Let's Just Call Them Monsters

They’re all human to begin with, but when does their humanity run out? Do they stop being human when their hearts stop beating, or when their minds stop thinking? Is it when their eyes turn white, or when their blood turns black, or when their brains rot in their skulls? He’s asked himself this question countless times, and he still doesn’t know the answer.
All he knows is that he sacrificed his own humanity to get here, and he’s not going to let theirs get in his way.

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9. Dying Hope

The door of the house opposite George’s was expertly buried by unruly hedges and overhanging willow trees, almost as if the woman who lived there was trying to keep people out. Weeds and grass from the field pressed themselves against the garden and coiled through holes in the fence, mangled into a matted sheet of green and brown by years of neglect. The house itself seemed to be somehow tangled up with the trees, practically camouflaged against the forest, beige bricks and grey paving slabs barely visible behind layers of dead and dying ivy.

It was strange; George had been living opposite this woman’s house for over six years, and he’d hardly ever seen her. In fact, in all honesty, this was the first time he’d really bothered to look at her house properly.

George almost tripped over a stray rope of ivy as he stumbled onto the front step, but before he could knock on the door, it cracked open and someone’s face appeared. At first, George didn’t recognise the woman he’d seen at the gate two days ago; in the dismal light, her face was sallow and her sceptical squint pushed out the dark circles under her eyes. Before, she’d looked tired, but now she looked downright sick.

“What? What do you want?”

Her huge green eyes were so deeply shadowed that they were nearly black, and their unwelcoming stare made him feel more redundant than the weeds growing out of the path. George fumbled awkwardly with his speech, digging desperately around in the swamp of confusion for the right words.

“Um... hi. I’m George. From across the street. I-”

“I know who you are.” She rubbed her eyes. “I caught you mucking around in my field the other day. Now, returning to my original question: what do you want? What are you doing here?”

“Well, I came to... to ask you-”

She pushed the door open a fraction more, tilting her head further sideways. “You here to rob me? You seem to have no problem trespassing on private property.”

“N-No. Of course not. I-I’d never dream of it.”

“I don’t have any good stuff for you to steal, you know. Our TV was made before the Dark Ages.”

He frowned before shaking his head. “Yeah, okay. Sure. I wanted to ask you something about...the red lights in the sky.”

Her mouth twitched and her eyes narrowed even further, the whites all but disappearing.

“Right. I’m sorry, but I’m busy. Come back... don’t- don’t come back. Ever. Please.”

She went to shut the door on him. George meant to wedge his foot into the gap to keep it open, but in his panic, he thrust his hand forwards instead. The corner of the door bit sharply into his fingers and he hissed in pain.

Ah!

“Oh, shit!”

The woman pulled the door open properly and leaned, almost desperately, against the handle. She was wearing jeans under a ratty blue dressing-gown, and the rope trailed on the ground with the undone laces of her muddy boots. Light brown hair collapsed in knotted tangles past one shoulder and her chin, nose and cheekbones pressed so sharply against her face they could have broken the skin. The black scowl on her face contrasted with her ashen complexion.

“You bloody idiot. What’s wrong with you? I could’ve taken your fingers off!”

“Sorry. Look—“

“Red lights in the sky, blah blah.” She rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth. “You told me what you want. But I can’t help you.”

“But... you told me you saw the explosion three nights ago.”

At the mention of the explosion, the woman’s expression was wiped completely clean. Her mouth fell open and she averted her eyes from his, shifting the gaze anxiously to one side. Then, she leaned in closer, keeping one hand on the door handle as if she needed to hold herself up.

“The... the explosion?

George looked at her. “Y-Yeah.”

She paused before her brow furrowed again.

“I’ve got no idea what you’re on about.”

“How?” said George. “You were at the gate, and you said-“

“I didn’t see any EXPLOSIONS!” She raised her voice. “Red lights? Yeah, sure. For over a month, actually. But I saw nothing that day. At all. I couldn’t help you even if I wanted to.”

“But- but why?”

“Because I don’t REMEMBER three nights ago, okay?”

She covered her mouth and glanced down, obviously regretting what she’d said. The hand then trailed upwards as she rubbed her eyes and took hold of a lock of hair, agitated. George was taken aback, but his desperation to know more had overruled his sympathy.

“What... what do you mean?”

“Look,” she said, turning sideways to switch on the light in the hallway. “You’d better be serious about an explosion. Are you?”

“Yeah. Dead serious.”

“Because I’m serious about my bloody amnesia. You’d better come in.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“Don’t bother wiping your feet.”

He frowned down at the wooden floorboards, which were smeared with mud and grass. There wasn’t anything in sight to wipe his feet on. Even in the meagre amount of light in her hallway, George could see flakes of beige paint on the ground and the discoloured chips on the walls they’d fallen from. The skirting-boards were scuffed and there was somehow a muddy footprint all the way up by the coat-pegs; shoes in two different sizes were tumbled into a pile next to the door. Children’s toys and books were strewn randomly across the ground on both sides of the hallway, having obviously been shoved away to clear a path.

“You’d better be quiet, and make this quick. My son’s in bed and freaking him out’s the last thing I want. Um, I’m Harriet, by the way.”

“Right. And yeah, sure. I’ll be quick. And... um... I’m George.”

Harriet turned around to give him a withering look. “Yeah. I know. You already said that.”

“Sorry.”

She rolled her eyes as she reached the end of the kitchen and slid open the door to the conservatory. “Come in here. Only soundproof room in the house.”

Once they were both inside, she shut the door with a heavy CLUNK, wincing at the noise and glancing briefly upwards at the ceiling. Luckily, no noise ensued from upstairs.

“So...”

“So,” she interrupted. “Tell me about this explosion.”

“Well, you see... that, um... that’s why I was in your garden.”

“Yep.” Harriet pressed her fingertips to her head and pursed her lips. “Sorry. This headache’s driving me mad. Keep talking.”

“I saw it from my window. Red lights flying across the sky like shooting stars, but they definitely weren’t actually shooting stars. Obviously. I’d never bother you-”

“I know what they look like, uh… George. I’ve seen them.”

“Anyway, I was watching them, and then... one of them kind of separated from the others. It was bigger. And... shinier. It kept falling down and down, and then it crashed behind your house.”

She pushed away several unopened letters to lean further over the table towards him. Her arms were braced against the wooden surface, but even from this distance George could see the tremble in her elbows and the dark veins pressed deeply into her wrists.

“What did it look like?”

“The blast? Well... kind of like a sphere. Orangey-red. It was blindingly bright, like... like fire. And then all the light vanished.”

“What did it sound like?”

George frowned. “Nothing. I didn’t hear anything at all.”

“And then you...”

“And then I went into... I went into the field.” He shook his head, embarrassed. “To see what I could find.”

“Wait, so... this happened in the afternoon?”

“What? No. No, when you caught me, that was, um... the second time. I’m sorry. I went there at night first.”

“So it was... early morning? Maybe, five or sixish?”

“Yeah, why?”

Harriet leaned back again, folding her arms and staring down at the floor. “Well, the last thing I remember happened at five.”

“What do you mean?”

She sighed. “I remember sitting on the sofa, watching TV. I couldn’t sleep, again. I looked at the clock, and it was four forty-five. And then...” She shrugged, raising one eyebrow in resignation. “Nothing else. I don’t remember getting up, or going to bed, or going out... nothing.”

“Wait, so... you didn’t just mean you don’t remember the explosion. You don’t remember anything?

Harriet looked up and took a step closer, her deep-green eyes boring into his and sucking the confidence away.

“There was mud on my clothes.”

He blinked. “You what?”

“The next morning.” She chuckled bitterly. “I must have gone out into the field later that night, because when I woke up, I was covered in mud. But I was in my pyjamas, for fuck’s sake. Why can’t I remember?”

“I- I don’t know. Look- what was the next thing you remember? Was it waking up?”

She sighed again, rolling her eyes. “Yes.”

He expected her to say more, but instead, she looked back down and started to fumble with the strings on her dressing-gown.

“Look, um, Harriet, I- I think I’d better… d’you want me to go?”

“Yeah.” She blew through her fringe in frustration and cleared her throat. “But not yet.”

“Um... why?”

GOD, you sound like a broken record!” she yelled, her voice cracking like a dry cough as it rose in volume. “Why, why, why? You always want to know why! And, you see, the problem with that is that I don’t fucking know why!”

This time, it was George that glanced up to her son’s bedroom. He opened his mouth to say something, but she cut over him again.

I don’t know why there’s red lights in the sky, or why you reckon you saw my field blow up, or why I seem to be struck with bloody amnesia!” The words softened again and wavered; she bit her lip, still refusing to look him in the eye.

“Look, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I’ll go now.”

“No.”

“Um...wh-“

“Because you haven’t heard the best part yet.”

Icy fingers prodded his spine and flooded his head with chills.

“What... what’s the best part?”

“Well, the first thing I remember after three o’clock, of course.”

Her words were serrated, and each one sent a pulse of fear through his mind.

“You’re going to love it. It’s a great story. Nice and creepy.”

Harriet took another step towards George, seeming to stumble and almost lose her balance for no apparent reason, before speaking again. She was so close now that he could feel her breath on his face; it was ice-cold, like winter wind.

“After the red lights. After you, you nosy little shit, saw something CRASH into my garden. And I can only gather, based on this-” She yanked round the sleeve of her dressing-gown to reveal a long smear of mud. “that I was actually out there when it happened.”

“Right.” George stepped gingerly backwards. Harriet wasn’t quite as tall as him, but she was even skinnier, and tall enough to look him solidly in the eye.

“After that, the next thing I remember is waking up. And before you hear it, no, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was real. And do you want to know how...” Her voice started rising in pitch. “You want to know how I know it wasn’t a bad dream, George? Go on, ask me how. You love asking one-word questions, don’t you?”

“Um...”

“Ask me how!

“Okay... how?”

“Because when I woke up, I wasn’t in my bed. When I woke up, after the fucking ghost light apparently smashed up my garden, with me in it, I was no longer in my garden. Or my house.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was in a fucking ALLEYWAY!”

“Right... Well- Do you... sleepwalk?”

FUCKING HELL!”

George flinched, which only succeeded in twisting Harriet’s fear into a resentful smile.

“Do I sleepwalk? Why, yes, I actually do, a little. Do I sleepwalk ALL THE WAY TO WELLS? Like fuck I do!”

“W-Wells? In Somerset?”

“Yeah. Wells in Somerset.”

“That’s where-“

“That’s where I was. When I woke up. Seventy bloody miles from my home, and my son. Memory wiped of the previous night. HOW BLOODY irritating!” She snatched up an envelope from the table with trembling fingers, snapping her arm forwards to hurl it against the wall in a fit of fury. After the envelope fluttered harmlessly to the ground, she suddenly melted back into despondency and sank against the wall.

“And you came home-“

“That day, yeah. I don’t know how the fuck I was calm enough to make it home on the bus without screaming, in my bloody pyjamas, but I guess I was dazed. I was sat next to a bloody idiot who wouldn’t stop asking me questions- like, what the fuck did he think happened? I mean, people do crazy shit when they’re drunk, sure, but I looked like I’d just crawled out of the ground!”

She paused from pacing the floor to bury her head in her hands; then, she whirled round and furrowed her brow at George.

“Of course, coming home to find you fucking around in my garden was a pretty bloody awful welcome home!”

“I- I’m sorry. But you didn’t call the police? I mean...” He lowered his voice. “Have you told anyone besides me?”

Her eyes were edged with silver tears when she turned to face him. “I didn’t want to scare Dylan... Dylan, my little boy. All of this... all of it. I’m hiding it from him.”

“W-What do you mean, all of it?”

Suddenly, Harriet clapped a hand to her mouth and swallowed solidly; a few glimmers of water escaped her eyes as she squeezed them shut.

“Excuse me.”

She slid the door open and hurried back into the kitchen; even though she’d shut herself in, George could hear her throwing up. Each gasp she made was fractured with tears.

When she came back, her cuffs were bundled in her fists and she was licking the remnants of something grey from her lips. Her eyes were red and puffy and leaking.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Harriet coughed, hard, into her fingers before wiping them on her trousers and putting both hands on her hips.

“Yeah. I’m good.”

“You sure? I’m a nurse. Your eyes-”

“Contact lenses,” she said, waving a hand stained with black. “It’s nothing.”

When she blinked, one of the lenses creased on her eye. Noticing him staring at the stuff on her hand, Harriet stuffed it into her pocket.

“Now, please, George. Get the fuck out. All this yelling’s probably woken up my kid.”

“But I didn’t-“

“I don’t give a shit. I’ve told you all my stories; you can’t possibly want any more. Just get out.”

He turned to glance at her before leaving, but she’d collapsed into a chair and rested her head on one hand. Her shoulders were shaking with sobs, but she was still glaring at him through her fingers with a gaze so resentful it froze his blood. Any idiot could have known it was time to leave.

And among a million other things, Harriet’s story had made him realise just how much of an idiot he really was.

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