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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4. Lashing Out

“Mummy!”

Harriet opened her eyes, swore, and wrenched the steering-wheel to the left. Her stomach was left behind as the car lurched back into the left lane. For a second, she’d drifted into a stupor and completely forgotten where she was.

“Mummy!” Dylan followed the source of the blaring horn and then turned back, covering his mouth with his hands. He laughed. “You almost hit that red lorry!”

“I know, sweetie.” Harriet blinked angrily, reaching across to the passenger seat to squeeze her son’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

“Stop saying sorry!”

When she’d woken up that morning, her headache had been screaming at her; screaming so damned loudly that the sound swung up in pitch till it was just a whine. She’d looked out at the window, and the sky had been white with sunrise. She’d blinked, and the green lights were gone from her vision. So she’d swallowed three more pills, forced herself out of bed, and run across the landing to get Dylan up, just like she did every morning. She could’ve called Billie, but she wasn’t going to admit defeat just yet. She had two work shifts today and needed to get the hell on with it. Fuck the headache.

Fuck the headache indeed. She’d just almost crashed the car and killed both of them, and as she felt that clawed fuzz digging itself back into her brain, she decided to pull over. She squeezed her eyes shut, pressing her hand to her temple and trying not to weep with the pain. Oh, god; it was unbearable. Those headache tablets should have started working already.

“Mummy,” Dylan said. “It’s okay. You didn’t hit the lorry.”

“I know, darling.”

“You nearly did, but then you didn’t, because I woke you up.”

“Yeah. I know.” Harriet undid her seatbelt and reached over to wrap her arms around Dylan. He squirmed, but she held on.

“It’s alright.” Dylan grinned up at her as she let him go. “I can drive if you like.”

Despite herself, Harriet laughed, not caring that each syllable grated in her throat. “Don’t be a silly billy!”

“I can! I learned all about how to drive.”

“When?”

“When you got me the new game.”

“What, Mario Kart?” Harriet laughed again. “What, you reckon we ought to throw banana skins at the lorries to keep them away?”

“No, of course not!” Dylan giggled, like she was the stupid one. Maybe she was. “Banana skins don’t do anything. You have to use a red shell. Then the other car proper flips.”

Harriet watched Dylan colliding his fists together, then sending one flying upwards in an arch to illustrate the car crash. He made a screeching sound, followed by a booming sound, with his mouth. She leaned back in her chair, burying her head in her hands and trying desperately to push the pain down. It might have half-worked, because at that moment, a pinprick of pain started to burn in her chest and spread outwards. She gritted her teeth, clenching and unclenching her fist around her seatbelt before shoving it back into its buckle. She didn’t feel faint anymore. In fact, the pain in her head wasn’t black- it was white, blinding her and keeping her awake. She was going to be fine.

“Have you got your seatbelt on?” She asked Dylan.

He stared at her. “Yeah.”

“Show me.”

Dylan lifted both his arms, then pointed down to his belt buckle, a sarcastic grin plastered onto his face.

“Okay. Good boy. Come on, let’s go.”

She gripped the steering-wheel and reversed back out into the road, ignoring the headache and the heartburn with all her might.  She started to drive again, more slowly this time, keeping both eyes fixed firmly on the road. Under control. Under control.

“Mummy?”

“Not now, Dylan.”

There was a pause.

“Mummy?”

“Damn it, Dylan, stay quiet!” she shouted without thinking. Dylan was startled into silence and she wiped her nose with one hand, breathing out, the sudden flash of anger vanishing from her head.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said, reaching over to squeeze his hand without taking her eyes off the road.

A pause. Then, “It’s okay.”

Harriet thanked her lucky stars every day that her child wasn’t a little bastard like some of the others she’d come across. She didn’t deserve Dylan, or his forgiveness.

“No, sweetie, honestly. I’m so sorry I shouted at you. I didn’t mean it.”

“O-kay!” Dylan said, giggling. “You said that already! Wow, it’s really late!”

She checked the clock. There were five minutes left till Dylan was supposed to be at school. How much longer was she going to be driving? She looked out of the window- where was she? Oh yeah. Ten minutes left at least. Maybe fifteen. She could make it if she went over the speed limit, but didn’t dare. Not in this state. Not with Dylan in the car. If he was going to be late, he was going to be late.

“Sorry, darling. You’re going to be a bit late.”

“It’s o-kay, mummy! Stop saying you’re sorry!” Dylan giggled. “You say you’re sorry all the time.”

“It’s just an England thing.” Harriet gritted her teeth, loosening her grip on the wheel and consciously lowering her speed a little. The headache was dissipating.

“What’s an England thing?”

“Saying you’re sorry.”

“No, but what’s an England thing?”

“It’s a thing only English people do.” Harriet allowed herself a small smile. “They’re too polite. They say sorry and queue for everything and they talk about their cabbages all the time.”

Dylan giggled. “Why cabbages?”

“I don’t know. English people are weird.”

“But we’re English!”

“I know.”

A huge lightning-bolt of blinding pain tore through Harriet’s head and she gasped, feeling her muscles seizing up and her arms wrenching the wheel to one side. The car lurched into the right lane, into the oncoming traffic, and she flung it back into the left as a car blared its horn at her. She pulled off the road, hot tears running down her cheeks, and panted in agony as the pain faded away.

“Oh god…” she muttered. “Oh my god…”

“You’re okay, mummy,” Dylan told her. “We’re okay.”

“Yes, we are, darling,” Harriet let all her breath out at once. “I’m so, so sorry. Come on; undo your seatbelt. We’ll walk the rest of the way.”

“It’s only around the corner.” Dylan pointed out.

Harriet looked up, noticing the road. “You’re right, darling. You’re right. Come on.”

“I can walk by myself.” Dylan got out of the car and Harriet picked up his bags.

“No, you bloody can’t. You’re five. Hold my hand.”

“You said bloody!”

“I know I did, honey, and you shouldn’t. But there are worse things in life than naughty words.”

“Like what? Like tyrannosaurus rexes?”

“Yeah. Like tyrannosaurus rexes.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Work was hell. That was the only way to describe it. Harriet remembered when she’d been a child; she’d been able to sniffle and croak up her voice and, just like that, convince her mother she was too sick to go to school. Now, though, even being this ill wasn’t a good enough excuse to get a day off work. She needed the money.  It was barely enough as it was- she blamed Mike for that. He’d left them with nothing when he’d buggered off five years ago.

She’d left the car at the side of the road and walked into town, ignoring those neon green weeds clinging to the corners of her vision like they were nothing. The daylight burned her dizziness black and aggravated her migraine, and twice, she had to turn herself around from veering sideways and nearly walking into the road, but she did it. She always did it. She had no other choice.

Harriet worked, as many people whose choices and dignity had collectively abandoned them, in a chippy. The smell of grease was nauseating at the best of times; today, it was debilitating. She forced herself to push the feeling down, down, down. Ignore it. Work through it. And she managed. After all, insomnia and stress had been systematically destroying her body for years; she was used to constant headaches, and hallucinations, and dizziness. This was nothing new at all. When her boss asked her to do an extra three hours, to cover some lazy student’s shift, she said yes and worked through the afternoon too. She was the oldest employee in this shithole, and the best. Kids didn’t know how easy they had it till it started getting harder; never noticed how much they fucking had till it was gone. Harriet hated kids. All of them, except her Dylan. He was different.

* * * * * * * * * *

“What do you mean, he assaulted him?”

Harriet looked down at Dylan, who was swinging his legs violently back and forth from the chair next to her. He was staring furiously down at his lap, but he didn’t look frightened. Or ashamed.

“Mrs Hyde, Dylan, uh… struck another child this afternoon during playtime.” The headmistress said, folding her hands on her desk. She was a stoic woman, an anaemic lump of black hair and severe acne whom Harriet had never seen out of her fucking swivel chair. “Didn’t you, Dylan?”

Dylan nodded.

Harriet ruffled Dylan’s hair. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m not angry.”

“Mrs Hyde-”

“It’s Miss Hyde, Mrs Brown,” Harriet said, jerking her gaze up at the headmistress in a sudden flash of frustration. “I’m not angry. I want to know what actually happened first.”

“Well-”

“No. From him.” Harriet forced her voice flat. “Darling, tell me what happened. I won’t get mad, I promise.”

She didn’t know whether she’d get mad. Maybe she would. If her son really had lashed out at someone with no reason, she probably would get mad, but only then. She knew her son a lot damned better than this lazy lump of a woman, and she knew he wasn’t violent. At least, not compulsively.

Dylan looked up at her. “You have to promise.”

His eyes. His big beautiful green eyes. His little face. God, he was adorable, and God, he was melting her like butter. She was pathetic, doting on her son like her pathetic mother had doted on her.

Harriet sighed. “I promise.”

Dylan looked up at the headteacher. “Can I talk now, please, Mrs Brown?”

Mrs Brown pursed her lips, inflating her cheeks and blowing out in frustration. Harriet raised one eyebrow.

“Yes. You- you can talk, Dylan.”

“Good.” Dylan’s voice bounced upwards as he turned back to his mother. “You know Harry?”

Harriet sighed. “Yes, I know Harry.”

Harry was Harriet’s least favourite child. He was the typical boisterous little boy, with an obnoxiously loud voice, ridiculously perfect gelled spikes in his hair, and an obsession with football. He was a right spoilt little brat, as was his mother, with her bleached-blonde hair extensions and lip fillers and overreliance on makeup to sweeten her sour face. Harriet closed her eyes and secretly prayed her son had won the fight.

Dylan opened his mouth and began what Harriet assumed would be a very, very long story.

“Anyway, Harry was playing with the stickle bricks, and he was building a stupid tower, and he wasn’t even getting the colour blocks in the right place, because there were two greens next to each other, and three blues, and it kept falling over but he was holding it up with his hands and he was taking all the bricks at once, even though Mrs Taylor tells us all the time we’re supposed to share.”

Dylan paused. Harriet sighed, rubbing one hand across her forehead. She exchanged a glance with Mrs Brown, trying to hide the stubborn amusement on her face.

“Dylan-”

“And I was playing with the legos, and my house was better than his, but I wasn’t going to tell him that because I’m not a boaster, and also I had better things to do than talk to Harry because Harry’s stupid.”

“Language,” Harriet hissed.

“You said BLOODY, earlier!” Dylan hissed back, way too loudly. Harriet tried to force her expression neutral as Mrs Brown looked at her with disapproval.

“Right. Dylan, tell me why you hit Harry, please,” Harriet said.

“Okay. I said, he was hogging all the stickle bricks, right?”

“Yes, you said that.”

“Anyway, I was sharing my legos with Evelyn, and she told me we should make the house into a castle because it was where we wanted to go to get married. So we put big turrets on it, and a nice door with pretend ivy on it. And then Evelyn said we needed some bushes and she wanted green stickle bricks to do it with.”

“Right.” Harriet reckoned she knew where this was going.

“So she went over and asked, and she asked really nicely, but Harry stood up and told her stickle bricks are for boys and she can’t have any. And then…” Dylan’s voice wobbled. “Then he picked up his big stupid tower and he used it like a lightsabre, and he hit Evelyn over the head with it really hard.”

“Oh, no. That’s not very nice, is it?” Harriet said, half in consolation to Dylan, half in triumph to Mrs Brown.

“And then Evelyn fell over, like smack.” Dylan said. “And she was crying, so I went and asked to see Harry’s tower. And then when he gave it to me, because he thinks we’re friends because he let me see his football cards last week, I hit him in the face with it.”

“Dylan, that’s not…” Harriet tried to suppress a smile. “That’s not a good enough reason to hit someone.”

“He hit Evelyn! Really hard, mummy!” Dylan put his finger in his mouth.

“But you shouldn’t have done the same to him.”

“I only did it really light. It didn’t even hurt.”

“Dylan,” Mrs Brown cut in. “Harry’s in the sick bay crying.”

“He’s pretending. He wasn’t even hurt.”

“Harry’s a little drama queen, for God’s sake,” Harriet said. “Just tell him to put a wet paper towel on it, like you did when Dylan was pushed over and cut his knee to shreds last week. What else are you expecting me to say, Mrs Brown?”

“We needed to tell you that Dylan seems to be having an increasing problem with…” Mrs Brown drummed her fingers, the jabs of noise reminding Harriet of her headache for the first time in hours. “Violent outbursts.”

Harriet spluttered. “Violent outbursts? For God’s sake, he was defending his friend! I’d better walk out that door and see Harry’s parents ready to be laid into about their son clubbing a little girl over the head with a stickle brick tower!”

“This isn’t the first time, Mrs Hyde. This isn’t even the second. I’m sorry, but it’s a recurring problem. Last time-”

“Last time was different.” Last time, Dylan had pushed over an older boy who’d been arguing with him over the existence of aliens. When Harriet had seen the size of the kid, who must’ve been eight or nine at least, she’d been a little impressed. “Last time, he had no excuse.”

This time he has no excuse.”

“Well, not an excuse, per se. No.” Harriet paused and tried to wince with pain without twisting her mouth sideways. “But he had a reason. We can’t teach five-year-olds morals and expect them to understand, Mrs Brown. Cut him some slack. Do the same for Harry’s parents, if you want.”

“Well, uh…” Mrs Brown trailed off. “Harry’s parents aren’t here.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t call them in.”

“Why not?” Harriet repeated, agitated.

The teacher didn’t reply.

“Right. Come on, Dylan. Let’s go home, shall we? I’ve got pizza for tea.” Harriet stood up, trying to ignore the voice in her head that was telling her to stay and listen. She knew Dylan had a problem with violence, and she was worried. It was his intelligence; he was getting cold and brutal because he thought he was better than all the other kids. And it was probably her fault. Because she thought so too.

“Come on, sweetie.” Harriet held out her hand. “Let’s go home.”

“Mrs- Miss Hyde!”

She turned. “Yes?”

“We’ll notify you of any further behavioural issues.”

“Speak English, please. I’m sick.” Harriet winced as the heartburn dug its teeth into her ribs. “Look, I know you guys all want to pretend life’s perfect for the sake of the kids, and that’s fine. But I’m not going to stand by while my kid gets punished for doing the right thing. I know you don’t like to hear it, Mrs Brown, but the truth is that sometimes…” She clenched her fist. “Violence is necessary.”

The teacher said nothing.

“Thank you. Have a nice day, Mrs Brown,” Harriet said, trying to sound courteous as the pain in her head started boiling.

“You too, Mrs Hyde.”

She pushed the door open, leading Dylan with her down the hall. She waited till they were out of earshot of the school before turning to him.

“Dylan, really?”

“Really what?”

“You have to stop hitting people! How many times is that this term already?”

Dylan paused for less than a second. “Three. But he hurt Evelyn.”

“I know.” Evelyn was Dylan’s on-again, off-again best friend, or “girlfriend” as he put it. She was a quiet little wisp of a girl, so polite and well-spoken it was unnerving, who always had a lisp in her voice and a book in her hands. She was the only kid smart enough for Dylan, but she was modest about it. There was absolutely no way the attack on her had been provoked, and Harriet’s blood boiled at the thought of anyone, let alone that great brute of a boy, hitting that sweet little thing hard enough to make her cry.

“Evelyn’s mummy’s going to make sure she’s okay, I promise.”

“Will she be angry?”

“Yes.”

“Are you angry?”

Harriet never lied to her son. “Yes.”

“And did you mean what you said?”

They reached the end of the street, and Harriet decided to risk driving home. It was winter, and the sky was already turning purple as the sun set. The cold air snapped at her cheeks and fingers; her body was numb, but her mind was on edge.

“About what, sweetie?”

“About violence being nessa…” Dylan struggled with the word. “Necessary.”

“Yes.” Harriet gritted her teeth against the pain and gripped her son’s hand tighter. “Yeah, I did.”

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