The Monk Man

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‘Tell me a spooky story, Mummy.’

‘No Lewis, it’s late. It’s way past your bedtime.’

‘Please Mummy, just a little one…’

‘Lewis, no. Look…’

‘But Mummy, it’s Halloween!’

‘Lewis, no. Just go to sleep, ok!’

‘Just a quick story…’

‘No. Now goodnight!’

Jane leaned down and kissed her 8 year old son softly on the forehead, caressing his arm. She reached down by the side of the bed and switched his bedside lamp off, smothering the room in darkness. She stepped away gently, trying to project a serenity onto proceedings, ushering him hopefully into the realms of sleep.

One step.

Two.

Another…

‘…Mummy…’ came a faint whisper.

She grimaced. Yet continued walking tentatively towards his bedroom door. Ignore it, she told herself. Ignore it. It’s all those sweets he’s piled down his throat. He’ll crash out soon enough.

‘…Mummy…’ another whisper.

No. No, she told herself. Two more steps and she’d be out of the room. Two more carpeted steps until the relative safety of the staircase.

‘…Mummy…’ the volume increased, ‘…Mummy…what about The Monk Man…?’

She froze.

Her bones jolted. Her spine tingled.

Words trembled on the tip of her tongue, failing to fully form.

‘W-what…?’ she finally uttered.

‘The Monk Man, Mummy. Can you tell me about The Monk Man?’

Her son’s voice was steady. Direct. Assured.

‘…How do you…I mean…I’ve never…’

The words retreated down her throat. She stood there in the darkness of her son’s bedroom. Her figure ever-so-slightly hunched, the weight of the moment temporarily skewing her frame.

No, she thought. No, she had never told him about The Monk Man. Never. She’d never told anyone. Well, not anyone that wasn’t there at the time. And they were dead, the other three. Veronica. Damien. Annabelle. Maybe because it had all seemed like a dream, a nightmare. That Halloween night thirty some years ago. Bathed in a surreal, hallucinogenic haze. But it was real, wasn’t it? Of course it was. But still. There was no way of him ever finding out. Unless…no. No. No, she had never uttered a word of it to Jonathan. Not once in their ten years of marriage. Not even when drunk. She’d been too careful. She’d never even told him when speaking to his gravestone, never once when whispering to his memory in the dark of night. Was ‘careful’ the word? No, wary, perhaps. Too wary to utter a word. Oh Jonathan, she thought, her heart aching slightly. It’s times like these, times like these. Four years now. If only you could find a way back to me. To us…

‘Mummy, who even is the Monk Man?’ Lewis’ question interrupted her introspective wrangling.

She hesitated. Only for a second. Before allowing her practiced levels of parental bullshittery to kick in.

‘Don’t be silly Lewis, there’s no such thing as any Monk Man’ she answered, amplifying the derision in her voice. ‘You’ve just had too much sugar tonight. And you’ve been watching too many Halloween cartoons and films.’

‘But…’

‘No buts young man. It’s time for bed so get that sweetie-filled little head of yours down on that pillow and get some sleep! School tomorrow remember. The week doesn’t just stop because it’s Halloween!’

‘But…’

‘Goodnight Lewis.’ The tone of her voice was stern this time.

‘…Goodnight Mummy…’ came the answer, drenched in an encroaching slumber.

She stepped out the room, taking a breath to compose herself.

‘Bloody Monk Man…’ she whispered to herself dismissively as she began to walk down the stairs, the half-drunk bottle of White chilling in the fridge calling out to her with a sudden pull.

Lives

She stopped. Again. Her hand grasping tightly hold of the banister. The word seemed to have slipped from the darkness, caressing her earlobes. Almost like a light breeze tickling her skin.

She felt her body clench. Her chest tightened. Her breath shortened. No. NO.

‘There’s no fucking Monk Man!’ she hissed into the darkness, shaking her head. ‘There never was! It was a daft children’s story! An urban legend! A myth! Lies!’ She loosened her grip on the banister and took another step down.

The Monk Man…

No. God, no! Don’t listen, she told herself. Tricks. The mind playing tricks.

The Monk Man…

Shadows. Sounds. Trickery. That’s all.

The Monk Man lives…

The whispers taunted her, piercing her from every corner of the darkness. Filing her ears with the half whispered, half childish-lullaby. Her mind buckled under the weight of memories. Under the weight of images. Of that day. Of that day all those years ago. Of her friends. Of their playful singing, their teasing, their taunting. Of their bodies, laying strewn on the ground. Lifeless. Of the face. That eyeless, expressionless face. Of the terror, the murder it wrought. Of the helplessness. Of the fear. Of the woods. Her daring escape. The escape she never thought possible. The one that seemed almost too easy. As if he…as if IT…had allowed her to flee. Images of its robed figure almost floating through the field, weaving effortlessly through the trees in pursuit of her. The bloodied roped dangling from its lifeless arms. Like a dream. Like a nightmare.

The words racing through her mind.

The Monk Man. NO. The Monk Man. Stop it! The Monk Man lives. No please god no! Run girls, run boys. No no no, they’d been told not to chant it, not to sign it, it would summon him, that was the legend. The Monk Man lives.

Her legs gave way beneath her. She stumbled on the stairs, her ankle twisting in the process. Shards of pain ripped through her legs as she turned and scrambled up the handful of stairs she had descended.

She burst into Lewis’ room, reaching for the light on her way in and missing it, connecting only with the wall.

A sharp stab of fear echoed through her bones as she arrived at the foot of his bed. A slither of moonlight had worked its way in through the otherwise shuttered curtains, enough to illuminate his features. His eyes were closed. To all intents, he was sleeping.

But she heard them.

The words.

Saw her son’s lips moving.

Knowing what she would hear before the volume would even reach her ears.

 

The Monk Man

The Monk Man

The Monk Man lives

Run girls, run boys

The Monk Man lives

 

Tears streamed down her face as she stared at her boy, sleeping peacefully yet all the while uttering those chilling words.

Tears of trauma. Tears of memory. Tears of resignation.

She knew.

Before she even started to turn she knew what she would see in the darkness.

The robed figure. Eyeless. Expressionless. Without feature, without nuance, consumed only with purpose.

She had escaped once before.

Or had been allowed to flee.

To carry the fear in her heart perhaps. To taunt her. Tease her. With hope and misery, happiness and grief in equal measure. A punishment worse than her friends had suffered that day.

But now, she knew, her time was nigh.

Yes, she knew. She knew he was behind her. In the darkness. The shadows.

She’d somehow always known.

She stared at her beautiful son, lying peacefully. Blissfully unaware.

The tears, the sobs, hastening.

‘I love you baby…’

The whispered, trembled words fell silent in the darkness as she felt the rope slip tightly around her neck.

Distant Lights

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She held onto his arm firmly as she led him across the pebbles. Her fingers digging into his skin. He smiled. Slightly uneasily. He knew not why. This was Cara. His love. His all. The one person that made him feel as close to complete as he ever believed he could be. The one human being that he could feel comfortable with. Free from the cloying, gnawing feeling that itched at him. Free. At least sometimes anyway.

Cara continued to march on. His eyes scanned the back of her figure, her frame, as he followed. The beautiful silken flow of her black hair, the almost-baggy striped top that nevertheless clung to the perfect, still-youthful curvature of the flesh hidden beneath. He felt love. He felt desire. Unending warmth. Yet his smile continued to wane. Again, without reason. Without catalyst. The pebbles beneath his feet dug into the thinning soles of his battered trainers. The waves either side of them lapped gently, almost indiscreetly, against the slightly raised banks that allowed for the pebbled path to exist. A path leading to the approaching lighthouse.

As he glanced over Cara’s shoulder he could see their home town twinkling half-heartedly in the dimming light of the Autumn evening. Across the water. Near but somehow stubbornly declaring its distance all at once. The night was calm. But, along with the dimming light, the heat that had unexpectedly drifted across the surrounding area earlier in the day was swiftly beginning to dissipate. As if in a contradictory unison with the oncoming darkness. His demeanour wilted further.

He ventured a question; ‘Are you still not going to tell me what this is all about, Cara?’ He filtered the words with a slight, nervous laugh in a failed attempt to mask the uneasiness prickling through his mind.

‘Nope’ came Cara’s reply. The word spat into the horizon as she continued trudging on, refusing to turn and acknowledge the source.

Was there humour in the voice, he wondered? Was there warmth? Or was there, as he initially suspected, a touch of resilience? Even something approaching contempt. No, he thought. Don’t be daft. And yet. And yet. For some reason he couldn’t shake off the quivering uncertainty slowly sliding its hands around his veins. She seemed different somehow. Cara, that is. Cold, almost. She had done since they had got out of the car. She was fine on the journey over, yes. Absolutely. She had been Cara. The same Cara he had known since they were both schoolkids. The same Cara he had taken to prom all those years back. The same Cara he had fallen in love with. The same Cara he had only recently asked to marry him. That Cara. The Cara who laughed, smiled, embraced, listened, empathised, loved. His Cara. And yet as soon as they had left the car…as soon as they had started walking along this path…

He clenched his wrist in an attempt to loosen her grip, even slightly. But her grip remained true, clutching and digging into his skin. The kiss, he suddenly thought. Yes, the kiss. Was it their first kiss? No, of course it wasn’t. That had been…oh Christ…that was…yes…yes, that’s right, their first kiss had been at the cinema. They’d been watching some overblown, saccharine American action film. Deep Impact was it? No, no, Armageddon. That was it. Christ, what a lot of nonsense that was. That one with the Aerosmith song, that’s right. But no, the lighthouse kiss couldn’t have been long after, could it? Yeah, that’s it, it must have been shortly after. So that’s what this is about. Ah, sentimental Cara as always. It must be an anniversary of that night, he thought. Only I’m sure that was summer. Yeah, it was the height of summer. And this is well into Autumn. Well, if it’s not that then what…or why would she…

The wedding! The wedding, of course! That’s what she’s always said. If she had to do the whole fancy wedding thing then she would but she would always have preferred to be more spontaneous and do it on the spur-of-the-moment. It’s more romantic that way, she said. It sucks the administration and banalities of the planning out of it. That’ll be it. Will it? Jesus…surely not, I’m not…well, how could I be ready to…no. No, she won’t have. Not right now. Would she?

He felt his body, his feet, trying to slow, trying to resist. But still she held fast. He thought he could detect a malice this time. A reserve of strength and fortitude in her grasp that belied any rapidly diminishing thoughts of a potentially joyous outcome.

‘Cara, look, what’s this about, it’s getting…’

‘Nearly there.’

Her answer was, once again, curt. Slicing through his question with dismissal. What the hell is this all about, he asked himself. Again and again. Desperately flicking through the archives of his mind to find a solution. Is she pregnant, perhaps? Is she not well? Is someone else not well? But why would she take me here to tell me!? Could she have…no, no! No, she couldn’t have…that was too long ago. And anyway there’s no way she could have…no, it won’t be that. But what the hell is it!?

They arrived at the door of the lighthouse. The uneven crunching of the pebbles ceasing, allowing the gentle sound of the water to nudge its way back within earshot. She turned her head towards him slightly. A half turn, if anything. Her eyes never making or maintaining eye contact with his own.

‘That’s us here. Follow me up these stairs and…’

‘Cara, stop…’ now it was his turn to show his strength. He clutched onto her arm, tightly grasping her wrist, restricting her movement.

‘Don’t.’

‘Cara, don’t be silly, what is this all about?’

‘Don’t!’ she yanked her arm from him, her teeth gritting for barely more than a millisecond. A flush of anger quickly rising and, just as quickly, falling from her eyes. She regained her composure. Swiftly. Almost too swiftly, it seemed. She even forced the hint of a smile. ‘Look, just follow me. Ok?’

She pushed the door. It opened. Creakily yes, but without opposition. Surely it would be locked, he thought. Why would it…how could she…is there…no. There must be someone up there. It must be a wedding. Or a surprise party. Or something. Something theatrical. She’s always been one for the big gesture. For the big reveal. But why the coldness? Why the stoicism? An act. That’ll be it. An act, surely. His thoughts reconciled enough for him to flash her a weak smile. She returned the gesture. But still her eyes remained devoid of contact with his own. She took his hand once again. As he stepped into the dark of the lighthouse behind her, the distant lights emanating from the shoreline of the town crept into the periphery of his vision.

Their footsteps echoed as they ascended the narrow spiral staircase leading to the top of the lighthouse. Each step reaching out into the darkness, almost as if posed as a question or cry, and each receiving no response. His heartbeat steadily increased with each laboured step. His chest started to tighten, constricting his breathing ever so slightly, expanding and retracting slowly like a long disused and dust-covered accordion. Panic? Excitement? Nerves? All three were in there certainly. But why? It was Cara. His love. His one and only…well., his true love. He’d never felt fear with Cara. Never felt uncertainty. So why now? Why in this instance? Why…

‘Here we go…’ she whispered, as they reached the last step, her voice faltering beneath a fragile croak. The rigidity, the anger gone. For the first time since leaving the car she seemed unsure. Strangled by nerves. Another door stood before them. She let go of his hand. As she did he noticed a quiver in her wrist, one with a touch of clamminess to it. She’s nervous, he thought. Happily. She’s just as nervous as me. It must be…it must be the wedding. Behind this door. It must be a secret wedding. She’s nervous. The big reveal, that’s what it’ll be. A smile spread across his face. His own nerves fading, engulfed by excitement. He tried to catch her eye as she slowly reached for the door handle but, still, she would not look at him. Look at her, he thought, she’s a bag of nerves. Of course she is. Any bride would be on their wedding day, I mean it’s only natural. There must be friends and family and all sorts behind this door. I’m ready. I’m happy. This is why she’s brought me here, this is why she’s dragged me here. Just a couple more steps and I’ll be…

He froze as he stepped through the door.

There were people, yes. Friends, of a fashion, yes. His heart lurched. His chest tore into his guts. He felt a surge of bile wallpaper the inside of his throat. His mouth dry, wordless. He looked up, searching for Cara. She had stepped away from him. Several paces from him. This time she was looking at him. Her eyes fixed on his; gleaming with tears, twitching with rage. His legs felt weak. Weaker than he’d ever known them to be. He felt frail, exposed, broken.

‘Cara..’ he managed to utter, ‘Cara…I’m…’

‘SHUT UP!’ she screamed. ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!’

He obliged, paralysed by the unexpected ferocity of her scream. His head dropped. Desperation weighing it down. Desperation and fear. Thoughts blending in his mind, unable or unwilling to separate and form coherent wholes. Blanketed only by that desperation and fear.

‘Look up! LOOK AT THEM YOU PIECE OF SHIT! LOOK AT THEM!!’ Tears of rage burrowed their way out from Cara’s eyes, cascading down her cheeks.

His gaze slowly rose from his feet, staring up into the near darkness of the room. A section of his mind subconsciously registering the distant twinkle of lights, still decorating the coastline of the town, flickering through the window. Something which only minutes before had represented home, safety, comfort. And which now came cloaked in that growing fear and desperation. As his gaze continued to rise the figures in the room become clearer to him. The girls. Forming through the darkness. Standing against the computer unit skirting the perimeter of the room. Almost casually but clearly taut with anxiety. Their own faces twisted in anger, staring at his own. Alice. Briana. Sophie. Amy. Shit, he thought. Shit, no. Shit. This can’t be happening. No, it isn’t. They’re…they wouldn’t have told her…they’re only…she couldn’t have found out…she…

‘Cara, I love you, I have a…’ the ill-advised words tumbled from his mouth without warning.

‘SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU PIECE OF FUCKING SCUM!’ spittle flew from Cara’s mouth as she stepped towards him. ‘THEY’RE CHILDREN! THEY’RE BARELY EVEN FUJCKING TEENAGERS!’

‘No I…I didn’t…it was only just…’

‘NO! NO! OK!? You don’t get to talk, you don’t get to fucking TALK! NOT ANYMORE! NOT EVER AGAIN!’

He felt a jolt of urgency race through his body. He started to turn. Desperate for a way out. For an exit. To fly down the stairs and run. Flee. Escape. They couldn’t prove anything. It’d be their words against his. He’d wiped the hard drive. Sold the computer. Switched phones. He’d stopped all that. It was Cara. He’d stopped because of her. He’d tried again and again. And then he’d finally stopped. They were kids, no-one would believe them. Surely. He was liked. He was a nice guy. He was…wait…they are, they’re only girls. And Cara’s only Cara. Fuck sake. Get a grip here…! Think about this. Look at the size of them. There’s no way they could overpower him, is there. There’s no way they could…and, in fact, they’re trespassing. They shouldn’t even be in here should they. Aha, they’ve fucked up here. Why even come here? Why not just go to the police!? Why not just…silly fucking stupid girls! I’d expect that from them but Cara, ooh I’m disappointed in Cara. I thought she was better than this.

He stopped and slowly turned back, facing into the room again. A sly smile crept slid across his face.

‘You know…’

‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’ Cara’s instant reply bulleted back at him.

‘No,’ he laughed slightly, ‘you know what, I don’t think I will. Look at you Cara…you’re embarrassing yourself. Do you really think the five of you can overpower me? Really? Come on now Cara. You know I’m stronger than you. And as for these little sluts, don’t make me laugh. You and your little squad here. Teaming up. How very fucking cute. You really think they didn’t want to, that they were innocent in this whole thing? They’ve done the dirty on you too here.’

He looked at Cara. She seemed caught. Caught somewhere between anger and devastation. Exhaustion spilled from her face. He continued, the smile dropping from his face, a sneer stepping into its place.

‘You’re out of your depth Cara. You always were. It’s pathetic. I’m too smart for you and these little bitches. I can easily turn this into a series of little infatuations. Made up stories. Girls make up fantasies all the time. Do you really think I’d be stupid enough not to delete things from my hard drive. Eh? Stupid enough not to ditch the phone? I expected better of you Cara. Come on. And this whole lighthouse charade? You always did like a spectacle didn’t you, darling? But that was another mistake on your part, see. You’re the one that’s broken the law here, sneaking into a private building. What did you do, smash a window downstairs? Another genius move that I’m sure will look good when the police…’

‘They didn’t smash a window.’

He turned, terror filling his lungs. A man’s voice. A deep, steady man’s voice. He looked into the shadows and saw a man, well over six foot emerge slowly from them. A set of keys tinkled slightly as he moved.

‘They used these. Or rather…I did’ said the bearded man, stepping into the half-light, his features slowly appearing through the gloom. His face a portrait of composed menace. The keys twirling round the fingers of his left hand. An object glistening slightly in the darkness hung from his right hand.

Oh no. Oh shit! Briana’s dad. Or no, Amy’s maybe. Oh shit I don’t know, but he’s the one that monitors this place. Monitors the computer. He’s. He’s. It’s not…! Oh fuck…

He turned to run.

A short sharp cacophony of screams burst into his earlobes before he felt the dull thud connect with his skull. One last flash of the distant twinkling town lights scraped against his vision as he crumpled to the floor.

Tree Swing

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It begins with a creak.

That much I now know to be true.

A creak. Nothing more. Simple really. A sound. A delicate outline on the wind. The slightest, and most innocuous, of creaks.

But soon the creaks begin to increase. In both volume and frequency. They begin to bite. Jarring against the breeze. Scratching at your mind. Your skin. Tearing at the imagined layer of sensitivity coating your spine.

And then comes the image.

The image you know to be false. The one you know to be untrue. One that goes against the grain of common sense; that collides with the fabric of reason.

The tree swing.

A crude, antiquated rope and wood concoction.

Swaying. Jolting. Flapping in the breeze. Creaking. Creaking. Creaking.

To others you know the scene remains untarnished. Undisturbed by the swaying, creaking image. To the naked, untroubled eye, it will appear simply as a tree. And nothing more. A robust, isolated tree. It sits in the centre of an immaculately-kept field. The barest outline of a long-forgotten path scurries its way through the wheat to the base of the tree.

In another tale I could call it beautiful. In another life I would even deign to call it harmless. But not in this life. Not in this tale. Not with the creaking. That relentless, unceasing creaking. Back. And forth. Back and forth.

It does not, and will never, stop.

Shall never fall silent.

Not to my ears at least. Not to me.

And who am I, you may ask? What is the name of this harbinger of the morose? The one who brings you this murmured lament? Well, my name is of no consequence to you. Not now. And it shall be as equally insignificant, if not more so, by the time this narrative draws to a close.

Who I am bears no relevance.

What matters only is that I have been, for lack of a better word, chosen.

It is my time. And my burden. Mine alone to bear. I am the one to hear the creaking. I am the one to see the tree swing. I am the one to catch a glimpse of her.

Her.

The woman in white.

Although ‘woman’ might not be strictly accurate. Girl may be closer to the truth.

An ageless entity. Appearing and not appearing. Seemingly to her own choosing. Flitting between this world and another. Her image and appearance mercurial. Yet when she does appear her presence calls to me. Beckons me. Like a siren call. Steering me towards my end, towards my fate.

I knew not why.

At first I fought. Chose to resist. Chose to question.

I stayed away from this sight. From this place. With all my being I endeavoured to remove myself from her image, from her calling. But the draw was too forceful, the pull too unyielding.

During my self-imposed, and increasingly fragile, exile I researched. Tried to find meaning. Context.

What I discovered chilled me. A girl, a young girl, was murdered at this spot in the early 1800s. Mutilated. Seemingly by a vagrant. Her white dress ripped from her pale body. Her flesh flayed. Her bones, her hair scattered across the surrounding countryside. Meticulously, no. The barbarity of the act clear for all who witnessed the aftermath. The horror of the incident, of the report, absolute.

But I discovered more.

Disappearances. Frequent disappearances. Throughout the years. Sporadically across the centuries. Always apparently near this spot, near this area. Young children. Boys, girls. Adults. Men, women. Of all ages, standing and creed. Every couple of decades or so another soul would disappear into the morass of time.

On occasion bones – sometimes scattered, often clustered – would be found near the base of the tree. Some buried deep within the hovel burrowed into the mound beneath the tree itself.

No-one seemed willing to connect the events. No reporter, nor historian, able to tie the pieces of the emerging pattern together. Hamstrung either by ignorance or self-preservation.

So I resolved to enshrine my exile in permanence.

To stay away. Always.

But the creaking.

That creaking.

Slow. Ponderous.

It called to me. Louder than before. With a greater sense of urgency. With an added intensity. My defences failed. My resistance dissolved. I needed to return. I had to return. I must.

And so here I stand.

Within sight of the tree swing.

Her pale, youthful complexion, bedecked in that white dress, slowly swinging back and forth. Each creak of the swing wrenching into the early-evening air.

The light begins to fade ever so slightly.

I walk slowly forward. Each step a step closer to my fate.

An act possibly of foolishness you may think? An act without logic, perhaps? Almost entirely. On both counts. Yet my submission to the calling feels preordained. My actions prey to the predatory force of my inevitable conclusion. Another soul to be claimed. A victim to be consumed.

My crime? Simply being seen. Simply walking along this quiet woodland path as I had done a hundred times before. All without incident. All without variation.

Until the creaking.

That gnawing, scraping, haunting creaking.

The girl in the white dress continues to flit in and out of visibility as I close in.

Always swinging.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Creaking.

Eternally creaking.

Always.

Creaking…

Gone

Ayla felt the harsh cold of the pillow against her face. The remnants of saliva, spilled during the night, pressing rudely against her skin, invading her slumber. Slowly, lethargically, she dragged her hand from beneath the crumpled mess of sheet and duvet, lodging it between her face and pillow before lazily wiping the damp patch from her cheek. When she felt it. A chill. A targeted, unforgiving chill. Clawing down her spine before splintering through the rest of her body. She shivered. She felt the goosebumps stand to attention across her flesh.

‘Another lovely Scottish summer’s day…’ she croaked to herself sardonically.

The words jabbed against the back of her throat, forcing her to reach for the half-full bottle of water sitting on the bedside table. She unclicked the bottle cap with her teeth before gulping down the majority of the drink. She grimaced as the warmth of the water, left sitting out all night, clashed with her tastebuds. Bleugh she thought as she hammered the bottle back down on the bedside table, the shape of the plastic crumpling slightly. Another flash of cold shot against her exposed arm. She jolted, taken by surprise, and quickly withdrew her arm, sending it back into the comparative warmth beneath the duvet. But even there she felt the cold, her body quivering slightly as she pressed her limbs against her torso. Her nipples hard, raw against the thin material of her nightdress. Her fingers and toes tingled, little pockets of ice threatening to invade the rest of her bones.

Why is it so bloody cold!? she asked herself as she pulled the duvet up to her chin. The forecast wasn’t great but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad!? Maybe the heating’s broken. Yeah that’ll be it. Just what I need. Another bloody bill to fork out for! So soon after that stupid bloody boiler had to be replaced aswell. The thought permeated in her mind for a good 30 seconds or so before she realised that she had, effectively, switched the heating off a month or so before as ‘summer’ – in the loosest definition of the word – had arrived in Scotland. Maybe I was too optimistic, she thought. But still. It’s never been this bad before. Even during the winter. She shivered again, the chill graciously bookending her period of scattered thoughts for her.

Phone. The thought came to her suddenly. The action was usually automatic. As her eyes flickered open of a morn she would instantly reach for her phone. An indifferent, choreographed grasp in order to apprise herself with the news or, more accurately, social media updates she may have missed out on in the preceding handful of hours. But this morning the cold had stifled any such thought. I’ll check the forecast, she thought. Must be another freak wintry wave from Siberia or something like that again. The phone was only inches from where her bottle stood. A quick reach, grasp, retreat. That’s all that was needed. It isn’t hard, she thought. No. One quick movement. The cold won’t matter. 3..2..1….reach. Her body remained still. Her arm refusing to budge. C’mon, she thought. Bloody hell. You’re Scottish girl! Get a grip. You’ve dealt with cold before. Ok. Ok. 1..2..3..REACH! Her arm shot out of the duvet and grasped. She felt the sharp cold of the phone’s casing collide with skin. Her hand recoiled slightly. She fumbled. Sending the phone sprawling to the floor below. She caught sight of it lying on the carpet next to a small pile of discarded clothes. Now a good three feet or so away from the foot of the bed. Shit!

Stop it, she thought. This is silly. Whether it was genuinely this cold, or whether she was coming down with something, the fact remained that she had to get out of bed at some point. At the very least she had to retrieve her phone. A resolve had started to inch through her veins, starkly at odds with the goosebumps continuing to form on her skin. Her legs began to tremble, naked as they were but for a small, light pair of shorts. She tried to pay them no heed. Trying to ignore the sensation burrowing away at her flesh. She’d had the right idea with the phone, she decided. The execution might have been wrong but the plan was solid. A quick, rapid move. That’s all that was required. Like stepping out of a hot shower on a cold winter’s morning and grabbing for the towel. That’s all it was. In a series of quick moves she would roll out of the bed, run to her wardrobe and grab her dressing gown. The fluffy winter one, not the thinner kimono. Yes, it might be unbearably cold for a few seconds or so but once it was done that would be it. Just do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. She repeated this simple mantra to herself, over and over again. Do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. The words, the thoughts, drowning out the first false start. And the second. And the third. Before she finally managed to emerge from beneath the duvet and rolled to the floor. An involuntary scream escaped from her as the malevolence of the cold tore at her skin. She scrambled towards her wardrobe, grabbing her phone on the way, and desperately threw open the doors. She grabbed for her dressing gown, sending a handful of dresses tumbling from their hangers in the process, and quickly wrapped it around her body. The freezing temperatures abating just enough to allow her to calm her nerves.

She grabbed at the pile of dirty washing on the floor and placed it next to her on the bed as she lowered herself onto the mattress. They would do for now. I’ll put some clean clothes on later when this Arctic cold spell buggers off. She readjusted the front of her dressing gown with one hand, wrapping it tighter around her body, as the other hand started flicking through her phone. She opened the weather app. It failed to load. Hmm. She checked the Wifi signal at the top of her screen. Not strong but strong enough. She closed down all her apps and tried again. Nothing. Just the continual whirring wheel that indicated no luck. No Dalgety Bay. No Inverkeithing. No North Sea. Nothing. Location services seemed to be lost. Disabled. Whatever.

Odd, she thought, as she folded one leg over the other instinctively as the cold threatened to sneak between her thighs. She scanned through her social media accounts, caring less and less for the myriad of late night updates that peppered her screen as each one rolled by. And anyway, she hadn’t posted. There was no sign. She closed them down. She glanced at her messages app. No red number cornered the green smudge yet she tapped on the icon anyway. Her name appeared. Melanie. The last message between the two appeared before her eyes. Sent a week or so previously. She’d read it several hundreds of times since its arrival. The words burned into her mind. Each letter, each syllable. The over-riding message clawing at her already shivering frame. Done. No more. Gone. Ayla felt the familiar gathering flood rising to her tear ducts. No, she thought, scolding herself. She locked the phone and tossed it onto the bed. No.

She stepped off the bed and walked across the room towards the window. Again she tightened the cord on her dressing gown, the cold refusing to abate any further. She drew the curtains and opened the blinds. An expected blush of sun and light failed to materialise. She cowered slightly, despite herself, as the room seemed to wallow further into the gloom. She stared through the window, decorated as it was with a smattering of condensation, and saw the fog. Mist. Haar. Whatever the correct term was. It was thin, almost peripheral even. It seemed to skirt the surrounding trees, the roads, the rooftops, without ever truly engulfing. It seemed…no, that’s ridiculous she thought…but it did all the same…it seemed…sinister. Somehow. She shook her head in self-derision and stepped back from the window, proceeding to slowly and delicately pull on the dirty clothes beneath the cover of her dressing gown. Shivering continuously, her teeth chittering along in a silent harmony. I’m definitely coming down with something, I must be. The thought repeated in her mind as she picked up her phone from the bed, automatically checking her messages once again, before stepping out of the bedroom.
She clicked the heating on. Ridiculous, she thought. In the height of summer. Or ‘summer’. The flat began to warm instantly, temporarily filling with the tame burning odour that accompanies the turning on of a radiator or electric fire as winter approaches after a handful of months out of action. That’s better. The mass army of goosebumps gradually began to retreat from her body, clusters at a time. Warmth crept through her skin. She frowned, feeling the unwashed clothes clinging to her flesh. She felt unclean. Restless. A shower, that’s what she needed. As soon as the flat warmed up properly she would jump in the shower and then put some clean clothes on. She glanced at her phone again. The signal seemed to be diminishing. No messages. Standard. She untied her dressing gown chord, feeling the heat begin to claw at her uncomfortably beneath the fluffy material, as she went from room to room in the curtain and blind opening routine that began each of her days. The thin layer of mist greeted her as each curtain was drawn. Pawing at the windows with long, wispy limbs and fingers. She walked into her living room, instantly feeling the cold of the wooden floor bite against the soles of her bare feet. She quickly skipped across to the window, resolving all the while to make her next destination the sock drawer, and loosened the cord for the blinds.

She furrowed her brow at the sight that unravelled before her. It was different. A variation on the usual canvas that greeted her of a morning. The familiar view that had essentially convinced her to settle on this particular flat sometime before. There had been other flats, bigger flats, for less rent, but Ayla’s mind had kept returning to the lapping waves of the Forth and the dazzling red brilliance of the Forth Bridge; the view that this flat had afforded her. It was unrivalled. In most places throughout the world, she guessed. It was inspiring, breathtaking and, after a while, it had become comforting. But this time, it was different. Yes, a thin mist still clawed at the window pane however beyond that it had solidified, for lack of a better word. In fact the mist appeared so dense, so thick, that half of the bridge appeared, quite simply, to be gone.

No, she thought, squinting her eyes at the developing site before her. A trick of the light, perhaps, a trick of the fog. It certainly wasn’t so unfamiliar, anyway. She had woken often throughout the months of winter and spring to discover that the bridge had been completely covered in mist. As if it had disappeared through the night. But the outline was always there if you looked hard enough. Like a thin underlying sketch appearing through the colours of a watercolour painting. But this sight was, somehow, entirely different. The Fife side of the bridge looked intact. Barely touched by the mist. The South Queensferry side however was, well, gone. Not there. As if a gargantuan solid greyish wall had been clipped in place halfway across the structure. No outline poked through the haar. No hint or suggestion of the red paint nudged its way into the foreground. Gone. Confusion reigned in her mind as she tried to compartmentalise, to rationalise, the vision before her.

Another check of the phone. Again, instinctively. This time she couldn’t even say why. She felt an urge within her. To see if they were alright. But who, she thought. To see if who were alright? Her? Melanie? Why would she need to check if she was alright? They’d broken up, it wasn’t as if she would want to…no, this was different though. Why though? Why did it feel different? Her self-interrogation was brought to an abrupt close as her eyes drited from the ‘disappeared’ bridge and latched onto the vision of roughly 40-50 men, women and children standing, gathered at the shoreline.

Who were they? Why were they there? How had she missed them? Again her mind raced, latching onto and then discarding question after question. The figures were huddled – even from where she stood Ayla could see them seemingly shivering against the effects of the cold. But still, their focus appeared fixed. Robust. On what lay across the shore from them. On the thick, impenetrable, blanket of mist. Why? It’s mist, she thought. Even on the most gorgeous of sunny days you’d only have a handful of passers-by soaking up the view, so, again she pondered, why? Where they lost tourists? No, surely they’d keep walking towards the bridge, or further into town maybe. But the bridge…the bridge. She looked up at it again. And again the image baffled. It was almost as if she was looking at the bridge as it had been mid-construction, far more than a century before then. Only…only…she could swear that another slight part of the bridge had been eaten by the fog in only the last minute or so. From her distance it seemed to be only an inch or so but in real terms, well…

She checked her phone again as she pulled on her jacket. Again, she elected to pluck her ‘winter’ garment off the hanger, neglecting the lighter jackets she had been used to in the preceding days and weeks. She emptied her pockets – a handful of receipts and a belatedly-received Christmas card from months earlier (when she had last worn the coat) spilled onto the counter. Phone. She opened up her Recent Calls list and selected her name, Melanie. She hovered over the Call button. Why wouldn’t she be ok, she thought, I’m being silly…she’ll…no, why am I doing this!? Stop. She slid the phone into her jacket pocket and scooped a woolly hat from one of the coat hangers. She caught a brief waft of dust, a musty scent, as it passed by her nose on the way to her head – again, a victim of clothing neglect in the previous handful of months.

She grabbed her keys, unlocking the door, and stepped out of the warm flat and into the cold of the morning. She’d managed only a dozen or so paces before halting slightly. Again, the spectre of Why hung over her. Why, she asked. Why was she going down there!? Why was she bothering? It was mist. Fog. Haar. Shit weather. That’s all. And who knows who these people were!? It could be a religious cult. Weirdos standing waiting to wave at a passing cruise liner, perhaps. Anyone. But still, something, something, she knew not what, told her to continue. To join the others. Ayla shook her head slightly. A seeming gesture of realisation, one that told her how irrational her actions seemed. But the urge, she thought, there’s an urge to walk on. To see. To discover. A purpose. Something she’d frequently struggled to obtain. More so in recent months. Move. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, tightening the jacket around her, and walked forward into the increasingly thickening mist.

‘What’s…what’s going on…?’ she asked tentatively as she approached the group.
A host of silent faces turned towards her. They seemed to slowly eye her up and down before turning away again.
‘What’s going on…?’ she tried again. The faces remained turned away, continuing to stare at the dense block of mist across the water. ‘…anyone?’
‘Gone.’
‘Sorry?’ Ayla turned to see a small elderly woman standing next to her. She was wrapped in a thick grey coat, the hood of which obscured a large portion of her face. Her eyes, taught and fearful, peered out from beneath the cover, staring straight ahead into the mist.
‘It’s gone. All of it. Gone.’
‘Gone?’ she asked. ‘What’s gone?’
‘Gone.’
‘What’s…I mean, it’s not gone, it’s just fog, isn’t it? What do you mean it’s gone…?’
‘It’s not fog. Look at the bridge. Look at the mountains. They’re gone.’ Ayla turned towards the voice of a middle-aged man who, as seemed to be the norm, bothered not to turn towards her, staring straight ahead into the gloom as he spoke.
‘I…I don’t understand…’ she mumbled. ‘What is…’ she broke off her own sentence as she scrambled to pluck the phone from her pocket. No, this wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal. She’d have to call Mel. She’d…just call. She’d call her. Just quickly. Just to disprove…to disprove what she didn’t know…but she had to all the same. She headed straight into her Recent Calls list and dialled – shorn of any of the reluctance that had accompanied such a move in the previous weeks. She held the phone to her ear, the cold tingling down the slight piece of exposed skin on her wrist. Nothing. No ringtone. No engaged tone. No call failure beeps. Nothing. She pulled the phone from her ear and checked the signal. Miniscule. But there was a signal there. She tried again. She looked at the faces surrounding her as she waited for any sound, for any acknowledgment from her phone that a call was being attempted. They continued to stare. A mix of fear, confusion, resignation populating their gazes. Maybe she as right about the cult thing after all, she thought. Nothing. Still nothing. Shit.
‘Excuse me…’ she began.
‘Where do they live?’
‘I’m sorry…?’
‘Where do they live?’ the question snapped out from a woman roughly the same age as Ayla, late twenties she would say, standing a couple of feet to the side of her. Her hair was tied up in a just-woken-up-and-not-ready-to-face-the-general-public style but her eyes were glazed, once again staring straight ahead, imbued with that same mix of fear, confusion and resignation.
‘Erm…where do who live?’
‘Whoever you’re trying to phone?’ still not a flicker of a look towards Ayla.
‘I don’t think that’s…’
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘Sorry, what…?
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘It…’ Ayla looked at the woman’s unflinching stare as the words seemed to spit out from her mouth robotically. She thought about protesting, reasoning, pleading, anything. And then instinctively, somehow, thought or knew better. ‘It is, yes…Edinburgh.’
‘Then you won’t get through.’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘You won’t get through to them.’
‘Why…’
‘Or anyone south of here.’
‘South? I don’t under…’
‘We’ve all tried. You just won’t.’
‘Gone.’ Ayla shook slightly as the elderly woman repeated her mantra next to her. ‘Gone. Gone.’
She felt the fear rise in her as she turned frantically from the elderly woman and tried her phone again. Nothing. Nothing. Still NOTHING! Was she safe?! Of course she was. But. But they just said…they just said. No. The thought of something happening to her…oh, god, no…No! Confusion. Anxiety. Fear. Restlessness. Clawing at her. Within her. All explanation, all rumination falling by the wayside. Again she looked at those around her. The stoic deafness, the robust muteness remained. Again she glanced at the bridge. Gradually, incrementally fading into the mist. She looked again towards the mist itself – it was growing thicker, edging closer, of that she was convinced.

‘LOOK!’
The sudden shout shook her. A tremble of cold pierced her spine. She turned. All of those surrounding her seemed to be becoming animated.
‘Look’
‘Look there…’
‘Over there, yes…’
‘Look!’
Ayla followed their excited gazes, plunging her vision into the mist where, yes, yes, she could see an outline. Yes. A boat. It looked like, no, it was, a boat. A small wooden fishing boat, if she had to guess. Emerging from the grey canvas. And what appeared to be two figures on board. Headed towards them. Lapping lightly, rocking from side to side in time with the steady waves. The excitement, the anticipation grew. The faces around her shunting from the deadened masks of resignation into ones settling into something like hope. It was silly she thought. It’s…I don’t understand. It’s only mist, it’s surely only mist. There’s no cause for panic. Nor hyperbole. There’s surely no need for this kind of hope. And yet, in spite of herself, she felt herself begin to latch onto a feeling somewhere in the realms of hope. This boat, this small wooden vessel, bearing down on them, seemingly only just staying ahead of the approaching mist, seemed to infuse her with a warmth, a sense of future. She looked around the strangers next to her and felt a kinship, as irrational as that thought appeared. She saw the slightly contorted smiles, the jittery anticipation, the anxious hope and she understood.
‘Someone help them, get down there…’
She heard the call from amidst the group as several began to advance towards the edge of the shoreline to meet the boat as it drifted slowly to shore.
‘Here we are, here it comes…’
Ayla looked up as more and more of the assembled group made their way towards the incoming vessel. Out of the corner of her vision she caught sight of the bridge. Or what was left of it. The world famous red landmark had all but disappeared now into the fog. The structure almost completely submerging in the gloom. She felt her chest tighten as she followed the edge of the mist and realised how close it now was to their position on the coastline. Her fears flared up once again. This wasn’t just mist, she thought. No. She knew. This was something else. This was…this was. Her train of thought was broken by a gaggle of screams bursting from those gathered beside the boat. Her chest tightened further. She felt her stomach lurch.
Slowly, almost as if in a daze, she walked towards the boat, passing through the others, now in various stages of revulsion and panic. Tears dripped down the elderly woman’s face. The girl who spoke of Edinburgh was bent over, vomiting on the ground. The middle-aged man’s face was awash with a dread, the kind of which she’d never seen before. Dozens of others gripped by fear, twisted and skewered by the various stages of grief. But still Ayla walked on. Until she reached the boat. Gentle, indifferent, waves scratched at its base.

Even before she glanced up she knew what she would see. How, or why, she knew not. But sure enough as she lifted her gaze into the vessel, her eyes settled on the grotesque corpses of the two sailors. Their skin almost rotten, flesh singed very nearly all the way to their black, charred bones. A look of terror eternally carved into their expressions.
The screams loudened behind her. Unbridled levels of panic filled the air in a crescendo of fear. Her eyes slowly, almost lazily, inched down from the corpses towards the floor of the boat. She could feel her eyes widen in her own grasp of terror as she saw a thin burst of mist creep into the boat. Only temporarily obscuring the word scraped frantically into the wooden floor.
She mouthed the letters. She tried to scream but her lungs, her vocal chords, failed to respond. The word playing over and over in her head.
One syllable.
One word.
A warning.

‘RUN’