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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2. Telling Tales

England was fucking cold. The north of England was even fucking colder. That was something Harriet had accepted when she’d first moved, but not something she’d fully comprehended before the morning she woke up in her garden.

It’d been raining the previous evening. She knew that because by the time she’d managed to push back all the flashing neon lights that’d been filling her nightmares and throwing her around like a rag doll, she had to peel herself away from a soaked patch of grass in order to sit up straight. Her entire right side, from her face through her hip right down to her leg, was sodden, muddy and clinging to her skin, and the numb chills had soaked themselves so deep into her flesh that she couldn’t feel half her body. God, the nightmare had been ten times worse than usual. It was still scratching the back of her skull, blinking and flashing black and white and green, and her brain was laden heavy with aches. She rubbed her temples and struggled to her feet, swearing under her breath and shrugging off her dressing-gown. It landed in a sodden pile on the grass around her boots, so heavy it thudded.

She was outside. The only thing above her was the sky. The only thing below her was the mud. But at least she was still on her own property.

“Oh my fucking God. Harriet, are you serious?” She murmured to herself. After all, there was nobody else around to say it to her.

Insomnia. Her insomnia was getting worse. Harriet barely ever slept, and she was used by now to spending every day shambling and every night drifting in and out of dreams so wacky they barely even counted as rest. She’d sleepwalked, she decided as she shoved her way into the conservatory of her house, slamming the door, which’d been left open all night, shut behind her. Just sleepwalked.

She was so cold she’d surpassed shivering, and her hands and arms weighed ten tons at her sides. The sky behind the grimy window was lilac, orange at the edges, and the sun was only just starting to rise. Thank fuck for that. She had shit to do, and figuring out why the fuck she’d fallen asleep in the garden, and why the fuck she was aching all over, could wait till later.

She looked down at herself, peeling the mud-plastered half of her t-shirt away from her stomach, as she trudged into the hallway. She stood in front of the mirror, running her gaze up and down herself and trying not to sigh as she took in how bloody awful she looked. She looked like she’d just crawled out of her own grave. Her brown hair was splayed on her shoulders like a growth of weeds, still in the two straggly bunches she’d roped it into last night, frizzy and fuzzy around her ears. Her face, still numb with cold, wasn’t pale- it was grey, as were her lips, and her nose and cheeks were stained pink. Heavy purple bags filled her eye-sockets, making her grey eyes look white, and she was speckled with mud in random places, none of them attractive. She tore her gaze away from the zombie in the mirror, straightened her shirt, and shouted up the stairs.

“Dylan!” She yelled, her sunny, motherly voice catching in her throat and pulling the first syllable far too high. “Time to get up, sweetheart!”

This was how all stories started. The kid’s mother getting them up, followed by their boring day at school. Normally, though, they had a father. Some siblings, too. All Dylan had was her, and all Harriet had was him. She had no life, and her story had ended miserably long ago, so the only one she had to think about was her son’s. He was all she wanted to think about.

Dylan didn’t reply. Of course he didn’t. She sighed and hurried up the stairs, picking a damp strand of hair out of her mouth with mild disgust as she ran and pushing open the door to her son’s bedroom. He was her only love, her life, her everything, this tiny lump under this Star Wars duvet. His black frizzy hair was sticking out, and his green eyes were clamped just a little too tightly shut.

“Stop pretending to sleep,” Harriet teased him, thinking to look round at the clock. Shit. It was quarter past eight. “Dylan, stop pretending.”

“No,” He murmured, pulling the covers up over his head.

Harriet tried not to smile. “Come on, darling. It’s time for school.”

“I don’t n-need to go to school.”

“Oh yeah? Why not?”

“Because I’m smart enough already.”

She laughed. “You’re five, Dylan. You need to learn a ton more stuff before you can function in society.”

Dylan stuck his head out from under the duvet. “What does that mean?”

“It means…” Harriet rubbed her face as a stab of pain echoed through her head. “You’re still a little baby.”

“I’m not a baby!” Dylan giggled.

“You’re five.”

Exactly. I’m five.” Dylan swung his legs out of bed and jumped down. “Five’s not a baby. Five’s nearly a grown-up.”

Harriet walked over to ruffle his hair, trying to resist hugging him. He didn’t like hugs anymore. He was too old, apparently. She straightened his duvet, noticing the book sticking out from under his pillow. She pulled it out.

“Is this the book your teacher gave you?” She asked, holding it up and squinting. She’d lost her glasses last week.

“Yeah. Mrs Taylor gave it to me.” Dylan swung his arms and looked up at her. “She said I’m big enough to read chapter books, even though all the other kids are too stupid to do it.”

“Dylan!” Harriet sighed. “We don’t call other children that word. Do we?”

“What, stupid?”

“Yes.”

“But they are.”

“Just because you’re smarter than them doesn’t make them stupid.”

“I can call people whatever I want as long as they can’t hear me.”

“No, you can’t. Could you get dressed, please?” Harriet sighed, wondering why she had to tell Dylan the same things every morning, as she put the book down on the bedside table. “Was it good?”

“Was what good?”

“The book.”

Dylan stared up at her, attempting to raise one eyebrow. She knew what that meant.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“No. It was dumb.” Dylan blew out through his mouth. “All the kids in it were stupid. Turn around!”

Harriet turned around to face the window. He was five, and he already had personal space issues. He didn’t let her dress him anymore. The results were usually interesting, but she wasn’t really sure she had time for interesting this morning. She was late, and she felt even worse than usual.

“Stop using that word.”

“But they were!” Dylan whined. “They were all trying to solve this mystery, even though they didn’t have to, and they ran away from home with the dog and ate picnic and nothing else for ages and ages and ages! I just want to read my science book. At least that’s real.

“Well,” Harriet said. “Why did they have to solve the mystery?”

Dylan thought for a moment, putting one finger in his mouth.

“Because… Because there was a man who was big and old and he had a big house and he had this big dog, and he was trying to kidnap them.”

“Right.” Harriet sighed and buried her head in her hands. “So they sort of did have to solve the mystery.”

“No!” Dylan said through his shirt as he pulled it on over his head. “Because they could have just run away or killed him!”

“Dylan!”

What?”

“Killing people is never right.”

“Sometimes it is,” she heard him mutter from behind her.

“Well, we’ll see about that,” she said before she could stop herself. “Now, are you dressed?”

There was a long pause. Then, “Yes, mummy.”

“Good.” Harriet turned around. Dylan was wearing his jeans and his favourite shirt, the one with the truck that was too small but that he’d refused to throw out. He was also wearing mismatched socks.

“For f- Heaven’s sake, Dylan. Your school uniform, damnit! Arms up.”

Something in her voice made Dylan stay quiet and do as she said. She tugged at his sleeves to pull his shirt off, then hurried across the room to grab the pile of uniform curled up in the corner. God, they were going to be so late, but she didn’t really care about that. She just wanted to know why she was still seeing flashes of green every time she closed her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dylan hated being a child. He wanted to be an adult. He’d told her that last week, and then punctuated the statement by refusing to hug her good night. Then, less than half an hour later, he’d come downstairs sobbing about a splinter and climbed onto her lap like a baby. Adults didn’t like affection, apparently. According to her five-year-old, adults were cold and dead and ruthless. But she reckoned she needed her goodnight hug ten times more than he did. She made him stop to hug her before running across the playground to meet his friends, and he sighed and rolled his eyes, muttering “I’m not a baby” into her ear. She laughed, but she wanted to cry. Maybe the tears were just because of the headache.

In the hour since she’d woken up in the garden, her freezing, numb fingers and toes had warmed, and now, they were burning with pain like mad. She tapped her hand against her leg as she turned to leave for the car park, but she was stopped by the sight of a familiar little girl tearing past her, nearly running straight into her.

“Hi, Poppy,” she said uselessly, almost to herself. The little girl didn’t stop, or even slow down, but Harriet spotted her mother standing at the gate and smiled.

“Hiya, Harriet!” Billie said, waving. “How are you?”

“Oh, you know,” Harriet lied. “Here and there. Getting through it. You?”

“Yeah. Not so bad.” Billie smiled, tucking a perfect strand of her perfect red hair behind her ear. “Poppy actually got out of bed herself this morning, believe it or not.”

Harriet tried not to groan. “Wishful thinking.”

“Yeah. Bet it won’t happen again for another month or two.”

“I wish Dylan wasn’t such a bloody rebel some of the time.”

“Nah, Dylan’s great.” Billie laughed, and despite herself, Harriet bit back a frustrated sigh. Just as other people’s kids always seemed better-behaved, Harriet reckoned every other mother in town was better at the job than her. Maybe it was just because Billie had a husband, and a nice stable well-paid office job.

“Try being his mother, Billie.”

“Are you okay?” Billie asked her. “You seem a bit… I dunno. Spaced-out.”

“Aren’t I always?”

“Nah, I mean…” Billie waved her hand and smirked. “No. Never mind. I’m just seeing things. No sleep last night, you know?”

Harriet swallowed a yawn and a wince. “Yeah. I know.”

“Mother’s life.”

“Yeah.”

Billie paused for a while, looking over Harriet’s shoulder to watch Poppy sitting down with a couple of other girls. They were probably going to braid each other’s hair or talk about princesses or some shit. Little girls were boring. Then again, Harriet sometimes wished her son’s favourite thing to do in the playground was something other than boasting to the other boys about all the dinosaur facts he’d found out over the weekend. Back when Harriet was in primary school, being smart got you bullied, but nowadays, nerds seemed to be cool. Her son was the coolest kid in year one.

“How’s Eric?” Harriet thought to ask Billie before the silence drowned them.

“Oh.” Billie looked down at her hands at the mention of her husband, then grinned. “Lazy.”

“Yeah.” Harriet suppressed a satisfied smile and the words ‘They all are.’

“No, but, like, lazy on a new level.” Billie grinned. “The bloody lump fell asleep in his deck chair last night. On the lawn. All night! Then woke up complaining about a headache. If my-”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Silly thing was going on about seeing the Northern Lights, if you could believe it! Last night, I mean. When he woke up, he couldn’t remember a damned thing about them.”

“The northern lights?”

“Yeah. I love him, but he’s stupid.” Billie giggled. Harriet liked her, but she needed to grow up. “I mean, the clouds were a bit greeny, weren’t they? But the stupid thing said he’d seen lights. He’s been saying it for days. I told him it was probably just a plane, but like hell he listened. I went to bed and ended up forgetting all about him.”

“Could it have been fireworks?”

“Yeah.” Billie shrugged. “Probably. Silly idiot said no, but probably.”

“Uh-huh.” Harriet felt something cold starting to tweak at her ribs. “Right.”

“He came in this morning and said he’d been out there all bloody night!”

“Yeah. What a moron,” Harriet said before she could stop herself. Unease always made her bold, and it was hard to make her uneasy, but Billie had just managed it. Luckily, Billie laughed in agreement.

“God, I’m glad I’m single,” Harriet said, sighing and shaking her head to clear the pain. “Dylan’s lucky he got his dad’s smarts, sure, but even Mike could be a fucking idiot. He was. In the end. Leaving us. All on our own. You’re lucky you’ve still got yours, Billie. Even if he falls asleep in deck chairs and claims he sees lights in the sky.”

Billie laughed nervously.

“Uh-huh.” She squeaked. “Anyway. See you later, Harriet.”

“See you later.”

Harriet waited till Billie was gone before starting to walk back towards her car. Billie didn’t know which car was hers; it was the beat-up, rusty grey one with mismatched hubcaps and too many miles. Harriet wasn’t embarrassed to be the poorest mother in town, because it meant she killed herself working for every damned thing she and her son had. She wasn’t ashamed, either, that she was single; the whole town knew her husband had abandoned her and her son before he was even born, because she blabbed about it every chance she got. She wanted everyone to know she wasn’t weak. Her life was bloody hard work, but she’d be goddamned if she let even one other parent think they were better than her. She looked back at Dylan, who was standing on the top of a picnic bench and shouting with his finger pointed accusingly at a random other boy, and sighed affectionately to herself. She couldn’t help feeling a wave of smugness as she watched him. That was her son, and he was a genius. Better than all the other kids. And it was wrong to think that, but she didn’t care. If her son was the best, surely she couldn’t be the worst? She liked to cling onto that hope, even as she taught Dylan lessons in humility she still hadn’t quite learned herself. She wasn’t cruel. She would never have called another kid, even Billie’s airheaded Poppy, stupid. Not to her face, anyway.

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