Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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Static

by Carl Walmsley




One



Zoe’s grin was almost too big for her ten-year-old face. Her lips were red, her eyes were blue, and her new top was skewed artfully to one side to reveal a bony shoulder. What was more, she came downstairs with all the swagger of a catwalk model.

Her Dad was waiting. He looked at her. He raised his eyebrows.

Zoe’s smile began to wilt.

“You look great,” her Mum said, stepping between them and giving Zoe a hug. “What time is Amy coming round?”

The doorbell answered that one.

Zoe slid her arms around her dad’s waist, gazing up at him tentatively. After a second, he squeezed her tightly. “Have fun.”

The smile was back. Zoe flicked her hair, the way she had seen a thousand YouTubers do it. “Love you guys!”

And she was gone.

“Relax,” Becky said. “Stuff to do, remember?”

Becky grasped a tangle of charger cables as though uprooting weeds. “I cannot wait to see the back of these stupid things!”

Matthew smiled, forcing his thoughts away from Zoe. His wife had been complaining about leads for as long as he could remember. Their house was dotted with little boxes, into which she squirmed electrical cables via carefully cut holes. The inside of each box looked like a snake charmer’s basket, but the outside was tidy. That was the key to a happy life for Becky.

“What time’s the power being switched over to wireless?” Matthew asked.

“Any minute now. Then, no more leads!” Becky squeezed the bundle as though crushing the life out of it.

Matthew chuckled and they exchanged one of those looks reserved for couples whose sense of humour has synchronised.

“I’m taking a bath.” She lifted herself on her toes and pulled Matthew’s cheek into reach. He turned at the last moment so that their lips met instead. She lingered long enough to show that she enjoyed it.

Becky had only been upstairs for a few minutes when she started screaming.

And, no matter what Matthew did, he wasn’t able to stop her.


Two



It was a long, straight road offering no cover once they left the treeline and Matthew waited nervously. One arm was thrown back, making sure that Zoe couldn’t move until he wanted her to.

“Now.”

They dashed across, taking shelter in the alley beyond. Zoe fell in beside her father, who lifted the bat in readiness. There was a droning silence – the hum of insects never stopped entirely these days – but no indication that they had been seen. It had been hours since they had heard anyone, and almost a week since they had seen someone close up, but he knew they had to be careful.

They found a house with a big garden and tall fences; the kind of place where you couldn’t be seen once inside. Matthew pointed at a bush and Zoe crouched behind it.

Halfway over the fence, Matthew saw movement in the house. He dropped quietly behind a line of conifers. The back lawn looked like a trench from World War One, the grass torn up by dozens of holes. Here and there, bones jutted from the turned earth.

The grimy patio door opened with a crunch. Through gaps in the trees, Matthew watched the figure advance onto the lawn. It was a woman, perhaps fifty, though it was difficult to tell because her matted hair masked her face. Hefting a spade, she dropped into a hole and began to dig, pausing now and then as if listening for instructions. After scooping out a dozen shovelfuls, she began muttering incoherently. The conversation rose to a crescendo; then the woman dipped her head submissively, moved to the next whole and began digging there. Matthew had seen enough.

He was reaching for the top of the fence when the edge of the spade thudded against his back. The conifers slowed the swing, but it still drove the air from his lungs and sent him toppling. The bat slithered from his grasp. Another swing hacked through the ferns, against his shoulder. Matthew heard the woman squealing as he struggled to stand. It was a wild, slaughterhouse scream. He felt branches scrape against his face and one eye filled with grit. Coming out of the trees, he glimpsed the woman through bleary eyes, before another blow drove him to one knee.

“No runners!” Her breath was rancid, like old bins on a hot day. “Dig!” she screamed. “Every one of my pretties digs their own hole! I like to keep ‘em close!”

The land rolled beneath Matthew, but he managed to get upright as something thudded against his feet.

“Dig!”

“Leave him alone!”

Even through the haze, Zoe’s voice rang clear. Matthew lurched around, saw the woman closing on his daughter. He realised then that the object at his feet was the shovel.

Matthew took three long strides and drove the blade through the side of the woman’s skull. It cracked like an uncooked egg and she crumpled to the ground. Matthew fell beside her, trying not to look at the way her lips still moved.

“Dad!”

The word echoed incessantly until Matthew hauled himself to his feet, reeled drunkenly up and over the fence and away into the gathering gloom.


*****



“Try not to move, Dad.”

Matthew was already doing so, but the pain in his skull stopped him. He tasted vomit. Old or new?

“Your head was bleeding. I bandaged it and it seems to have stopped…”

“I’m fine.”

He felt the water bottle against his lips and, after swilling out the taste of vomit, drank thirstily.

“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly, recalling the impact of the spade against the woman’s head. “I’m sorry that you…” Matthew tried to shield his daughter from things like that. Even now. Especially now.

“She had it bad,” said Zoe, putting her hand on top of her father’s.

Matthew took another gulp of water. “Did you see something?”

Zoe nodded. “A strong presence. It tried to talk to me, even as we were leaving. It wanted me to dig more graves…and to fill them.” Zoe looked away, hiding her expression.

“You shouldn’t have come in after me.”

“But you needed help...”

“No, you put yourself in danger. We’ve talked about this.” Despite the pain, Matthew forced himself upright. “I can’t see them, remember?”

Zoe stood, seemed to search for a way to argue with her father, and then folded her arms. “I’m not helpless.”

“No. But you are more vulnerable.” More important.

Matthew stood slowly, meaning to give his daughter a hug. Instead he found himself blinking into her stony face. He didn’t need to look down so much anymore. In the last year or two, in spite of everything, she had shot up.

Matthew settled for putting his arms on Zoe’s shoulders. “I know you’re strong,” he said. “I know that the presences can’t influence you the way they do most people. You’ve proved that.”

Zoe’s arms slowly unfolded.

“But we don’t know how far that goes. You said yourself, the nasty ones seem stronger.”

A small nod.

“Me?” Matthew forced a smile. “Remember that time your mum was playing with tarot cards? She said I had all the psychic talent of a jacket potato.”

Matthew always paused when he thought about his dead wife. It was probably why he tried to avoid doing so.

“Turns out that might not be such a bad thing…because it lets me look after you.”

There was no smile. There rarely was, these days. But a moment more and she allowed her Dad to give her the hug that they both needed.


*****



The following morning the streets were silent, except for the occasional yap of a stray dog and the drone of insects. Once manicured lawns and hedges had grown together in a tangle of greenery that might have looked picturesque but for the clouds if flies that blackened windows and shimmered darkly in doorways. They were heading out of the city, with enough supplies to keep going for a while. Matthew knew that once they were back in the countryside things would be easier. There weren’t as many people out there – or as many presences.

“Do you think that they were always there?”

Zoe hadn’t spoken in almost an hour, and the question startled Matthew. It wasn’t the first time his daughter seemed to pick up on his train of thought. Given everything that had happened in the last few years, it unnerved him when she did so.

“Do you think that when they turned on the wireless power, it made the presences visible? Or do you think it created them – or brought them back somehow?”

Matthew stopped walking for a moment and shrugged. They had decided long ago not to call them ghosts. He wasn’t sure if that helped or not.

“I don’t know.” He scratched the rough hair on his chin. “I can’t see them, remember. Not sure I’m the best person to ask.”

Zoe glanced around at the empty houses. “They always seem so unhappy.”

“Can you see any now?” Matthew asked.

“I always can when we’re in the city. They tend to stay in their houses, though.”

“What are they doing?” Matthew looked around, after all this time somehow expecting to see something.

“Different things. The things they did before they died. Again and again. On a loop.” She was staring at the window of a nearby house, and Matthew realised that she was close to tears.

“Come on.” He put an arm around his daughter and guided her forward. “Half hour and we’ll be outside the city.”

Zoe closed her eyes and put her hand in his. As they walked on, Matthew saw that she kept them closed.


Three



Outside the city, it was almost as if nothing had happened – as if 90% of the population hadn’t started seeing echoes of the dead and been driven insane overnight. But it was quieter than it used to be: no farm vehicles, no crops being grown. More than that, though, it was the birds. There were so few of them now. The ones that they saw acted strangely, either sitting idly or flying around in circles. Matthew had seen one bird, exhausted beyond its ability to stay aloft, just fall from the sky. Even on the ground, one wing crushed beneath it, it had tried to struggle forward like it had somewhere it needed to be.

Matthew had made his peace with the fact he would never understand what had happened. He couldn’t see the things that others could – that Zoe told him were all around them. On the whole, he had decided that it was probably a good thing. He had seen what it did to people – what it did to his wife. She had barely lasted the first night.

“It’s nice here,” said Zoe. Her voice was always different when they were outside the city.

Matthew smiled. The sun was warm on his face; they had enough supplies for a fortnight. Even his headache had receded. But it was seeing Zoe relax that really made the difference.

“Look at this,” said Matthew, fishing a packet out of his rucksack. Nothing was fresh anymore, but these particular biscuits kept better than most. Matthew opened them and handed one to Zoe. She nibbled the edge, then grinned. Matthew handed her another.

By mid-morning the city was just a smudge of dark colours in the distance. They had reached a stone bridge, spanning a broad river. The land beyond was farmland, grown wild with flowers and tall grass. The air above hummed with insect static.

They had crossed this bridge before, and Matthew stopped, waiting for guidance. Zoe shook her head and pointed.

Matthew had lost his glasses long ago and his eyesight, dulled by years staring at a computer screen, wasn’t up to much. Halfway across the bridge he could make out the cluster of vehicles that had been here the last time they crossed. Now, there was movement inside one of them.

“We should go,” said Zoe.

As they moved away, following the path beside the river, Matthew saw a figure crawl through the remains of a shattered windscreen and lay sprawled across the bonnet. After a few seconds, it squirmed back the way it had come. Just before they moved out of sight, the figure emerged and did the same thing again.

‘On a loop’ Zoe had said. Matthew knew from experience that if he tried to break that loop, whatever presence had hold of that person would react badly. He wasn’t about to do anything that put Zoe in harm’s way.

They found a picnic bench a few miles down the river beside a deserted café and stopped for lunch. As they sat there, Zoe sneezed three times, almost knocking her tin of tuna on the ground. Matthew smiled, remembering how his wife always sneezed in threes, and began searching his pack for the antihistamine. He found them underneath the items he had kept stashed away for the last six months or so. He would need them soon enough.

“Good afternoon.”

The voice seemed to come out of nowhere, and Matthew half fell off the bench as he snatched up his bat. Two figures emerged from the trees on the far side of the river. It was narrower here than downstream, and they were close enough for Matthew to see that it was a man and a woman, both no more than thirty.

“That’s close enough!”

The man raised his hands. “Please. We don’t mean you any harm.”

Matthew spoke to Zoe from the side of his mouth. “What do you see?”

She was already glancing around. “Nothing. I think they’re on their own.”

“We’d just like to talk,” the man called across the water.

“My name’s Linda,” the woman added. “What’s yours?” She addressed the question to Zoe.

“If you don’t mean us any harm, then go!”

“I understand why you’re cautious,” the man said. “You want to keep your child safe. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”

“Get your things.” Matthew opened his pack and Zoe swept the half-eaten lunch inside.

“Please!” the woman called. “We know somewhere safe!”

Matthew hoisted the pack over his shoulder and headed towards a low fence opposite the river, nudging Zoe forward to keep her ahead of him. He could still hear the man and woman calling as they scrambled over and ran through the tall grass.


*****



“Where are we going, Dad?” It was the question that Zoe used to ask all the time, but Matthew had not heard it in a while.

They had taken shelter in a storage shed, well-screened by sprouting bushes, and more than a mile from the river. It smelled of animals and there were rat pellets all over the floor.

Matthew gazed through the crack between door and frame. There was no sign of anyone else.

“We’ll head over the river,” he answered, finally.

“And then?” Zoe had settled on a well-gnawed sack of feed and was fiddling with the ends of her matted hair.

“Away from the city. But not too far: we’ll need to come back for supplies in a few weeks. We can keep looking for a place that’s empty – somewhere we can stay for a while longer.”

Zoe hadn’t been looking at him as he spoke, and now she made a ‘huh’ sound. “You know that older buildings – the ones you find in the country are usually worse. More history means more chance of something hanging around.”

Matthew closed the door. “What’s wrong?”

“They might have been nice, Dad.” Zoe yanked two threads of hair apart. “I don’t see why we have to run from everyone we meet.”

It was Matthew’s turn to make a ‘huh’ sound. His side still ached where he’d been walloped with a shovel. It was difficult not to snap.

“I know you’re trying to keep me safe, Dad, but we can’t do this forever.” At the word ‘this’ she gestured about her at the dilapidated shed.

“I know. It’s just that…”

“Never mind, Dad. I’ve heard it before.” Zoe moved past him and opened the door. “We should get going.”


*****



They had barely talked by the time they returned to the river. Matthew tried, but Zoe would do o more than shrug. They still needed to cross if they were to move beyond the suburbs; and the nearest bridge – the one they now approached – was only half a mile past the place where they had seen the strangers. The one after that was another two hours walk – and meant entering a built-up area. Matthew wanted to avoid that if possible.

“Stay close. Once we’re over the bridge, go left into that wood.”

“I know the drill, Dad.”

Halfway across the bridge, a child stepped out into the road. She looked a year or two younger than Zoe, dressed in a faded but pretty dress. Matthew began to back-up at once.

“It’s ok,” the girl said. “You don’t need to be frightened.”

Matthew glanced around, expecting to see that the man and woman appear behind them.

“What’s your name?”

It took Matthew a moment to realise that Zoe had asked the question.

“Jenny,” the girl answered. “And this is Thomas, my little brother.” A little boy emerged from behind the same wall that had hidden the girl. He clutched a teddy to his chest and sucked his thumb.

“Zoe!” Matthew moved to his daughter.

“It’s ok, Dad. There aren’t any presences here. They’re just children.”

Before Matthew could object, a third, fourth and fifth child appeared – two more girls and a boy. They ambled out into the road and stood beside the others.

“Clara, Beth and Jamie,” Jenny said, gesturing at the newcomers.

“They’re just children. We can’t leave them here.”

Matthew looked at them, but he was already shaking his head. They didn’t look that grubby, and they certainly weren’t starving. “They’re fine.”

“We thought that if you saw the children first it might reassure you.” The woman who had spoken to them earlier stood up from behind the wall. Matthew realised that she must have been crouching there, waiting. “There aren’t any echoes here. It’s just us.”

“We’re leaving,” Matthew said, yanking Zoe towards him.

“No.” She pulled back.

He tried again, but she took a step further away.

“Don’t do this.”

“Dad, I know you want to keep me safe, but this is ok. They’re children. And she’s a woman who has looked after them.”

Jenny, the oldest of the children, was walking towards Zoe. Matthew watched, terrified. For a moment, he felt the urge to hit the girl – to drive her away like you would a stray dog.

Then Jenny was reaching out and Zoe had hold of her hand. The two girls smiled at each other.

“It’s ok, Dad,” said, Zoe. “We’re ok.”


Four



“Jason thought it would be best if he waited for us at the house. We could see how…nervous you were when we spoke earlier.”

Zoe, surrounded by the children, walked ahead as Matthew and Linda – the woman from the river – paced behind, talking. Matthew continued to glance around nervously, not daring to take his eyes off Zoe for more than a few seconds.

“How long have you two been on your own?” Linda asked.

Matthew shot an accusing glance at Linda, saw the surprise in her eyes and realised how threatening he must look. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”

“It’s alright.”

She let the silence linger, and Matthew found himself elaborating. “I haven’t really talked to anyone for a long time. Except Zoe...”

There was laughter from the little group of children. The youngest had hopped up onto Zoe’s back and was being tickled by one of the others. Matthew watched in utter bemusement. It was both the most natural and incongruous thing in the world.

“Why aren’t you affected by the presences? The echoes.” Matthew asked, using the word Linda had earlier.

“We’ve been lucky,” Linda said. “Like the two of you, I suppose.”

Matthew watched the children playing. He tried to remember the last time he had seen Zoe do that. “My daughter can see them,” he said. “But she seems to be able to ignore what they tell her to do.”

Linda nodded.

“I don’t think it’s easy, though. I don’t know what they say but it upsets her…”

“You can’t see them?”

Matthew shook his head. He stopped. Linda stopped too, and the children moved a little way ahead.

“This…” Matthew gestured after the youngsters. “It’s nice. But Zoe and I have stayed alive by keeping away from people.”

Linda frowned, then turned to gaze after the children. “What about Zoe?”

“What about Zoe?”

“What does she want? It can’t be easy growing up alone.”

Matthew stared at Linda. He knew his face was hard, but this time he didn’t care.

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do. You’ve kept her alive for almost two years. That’s amazing. But, she’s still a child.” Linda looked at the little group ahead of them and smiled. “isn’t that what she needs to be?”


*****



“They have heating, Dad - and running water! Jenny gets to take a bath every week!”

Matthew continued to nod and do his best to look impressed. It wasn’t hard, to be fair: the house that Linda, Jason and the children lived in was impressive – an ultra-modern build, all sleek angles, glass walls and solar-panelled rooves. Whoever owned it before them had put a well in the garden that linked directly to the house’s water supply. When they had arrived, Jason was doing something to the pipes in the garden which suggested he knew how things worked. Not for the first time in two years, Matthew thought ruefully about the years spent learning to design websites for fashion companies.

“It’s great,” Matthew told Zoe. “And it’ll still be here in the morning.”

Zoe sighed dramatically. In the few hours spent with Jenny, she had started to act more like the girl she had been two years ago. Matthew was both scared and reassured by that.

Linda and Jason were waiting, a respectful distance away, as Matthew and Zoe discussed their plans. Now, with Zoe folding her arms and looking annoyed, Linda ambled over.

“We appreciate your offer,” Matthew said, anticipating her question. “It’s just that we’re used to being on our own...”

Another ‘huh’ sound from Zoe.

“I understand. Well, you know where we’ll be.”

Jason raised a hand and gestured a farewell.

“If you don’t mind?” Linda held out a soft toy for Zoe. It was the one that the older boy had been carrying. “Thomas says he’d like you to have this. For now.”

Zoe took it and gave the toy a hug. “Please say thank you.”

There were only a few hours of light left as they set out from the house. Zoe paced ahead in silence, her back proving surprisingly eloquent. They had traversed this area before and bits of it seemed quite familiar, even in the gathering gloom. There had been a time when Matthew took some comfort from that but now, as they approached a big oak under which he knew there would be space for the tent, it felt different. Like they were trudging over old ground.

Zoe remained quiet. The few times she talked it was to tell her father about something one of the children had said or done. Each time, his reaction – though he didn’t mean it to – stopped her from saying any more.

As Zoe fell asleep that night, Matthew found that he could not. He watched her curled up in her sleeping bag with the toy enfolded in her arms. Perhaps Linda was right; perhaps she could still be a child.

That was something he had given up on a long time ago.


*****



Jenny and Thomas ran to meet Zoe, as she and Matthew approached the house. They hugged like old friends.

Jason and Linda were digging beneath the shade of an apple tree just starting to show fruit. Their three younger children were playing a game on the lawn with a tiny table and chairs. Putting aside his fork and shrugging off a pair of thick work gloves, Jason came over and extended a hand. “I’m glad you came back.”

Matthew accepted the grip, a gesture that seemed both strange and familiar.

“We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Jason.”

“Matthew.”

Matthew glanced at Zoe. He had only agreed to come back if she promised to check every member of the family for signs of any presences. She looked back at him, smiled, and shook her head.

“You mind if we just finish this, Matt?” Jason gestured at the soil he and Linda had been turning.

“Of course.”

Matthew stood in the middle of the garden, his gaze passing between Jason and Linda’s digging and his daughter. Another stipulation of the visit had been that Zoe stay outside where he could see her. He watched her being led over to the tiny table and seated on a chair so small her knees jutted up around her chin. The younger children began to serve her a meal, which seemed to include some real food.

“Carrots,” said Jason, dropping his fork and scooping a handful of seed from a sack. He scattered it into the freshly dug grooves. “Can’t keep scavenging forever.”

“I’ll get us all a drink,” said Linda, moving towards the well.

“Were you a farmer?” asked Matthew. “Before, I mean?”

Jason laughed and brushed the last of the seed off his hands. “Not quite. I was an ‘IT Solutions Analysist.” Jason air-quoted his former job title. “How about you?”

Matthew smiled faintly and began to tell him all about it.


****



“It’s very kind, but…”

Zoe glared at her dad and reached for the dress that Linda was offering her.

“It really is fine,” Linda insisted. “You’ve been on the move. We have room to store things, so naturally we’ve collected more. Enough to spare, honestly.”

Zoe held the dress up. It was long and pale, with flowers sewn into the fabric. It made her look about three years younger.

All Matthew could think about was how impractical it was, but he found himself shrugging and saying: “Sure.”

Jenny helped Zoe change outfits behind a bush and she emerged like a model on a catwalk. Jenny clapped, and the other children copied her. Zoe tossed her scrunched-up trousers and t-shirt at Matthew’s feet.

“You look like a proper little girl now,” said Linda.

“Sorry to interrupt the fashion show, but the food’s ready,” said Jason, emerging from the house.

Set before the broad, glass front of the building was a wooden deck with a large table and chairs. Jason set a plate of food down on the table and handed a second to Jenny. She and the other children scampered down onto the grass, where they began to eat.

Jason and Linda motioned for Matthew to join them at the table.

“Don’t they want to sit with us?” Matthew asked, noticing that there was ample room.

Jason cut into a roasted potato, grown in the garden. “They’re happier with each other.”

“Children need other children,” said Linda.

Matthew was not above noticing such a pointed comment, but Linda and Jason had been kind, so he said nothing and began to eat. Despite the tension he still felt, he couldn’t help but make an actual ‘umm’ sound as he tasted the spud. Jason smiled, obviously pleased.

For some time, they ate in silence watching the children.

“We’ll give you the grand tour when you’re ready,” said Jason, pushing aside his empty plate.

Matthew could sense the unspoken invitation to stay – the offer of a permanent place for him and for Zoe.

As night approached, Matthew knew that he had to make up his mind. They needed time to find somewhere safe to stay if they were going to leave, and yet he continued to procrastinate. A few times, he caught Zoe looking at him with anxious eyes. She knew what he was thinking and feared the moment when he might tell her they were going.

“We’ll sleep out here on the lawn,” Matthew found himself saying, suddenly. “I know there’s room inside and I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just that…”

Jason patted him on the shoulder. “The lawn it is.”

At bedtime, Jason and Linda’s children got changed and Jenny presented Zoe with a pair of pyjamas. She changed too, and they all settled down on beanbags that Linda and Jason brought out onto the decking. Linda produced a picture book – one that Matthew remembered from years ago – and read to the children like it was some kind of sleepover. Matthew smiled – realising that that was exactly what it was.

“Oh, shit…” Zoe stood up, her hands clamped around her belly and groin. “Dad...” There was blood trickling between her fingers.

“It’s ok, sweetie.” Matthew pushed between the children, who were staring at Zoe in bewilderment.

“Zoe, you’re a guest but we do not use words like that in this house.”

For a moment, Matthew stared at Linda, then he gestured at the blood on his daughter’s clothes. “Linda, it’s her first time.”

“Oh, my God.” She took a step back.

“This way – everyone inside.” Jason motioned the children into the house.

“Can we use the bathroom?” Matthew asked.

Linda began to gather up the beanbags and tossed them into the house through the side door – all except the one with blood on.

“Linda?”

When she still didn’t respond, Matthew guided Zoe down onto the grass promising her that she would be fine. He had outlined what would happen a while ago and now reached into his pack and retrieved the sanitary products he kept stashed inside.

“We’ve got this,” he told Zoe, who looked pale. He handed her the box of towels and glanced back towards Linda, but she had gone inside.

“I can come with you or you can do it yourself – whichever is easier.” Zoe nodded and Matthew walked her back to the house.

Jason met them in the doorway. For a moment it seemed as though he was going to bar their way. Then he stepped aside and said: “Up the stairs, first door on your right.” He looked almost as pale as Zoe.

“I’m fine, Dad,” Zoe said, pulling away as she reached the bathroom. “We talked about this in school once.”

Matthew smiled as she closed the door and then turned and sat on the top of the stairs. Below, it was very quiet.


*****



Matthew finished pitching the tent in darkness and then settled Zoe inside with her sleeping bag. She had told him that her stomach hurt, and he had given her a paracetamol. Cuddled up with her new teddy, she now seemed close to sleep.

There were no lights on inside Linda and Jason’s house, and the big glass panels gleamed darkly. Matthew had apologised to Jason for any mess that Zoe might have made – and for her swearing, having seen how much it upset Linda. Jason told him not to mention it and had explained that Linda, who Matthew had not seen again all evening, had always been squeamish.

Matthew looked once more at the black glass and then climbed into the tent. Zoe was asleep, so he curled up close and draped an arm over her.


Five



Matthew came awake so suddenly it was like he hadn’t slept at all. His muscles felt taut and his senses seemed to be searching for something.

He pulled away from Zoe and edged up the zip so that he could peep outside. An expanse of dark lawn led up to the looming glass-fronted house.

Jason was creeping across the decking. He moved swiftly and quietly, heading towards the blackness of the woods behind the house. More than once, he stopped and glanced around.

Matthew nudged Zoe and she lifted her head, eyes groggy. He pressed a finger to his lips and began shoving loose items into his pack.

Zoe rolled over. “What’s happening?”

“It may be nothing – but pack your things just in case. Don’t worry about the tent.”

Matthew started to go but Zoe pulled him into a hug, an awkward thing in the confines of the tent. Her gaze was pleading. “Dad?”

He lifted the zip. “Just get ready.”

Matthew headed for the spot where he had last seen Jason. Without the bat he had lost a few days ago his hands felt suddenly empty and, as he reached the edge of the trees, he retrieved a sturdy-looking stick from the thick grass. The inside of the wood was as dark as a cellar. It had the same oppressive feel as well, and smelt of old, damp earth. Matthew felt the bottom of his trousers growing heavy as he waded through the clammy undergrowth. Fifty paces in it occurred to him that Jason’s plan may have been to lure him away from Zoe. For an instant, he almost turned and ran back to her. Then he heard a sound up ahead. Staying low, he crept forward.

“Matt! Come out, please! There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Matthew advanced, the stick held ready in his hands. Where the branches parted, a little patch of starlight fell on the grass. Jason stood in the centre of it, smiling broadly.

“Here!” He motioned at the empty air.

“If there’s something there, I can’t see it,” said Matthew, judging the distance between him and Jason.

“Really?” Jason glanced between the breath-fogged air and Matthew. “I thought this might be different for you.”

“Zoe said there weren’t any presences here – that nothing was influencing any of you.”

“There aren’t!” Jason shook his finger in the air. “This isn’t like a normal echo. These are different. And they don’t influence us - Linda and I want the same thing that they do!”

“Which is?” Matthew closed the distance a stride.

“To protect the children. They’re innocent in all of this. That’s why we took them in.”

“Took them in?”

“That’s right – Jenny, Thomas and the others. We gave them a home.” Jason’s face cracked, just for a moment, revealing a deep well of pain that he had hidden until now. “We lost our own children when everything changed. But now we have a chance to raise others. To be parents again. Better than that - to be parents forever!”

“I don’t understand.”

Jason sighed so deeply that his face vanished in the vapour. “You will understand. And so will Zoe. She’ll…”

Matthew didn’t care what the next word was going to be. He bounded forward, every ounce of love and fear he had swinging through the tip of that branch.

It didn’t connect, though. A moment before the impact, Jason jerked and shuddered – and a voice came out of his mouth which wasn’t his.

“Wait.”

Matthew had never been influenced before, but he felt something now: like dozens of tiny spider’s scuttling around inside his skull. The stick in his hands slowed and then stopped.

The wood vanished. Matthew was with his wife again, holding Becky’s hand in the hospital as she pushed and strained for longer than he thought possible. Then he was setting Zoe down on the grass, feeling his heart swell as her eyes focused on his and she smiled for the first time. He was following her around the shops on newly mobile legs, marvelling at her desire to explore the world. He was kissing her on the first day of school. He was carrying her into A&E with a broken leg.

He was watching her walk out the house to be with her friends rather than with him…

“If you stay here, she can be with you forever…can be safe forever… can remain a child forever.”

Some part of Matthew wanted that more than anything in the world. Just before everything had changed, he had felt like Zoe slipping through his fingers. Then, through all the horror and the hurt, she had come back to him – she had needed him again like she had when she was little.

This thing – this echo – could prolong that. He knew that for sure; in the way that you know the sun will come up. It could stop her becoming a woman. She could be his little girl for years to come.

His.

His.“No…” He said the word again and again, like a mantra or a charm. As he did, the dream faded, and the wood reappeared. He felt the stick in his hands.

He swung it with everything he had.

Jason staggered with the impact, the stick breaking as it connected with his jaw. Matthew dropped the stump and ran back into the darkness, leaping over fallen branches and stumbling over rough ground. All that mattered now was getting back to Zoe.

He found her standing by the tent, clutching his pack. Her expression was pained, but Matthew barely slowed as he tugged her away and urged her to run.

As they neared the road, Zoe slowed and Matthew realised that she had been calling out for some time. “What about the children?”

“There’s…a presence here,” he gasped. “It’s different…Jason and Linda are cooperating with it.” Matthew knew that he wasn’t making much sense. “We have to go.”

“We can’t leave them.”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

“There is.” Zoe’s face looked small and delicate in the pale starlight, but hard too – like a statue chiselled out of marble. There was a resolve in it that Matthew hadn’t seen before.

“I can resist them, Dad.”

Matthew shook his head and gripped Zoe’s arm, hard enough that it had to hurt. She still said: “No…I can fight them!”

“I said…”

They both said “no” at the same time.

“It’s my job to keep you safe.” Matthew tried to fill his voice with authority. But it sounded small and desperate.

“You have.” Zoe touched her father’s face. “Through everything. But this is something you can’t do.”

Matthew stared at his daughter – and she stared right back.

“OK,” he said. “But I’m coming with you.”


Six



Jason and Linda were standing on the decking in the dim starlight. Behind them stood the five children, still dressed in their night clothes. To Matthew’s patchy eyesight, none of them seemed to have faces – just smudges of shadow and pale light.

“I can see them,” said Zoe.

“Them?”

Zoe nodded. “There are two echoes.” She grimaced. “They seem to think this is some sort of children’s hospital. They’re saying something about…an operation. To fix me.”

Jason extended his arms in exaggerated greeting, apparently unconcerned with the gash on his swollen cheek. “I knew it! I knew you’d come back.”

“Dad. They’re coming…”

Matthew squeezed his daughter’s hand. He was about to tell her that it would be ok when she screamed and started to shake. Whatever was happening, Matthew could not see it, but he felt it – felt it through Zoe. There were flashes of young women being strapped down, electrodes pressed to their heads or dreadful, mutilating procedures performed on their bodies. ‘We will remove the sin from you’ intoned an awful, moralising voice. Matthew held his convulsing daughter, lowering her gently towards the ground. Her eyes were white and her breath came in brittle gasps.

Zoe’s arm came up. She seemed to have hold of something. Then she grasped her belly and groaned.

“Get off her!” Matthew roared.

Up on the decking, Jason and Linda were howling. The children huddled behind them wept – all except Thomas who came running towards Matthew and Zoe. Matthew raised a hand threateningly, but Thomas ignored it; he threw himself down beside Zoe and, embracing her, told her that she was kind and gentle and good – that she had done nothing to be ashamed of; that the bad people were wrong.

Matthew glanced around desperately. He felt pulses of something through Zoe but there was nothing to see. Nothing he could fight. Nothing he…

Zoe’s back arched, bending so far that Matthew feared it would snap. Blood seeped from one nostril. Then she slumped in his arms. At the same moment, Jason and Linda ended their howling. There was a thump as the two of them dropped onto the decking. Zoe lay limp and pale and still. She drew a long, slow breath and settled into the rhythm of a deep, exhausted sleep.

“It’s ok,” said Thomas, resting his head on Zoe’s lap. “She made them go away.”


*****



“Are you sure?” Zoe looked from one child to another and then back to Jenny, who nodded her head.

“We’re staying,” announced Jenny. She seemed older now – almost a young woman herself.

Thomas hugged Jenny and each of the younger children, then took Zoe’s hand. She led him over to Matthew who was waiting on the lawn.

“Stay here,” Matthew told them both.

Jason and Linda stood on the decking. The left side of Jason’s face was puffy and discoloured; the eye almost shut. More noticeable than this injury, though, was the way that they held themselves. They seemed exhausted. Broken.

“Thomas is coming with us,” Matthew said.

He saw Linda squeeze Jason’s arm and turn her head slightly. There were tears in her eyes.

“The others say that they want to stay.”

“We’ll…”

Matthew cut across Jason. “I’ll come back. And check on them.”

Jason nodded.

“Zoe tells me that the echoes are gone. I don’t know how much they influenced you…But, you’re free to make your own choices now.”

Matthew waited until they both met his eyes.

“Look after them – but let them grow up. At some point, that will mean letting them grow beyond you.”

Matthew sighed. “I know that’s never easy.” He glanced at Zoe, who was helping Thomas to put on his pack. “And I know it always comes too soon.”

“Are they OK?” Zoe asked as Matthew returned.

Jason, Linda and the four children were all on the deck together. Jenny puts her arms around Linda’s waist. “I hope so,” said Matthew.

“Where to now, Dad?”

Matthew hoisted the tent onto his shoulder and gestured towards the road. “Well, Zoe, I guess that’s something that we should talk about.”



THE END


© 2020 Carl Walmsley

Bio: My writing has been published in Daily Science Fiction and various anthologies - and has been shortlisted for the Harper's Pen Award.

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