
“Wow, creepy,” Ellie said with a nervous chuckle. She wanted to escape, the overly intense regard of this stranger what she and her friend Marie jokingly called the serial killer vibe, but she was strangely drawn to those dark eyes. “Not much of a pick up line.”
The stranger cackled, sending shivers down her spine. Ellie was aware that everything sounded as if it had shifted to the periphery, but she couldn’t take her gaze off those eyes as the crow spoke: “Oh, if only we had time for dalliances, eh? No, time is short and there are whole worlds to be explored. What do you say?”
“W-who are you?” Ellie asked, embarrassed at the quaver in her voice.
The crow shrugged. “An explorer.”
“The expanding realms of existence and experience. I am,” and he bowed, “Angel to some, demon to others.”
Ellie’s eyes narrowed. She’d heard that somewhere before….. but as her mind tried to recall the words she was already being offered the strangers outstretched fists. They were feathered, like his mask, in black.
“Choose, if you will.”
“What is this?” she scoffed, uneasy.
“Like in The Matrix? Please.”
Crow cocked his head. “Ah, a film that separates the real from the unreal, the simulation from reality. Who is to say that the two are indivisible? Have you read much Dick?”
“Sure,” Ellie nodded and gave him a thin smile. “Three Stigmata was my favourite, although Time Out of Joint was great too.”
“Ah, Palmer Eldritch, one of my favourites also,” and he offered his hands again. “Which shall it be?”
“What is it? Acid?”
“Oh, nothing so mundane,” Crow said with a shake of his head, then smiled. “I can assure you, the result will be anything but boring.”
A little voice told her to turn away, to run, to take the car and leave Jon here. She could come and get him in the morning….. but those eyes, so intense, almost reassuring the way there were filled with knowing……
“Come little owl,” said Crow. “Are you not Athena, brave warrior maiden whose vision pierces the obscurity of the night?”
Ellie teetered on the edge, somehow charmed by the danger, by the slight giddiness and fever of the little bubble she found herself in. There was only her and this stranger; everything else in the world was on mute as his words buoyed her up. She could do anything….
“Fuck it,” she said and tapped his left hand. The little voice, if it be reason, could take a ride. She hadn’t wanted to come here, and the primordial part of her that courted danger was thrilled to just throw it all in Jon’s face. He could go fuck himself, and before her the hand turned over to reveal a little purple pill. Ellie shuddered with anticipation, a strange blasé finger-up-to-the-world attitude suffusing the night. She didn’t hesitate to throw it back with the rest of the run.
“Cheers,” she said, and slapped the glass down, but as did so she saw that Crow had disappeared. Instead the bartender, a young man wearing a cheap toy-shop mask was staring at her with grave concern.
“You okay?” he asked.
“S-sure. Did you…..?” but she didn’t bother to finish. She reached out and grabbed the beer, leaving the bartender to serve someone else. Ellie took a long draft and raked over the sudden question of just what the fuck had just happened.
“That was fucking dumb,” she said to herself, the realisation solidifying around her heart. Was her head starting to swim? She could have taken anything, and the bubble of breathlessness in her chest started to swell as the walls closed in. If she rushed to the bathroom perhaps she could puke it up, two fingers down the throat…..
Pushing through the throng the tempo and volume of the music was increasing, pulsing harder to the beat of her heart. Cold sweat broke over her body, and the voices around her were swirling with laughter as the floor seemed to shudder with a giant’s footfalls.
She pressed on until, with a bang, the bathroom door hit the wall and Ellie stumbled towards the white porcelain, intent on ridding herself of whatever madness was coming.
But the room was canting at ninety degrees. She keeled over, the pounding of her heart reverberating through the cold, hard floor like the pounding of distant artillery……
* * *
There was a crunch, a jarring sense of running into a wall and for a moment Ellie thought the lights in the toilet had fused. There was a ringing in her ears, a fuzz around her head that turned like a radio dial to the sound of chaos. She opened her eyes and her brain could not assemble the images, like a muddle of different jigsaw pieces. The physical thump of colossal sound sent a shiver through her body….. and was it raining? But it was more like hail peppering her face. Some had gone in her mouth and that snapped her upright, spitting. Dirt! More grit pattered against her face and she looked around, through the haze, as a series of bright flashes lit up the scene.
She was outside…….
High above the Moon showered her pellucid light down.
A hand grabbed the collar of a jacket she hadn’t been wearing, hauling her up and half choking her as voice shouted over the din, “Snap out of it! Come on!” The hands went up and under her arms, pulling her out of the hole she must have fallen into. With an ooph! her rescuer heaved and together they went free falling into shadow.
A split second and she was pulled to her knees. The man before her wore a flying jacket, his face smudged with soot or dirt, and she knew him.
“Are you okay?” he shouted.
She was bewildered, mumbling. “J – ?”
He didn’t even let her speak, grabbing her once more and pulling her to her feet. Half carrying, half dragging her, they stumbled away into the dark across barren earth.
Bewildered, she managed a look over her shoulder.
“What the…..” Her voice trailed away. Parked at an awkward angle, it’s wheel in a crater, was a biplane like the kind you saw in old movies. its wings and fuselage limned by the light of the Moon, “….. fuck?”
The sight was eclipsed by the flash and concussion of more explosions. The man who was carrying her – the pilot? – was shouting something that she half understood, a name that wasn’t hers, “Come on Aphelia! The ground units are about to fall back!”
“What’s the matter?” he barked. “You bang your head too hard?”
“I think I must have…..” Ellie murmured, taking another look back. Under the silver light she could see the biplane, and behind it a slow moving wave, bubbling and foaming. It surged over the stricken aircraft, engulfed it and kept rolling. Ellie shook her head and half stumbled, snagging Jon – or whoever he was. He cursed and spun her around, dragging her onwards in haste as her brain tried to comprehend the imprint of the image last seen; like a million faces all grinning and laughing, hands and legs whirling in a surging mass of bodies.
They were like thousands of little….
– her brain grasped for a suitable word –
Sudden dizziness assailed her and she knew nothing more for a time…..
End of Part 1
Want to find out what happens next? Then check out Part 2: When The Tide Comes In