Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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5. A Bit Wibbly

Harriet hated admitting defeat. Hated it, hated it. She hated having nothing to do even more. That was why, as she dialled Billie’s number after waking up the next morning, tears of frustration were falling down her cheeks. Then again, she could easily have blamed it on the pain if she’d wanted to.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Billie.”

“Hi! How are you doing?”

“I, uh…” Whenever anyone asked her how she was, she always said she was fine. Always, always. She had to bite back the lie as she told the truth. “I’m not well, actually. Got a… killer headache.”

Harriet’s voice tweaked upwards on the word killer as a dizzying wave of pain cut through her head. She was fighting against herself, trying to decide between feigning strength and exaggerating weakness, but Billie cut her off.

“Oh, you poor soul. Is everything okay?”

“I, uh…” No. No. “Yeah, everything’s fine, thanks. I’ve just got a bit of a migraine. I… was wondering if you’d drop by and take Dylan to school this morning.”

“Of course! It’s on the way anyway.”

“Yeah. Billie, I’m sorry. You know I wouldn’t do this to you unless I had to.”

“I know, I know. Cor, you must be bad- you’ve never asked me to help you out before! Don’t worry. And don’t ever apologise for being ill.”

Harriet forced her mouth into a smile, even though nobody else was around to see it. “Okay.”

“Take care of yourself, won’t you? I’ll be over in about…” Billie’s voice muffled itself as she took the phone away from her ear. “Yes, but you just had it! Poppy, how the hell can you lose a shoe in ten seconds flat? I’m not gonna lie; I’m a little impressed. Sorry, Harriet. Yeah, I’ll be around to get him in twenty mins or so.”

“Thank you so much. Guess I’d better go and try to get him up now. Is, uh…” Harriet bit her lip. “Is everything okay at yours?”

“Yeah.”

“Poppy okay?”

“Oh, um. Yeah. Apparently, she can put on her shoes herself.” Billie laughed, but she sounded tired. “Eric’s not too well, though.”

“Oh.” Harriet let out her breath. “What, sick? Or…”

“No, splitting headache. Same as you.” Billie sighed. “Poor thing. He can barely get out of bed.”

“Oh.”

Harriet’s heart started pounding, because…. No. For no reason at all.

“Okay, you’d better let me go! I need to get the little monster sorted. See you soon!”

“Bye.”

“Bye!”

Billie hung up.

Harriet tried to pull herself up, but gave up and spent a second or two sitting on the sofa, staring down at her lap. Eric was ill too. Eric, who’d been asleep in the garden Sunday night, same as her. What a coincidence. Because that’s all it was; a coincidence. Poor Billie; she had two kids and an ill husband to take care of, and Harriet had just unloaded a fourth annoyance on her. She hated herself for giving in to this stupid illness, but that morning, she’d woken up on the sofa with chills punching her in the stomach and stumbled to throw up in the bathtub, thinking she was standing over the toilet. It’d taken her ten black seconds, then three blinding, blinding white ones, to even remember where she was. What was her name? Why was she soaked with sweat, sludgy moisture plastering her hair to both cheeks, when she felt so freezing, freezing cold? And why was the vomit pulling itself down the drain, diluted by the bathwater as she turned both taps on to full force with tears running down her face, grey? So much pain. So many questions. So much fucking drama. And a child- that’s right, a child- it’d taken her a minute or two to remember she lived with her son and not her husband now- to wake up. She was so confused. Calling Billie had drained the last of the strength from her muscles, but she needed more, so she yanked it from her head and let the focus and the clarity flood from her vision and throw her sideways into oblivion.

You’re weak. Fucking weak.

Harriet pulled herself up the stairs, fumbling her hands along both banisters and squeezing her fingers shut with all her might as they tried their best to spring back open. Her legs were like lead, but her head felt lighter than air- she was pulled upwards and downwards at once till the sensation of her guts ripping themselves in half made sense.

“Dylan!” She called. There was no answer, but that was normal. Normal. Normal, normal, normal. Nor-mal. Normal. Why did that word taste so strange in her mouth? And why the fuck was she twisting her feeble grip around the doorhandle of her own bedroom instead of her son’s? She opened it anyway. The double bed was empty. She felt a flash of panic for no reason- no reason at all, before doubling back and staring at the two remaining doors. Which one was Dylan’s? Why did she feel like she was still in a nightmare? Like she’d open the door, and it’d be the wrong one, so she’d open the right one and her son would be gone?

“Dylan! Dylan!” Her voice flooded with panic without her permission.

“Wh- what?” His voice moaned from the other side of the door on her right.

Harriet breathed out. Why?

“Time… Time to get up, honey!”

She opened the door. There he was, rolled up in his duvet with his little head sticking out of the top and one foot, half-covered by one of her blue fluffy socks, hanging over the edge of the mattress. She tried to resist the temptation to walk over and pick him up and cling him to her chest with all her strength; fall down onto his mattress and never fucking let him go.

“Get up, baby.”

“I’m not a baby!”

“You are to me.” Harriet tried not to growl. “Get up, please.”

“Why do I have to get up?”

“Because I said so, alright?” Harriet tried not to sob with the pain. Why was she being so bloody dramatic? Nice sense of impending doom you’ve got there. What the hell’s wrong with you? She watched as Dylan got out of bed, eyed her wryly for a couple of seconds, and then slowly started to pick his way over to his pile of uniform.

“Get dressed.”

“In what?”

“I don’t care!” Harriet burst out. She did care. She needed him to put on his uniform. But apparently, her mouth wasn’t aware of that.

Dylan looked shocked, but he still grinned. Without breaking eye contact with her, and with that massive smile still plastered on his face, he bent down to reach for his fireman’s costume.

“Your uniform, damnit!”

“You said you didn’t care!” Dylan protested.

“Yeah, but I do.” Harriet said. “I’m sorry. I don’t always say what I mean. Put on your uniform, please.”

“Okay, mummy.”

Harriet walked over to help him, but he turned to stop her, his shirt clutched in his hands.

“I can do it myself.”

“Okay.”

Harriet tried to resist the temptation to gather him into her arms and hug him. Dylan didn’t like hugs anymore, and besides, she felt as though if she tried to touch him, her hands would cleave clean through him and she’d just grasp at empty air till this world vanished into dust. He wasn’t a ghost. No. She was the ghost. She was fading away. Why did she feel like she didn’t belong in her own fucking home? Oh, god; the headache jerked her upwards into black tingling nothingness and she gripped both sides of the door. They were solid. Was she? The floor was tilting further and further sideways.

“I, uh…” Harriet said, watching as Dylan dressed himself. He hadn’t asked her to turn around this morning. “I’m not feeling very well, sweetie.”

Dylan looked at her, his big green eyes full of concern. “Really?”

“No.”

“You don’t look very well.”

Harriet paused, holding her hand up to her head. “Really?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“You’re still pretty, though.” Dylan said with a grin.

Harriet almost laughed. Her son was a fucking liar. “Thank you, darling.”

“Are you okay?”

“I…” She paused and ruffled his hair. He was doing all his buttons up wrong. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine, sweetie. I just feel a bit wibbly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Wibbly?” Harriet said. “Well, it’s a completely real word, for one thing. I didn’t make it up.”

“Yes, you did!” Dylan giggled. God, she loved his laugh, but today it wavered through her like her head was full of water. 

“Wibbly means… you feel strange in your head. Like…”

Harriet felt one of her eyelids starting to twitch closed. That eye was splitting her vision into two, and she realised it was rolling out of focus. Her neck felt like it was about to snap from the weight of her head as it came crashing back down on her shoulders.

“I asked Billie to take you to school this morning.”

“Okay.” Dylan looked up from trying to do up his buttons, his face scrunched in concentration and his tongue poking out of his mouth. “Who’s Billie?”

“You know who Billie is.” Harriet smiled as she knelt down to undo the bungled buttons. “She’s Poppy’s mummy.”

“Oh.” Dylan grinned. “I like Poppy’s mummy. She gave me smarties the last time I went round to stay. Hey, why are you taking off all my buttons?”

“Because they’re not right.” Harriet said, starting to button them up properly. “They’re all…”

She paused, waving her hand in the air. For a second, the blue walls flashed green and she forgot every one of the words she knew.

Dylan watched her.

“Wibbly?” he said.

“Yeah.” Harriet grinned, stretching the pain to breaking point, as she stood up and went over to get Dylan’s school bag. She turned back to face him, and even though his frizzy cloud of hair was sticking out at all angles and a crease from his duvet was ridging his nose and his buttons, even though they were done up right, still looked just that little bit crooked, she didn’t think she’d ever loved him more.

“Yeah.” She agreed. “Wibbly.”

Dylan let her pick him up to kiss him goodbye when Billie knocked on the door, but she faltered, deciding to just settle for the hug, before setting him back down on the floor. Whatever the fuck was wrong with her, she didn’t want to give it to him. She wouldn’t have wished this shit on her worst enemy, let alone her only love.

“Can I have a kiss?” Dylan said to her, putting his finger in his mouth and sulking.

Harriet closed her eyes as she went to open the door. Billie saw her doing it and Harriet did her best to rope herself back into submission as Billie kept staring. Did she look that bad?

“No, darling.”

“Why not?”

“You’re too old, aren’t you?”

Oh, god, she was going to faint. Billie looked at her. I’m fine, she insisted with her eyes. No, you’re not, Billie’s eyes said back. Yeah, fuck it. You’re right. I’m not.

“Yeah, maybe,” Dylan said, grinning.

“Come on, darling.” Billie held out her hand. “Let’s leave mummy in peace, shall we?”

“Don’t call me darling!” Dylan said, giggling as he bounced off down the path ahead of Billie. “Only mummy can call me silly names.”

Harriet allowed herself a tiny smile, then forced it flat as Billie looked at her from the doorway.

“You alright?”

“Yeah.” Harriet gritted her teeth. “Fine. How, uh… how’s Eric?”

“Yeah.” Billie smiled tiredly and rubbed her face. “Surviving.”

“Yeah.”

“Poor soul kept me up all night, whining and complaining. Must’ve downed every last pill in the house. Lucky we only had aspirin and Poppy’s sugar tablets. Then he complained about nightmares, the nerve! He was high as a kite. Course he had nightmares.”

“Daddy isn’t very well!” Poppy, who’d been hanging onto Billie’s hand, piped up.

“No, honey,” Harriet managed. “I’m sure he’ll get better.”

“Daddy’s not well because got taken away by aliens.”

Harriet blinked in shock, her heart skipping a pulse. “I…” She tried to laugh. She failed. “Really?”

“Yes. He stayed outside all night in his chair in the rain and then the green lights made him vanish and brought him back.”

“Poppy” Billie tugged her upwards as she tried to hang off Billie’s arm. “Don’t be silly! I told you Daddy’s going to be fine.”

“Yes. Yes, he will be fine, mummy, but he was vanished away by the green light; I saw.”

“Poppy-”

“What did you see?” Harriet burst out, talking through her fingers with her eyes suddenly wide. “Did you see it happen, Poppy?”

Poppy put one finger in her mouth to suck, suddenly shy. She nodded.

“What did you see?”

Billie gave Harriet a strange look, but Harriet wasn’t looking at her.

“Well,” Billie said after another second of silence, “I think we should-”

“I was downstairs because I left Sunny Bunny in the playroom and mummy wouldn’t find him for me,” Poppy said. “And I looked out of the window and saw Daddy in the garden, and then this green flash came down and made him disappear. Like, poof.” Poppy giggled.

“Disappear?”

“Yeah.”

“And did you see him come back?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” Harriet gripped the side of the doorframe as another stab of agony knocked her sideways. “Oh. Okay.”

“Yeah. He came back in another flash, but this time it came up out of the ground, and left Daddy lying on the floor. And this time I was in my room.”

“How long was he gone for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Poppy!” Harriet ground her teeth, wanting to cry. “You can’t have been awake that long. Was it all night?”

“Yes.”

“All night? This took all night?”

“Yes. And Daddy was dry when he came back inside, even though it was raining all the way until morning.”

Harriet sighed heavily, regretting her slew of questions. “Wow. Okay.”

“Poppy, go and get in the car, please,” Billie said, letting go of her daughter’s hand. “Show Dylan how to get in the car seat. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Poppy scampered off down the path.

Billie watched her go, then turned back to Harriet.

“Bit heavy on the questions, Harriet.”

“I…” Harriet nodded, rubbing her scalp. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, but… I think you need to lie down.”

“Y- yeah. I agree. How, uh…” She didn’t know if she wanted to know the answer. “How’s Eric doing?”

“He’s okay.” Billie smiled. “The aliens weren’t too hard on him.”

“Just gave him a headache.”

“Yeah.”

“Does he still have it?”

Billie licked her lips in worry. “Yeah. Splitting.”

“Me too.”

“Huh.” Billie threw a glance backwards as Dylan got into her car. “Maybe the flu’s going around early.”

Harriet gritted her teeth. “Sure.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Yeah, I know I’ve never done it before,” Harriet said, shoving her head back harder against the arm of the sofa. “Shouldn’t that be all the more reason to bloody believe me?”

This was the second defeated phone call of the day and, if this headache continued to get worse, probably not the last.

“But, Harriet, we need you here,” her boss said. “We’ll pay you extra. I mean, didn’t you say you had a cold? Can’t you just take some pills for it?”

“The flu, Mark, and no, I can’t.” Harriet breathed in. She wasn’t surprised at the disbelief in her boss’ voice; in all her years, she’d never called in sick before. She’d worked with the flu before, she’d worked through Dylan’s parents’ evening and two of his school plays- hell, she’d worked up until three weeks before Dylan was born. She’d always covered shifts, whether it meant more money or not. She was desperate. And desperation and defeatism just didn’t go together.

“Shelley’s sick too, Harriet. And Derek’s got to take his dog to the vet. We need-”

“Yeah, well, you know what, Mark?” Harriet said, anger flashing red through her thoughts. “Tell Shelley that unless she’s so sick she forgets her son’s name and chucks up grey in the bathtub, she’ll have to come prise the sympathy out of my cold, dead hands. And tell Derek he needs to get a fucking life. Him and that bloody dog. Mark, I think I’m about to faint, so I’ll leave you there.”

“You-”

“Threaten to fire me and you’ll lose your best worker and you know it. Goodbye, Mark.” Harriet hung up, then grunted with anger and agony and flung her phone across the room. It struck the wall, but it didn’t shatter. A moment passed, then two, before the breeze she’d let in through the window started freezing the tears on her cheeks. She hadn’t realised she’d been crying. She didn’t know what was worse- the burning, acid pain in her ribcage or the freezing, dizzying ache in her skull. Maybe both were equal. Just as black and white were blurring into grey in her vision, hot and cold were churning together in her body till she could barely think through the numbness. Christ. Green light started lacing itself through that grey canvas, and screaming agony tore through that numbness till she felt like a rag doll leaking its stuffing all over the floor.

Black. Heavy. White. Light. Green. Dizzy.

And then, suddenly, the carpet pressed itself against her face and she realised she was on the floor. She’d fainted.

She lay there, her heart pounding like she’d never heard it pounding before, sounding like it was trying to beat its way out of her chest with a fucking hammer. Did she dare to get up?

Harriet looked at her hands. Her skin was creamy yellow and ragged grey veins were pushing up through her fingers. She let her head loll back and stared up at the ceiling. A white canvas for those green and black flashes. Her vision tilted and painted itself grey. She caught breath and felt it dying in her throat. She wondered if this really was her insomnia, or whether she really believed the thoughts that were running through her head- that this was something to do with those green lights in the sky. If this had been a book, she’d be sure, but it was real life, so she didn’t know. Maybe all this was unrelated, and if she went to the hospital, like she was scared she might have to, she’d find out it was just the flu and everything would be fine. Fine. Fine.

Yeah, everything would be fine.

God, Harriet hated being alone. She loved her son, and she loved her work, and she loved fussing over nothing and agonising over everything, because it kept her occupied, and she couldn’t stand having nothing to do. Harriet was sane, but her mind was still every scrap as mad as it’d always been, and she needed to keep it under control. She’d been through enough, after all, to give a whole cast of characters tragic backstories. She needed to stress over the way Dylan was behaving at school because it gave her a chance to forget that she’d thrown her education away to go to stage school. She needed to be working as much as possible, because that illusion of control let her forget that acting job had fallen on its arse and left her with nothing. And she needed to spend all her time and energy on her son, stressing and stressing that she wasn’t a good enough mother, because he was all the family she had left. She took every opportunity to slag off her piece-of-shit husband, Dylan’s father, for abandoning her. And she did. And he had abandoned her. But the truth was that Michael had only walked out on her five years ago to pick up some milk from the petrol station. He wasn’t stolen from her by another woman; that honour went to the black-clad balaclava-wearing bastard who’d broken the window and buggered up an attempt to rob the cash register with an automatic pistol. Dylan didn’t know. Nobody knew but her, and she knew it wasn’t right to keep the truth from their son, but she wasn’t perfect. Michael had died trying to be a hero. Harriet wasn’t going to let the same happen to her.

There were a lot of things she would have changed about her life if she’d had the chance to go back in time, but letting herself grow hard as nails for the sake of her son wasn’t one of them. This illness had ripped away her ability to stay busy, and it was ruining her composure, and it was the first thing that’d even come close to breaking her. The headache was boiling and freezing and clubbing her to death, bit by bit, bit by bit, and she was curled up on her living-room carpet, weeping, alone. She was fine. She was fine. Everything was fine. Her steel walls were under siege, and if they fell, the world would know she was made of glass. But she was fine. She had to be. She had no other choice.

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