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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11. Silver and Gold

Before he’d passed out on the kitchen floor, George had been going on and on about sleeping downstairs on the sofa. And Leah had been hurt and confused. Obviously. It was normal for a woman who’d been married to a man for three years and dating him for six more before that to take it personally when that man suddenly announced he didn’t want to sleep in the same room as her anymore. And not only that, but for the last two nights, George and Leah had been holding each other even closer than normal, making sure that every time one of them bolted awake with a nightmare about the woman they’d murdered, the other would be there to save them. Leah didn’t know how to feel about Harriet. She didn’t know how to feel about George. She didn’t know how to feel.

All she knew was that when George’s eyes rolled up in his head, mid-half-delirious sentence, and his legs gave out from under him, she had to grab him before his head cracked open on the kitchen sink. So she had. And she knew she couldn’t take him to the hospital. Besides, he didn’t need the hospital. He had her.

He’d been acting strange for the past few days. That was fair enough; after all, he’d killed someone on Wednesday. Accidentally, sure, and there’d been something wrong with that woman, sure, but a knife in the heart was a knife in the fucking heart. For the last week, he’d been avoiding her eyes, dodging her arms, barely putting up with her kisses. She knew now it had been because of Robert, but if that was the case, why the fuck didn’t he want her to help him? Why was he hiding his head in his hands every time she looked at him? Why was he getting up and leaving every time she walked into the room? And why the fuck, god damn it, had this calm unshakeable stoic man she’d married suddenly developed a nervous tick of bundling his hands into the cuffs of his long sleeves? He’d been like this when he first met her; he’d been terrified of her feelings for him, and more terrified still of his feelings for her. It was like he’d decided to try pushing her away again, after all these fucking years. He’d been broken when she’d met him nine years ago, and she’d fixed him. But now, he was trying to rip himself back apart.

The bedroom ceiling was white plaster, grey in the half-arsed pitch-black night, curdled and choppy like waves on the ocean. She hated it, and she kept meaning to replace it, but she’d never gotten around to it. The blinds were open a crack, a thin stripe of watery silver moonlight leaking through onto the windowsill and spilling onto the floor, cutting highlights along one edge of the cabinet and every bottle and bag on it. Leah couldn’t sleep. For the last hour, she’d been lying on her side, one hand tucked under her head and the other on George’s chest, listening to the soft rise and fall of his breathing. He’d woken up since passing out, but he’d been groggy and incomprehensible, whispering random words that didn’t make any sense together. The only one she’d been able to hear had been “Away”. She’d tried to pull one of his sleeves out of his hand, but he’d batted her away, mumbling illegibly into the ground till she’d given up and he’d let her haul him to bed. He’d fallen asleep again, mumbling into his pillow, instead of into the tiles or the sofa. He belonged here; he belonged here with her. She watched him, struggling to drag her eyelids open every time sleep fogged in her head. She wondered if he was having a nightmare. Probably, and it was probably about Harriet. Hers sure as shit had been.

“N-n-no…” George murmured, pulling his hands up to his chest under the duvet. His hands were still fisted into the fabric of his long sleeves; he was soaked with sweat, but he’d refused to take his shirt off.

N-n-please…”

Leah jerked her hand away.

“Ssh, it’s okay,” she said, stroking his hair. He slept so deeply she didn’t reckon he’d wake up. “It’s okay. I’m here.”

“L- Lee. Lee?” George said. “Lee!” Leah jumped as his voice rose to a shout, his eyes shooting open.

There was a moment of silence. She’d frozen, her hand in his hair, as she spotted the tiny black fleck on the corner of his lips.

“George?”

“Lee!” George shoved himself away from her. “N-no. I can’t… No.”

“What the hell’s wrong?”

“I- ah.” George clamped his hand to his head, and Leah felt her heart freezing. He’d been acting spaced-out and dreamy for the past few days, but he always acted spaced-out and dreamy. Didn’t he? “Ah- oh, God. Okay. Okay. Lee, this- this-“

He swayed on his feet, and Leah threw herself out of bed to catch him, but he steadied himself on the windowsill. He clamped his eyes shut, gritting his teeth and crushing his forehead into his palm.

“This-this… It-it’s agony. Oh, god. Oh- OH, god! I don’t- I can’t- no, I don’t want to- to-”

“George! George!” Leah said, grabbing his shoulders and trying to steady him. She held his face up and tried not to weep with disbelief when she saw his teeth were stained grey and his eyes were rimmed with veins. “What- what- what’s wrong?”

“N-noth… Lee, Lee…” He stroked her face with his hand, which was still covered by his sleeve.

“Lee…” he whispered; his voice was slow and rasped, but he didn’t sound reverent. He sounded mechanical. “Lee… I’m going to die.”

“No, no, no, you’re not!” Leah sobbed angrily, forcing him to look at her. “Look at me. What are you talking about?”

“I- I- I…” George was shaking his head, muttering softer and softer as his head dropped down towards his hands. Her heart pounding, Leah grabbed his wrist and pulled it towards her, loosening each finger of his glove in turn before yanking it off and choking on a scream. She peeled his sleeve back; back, from the brown-black curdled flesh on the inside of his wrist, swaying and biting back hot tears as she took in the smell.

“No…” She whispered. “No. No.”

“Yes, Lee.” George sighed and closed his eyes, nearly passing out again, but Leah grabbed him and manoeuvred him down to the bed. She was sobbing, choking on the weight of her own throat, and clinging to him desperately, even though the reality of what was going on hadn’t hit her yet. It was pounding on the walls, sure, but it wouldn’t break through that smell.

“No. Listen to me. Stay the fuck there.” Leah leaned back and reached out to switch the lamp on, her breath catching as she saw George’s skin had eroded under his cheekbone and those black veins were creeping further and further down his face. She sobbed again, then bit back the tears. No. No. Don’t you dare cry. Whatever was happening, she wasn’t the victim. She was the hero now.

“I-I-I…” Leah trailed off, not daring to look down at what was left of George’s wrist. “I don’t… I don’t know what to do!” She laughed deliriously, angrily. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

George said nothing. Then, shoving the words out of his throat so hard they scraped, he said, “Get away.”

She paused. The smell was nauseating.

“N…No.”

“Lee, get away from me. The- the- the blood… The blood. E-Eric’s blood. Ha… Harriet’s blood… L… Listen…”

Leah bit her lip, her voice quailing like a siren in her throat.

George squeezed his eyes shut again, and she could feel his hand going limper in hers, loosening its grip. “I just… I-you-he-she… We… No. No…”

What?” Leah said, grasping at her hair in panicked desperation. “What- what about the blood?”

“It… Did it…” He reached up to touch her face, then thought better of it and lightly brushed her chin with his fingertips. She grabbed for his hand, but he pulled it away. “No. If you… you can’t… you can’t t- touch it. Did it… Did it ever… touch you?”

“What? Did what touch me?”

“The- the blood. The…” He paused, his words slurring, and then jerked his head to the side and choked a burst of black droplets onto the white sheets. He blinked, looked at the mess, and laughed softly. The laugh dragged over his tongue like nails on a blackboard. “The black- black blood. Did it touch you? Did it… Burn you?”

Leah thought, then shook her head, her bottom lip trembling as the sobs jerked through her. “N-No.”

George was relieved by her answer. He smiled, and she tried to see the man she loved in that smile, that face. She tried to smile back, because she knew, deep down, that this was the end. She knew she wanted an image of him to cling to. But it couldn’t be this one, because his face was grey and ash-dry, and the sharp bones of his face and neck were strangled by dark veins, and that smile, when he smiled, was a black glistening grimace. He was still alive, and he was still in there, but he looked like he was already gone. Long gone. She shouldn’t have cared, should have been able to see past the gore and the deathly expression to the man she loved, but she couldn’t. That face wasn’t George’s, so she looked away.

“I- I’m… sorry…” George whispered behind her. He took his hand out of hers, and his voice ground through her head, rasping and half-drowned and horrifying. It wasn’t his voice. His voice was gone. He was gone, and in his place was this dead creature with this face and this voice, and she wanted it gone. Shut up. Please. Please, please, please, shut up. I need to pretend this isn’t happening. Let me. Let me. Let me.

Leah nodded and swallowed, still furiously looking the other way. “Mm-hm.”

“I-I-I’m sorry I didn’t tell… you… before.” George coughed, and that cough was thick and wet in his mouth.

“Don’t be.” Leah felt her mouth screwing up and the tears wringing themselves from her eyelids. “I… I’m glad I didn’t know before.”

Her voice jerked `upwards in pitch at the end, and George had gone quiet. She bit her lip, trying, trying, trying, to turn and look at him.

She sat there for a couple of dazed, hideous seconds, letting her shoulders shake and her mouth peel open and the sobs jerk messily out of her body. She could feel the tears falling down her cheeks, and she thought she knew what’d just happened. She thought so, anyway. George was dead. George was dead; he was dead. Wasn’t he? That was what her memories were telling her, anyway. But she wasn’t going to believe it. No, no, no. She was staring furiously at the opposite wall, and she could feel his weight on the bed next to her, but if she closed her eyes, he could just have been sitting. Or lying, asleep. Yeah, he was just sleeping. Just deeply asleep. Silly old George; he was impossible to wake up, bless him, but when the sunrise turned the grey light gold, he’d wake up. She’d turn, and the black graffiti would be gone from his face, and his eyes would flicker open, and he’d smile that same old dopey smile he always did when he saw her in the morning. He’d whisper her name, and he wouldn’t remember anything for two minutes, and he’d still refuse to eat anything, and he’d still be worried about his work, and she’d have to tell him all about that horrendous nightmare she’d had where he muttered himself awake and spat black onto the sheets and rotted into a monster right in front of her eyes, but it’d be okay, because he’d be fine in real life. And he’d laugh, and hug her, and tell her he was here. That he’d always be here, and he was never going to leave her, and even though their life would never be perfect again, it’d always be worth living as long as they had each other. He was there. He was there. He was never going to leave.

She opened her eyes, expecting to see gold, and all she saw was grey. The lamp threw beige shadows onto the walls and watered down the colours of the room till they were nothing. The sky was still black.

And when she turned her head, the man lying on the bed was grey, his face choked and his mouth overflowing with black. He was meant to be alive, but he was still rotted and dead. And she screamed.

“G… George?” She whispered, once, looking at him but seeing him through a screen. It wasn’t real. “George! George! George- GEORGE!” She listened to her voice shaking and jarring like a broken record. Nothing looked this garishly disgusting, even in the horror films. And especially not a character like George. This wasn’t him. That shredded doll wasn’t the body he’d carried all his life; where was the familiar face? Where was the life in his eyes? Where was he?

GEORGE! GEORGE! GEORGE! No-oh-oh!” Her face was fixed permanently in this ugly screwed-up paper version of itself, like her jaw had locked open and her eyes were falling inwards and the tears were creeping up with a life of their own to drown her. She screamed. And she screamed. And she hadn’t lost her mind, because she could feel her thoughts in her head just as clearly as always.

You’re crying. You’re screaming. He’s dead. You don’t have to believe me just yet, but he is, and right now, you’re crying about it. This is what shock feels like. It feels different when it’s real. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Now you know how all your patients feel.

Look at his face. Look at that disgusting mess that used to be George’s face. You don’t need to try to take it in, because that image is going to stay in your head and haunt you forever and ever and ever whether you like it or not. When it’s taken away, it’ll stay burned in place, but right now, it’s still there. This is happening NOW.

When you look back, you’ll wish you’d been calmer. You’ll wish you’d stayed strong and fallen apart later. You’re a fucking paramedic, aren’t you? You’ll wish you tried CPR, then. You’ll wish you looked away, or ran away, or went for help. You’ll wish. You’ll wish. You could do it all now; feel your muscles. They’re all still there, just like always. You could run if you wanted. You could touch him if you wanted. But you won’t. You’re too busy screaming, and you don’t care about later. You’re not thinking about later. You’re not even thinking about now. You’re thinking about yesterday, and the day before, and three years ago, and nine, and all the days in-between you used to have and will never have again. You’re thinking. You’re thinking. You’re not seeing.

Look up NOW.

Leah looked up, and her vision was blurred by tears. George was like a painting; shades of light grey blobbed onto a canvas of darker grey blocks, stripes of black edging every layer of colourless colour. Each shade was dun and flat and depthless, pressed right up to her eyes and yet far, far away at the same time. Dark. Dingy. A painting. Not real. Not real.

Then, he opened his eyes. Their bloodless white glow electrified the darkness. It made the silence whine in her ears like a concussion.

And that was the moment she knew he was dead.

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