Woke up in 1995
With a mix tape playing in my head
Each song a reminder of school daze
Cassette tapes and the Spice Girls craze
Fake Plastic Trees and grazed knees
Alice in Chains and an Army of Me
Against beat downs and put downs
Bad words and god that Hurt,
Jagged Little Pill on repeat
Each memory kills me with a beat
Woke up in 1995
Previously published at iamlp.blog
1st October 2021
Omeara is a small venue, and possibly the smallest I’ve seen LP play. It sits opposite a grade II listed church, but the spiritual experience that night was taking place in the former railway tunnel turned venue overseen by Mumford & Sons pianist and record producer Ben Lovett. The intimate space holds approximately 350 people – so with that in mind, it was an early start to the venue for the ritual of queuing all day to ensure a space at the front.
It paid off, after a long day spent with familiar faces we hadn’t seen since the 2019 uk tour, and some we’d seen more recently in Stuttgart, we eventually found our way to the front of the stage, and I think we were all thrilled at the intimate set up! This show was to be live streamed world wide, and the anticipation was palpable. This crowd were hungry after so long spent away from LP, and even live music. As always, LP delivered.
The set was the same as in Stuttgart recently, only with the crowd getting to choose between Recovery or Switchblade (Recovery won… this time!). It is one thing to witness LP live. It’s entirely another when you’re standing so close to them. It’s hard to describe the feeling, the energy you can feel at such a close range to the source of vocal and lyrical power, high octane performance and a connection with the crowd rarely witnessed. We are here for them, and they are here for us.
I doubt I’ll ever see or feel another gig like this one. I follow LP because of an inexplicably powerful musical connection to their songs and voice (my music choices are fuelled by vocal and lyrics). LP invokes such sensations through their music that I can’t ever describe, and that power was turned up to 11 on the Omeara stage. I won’t try to describe each song for you. I know if you saw the live stream, you probably felt it too. You were right there in the room with us, spirits dancing in the chandeliers.
Each song was overwhelming in its own way, and the upbeat party tracks took the roof off. But the more vulnerable songs were a shot through the heart. The One That You Love, Dreamer, Recovery, Strange, and above all Muddy Waters – that one held us, cradled us, drowned us all in feeling. I appreciate all of you that sent the screen shots of LP holding my hand from the live stream, I know I don’t need to explain to any of you what that moment felt like or might meant to me.
It was the first time I’d heard My Body live and in full, another new track from Churches – and another uplifting lyrical masterpiece in the same vibrant frequency as Angels. Every LP album is full of high highs and beautifully bittersweet lows, but when you put all the released tracks from Churches together so far, you realise just how immaculate this album portends to be.
It’s always over too soon. When the set list is visible from the stage, it’s hard not to glance down and see what’s left. See how long you have to feel it in your heart, before you’re left breathless and sweating in the aftermath. I will stop here. There isn’t much more I could say. If you witnessed it, you know, and if you didn’t, I can only hope they release the live stream some time in the future to feel and relive the miracle.
Tommy had tried to find different work, but nothing had been right for him. His hands ached from a lack of work, and he missed the smell of the stones.
The quarry he had worked at had closed down for six months. The nearest one hiring was 80 miles away on an island off the coast. When he’d told Diane of his decision to move temporarily to work there, she’d cried. Their son, Conner, was three, just going to nursery, what was she supposed to do without him around? But they needed the money, she agreed with him on that.
When he left they threw a party for him and waved him off from the doorstep. Conner had made a card on thin paper, tracing letters drawn in pencil by his mother. On the front, Conner had drawn a dog, but Tommy thought it looked more like a rabbit. He’d folded the card and tucked it in his wallet to keep it with him. The island was barely 4 miles across. The quarry sat towards the far end, set back from a coastal path which was littered with chunks of stone left behind due to faults or blemishes. Some of them were stacked in to walls or leaning towers, creating an alien landscape on the cliffs.
After his first day, some of the quarrymen took him to the local pub to celebrate him joining the team. As he paid for a beer, the card Conner had made slipped from his wallet to the floor. Griff, the foreman, bent to pick it up and return it, glancing at the paper curiously.
‘Just a card from my son’ Tommy explained. ‘It’s meant to be a dog. Though I think it’s more like a rabbit.’ He smiled at the crayon image, but Griff coughed, loudly and obviously, pushing the paper back in to Tommy’s hand.
‘Can’t say that round ‘ere’ he whispered. ‘Never say that round ‘ere.’ Tommy was perplexed. ‘What, rabbit?’ he said innocently, and Griff waved his hands, hushing him.
‘Bad luck.’ Jeff, another worker, said from his other side. ‘We don’t use that word.’ He took a sip from his glass, heavy eyebrows furrowed together as he watched Tommy above the rim.
‘No. Underground mutton we call ‘em. Furry things. Bunnies.’ Tommy would have laughed were it not for the deadly serious look on the men’s faces. His foreman regarded him even more seriously as he explained. “I mean it mate, and if you so much as see a whisker of one o’ them furry little bastards, you raise the alarm. Too many men have died in the past after seeing a rabbit in the quarry. Anyone sees a rabbit, we’re not working.’
‘You don’t work?’ Tommy asked, putting his wallet away. Both Griff and Jeff nodded.
‘Not worth working when you seen one o’them. Best to put your tools down and go home.’ Jeff nodded again, ‘They run when the rocks gonna slide. Rabbits appearing above ground in the day time is a sure sign there’ll be movement.’
It made sense to Tommy. If rabbits were making warrens in the rock face, they’d be first to know about any landslides and make for the surface.
‘Anyway, have you been up to the marina yet? There’s some good fishing spots, if that’s your thing.’ Griff carried on. Tommy was happy for him to change the subject.
Tommy enjoyed the walks to the quarry. The nearest car park was a few hundred yards away, but instead Tommy drove to a tourist café further down the coast, and he’d stop to get a coffee before heading up the stony paths, enjoying the peace. No angry commuters, no busy roads, no traffic held up during the school run, just him and the sea and the stones.
It was Spring, and the days were getting longer and warmer. Hardy little flowers were starting to peer their heads above the mossy outcrops to look out at the sea. Tommy stopped at a cliff edge to admire them, the water a turquoise jewel below, waves tipped in soft white foam. He watched the nodding flowers dance, the waves receding gently from the rocks.
As another wash of water pulled away from wet stone, a small, furry figure appeared, chasing the water away. It stopped, its ears twitched. Tommy noticed the left one was torn, maybe from a fight. It circled the stone, then turned its tiny brown head to look up, directly a him.
He nearly dropped his coffee when the rabbit made eye contact with him from the shore below. He could hear his heart in his chest as it crept forward, staring. Its claws gripped the stone. With a crash of water, a wave hit the rocks behind it, and with a shake of its head the rabbit ran back beneath the ledge and out of sight.
‘Don’t be stupid’ Tommy said out loud, to no one but himself. ‘It’s just superstition. I’m still a mile away from the quarry.’ He straightened his jacket and took another glace over the cliff face, to the rocks below. Nothing, just another wave receding from the rocks where the rabbit had stood. He carried on towards the quarry. Once or twice he stopped, turning around to look about him, unable to shake a feeling that he was being followed.
A fork in the path led to the quarry heading in towards land, and the coastal path continuing alongside the cliff on the other. As Tommy approached, the rabbit emerged from behind the large lump of granite between the paths, a few feet in front of him. It hopped, slowly, and came to a stop in the middle of the quarry path. It sat and stared at Tommy, who froze upon seeing it. It’s left ear was torn. His mouth went dry. The rabbit tilted its head at him curiously, then took a slow, deliberate hop towards him. Tommy quickly took a step back. He looked around, wondering which way to make an escape. Back the way he’d come? Or cut across the rocks to his left, inland. He decided left, moving slowly, not taking his eyes off the rabbit.
It followed, mirroring his steps. Tommy heard small angry grunts come from the creature as it gained on him. He wanted to laugh at the idea of being chased across the rocks by a bunny rabbit on his way to work, but most of him was afraid. The whites of the rabbits eyes showed as it continued its pursuit, hind feet thumping the ground like a drum in Tommy’s ears. His back hit a stack of rocks that wobbled beneath his weight. He dodged around them, tripping over himself to escape and hitting the floor, grazing his hands on sharp stone. The rabbit dodged the other way, startled by his sudden fall, and Tommy saw his opportunity as it rounded the stack. The rabbit was heading for his face, mouth wide, baring it’s yellow teeth. Tommy kicked his foot against the tower of rocks. The stones had stood almost as tall as he was, formed of three separate chunks of granite, and as his foot connected with the middle one, the stone that sat on top toppled sideways. Tommy watched in horror as it fell towards the rabbit, who realised at the last moment what was about to happen. It froze in fear, looking up at the falling stone, and then it looked at Tommy. Its mouth opened again in a scream, piercing and almost human and cut short in to silence. The stone crushed the rabbit with a wet crunch of splitting skin and broken bones.
He’d been holding his breath, watching as a thin stream of blood ran from beneath the stone. It gathered like water in a rock pool, dark and shining in the dim morning light. A few minutes passed and he stared until all he heard was his own breath again, short and loud. Then, with a sudden need to leave, he scrambled to his feet, his clothes covered in dust and moss, and shakily made his way to the quarry. He wouldn’t need to tell Griff about this rabbit. This one wasn’t coming back.
The rain came in shortly after Tommy reached the quarry, making it difficult to work. They moved slowly, cranes lifting large bulks of rock from the pit to the upper level where it was cut and loaded. The ground was slippery underfoot, and the machinery struggled to move over the heaps of chipped granite on the quarry floor. The smell of stone dust was in the air, mingled with sea salt and sweat and the heavy wax of their rain coats. Tommy spent the morning on edge, each shadow caught in the corner of his eye was a rabbit, distracting him from his work. He was relieved when Griff called it a day, the weather getting the best of them.
Even locking up was made difficult, the boarded gates blowing in the winds that had risen from the cliffs. Tommy and Jeff pulled them tight as Griff tried to get the chain around them. As he struggled, Tommy looked up into the quarry, and what he saw almost made him let go of the gate. Sitting upon a granite block, the rabbit from that morning was watching them. It’s torn ear twitching in the wind, dark eyes meeting Tommy’d through the gap. It nodded at him and Tommy yelped as Griff caught his thumb in the chains.
‘Sorry fella, mind yer hands’ he yelled over the wind, one final pull securing the gates with a heavy thud of the padlock. Tommy looked back through the gap, but the rabbit was gone. Now he wasn’t even sure if he’d seen it at all.
That night, Tommy didn’t sleep well. During the evening he’d nearly dialled Griff’s number three times, in order to tell him about the rabbit, each time he was held back by the thought of being out of work again. It was just a rabbit, but the islanders took it so seriously. That morning’s events had left him disturbed, and each time he’d closed his eyes, the dark pool on the rocks and the noise of the rabbit under the rock returned. He’d gone to bed, not hungry, not really tired, but not knowing what else to do.
As he lay staring at the ceiling, illuminated by the blue light of his alarm clock flashing three zero four, he heard a noise from outside. Something at the front of the house, a thumping, like a toy drum, rapidly being beat. Then silence. A few moments later, it happened again, the beats going on for longer this time. The pattern repeated. Rapid thumps in the dark, followed by silence. Counting the seconds between beats made it even worse, waiting for the drumming to begin again. He got up from the bed and made his way to the window, needing to know what was outside.
The moon was full, and the dark lawn was bathed in its light. Tommy realised the nearest street light was out, and the shadows were darker than usual. The thumping started again, and he squinted through the dark down to the source. A rabbit sat in the garden, motionless. Then its hind leg would flap, thumping the ground. The usual drum beat of danger sounded more threatening in the dark street.
The rabbit stopped again, still in the shadows. Another shadow slipped across the grass and joined it. It was another rabbit, a smaller one, and it sat up next to its kin, waiting. Another joined from the bushes, then two more from the path. Soon, there were seven rabbits in the garden, motionless. Then in unison, they all thumped their back legs.
More rabbits joined the group in the garden. Every thirty seconds or so, the silence was broken by the drum beat. Soon there must have been forty or more rabbits, looking up at his window in the dark, in the silence, before the drumming began all over again. Tommy had watched, gripping the windowsill as they continued to fill the lawn. The neighbours’ windows were dark. He wondered for a moment if anyone else was witnessing this.
The rabbits stopped thumping. Tommy counted to thirty, then to forty. They remained motionless in the dark. The silence the continued was worse than the noise had been. Tommy lost count. A hundred eyes reflected in the moonlight, they all looked up at the window. They all looked at him because they knew he was there. The first rabbit, the one with the torn ear, took a small step forward. Before he’d stopped, the others followed as one. The rabbits moved together towards the house. They funnelled in towards the front door, and Tommy heard claws begin to scratch and bodies pressing against the wood and making it creak. He backed away from the window, wondering how he’d escape.
He crept down the staircase, which ended opposite the front door. The noise was louder here, clawing and thumping against the wooden door, which seemed to bow inwards under the pressure. As he reached the bottom step, the wood creaked beneath his feet, echoing into the hallway. The rabbits at the door stopped, and then doubled their efforts at the door. Tommy heard their frantic grunts and squeals as they pushed over one another.
He moved in to the kitchen. It was silent and dark, and he made for the back door, pressing his ear to it to listen. He heard nothing. Turning the key slowly, it clicked in the lock. Working the handle to open it as quietly as possible, Tommy glanced back over his shoulder to the front door. Paws continued to scrabble at the foot of it.
Turning back to the open door in front of him, he was pushed back by the sudden force of more rabbits as they flooded in. They’d been waiting for him. They ran behind his legs and tripped him up, his head hitting the floor and making him see stars. Teeth and claws found flesh as they swarmed his body. The weight of them running on top of him, busy teeth tugging at his clothing and his skin. He opened his eyes to look, and one with the torn ear sat upon his chest. It’s dark eyes glowed maroon in the dim light. It was the last thing Tommy saw before he passed out.
When he woke up, he was cold. Something dripped nearby. It splashed on his cheek, and echoed off the walls of wherever he was. He smelt stone and sea salt and blood. He opened his eyes to a dimly lit cavern, where water crashed somewhere nearby. He figured he must be near to the sea. In a cave maybe. More noises echoed, scratching and snuffling and dripping throughout the cave, across the floor. He sat up, finding his hands tied together in front of him.
The light was funnelled from a hole in the roof of the cave, about three feet wide. It was daylight outside. Looking around, shadows moved across every surface and ledge. As his eyes focussed, he realised the floor was alive with rabbits. They sat and scratched and snuffled and some stared silently in his direction before hopping past, disinterested.
Tommy pulled himself further upright. He was sore, his skin stinging with tiny cuts and bruises. He tried to get to his feet, but found they were bound together tightly at the knee and ankle. The rope was dirty, turned green with moss, and his clothes bore tiny tears and holes where the rabbits had attacked him. Struggling against his binds, he grunted in frustration. The knots were tight, and he couldn’t wriggle his way out of the rope. In anger he thrashed against the rock, nothing working to loosen the ropes grip.
‘Let me go!’ he shouted at the rabbits. Some stopped and looked at him for a moment before moving on. ‘Look, I’m sorry okay?’ he looked for some sign of response from any of the furred bodies around him. Then he screamed. Getting no response from the rabbits, he hoped someone above ground would hear him. ‘Help! I’m down here!’ he shouted at the hole in the roof of the cave. The rabbits seemed unbothered by his attempts, and eventually he dropped on to his side, exhausted and tasting blood on his lips.
A different sound came out of the dark then. A dry shuffling of skin of something larger than the rabbits that moved around him. Tommy peered in to the dark corner where it came from. A shape, larger than a man, moved in the shadows. A pale expanse of something covered the wall behind it as it moved. The rabbits parted from the corner and whatever was hidden in the darkness shuffled its way forward towards the light.
Tommy’s mouth dropped open in shock as the light exposed what was coming towards him. Two white and unnaturally long hands reached forward. The figure brought its back legs up behind it in a slow, heavy hop on elongated pale feet. Sharp yellow toenails scraped on the rock beneath them.
Heavy, dusty skin sagged from its bones. It was hairless, mostly, save for whiskers around its misshapen face. Two bucked teeth protruded from the mouth, and a squashed flat nose sat beneath beady eyes that were too far apart.
It looked human, but couldn’t be. No human had ears that hung from the sides of its head, furless rabbit ears that dragged on the floor. The great folds of skin flopped forward as the thing lurched in a twisted, hopping gait towards Tommy. Its stomach, all loose skin and liver spots, swung between its legs.
It stopped, a few feet away, the nose wriggling up and down at him. Tommy saw the eyes were white, peering straight through him rather than at him. It was likely the creature was blind. It raised its nose to the air, then back down at him. It could smell him. The rabbits in the cave began to swarm around its legs. Some hopped with excitement, flicking their legs in the air, grunting and gnashing their teeth. The rabbit-man stepped closer in another distorted hop. It took hold of Tommy’s legs and pulled itself further up his body. Its back feet straddled him and it’s long hands gripped his shoulders with curled, stained claws. Tommy felt the pain as they dug through his shirt and into his skin. Its hands felt as cold as it was white. The rabbits began to move closer, digging around him, sharp strong teeth nipping at his skin. He could feel the bruises forming with each bite.
Helpless, unable to move from the weight of the thing above him, as he watched as the creature leaned closer. Its breath was like old tombs, the teeth yellow and crooked. It opened its mouth wide and bit down on to Tommy’s shoulder. Its teeth so powerful he felt them snap his neck. Paralysed, Tommy stared up at the patch of blue sky through the hole. Birds swooped back and forth beyond it. The sea continued to crash against the walls outside the cave, and Tommy screamed.
He opened his mouth and screamed, as the rabbit-thing pulled back, parting flesh and tendon, warm wetness flowing across his shoulder to the floor. His scream grew louder. The other rabbits, whipped to a frenzy, opened their tiny mouths and screamed with him.
Alice had been stood at the water’s edge, throwing stones in to the cool dark folds of the lake. That was the last time Chris saw her.
He wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. She’d simply vanished while his back was turned, without a word. He’d called her name, looking up and down the vast, empty shoreline of the lake, but there wasn’t another person to be seen for miles. She wasn’t in the car, parked a few meters away. He’d even waded in to the water, thinking maybe she fell, hit her head, drowned. His search was futile, and he’d shivered as he walked back to the car, his clothes soaked and his face wet.
Chris called the police, but they weren’t interested until a week had passed. Even then, all they could do was take a missing person’s report. It was hopeless. She had no family to speak of, or none that she’d told Chris about anyway. Her friends were his friends, and all of them were as puzzled as he was at her sudden disappearance.
She’d seemed strange in the last few days, upset about something. Quieter. He’d tried asking, but she’d shrug it off and smile and kiss his face, telling him to not be silly. But that smile, the one that greeted him every morning had gone.
The soft humming of tuneless songs was gone from her studio, and the days before her disappearance she had painted in silence. It had unnerved him. The painting she had begun the morning they went to the lake stood, unfinished, the room untouched. A field of grey, like the lake water, formless and shifting, dark, and empty. Like the room was now without her in it.
It had been four weeks. Every day started to feel the same. Chris woke with the same expectation that she’d be there next to him, her tousled black hair like crow feathers on the white pillow. Or when he went downstairs, she’d be there in the kitchen, pouring coffee in to her favourite cat shaped cup, burning toast under the grill because she hated using toasters, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She always said she’d quit one day, but never got round to it.
Chris worked from home. Every day, sat in his office, his heart would stop at any sound outside the front door. The postman, the guy who came to read the meter, his neighbour Sharon stopping by to drop off a parcel. Every time someone rang the bell, a flutter of hope rose in his chest. Upon opening the door he’d visibly slump, his shoulders curving against the weight of disappointment.
His sister, Lou, was worried about him. She came over often, making some excuse about just being in the area, or bringing him the extra cottage pie she’d made. Chris hated that she was checking up on him, but never turned her away. Sometimes, she she’d stay late in to the night, listening to him reason over and over again about Alice disappearing.
‘Maybe she has got family somewhere, maybe someone was ill.’ He’d pondered different scenarios over and over and over and Lou had heard them all.
‘Maybe, Chris. Maybe she just left.’ The words hurt her to say them. ‘Sorry. I wish I knew.’
Lou sipped at the tea that had long gone cold. The clock showed it was past midnight, and she’d been there since the afternoon. Chris seemed particularly bad this evening, and was talking about the disappearance more than usual. She’d thought he’d been getting better.
‘Why? Why would she do that? What did I do wrong?’ Chris clutched at his head in his hands, and Lou shook her head. Chris and Alice had been together around a year. They’d met on a dating website, and had seemed pretty normal to Lou.
‘Nothing. You could have done nothing, people are like that.’ She stood, picking up the empty plates from the table. ‘Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything. Sometimes people just leave.’
After Lou had left, Chris had stared at the wall until the paper blurred. Alice had picked the pattern, silver, with purple swirls, after they’d moved in together a few months earlier. A feature wall, she’d said. His eyes felt like sandpaper. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring.
Exhausted, he climbed the stairs and rinsed off his face in the bathroom. He probably wouldn’t sleep, but he had to try. He had a deadline to meet tomorrow, and his boss was breathing down his neck. His work was slipping, too many mistakes, too many delays.
He turned off the tap, patting his face dry. He hummed, much like she used to, straightening the towel on the rail, his song tuneless and random. Turning out the light, he stepped in to the hall, and was stopped in his tracks by a sound from Alice’s studio.
Humming. Her humming. His voice caught in his throat and he froze for a moment or two before striding towards the door, his hand hesitating on the handle before pushing it open, slowly.
The humming stopped as his line of sight came round the door and he switched on the light. Nothing. No one. The room was empty, the easel still stood, it’s back to the door. A movement, a drop from the easel to the floor, a soft spatter of paint drew his eye downwards.
Crossing the room he turned to look at the plain, grey, unfinished painting he had looked at every day for the last four weeks. Only now it was finished, the paint, still wet, shining in the light. Chris swayed on his heels, trying to understand what it was he saw on the canvas.
Sky, grey and heavy with rain. The lake, dark and sinister, and a figure. The more he looked, the more he realised he was looking at himself, facing the lake, one arm raised, pointing into the middle of the dark waters.
He looked to where his figure pointed. The middle of the lake, ripples moving outwards from the figure who seemed to walk on water, the figure that was clearly Alice, her long black hair slick across her naked body. Was this a message? A sign? Then the humming started again, downstairs, that distinct, tuneless sound he’d longed to hear for months. The front door slammed. He knew where he had to go.
Pulling the car up on the grass, Chris didn’t bother to shut off the ignition. Fortunate, as the headlights lit up the glassy black water of the lake as he ran towards the shore. When he last checked the clock, it was 3 in the morning. The roads had been empty all the way. Downstairs, there was no one to be found, but wet footprints led across the hallway carpet to the front door.
Panting, stopping short of the water, Chris put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. It steamed in the cool air, dancing in the headlights.
‘Alice!’ he shouted, coughing, his throat dry as bone. ‘Alice!’ he called again, his voice echoing back to him off the water. Nothing. He turned around in a circle, looking up and down the dark shoreline, unable to see further than a few meters. And then a sound, something breaking the water beside him.
Out towards the middle of the lake, her figure rose, silent but for the sound of droplets running off her body. She hovered, watching him, no emotion on her face. Chris waded into the water, icy cold striking his legs. His coat got heavy, so he shrugged it off, his teeth chattering the deeper he went until he could no longer feel the bottom. He swam towards her.
He reached where she was, treading water. The light from the car was dim, barely lighting the water, and when he looked up, she was gone. He called her again, turning in the cold depths. She was just here! Where could she have gone? The cold was biting on his skin, and he struggled to stay afloat. Then the light from the car cut out, but he could still hear the engine trembling from a distance.
It was dark. So dark, he could barely see the shore. The cold was like a clamp around his chest, and it was getting harder to breathe. He started to panic, his limbs failing as he tried to swim back to dry land, weeds catching his feet. He should have took his boots off, he thought, kicking desperately at the tangles that seemed to grab at his ankles and pull him downwards, under the surface of the water.
He was pulled under in one surprising movement, unseen hands yanking him down. Water filled his mouth, flooded his lungs, and deafened his ears. He was almost blind beneath the surface, the world a murky grey, like the paint, like the canvas. Choking, suffocating, grabbing for anything to pull himself up and out and in to the air, the grey became black, and he could no longer see the shadows of the water around him.
Before he lost consciousness, with water thrumming in his ears, a sound penetrated the darkness. Humming. Soft, tuneless humming. Alice painting in her studio.
Lou had had better days, and she had definitely had better gigs. She’d travelled all the way across the country for a gig that ended up being a three person crowd and one of those was the dog that belonged to the barman. A group of kids had wandered in mid-way through her set, and they’d took one look at the lack of party in the place and left again. She was out of pocket and out of petrol and would have to wait till her the cheque for $50 the bar had paid her cleared her account tomorrow to even leave the damned place to get back home again. I mean, who even pays people by cheque these days? And who forgets to fill their tank up before leaving to travel 200 miles back across the country?
She wasn’t surprised at the lack of turnout. The town had been one of those places people went to die. The type where kids couldn’t wait to graduate and leave for the city, and the old people sat around on their porches in rocking chairs drinking beer and watching the world go by and waiting for the end. You could see it in their harrowed faces, come and get me death. I’m ready, I’m bored shitless in this place. Lou recognised it because she grew up in one, and at the earliest opportunity had moved out to LA to pursue her music career. Not that it was going well, she’d been there 6 months so far, and hadn’t landed any multimillion record deals, or even a show at the Roxy yet.
The empty tank light came on just as she pulled in to the motel carpark. She’d drove for an hour on the outskirts of town to find one with a vacancy, only having enough cash to get her half way home. She pulled in to a space and sighed as she turned off the engine, looking out at the drab grey buildings, lit by the large neon pink sign that flashed ‘motel’ in uneven patterns.
A woman stood outside the door number 27. Short shorts, fishnets and high heels, and a cigarette in one hand. She eyed up Lou’s car, and then Lou, and turned away, uninterested. Maybe she was a prostitute? Lou shrugged to herself and looked across the rest of the lot. Two of the other rooms had no doors, and one of the windows was boarded up with dirty wooden planks covered with flyers. This was going to have to do. It was gone midnight, and she was too tired to keep looking.
Bag and guitar in hand, Lou got out the car and headed for the reception. The door was heavy with big glass panels shaded with tobacco stained blinds, and as she pushed it open, a broken bell clunked in its setting. A man emerged from behind a beaded curtain in a cloud of cigarette smoke and approached the high counter. He was squat and bald and wearing a greasy stained vest, cigarette in one hand and beer in the other. In the room behind him she could see a couch, and a TV playing a rerun of the football game.
“Yeah? What do you want?” his voice slurred and the words ran together. He looked Lou up and down from her leather jacket to the tips of her boots, then snorted through his nose before hacking up something from the depths of his lungs. He spat on the floor.
“A room for the night” Lou put her guitar on the floor and dug in her pocket for money. “Please.” she added, an afterthought. The mans attitude left an unpleasant taste in her mouth that she was in no mood for.
“Twenty dollars. And I’ll need a copy of your driver’s license.” The man said, resting hammy fists on the counter top. Lou had a ten and two dollar notes, and managed to scrape the remaining eight dollars from the change in her pocket. She handed it over, and watched as the man counted it, twice, then copied her license on the oldest photocopier she’d ever seen. It clunked so loudly she couldn’t hear what he was saying above the noise.
“…and no guests.” He finished as he returned her license to her with a key attached to a slab of wood that was at least 5 inches long, dented and chipped with splinters and painted white at one end. “Room 33. Last one on the left.” He was already turned around and heading back to the game before she could say anything else.
Lou nodded, and collected her guitar, heading out the door. Short shorts was gone, and a new car was parked next to hers in the lot, the engine still ticking as it cooled down, the door to number 27 now closed. She headed down the row, counting as she went, peering in to the darkness of the rooms that had lost their doors. The first one emitted a rancid odour, and from the second, someone unseen shouted at her as she passed. She put her head down and kept walking. 32 was the one with the boarded up window. Her boots crunched glass as she reached her door, struggling to keep the large wooden keyring out of the way long enough to unlock it.
A waft of dust and age wafted from the dark gap as she reached for the light switch. The lightbulb glowed yellow, without a shade. She stepped in to the room, putting down her bags and letting the door shut behind her as she surveyed her temporary kingdom. It wasn’t the Ritz that’s for sure.
The wallpaper curled from the walls in several places. It was striped blue and green and was decorated with water stains and a large painting of a farmhouse that hung above a sunken bed, with a padded headboard littered with cigarette burns. The sheets looked clean but yellow, or was it the light? Lou couldn’t tell. At the end of the bed, a TV set older than she was stood on a stand, its screen smeared.
She ditched her bag on the chair, propped her guitar up against the wall and went to check the bathroom. A chipped porcelain sink and no seat on the toilet. A shower dripped slowly in to a stained bathtub. It’ll do. It wasn’t like she had any other options. There were no towels, but luckily she carried one in her bag, so at least she could have shower.
The water was good and hot, with surprisingly good pressure. With no soap, Lou made do with rinsing off the day’s dirt, looking forward to sleeping after the long drive. There was a bottle of Jim Beam in her bag that the barman had given to her as part of her payment. She’d have a glass of that before bed, get some enjoyment out of her failed trip.
As she turned off the shower, the lights flickered and died, leaving her in the dark. Cursing, she reached blindly for her towel, the room only lit from the neon pink light that bled through the window from the streetlamp outside. She’d left it on the sink, next to the tub. Lou reached out in to the dark, and recoiled as she felt something wet and warm under her fingers. Jerking back, her elbow hit the tiled wall behind her, and her feet slipped from under her, falling sideways in to the tub. The lights came on, and for a second she thought she saw a figure, long and dark, but when she looked again, sitting up and rubbing her sore elbow, only her towel hung where she’d left it on the sink.
“You’re seeing things, Lou” she muttered to herself, cringing as she stood and got out of the tub, checking herself over for damage. She wasn’t hurt too bad, but there would be bruises.
Unnerved by her fall, Lou rushed to dry herself. Returning to the bedroom, dressed back in her clothes, she picked up a glass and wiped it with her shirt. She sank on the bed, which sunk a foot further closer to the ground, and finding the bottle from her bag poured herself a good double and reached for the remote control.
The TV had four channels – they hadn’t splashed out for cable here. A local news channel was flashing a news report about another missing person in the next town over. The Comedy Channel was showing reruns of How I Met Your Mother. A Spanish channel was showing some TV drama where a woman had just found out about her husband’s affair with the maid. The last channel, number 13, was just a black screen. Propped up on one elbow, Lou frowned. Was that a voice? She turned the volume up as high as it would go, but couldn’t make out the words coming from the TV set. She scooted to the end of the bed and put her feet to the floor, leaning closer to the speaker.
The voice was mumbling at a steady pace, like someone praying. Not quite panicked, but with a degree of urgency that made Lou uneasy. Most of the words were still undecipherable, but she managed to pick out “beyond” and “sleep” before static started to interrupt the signal. She wiggled the aerial back and forth trying to get it back, but the black screen dissolved in to white snow. Then with a loud pop, the set turned itself off.
“Shit. I hope I don’t have to pay for that” Lou banged the side of the set, tried turning it off and on, unplugging it and plugging it back in, but it looked like the set had given up the ghost for good.
With a resolute sigh she knocked back her whiskey, and lay back on the bed, covering her face with her hands. Maybe she’d just sleep.
Something woke Lou from the sleep that had crept up on her unannounced. Slowly opening her eyes, she realised the lightbulb was dark. Strange, maybe it had finally given up, just like the TV. Only the TV hadn’t given up. The screen was lit and flickering with white snow. Even more surprising was Lou was under the sheets of the bed. Maybe she’d gotten cold. How was she tucked in so tight?
She tried sit up and found she couldn’t. She couldn’t move at all, her body just didn’t respond. The only thing she could seem to move was her eyes, and the more she tried, the more pressure she felt against her chest, like something was pinning her to the bed. Panicked, she tried to shout, could feel the air in her throat, but her mouth would not open and no sound would come. What the hell was happening?
The panic rose in her chest, and a feeling of being watched made her skin crawl. Her eyeballs strained in their sockets trying to see the dark corners of the room above her, sure that if she could just turn her head, she’d see who or what was doing this to her. Then she heard the whispering, the same hushed, urgent voice she’d heard from the TV earlier, and a shadow blocked the light coming from the screen. Frozen and afraid, Lou turned her eyes to the end of the bed.
It sat there, hunched by her feet, its limbs folded in on itself like some giant puppet. Its skin was mottled grey, and long stringy ropes of hair fell down its back. She couldn’t see a face, but suspected it was watching her from behind that grey wet curtain. The light from the TV grew stronger, the set buzzing behind the constant whispering, that was fast now and seemed like it was coming from inside her own head. Slowly, in the flickering light, the creature at the end of the bed reached out one long arm and crawled, slow, like a lover, up the length of her body. Lou, gripped with fear, was still unable to move, her heart thudding in her chest like war drum.
The skin of the creature sagged at the sides. It appeared to be female, it’s limp breasts naked and shrivelled. As it moved nearer, the smell of damp and decay and death filled Lou’s nose, and she felt herself gag. Its head bobbed like a bird, the hair parting enough to show a face so drawn, pocked with open, oozing sores on grey sagging cheeks. Its mouth was a black maw, framed with puckered pink lips, the jaw working soundlessly as if chewing toffee. But what Lou hated the most was the eyes – it had none. Just black holes torn in to the flesh, with dark viscous tears running down its face. All she could do was watch as the nightmare closed in on her, her body and her screams paralyzed.
As it reached her chest, she felt its toenails dig into her stomach. Whilst not unbearably heavy, she could feel its strength as clawed nails reached for her shoulders, pinning her in place, even though she couldn’t move if she wanted to. Lou wanted to close her eyes but terror held her stare, as the creature got more and more excited.
Squeals and grunts came from the horrible mouth that chewed faster, the pink lips pulling back to reveal black, toothless gums, black fluid spilling over its chin. The smell that came from that cavity was worse than anything Lou had come across. She felt dizzy despite lying down, and her stomach turned, like she’d drank the whole bottle of Jim Beam. She wished she had.
Helpless, unable to move, and terrified, trapped inside her own body with this nightmare hag sat upon her chest. The horrid, hurried whispers accompanied the hungry cries, and the light from the TV became so bright behind the monster that Lou couldn’t see the room any more. Just the dark shadow of that terrible face drawing nearer to her own.
Ethan lay on the floor of his room staring at the ceiling. The light was on despite it being daylight, the yellow bulb fighting against the grey of a sky filled with rain. He hadn’t slept, instead his brown eyes had traced the cracks that cobwebbed across his ceiling, until he noticed the night had crept in to another morning. He was numb, and cold, and yet his t shirt was soaked and his blonde hair spiked from an anxious sweat he’d endured all night.
The lights in the sky. He’d been watching them now for nearly two days, since Tuesday night, after going out with Tom after work. They had ventured to The Weary Traveller to watch a band and have a few drinks. Ethan had first seen the lights when they left the pub, stood in the carpark as Tom rolled a cigarette.
They were dancing. Five, no, six of them, their errant waltz making it hard to keep count. Tom had passed it off as drones. They were really popular now, he said, and there had been loads of sightings of the strange lights at night. They had watched them for a few more minutes, looping and spinning around each other, until they had all suddenly vanished at the same time. The show over, Ethan and Tom had moved on to the Greek chip shop on the corner for a kebab to fill their stomachs and soak up the alcohol on the walk home.
They both had work on Wednesday, but Ethan didn’t make it. He’d slept through his alarm after a night of uneasy dreams, of vivid flashing lights and red clouds that plagued his sleep. He woke an hour after his shift started, and rather than turn up late, he felt it was easier just to call in sick, the bad night’s sleep leaving him nauseous and tired.
He’d seen the lights again from his kitchen window, pale glimmers in the daylight, weaving across the sky just like the night before. They were still there when the sun set, and the astral ballet was joined by the stars as the pink and grey evening turned to black. He remembered Tom’s talk of drones, but wondered if they seemed closer than when they had seen them on Tuesday.
The girl had arrived Wednesday night. She’d shown up at the door around 11, hammering his door, frantic and panicked. Taking one look at her bare feet, her tear stained face a picture of desperation, he’d let her inside. He’d fetched a blanket, wrapped it around her thin shoulders, sat her on the sofa. He asked who she was. Where had she come from, where were her parents? Her answers both confused and bothered him; she was no one, it didn’t matter, didn’t have any. She had something to tell him. She was frantic, her eyes wide, pleading with him to listen.
Ethan was unprepared to hear the ramblings of a clearly unwell child. He picked up the phone to call the police station to fetch the girl, only to be greeted by a recorded message stating that all lines were busy. He tried with his mobile phone and got the same result. Then he tried to call his mother. He figured she’d know what to do about the strange crying girl who turned up on his doorstep. She was oddly silent now, watching while he paced the room, trying to get the phones to work. Her eyes made him uncomfortably, and he got nothing but busy signals and silence on the end of the line. Text messages refused to send. Facebook was not responding. The whole network must have been down.
He got his coat and car keys. He’d drive her to the station. He heard her follow him slowly into the tiled hall as he went to open the door. It didn’t open. It wasn’t locked, he just couldn’t get it open, no pushing or pulling or forcing it with his shoulder would work.
‘It’s too late, Ethan’ her voice was flat, eerily calmer now. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ She sounded sad and tired. Ethan had tried the door again but it didn’t budge, some unseen force keeping it closed. The back door was the same, even the windows wouldn’t lift in their sashes. It was like someone had sealed all the possible exits with invisible forces. He’d even tried wrapping a hammer in a tea towel in order to break the window in the lounge. The girl watched on in silence, amused as it bounced off the glass like rubber. The hammer flew from his hands and chipping the edge of the coffee table on its journey to the floor.
He stared, bewildered. What was happening? The dancing lights popped in to his head and his gut turned over. He went through to the kitchen, and could see them before he reached the window. They were definitely brighter now, looping and weaving just like before, maybe closer than before.
‘Who are you?’ his voice was sharp. He wanted to grab her and shake her as she entered the kitchen behind him.
‘I said it doesn’t matter who I am.’ She hesitated. ‘I’m here to save you.’ her eyes had moved from him to the lights behind him. Was she afraid?
“Save me from what?” Ethan felt afraid himself, fear crawling up his back.
‘The end of the world. We’ve come to take it back. Start over.’ Her eyes looked past him again to the lights he knew were dancing in the sky behind him.
‘Who’s come to take it back? Who are you? Where did you come from?’
‘Up there.’ She pointed, and he followed her finger to the lights. ‘From the sky.’
‘Aliens? You want me to believe you’re an alien? That those things are spaceships?’ he realised he was gripping the counter for support. It was like a bad dream. It was madness!
‘Not really aliens. We’re like you. You’re like us, just… different.’ She shrugged. ‘But it’s ok. I was sent to make sure one of you survived.’
‘One of us? Why me, what did I do?’ his voice was losing its calmness. What madness had this day turned in to?
‘You were the first one to open the door’ was the reply. ‘I tried five before you but no one answered.”
Ethan’s head began to hurt. He let himself sink to the floor with a groan, his brain couldn’t process what was happening, what had happened. What was going to happen. He closed his eyes, screwed up his fists and pushed them against his temples. This was ridiculous. There was an alien in his kitchen telling him the world was going to end and he was the lucky one because he opened the door to the strange girl with no shoes.
‘It’s ok’ the girl soothed, approaching him, placing a hand on his head. ‘The new world will be better. They’re going to fix things.’ Her hand was cold, as if whatever planet she came from had carved her from ice, but she repulsed him. The bile rose in his throat and for a brief moment he thought he might be sick. He stood up and pushed her away, pawing where her hand had been like she’d left a mark.
‘What about everyone else?’ it dawned on him, ‘All the people?’ his first thought was of his mother. Then his brother, his niece and nephews. Tom. The old lady who lived at number 54. What was going to happen to them? If this nightmare was real then all these people would die. He would be alone. He felt he should cry but no tears came.
‘I’m sorry’ was all she said, and moved past him to the window, not looking out but looking down at the sink where the dishes still sat from lunch.
Not knowing what else to do, Ethan went upstairs to his bedroom. His head still hurt and he wanted to lie down. She had followed, matching his silence, and when he had got in the bed, burrowing in the sheets like he did as a child to make the monsters go away, she had sat next to him. She remained there even when he took the blankets to the floor, not wanting to be so close to her. Through the night he pressed redial on the phones, the busy tone sounding from the tinny speaker like a warning that had come too late.
And there he lay in the late morning, trying to understand happened the night before. He looked for the girl. She was still sat there on the bed, looking out through the window at another grey morning. Her arms were wrapped around her legs, her pale skin almost luminescent against the dull day. Her hair was long, dark, and tangled like little birds had nested in it. And her eyes, so big and doleful and the brightest, lightest blue he’d ever seen. Like they were made of starlight.
Questions turned over and over in his head endlessly. So much to know, but was any of it any use? Would any of it make it stop?
‘Will it hurt them?’ he finally asked out loud.
‘No. No one will know. They’ll just stop. It will all just end. All at once.’ She moved towards the window. When he looked, she had her palm pressed to the glass, looking at the lights. He thought she was crying, or was it the rain on the window reflecting off her pale cheeks.
‘When will it happen?’ he stared at her back, fighting the lump in his throat.
‘Soon. Today. You’ll know when.’ She dropped her hand and watched the ghostly print of condensation fade away to nothing. Then she went back to her seat on the edge of the bed.
‘Your whole world is going to change, Ethan. Nothing will be the same for you ever again.’ It was strange he couldn’t remember telling her his name.
He couldn’t remember falling asleep either, but when he woke, the cloud had thinned, the rain had stopped and the lights were brighter than ever before. He got up, gathering the sheets about his shoulders, and went to the window. Why had no one else noticed the light show in the sky, their pending doom dancing right above their homes? No one walked past, no traffic went by. The world had come to a standstill.
‘They’re trapped, like you. All of them.’ She spoke as if she knew what he was thinking. ‘The whole world is locked down. No TV, no radio, no phones.’ She turned away, lying upon the bed with her hands under her head and her back to him. Ethan’s stomach grumbled in the silence. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, and walked to the door, wondering if she would follow. She shook her head, watching him through the strands of hair that covered her face.
‘We don’t need to eat. Not like you.’ She closed her eyes, the conversation had ended. He waited for a moment, making sure that was all she had to say. Then Ethan went downstairs to the kitchen.
He didn’t want to eat, but his stomach hurt with hunger. He found a tin of soup and a heel of bread, drank some juice from a carton in the fridge. He didn’t dare leave the kitchen window, instead ate with his elbows on the counter, watching the lights. They were moving faster now, more erratic, more eager.
He tried the front door again, glancing up the staircase. Slowly, quietly, if she was sleeping he didn’t want to wake her. His breath caught as the door opened a fraction. He carefully pulled it towards him, trying to avoid the creaks and whispers of the hinges until unseen hands snatched at the door and slammed it shut. She was at the top of the stairs watching him. He made to run after her, taking the stairs two at a time, having had enough of these games and these aliens, when the stairs shook and a fierce red light stopped him before he’d even figured out what he would do.
It filled the room, as if a floodlight was right outside the window. It reminded him of when they did Macbeth at school, the red lights drowning the stage as Lady Macbeth wrung her hands to rid her of the damned spot. The girl froze before the window, watching the lights that had formed a uniform circle and were swarming in synchronisation. The red light seemed to come from the space between them, like the vortex created around a plug hole, only backwards. He joined her at the window, his heart in his chest. Was this it? Was this the end?
‘It’s time.’ she said. She looked afraid, and angry, but she reached out and took his hand. He let her, realising how cold it was against the wave of heat that seemed to be filling the room through the window. He felt the sweat trickle in an uncomfortable line down his back. The light grew brighter, so bright he couldn’t look at it straight on. His eyes were forced to look upon the vacant streets and darkened windows. The light reached everything, every crack and crevice, like someone had enclosed the world in strawberry jelly. Then the thin glass began to vibrate, and then to shudder as the light and the heat got fiercer. He felt his skin begin to prickle in the heat, any hotter and he swore it would begin to blister.
‘We should move away from the window.’ she said, her face wet with tears. Her pale skin was doused in red, and the starlight was gone from her eyes. All that was left were two angry, inky black pools scowling at the sky. She didn’t let go of his hand as she turned away from the window, and Ethan let himself be led away from the world drowned in red light. He let her lead him to the other side of the bed, where they sat together and waited for the world to end.
* * * * * *
High above the world, on an observation deck of a pointed star ship, two tall pale figures watched as the Planet Earth was engulfed in red clouds. The executioner was dressed in ceremonial black, his thin white face half hidden by a hood. He removed his hand from the panel at his side and took a step back.
‘It is done.’ He remarked, folding one hand over the other in front of him. The Empress nodded. Dressed in robes of royal purple, her face remained emotionless, the unearthly features thrown in to shadow by the red glow from the planet below.
‘And the girl?’ the Empress questioned, watching as the mist began to thin, the blue and green of the world beneath bleeding through the gaps.
‘Dead.’ the executioner confirmed.
‘Very good. You can release the time stops once the mist has cleared. Ensure the ships are out of the atmosphere before any humans are released from stasis. They must never know we were here.’ the Empress, satisfied the mission was complete, turned to leave the deck.
‘Were there any casualties?’ she asked, stopping before she reached the doorway.
‘One. We couldn’t save him.’ the executioner lowered his eyes. ‘She locked herself in with him.’
The Empress nodded sadly and left. They had chased a terrorist half way across the galaxy to stop her destroying everything they had nurtured on this tiny blue planet. The girl was dead, and another life had been lost. One life for the protection of seven billion more. A hero the planet would never know they had.
I wrote this short story as part of an assignment for my degree. It’s my first assignment for my creative writing module, and is presented in it’s original form, without editing suggestions made by my tutor, so there are a couple of tense errors etc..
The car of the ghost train rattled to a stop in front of us. One by one we climbed in, the safety bar dropping across our laps with a clang. The ride assistant smiles at me as he checks I am securely fastened in. He’s devilishly handsome despite the grease stained overalls, dark hair and dark eyes and a smile that could make angels sigh. He returns to his bench, walking slowly, lazily.
‘Enjoy the ride’ he says, and hits the button. The car jerks forward into the darkness, and my hands grip the rail in fear. I’ve never ridden the ghost train before. We swerve around the first corner and straight in to a gruesome face looming out of the darkness, recorded screams shattering my ear drums. I nearly jump out of my seat, covering my face with my hands, afraid to look at the terrors that lie ahead.
The car continues down a dark tunnel that brings us to an ocean of tortured souls. The walls are lined with watchmen, sentinels of the sinners below, masked like broken birds. Their wards writhing and screaming on tides of pain and anguish, we pass over the sea of swollen corpses and onwards in to the next level of Hell.
A courtroom. Men in stocks, and women in chains, waiting for their sentence to be served. The owlish judges watching from their stands, and a crowd of faceless shadows jeering from the jury. One by one they are led off to face their fate. The track widens and the car in which we travel jerks to the left, turning our faces away before we can see their end.
The next chamber is almost dark as pitch, scuttling shapes flit across the walls, calling to each other in an alien language. Their victims are held in thick, gelatinous webs, spun by spiders like creatures with too many legs on the torsos of men, burnt and blackened by the fire of hell itself. Their tiny eyes watch us as we pass, teeth chattering. They are hungry for more victims. A trapdoor opens and a sobbing, shaking sliver of a man is forced in to the chamber by unseen hands. The car speeds down an incline towards bright throbbing light as the spider-men rush upon their prey, chattering excitedly. His screams vibrate through the air, as if I could reach out and touch them.
The light pours from the next room, so strong and white it burns our eyes. A room filled with noise, the voices of tortured souls echoing around an endless chamber. Shapes in shadows of grey and black, swarming and spinning and body-less, what’s left of the tortured souls. Their voices whoosh past our ears, snatches of a million voices and last words. Cries and sobs, screams of anger. All the pain, all at once, the noise is suffocating and a pressure builds inside my head. The car tilts and the track curves but no distinct wall can tell us where we are going, the light consumes it all.
Another voice reaches above the rest. Inside this time, inside my head, speaking in tongues. He whispers my name, secret and seductive. The light goes out and we’re thrust in to endless darkness and the voices of the dead are cut short. In the distance, a dot of red light, growing larger as the car trundles towards it. The voice still whispers above the wheels tumbling on the track, the light grows larger, surrounding us and swallowing the darkness behind.
He sits on a throne, regal and giant. His red skin glitters in the flames that fan around him. His face is handsome, hiding secrets of the ages. The voice inside my head grows louder, booming through my brain. He knows, he knows everything. He knows I am afraid. His lips do not move, but he addresses us all the same, his great hand reaching, pointing, coming nearer and nearer. There is no escape. I want to scream but no sound will come out. I close my eyes, the heat from his flesh searing my face. It’s too late, it’s too-
Dark. It’s too dark. He’s saying my name.
‘Lucy. Lucy?’ He’s so close I can feel him next to me. A hand on my shoulder. The light comes on. The ride assistant stands beside me, shaking my shoulder. It’s over.
“Lucy, are you ok?” my friend asks. I’m shaking as I stand, can barely find my feet. “I think you passed out.” She puts an arm around me. My head feels funny. Passed out? But the chains, the people. The man on the throne?
“Come back soon” the assistant smiles, watching us leave, his eyes flashing red in the light.