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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9. Out of Mind

Number seven was the last house at the end of the street, opposite the church. It was made of yellow stone, crawling with ivy just as the cracked grey garden path was crawling with weeds.

“Are you sure this is the right house?” Leah said, worry filling her voice as she swung herself out of the car. He’d told her everything, if only to explain why he was driving at twice the speed limit and why a crazed bearded bloke had charged past her car wearing nothing but a hospital gown after falling three floors and landing in a bush. Yeah, secrets weren’t going to work. And she hadn’t believed a word of the truth, but she’d wanted to come anyway when he’d told her someone was in danger. Maybe. Harriet might not be in danger anymore.

“Yeah. Number seven. Sure.” George checked the address on the prescription one last time before crumpling it and tossing it into the footwell. He jumped out of the car, slamming the door shut behind him, and tried his best to walk calmly down the path. Suddenly, it hit him that Harriet might really be fine, and in that case, he’d have to knock politely on the door instead of breaking into her house like he thought he was a superhero. Curse his self-consciousness.

George knocked on the door, waiting for a response, his heart throbbing in his throat and aggravating his headache. What if she didn’t reply? What then? If she was dead, like Robert, like Eric, she wasn’t going to answer.

Leah hissed into his ear as she gripped his hand. “George-”

“Ssh.”

Something moved behind the frosted glass of the front door, a pale flash that reached up to the locks. The metal locks rattled, and George sighed with relief. Then, the door was pulled open by a little boy with frizzy black hair. He stared up at them, his face twisting and his eyes widening with a mixture of confusion and worry.

“Hi, sweetie,” Leah said after a couple of seconds of silence. George’s heart was sinking.

“Hello.” The boy said. “Are you here to sell us windows?”

“N-no.” Leah laughed nervously. “No, we-”

“Because mummy doesn’t like it when people come to sell her windows or to talk about God.”

“We’re not here for that,” George said.

“We’re here to speak to your mummy, actually,” Leah said, sweetening her voice. She was so much better with children than he was. “Is your mummy Harriet?”

“Yes.” His expression suddenly cleared. “Oh! Are you here to help mummy?”

“Help her with what, darling?”

“It’s pronounced Dylan.” Dylan said.

“What does mum need help with?” George asked again.

“To get out of the bathroom. I called her, but she won’t come out.”

George’s heart sank down to the ground, and despair bled through his veins.

“How long has she been in there?” Leah said.

“Ages and ages and ages.”

“Okay.” Leah’s expression was suddenly serious. “Can we come in, please? We’re doctors. We need to see if she’s okay.”

See if she’s okay. Like she’s okay. The idea of Harriet’s son seeing what they knew they were going to see when they broke down that bathroom door made his blood churn in his head.

“Yes.” Dylan chewed on his finger, then turned and bounced down the hallway towards the door under the stairs. He pointed.

“There. She went in there and locked the door.”

“Thank you, Dylan.” George said. He turned to Leah. “Look, you need to take him outside.”

Leah widened her eyes. “What?”

“Trust me. You need to take him outside.”

“But I-”

“Damnit, Leah, do it!” George sighed and then lied. “I know how to help her.”

Leah nodded, her face flooding white, and held out her hand for Dylan.

“Come on, sweetie. We need to go outside for a minute, okay?”

“Why?”

“Because George here needs to help your mummy without us getting in the way.”

Dylan nodded. “Okay.”

George caught Leah’s eye as she turned to lead Dylan out of the front door. They could get arrested for this. God-damned arrested.

Swallowing nerves, George turned and knocked on the door, hard. “Harriet? Harriet, can you hear me?”

No answer.

He knocked again. “Harriet!”

Nothing.

Of course.

George swore and readied himself to break the door down. He’d only done it once before, and that had been an accident. He lifted his foot, then kicked the door next to the lock, feeling the BANG shuddering through him and echoing through the air into silence. George closed his eyes and swallowed nerves as Dylan whimpered from outside. Leah said something to him, probably to reassure him. BANG. The door caved in under his foot, and after one last kick the lock burst out of place. George breathed in before pushing the door open and running into the bathroom.

And there she was.

Harriet was in the darkest corner of the room, curled up in a ball under the sink with her back pushed up against the wall and her arms loosely flung around her knees. Her head was slumped down, her hair covering her face and pooling on the ground in greasy lumps. She wasn’t moving.

George didn’t say a word. He just hurried across the room and sank to his knees next to her, trying not to breathe in too much of that sickening, chemical, rotten smell. He couldn’t see her face, but the sleeve of her dressing-gown was pushed back over one white arm, revealing the black veins thickly coating her skin. Nervously, as he picked up her hand to feel for a pulse, he pushed her hair back from her face and tried not to choke on a scream. Her face was all but scribbled out, and black dribbles of liquid were staining her lips and dripping down her chin onto her neck. Her mouth fell open, and then, just as George pressed his fingers into the inside of her wrist and felt her heartbeat going insane, she sighed.

“Oh, Christ.” George breathed out and cupped her chin, lifting her head as her eyes still refused to open. “Harriet. Harriet, can you hear me?”

She moaned again, louder, and cracked one grey eye open a sliver. The moan rasped in her throat, dragged out in a thin thread that soaked through George’s body and set his nerves on edge. “Ah… Ah… Ohhhh… D-Dylan?”

George blinked and shook his head. “N-no. Dylan’s safe. He’s with us. You’re going to have to come-”

“Oh. It’sss… you.” Her voice hardened as she rolled her gaze over his face.

“Yeah. It’s me. Listen, Harriet, you’re going to be okay. Just let-”

“Nah,” she said. “Nah. No, I don’t…” She waved one hand in front of her face, turning it over to examine the veins and wipe the vomit from her face. “I don’t th- think so…”

“You’re going to be okay.”

“That’sss… what you said be- before,” Harriet whispered, pointing at him with one black-soaked finger. “And… you… were… ly… ing… then…ah. Weren’t you?”

He swallowed. “Yeah. I’m so sorry.”

“S’okay. Just look after my, my…” Harriet paused, like she couldn’t remember the right name. “Michael- no. Dylan. Look… after… my Dylan. Thank you for coming… back. But still…”

She paused for a long time, gasping in a sharp breath of air. George tried not to let the frustration show on his face as he felt her heartbeat throbbing faster and faster and faster.

“But still…” Harriet repeated. “Fuck you.”

And then, like the strings had been cut, her pulse froze in its tracks and her head fell back down again. Sharply, like she’d been forced downwards, like there was new weight in her bones, her body slumped to the ground.

“Harriet?” George said. “Ha- Harriet!”

Nothing.

Obviously.

“Oh, god.” Her face was inches from his, and utterly choked in those veins- those veins that’d barely been a smear on her chin when he’d seen her less than two hours ago. What had he done? He’d failed her. “Oh my god. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Harriet, please. Come on, breathe! Dylan needs you, damnit!”

Then, he paused, his breath freezing in his throat. Looking down in despair, his gaze had been fixed on the arm she’d dropped from her face, striped with black, the fingers curled stiffly inwards like the legs of a dead spider. Then, he watched in bewilderment as the black started leaking away. The ridges the veins had created on her skin vanished as they were sucked deeper under her skin, fading into nothing. George looked at her other arm, which was now just waxy white, and then at her face, which would have looked more peaceful now if it wasn’t for the half-wiped-away smears of vomit on her chin. George swallowed a sob, and then a retch as the smell grew more intense.

He sat there for a few minutes, wondering if he should have bothered to try CPR. It wasn’t going to work. It hadn’t worked for Robert- at least, at first. They’d started defibrillating him less than thirty seconds after his heart had stopped, and kept going, perfectly, without stumbling once, for nearly twenty minutes. George had forced them to keep going. And still, it had done nothing. That heart had just fucking refused to start up again. So he knew it wasn’t going to work for Harriet. And he was disgustingly, disgustingly selfish; he was alone with her, and he was too afraid to move.

Harriet opened her eyes.

George gasped and shot backwards, his blood freezing in shock, as white light burst into his vision; Harriet wrenched her hand out of his grip and grabbed his wrist, digging her fingernails in with all her strength. She didn’t say a word, didn’t make a sound, but she was staring, and that was enough. Those eyes- Oh, Christ. Those eyes were white, and they dug into his, their piercing glow electric in the gloomy purple light.

One. Two. Three. Four. George and Harriet stared at each other, his mind refusing to string a thought, her eyes gleaming with white, cold, dead energy. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.

Then it hit him.

George let out a cry of shock, grabbed her wrist to pull her grip away, and then bolted to his feet, rubbing the red welts she’d left on his skin. Her mouth was pressed tight shut and the tendons in her neck were wound taut. Her eyes were white. Her eyes were glowing. Her eyes weren’t human. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from hers- were they eyes? It looked more like her empty eye-sockets were overflowing with glassy light. Those eyes weren’t human.

And her movements, as she straightened her legs and swung to her feet like her body weighed nothing, weren’t human either.

George breathed in, breathed out, and the breaths tore at his throat and scratched in his head. He tried to open his mouth- to say what he didn’t know- but nothing came out.

Harriet was standing up, her arms at her sides, her head lolled at an angle, her hands curled into claws. Stiff, like a mannequin. Stiff, like a corpse. He didn’t know what to do, because he was frozen too.

“L- L…” George managed to croak. “L-L… Leah! LEAH!”

“What?” He heard her yelling, followed by her footsteps tumbling down the stairs. George was still staring at Harriet. She looked up at him through her hair, but that gaze didn’t look like it was finding him. And he knew. And he knew. There was nothing alive behind those eyes.

There was a long pause. Wasn’t Harriet going to… do anything? He knew what’d happened to her, of course. The same thing- whatever the fuck that was- that’d happened to Robert and Eric. But they’d both run. She wasn’t even swaying on her feet.

“What’s going-“

Leah trailed off as George stepped back to meet her at the door. He didn’t dare to turn and look at her, but he was pretty sure he knew what the look on her face would be like. Wide eyes, open mouth.

Leah stuttered. “She…”

“Ssh.”

“George-”

“Shut up!”

Then, Harriet’s stiffness shattered. Within a second, she’d started to sprint towards them with so much speed, so little movement in her limbs, such silence, that she could have been floating. George yelled and shoved Leah behind him on instinct, deflecting Harriet with a light shove to the shoulder which barely did anything at all.

“Harriet!” He yelled, grabbing her by both shoulders and slamming her up against the wall. She stopped moving and stared at him through the dark stripes of vomit and hair plastering her face, her mouth still pressed shut, her eyes still wide and white and flaming. “HARRIET! Can you hear me? TALK to me if you can! Or else- or else…” He trailed off.

No answer. Obviously.

Leah stepped out from behind him and yelled, clamping her hand over her mouth as she caught sight of Harriet’s face. “Her- her- her eyes-”

Harriet thrashed in George’s arms and he let go of her and jumped back, pulling Leah with him. As Harriet ran for him, George lashed out again, harder this time, shoving her in the chest so she stumbled backwards. Then, she stayed in that position, one leg bent behind her, her head down, motionless, for a second. Two.

And then she surged upwards and flung herself at them again. Her arm was outstretched, the fingers stiffly curled like before, and George slapped it away, then grabbed her by the throat. He gagged and loosened his grip as another wave of black vomit bubbled out of Harriet’s mouth and striped her cheek. He let go of her. She ran towards Leah. In a flash of senseless panic, George grabbed her, lifted her off her feet, and tried to throw her to the ground, but she was too heavy and he fell down with her. What are you doing? What are you doing? Are you fucking mad? She was alive, and he was hurting her. Why? Why? Because she wasn’t alive. She was up, and she was moving, but Harriet Hyde was dead and gone. And hysteria had taken George over and beaten his logic to death. Undead. Undead. Inhuman. Stop her. Don’t let her come near you.

George blinked, and Harriet was on her feet again, sprinting out of the door and around the corner out of sight. His thoughts flashed towards Dylan. Whiplash snapped at his neck as he ran after her, seeing Leah backed up against the wall in the kitchen. “No,” he murmured. Where was Dylan? It didn’t matter now. He had to save Leah. From what? From Harriet. No logic. Just instincts. Fuck science.

HEY!” He screamed, cursing himself. “Get the HELL away from her!”

George ran forwards and managed to grab Harriet by the back of her jacket, jerking forwards with another wave of her impossible strength. He gritted his teeth and dragged her towards him, but she flung both arms back to shrug the jacket off and then thrust them back forwards to run towards Leah. “No! DAMN it!” George screamed, tears of exertion and bewilderment running through his blood. “Leah, RUN!”

“I AM running, dip… sh-shit!” Leah panted, pushing Harriet back and jumping behind George. “What the FUCK is going on?”

“I- I- she…” George trailed off. “You know what I said. She- she- she’s not… in there.”

“In what?”

“In her body! She’s- she’s dead!” George panted.

Bullshit!” Leah grabbed Harriet by both wrists and paused for a second, then let her go with a gasp of disgust. “And WHAT the FUCK is that smell?”

“For what?” George shoved Harriet back again and this time, she overbalanced and toppled to the ground. She stuck both arms out to catch herself, and then, as her hands hit the floor, both arms snapped like dry twigs. She lay there for a second, face-down, not moving.

George turned to Leah, his mind so drowned in disbelief it’d cycled back to blind acceptance.

“Where’s Dylan?”

“I took him up to his room.”

“Okay.”

They both turned back to Harriet as she slid both smashed arms under her body and then, somehow, used them to lever herself off the ground. Her face wasn’t even flickering with a whisper of pain; George bit back a retch as he heard the bones crunching.

“What the…” Leah breathed out, pushing her hair behind her ears. “That- that- the fuck?”

“That’s not… not normal.”

“No shit.”

Harriet knelt, then swung back up onto her feet in one impossible movement, like a bad animation. Both arms were twisted at hideous angles and one was hanging loose and too long, dislocated. Nonetheless, she flung both out sideways with ease. She looked at her right, and the buckled joint snapped straight and the dislocated shoulder shoved itself back into place. She looked at her left, and the same thing happened. Crack. Snap.

“What the f-FUCK?” Leah yelled, clamping her hand over her mouth. She still had the other hand on his shoulder.

“Like I know.” George was choking on his breaths, but he was calm. Too calm. It’d hit him in a minute. He had a minute. And he knew something was disgustingly, despicably wrong with what was happening in front of him. And he wanted it to stop. Now.

So he ran forwards and punched Harriet across the face, then grunted with exertion and shoved her over.

She fell backwards, and her head struck the kitchen sink with a little too much force to be healthy.

And then her skull blew apart like a water-balloon.

“Oh my GOD!” Leah screamed as clots of black and grey exploded outwards, covering the sink and the floor and George’s face and shirt. Harriet’s skull had buckled like an eggshell; caved in on itself and fallen to pieces like the bone itself was rotten. And her yolk was dripping out over her cheeks, black for blood and grey for… for…

“Is that her brain?” George muttered, his thoughts filling up with cold water as silence flooded the kitchen. The remaining half of Harriet’s head was empty. And all that’d fallen out was this liquid mess. Her brain was porridge.

She wasn’t going to be getting up from that.

Leah covered her face and whimpered through her fingers, clamping her hand tighter over her mouth to stifle the sound. “Oh-oh-oh my god!”

George was frozen. That rotten, curdled, chemical smell was filling his nose and his head, leaking into every pore of his flesh, making him so dizzy he could barely think. He choked and swallowed hard, trying to suppress the urge to vomit as he felt himself wiping his filthy hands on his filthy jeans.

Leah sobbed loudly and grabbed his arm, forcing him to step backwards. Away from the black-soaked grey-spotted rag doll that’d used to be Harriet Hyde. She was slumped against the kitchen cupboard, not quite on her feet, not quite on the floor, most of her head in the sink.

“What…” Leah choked out. “What- what- what have you done?”

“She wasn’t in there, Lee!”

“What do you MEAN, she wasn’t in there?”

“Explain to me what we just saw.”

“Wh- what?”

Explain it to me!” George said. “You can’t. She was g-g-gone. Her body was there but her mind wasn’t. Literally! Lee, look at her brain!”

Leah gagged, and her voice was thick as she swallowed tears and spoke again. “I am. I am.”

“This… this disease…” George said. “It’s not a disease. At all. It kills you, rots your brain, brings you back. Some- somehow! I don’t know how. And to be honest, I don’t care. She was long dead, Lee. And I wasn’t going to let her touch you.”

Leah just sobbed harder and buried her head in his shirt.

“No… don’t-” George struggled. Don’t touch me. Don’t.”

She looked up. “Why?”

“I’m covered in…”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because…” George swallowed and then turned to push Leah away from him. “You need to go and get Dylan.”

“What?” Leah looked up, then gripped his shoulder and screamed. “GEORGE!”

George snapped his head around and gasped as Harriet lunged for them again. Her head was gone. Her brain was gone. But she was still fucking moving. George yelled out and kicked her, hard, struggling to work out which facial feature had originally been where, noticing the electric glow of one white eye still breaking through the mess. He kicked her again, harder, snapping her leg at the knee before it cracked back into place like nothing was wrong at all.

“What- what-” Leah was saying between pants. “What- WHAT?”

“Told you!” George said.

“Let her- let her go!” Leah sobbed. “Let- let her go!”

“Let her GO?”

“Let her run! That’s what the others did. Just let- let-”

“Lee, we CAN’T!” God, that smell was killing him, drowning him, punching him bloody. He knocked Harriet back against the wall. She wasn’t a zombie. She was faster. Stronger. She could repair herself. And she was still going without a fucking head. “We have to- we have to… DEAL with it! Now!”

“Deal with it.”

STOP it!” George’s eyes flashed towards the knife rack in the corner of the kitchen counter and he snatched one up, knocking the rack over and spilling cutlery onto the floor with a clatter. He held the knife in his hand, and weighed it, and that- that was when it hit him.

Too late to turn back now.

George grabbed Harriet by one arm, swallowed every ounce of emotion he was feeling, and then drove the knife into her chest. She went limp instantly, and he fell down with her- they fell into the mess of knives and he cut his knees into bloody stinging ribbons. He barely noticed the pain.

Harriet’s dead weight was covering him in curdled muck as her chest started leaking black onto her shirt. The blood didn’t pump out. It just fell out. No heart to keep it moving. George let go of her and let her fall, face-down, onto the bloody kitchen tiles.

“Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck. Fuck no.” Leah held her hands up and stepped back, throwing a gaze up the stairs and then digging her phone out of her pocket. “Okay. Okay. Okay. FUCK! We need to call someone. Now.”

George didn’t object.

Leah dialled a number into her phone and then held it to her ear. Her words blurred together in his ears. “Hello. No. Yes. No. We’re being attacked. YES, now! Please help us. No. Yes. It doesn’t matter! Number seven. Nabdale. Opposite the church. Now. Now. Now, please! Fuck you. Thank you.” She hung up.

There was silence in the kitchen.

Then, a flurry of footsteps scatted across the landing. George’s heart froze. Leah jerked her head up the stairs, her eyes wide and the phone still in her hand.

STAY upstairs!” She screamed, pointing.

Dylan’s voice was high and frightened. “But-”

“Stay there! Do NOT move!” She said.

“But I-”

Leah bit her lip and shook. “STAY!”

George looked down at Harriet, who was covering the tiles with black. He jumped up and stepped back, trying to stay away from Leah as she reached over to grab him.

“Don’t touch me.”

Leah recoiled her grip. “What?”

“Do- ah! Do not touch me.”

George choked again on a sudden flash of raw pain. This black blood, this stuff on his arms, his hands, his chest, his face… it was burning him. He wanted to scratch the itch, but he was afraid to touch it any more. He wanted to wash himself off- he’d never felt so disgustingly filthy in his life- but unfortunately, the sink was full of pieces of Harriet Hyde’s head.

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