Husk

Chapter 1

2 min Link

Streetlights raked at the night, blurred with rain and fog. A black sedan prowled below, dashing between the dark places, headlights piercing.

The car’s wipers worked silently, building the rain into silent, angled waves. These flicked back across the windows, out of which the driver glanced, looking and waiting; one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearstick, his back straight.

His limbs were taut, his eyes electric.

The radio filled the car with a tired ambience, a fabric of worn song strung up like old clothes to dry.

The driver ignored these hollow sounds, focusing instead on the sidewalk and the the road, on the hunt. The radio turned silent, then announced that it was poetry hour. The reader was old, with a voice like the dust that collected in forgotten places, and he began to read beaten pieces of isolation and fear.

The driver turned it up. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing deeply. He opened them and glanced at the time on the radio, then looked ahead, expectant.

There, right on time.

She stood, illuminated by streetlight, as if waiting.

The mannequin was life-sized, plastic, wearing deliciously little clothing and a curled blonde wig.

An umbrella was fixed to its left hand with silver tape, holding the rain at bay. The eyeless face almost seemed to turn to him, alert and curious, inviting.

The driver began to slow.

The car crawled to a stop by the figure, water rippling the puddles against the curb. One hand slipped beneath the driver’s seat and emerged holding a small red axe, and the other tugged a lever to open the boot.

The door swung open and he stepped neatly out, coat swirling as he stalked around the car, stopping within arm’s reach of the mannequin.

She seemed almost aware of the danger, shrinking back as the driver lurched forward, and the axe’s silver edge tore through the darkness towards her pale-pink plastic head.

There was a hollow crunching, and water splashed beneath her as she fell.

He crouched to survey his work.

The axe head was sunk in to the hilt. The blow had caved in the top of her skull, and inside there was nothing.

He leant close and whispered in her ear, a string of words that were lost to the night.

He waited as his breathing slowed, looking to the sky, water gathering in his eyes.

The driver wrenched the axe from his prey, then picked them both up with a grunt and shuffled around to the back of the car, and dropped them in the plastic-lined boot.

She lay there awkwardly, limbs sprawled. The axe hilt stood almost vertical, like a flag over conquered territory.

The remainder of its face seemed to be looking at him, asking a question. Accusing.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and closed the boot.

/

When he returned to the apartment the rain had eased, and he carried the mannequin inside. He laid her in the bath and then walked back into the kitchen. Someone else would do the cleaning.

He he found his bed, he went to sleep without pause. He dreamed of a mirror, his own face unsmiling but his reflection’s slashed with a mad grin. As he watched, unable to look away, his reflection morphed a mannequin, and he screamed.

His plastic arms were wet, and he could smell gasoline. The fire started at his feet, glowing softly, and then his whole body was alight.

When the mannequin’s head burned he felt pain, igniting his spine and lancing at his brain. The grinning face turned black, then melted into the air as ash. The fire blinked out.

Chapter 2

9 min Link

"Crawford? Matthew Crawford?"

A pair of manicured hands twitched.

They were attached to a man sitting with his feet planted firmly, encased in a charcoal suit and topped with neck-length, silver-black hair. His eyes were blue and his face was sharp, his expression hungry.

He looked sideways at the receptionist.

She met his gaze. Her blonde hair and green eyes were visible across the desk, and that was all.

He said nothing and remained still, watching her. This lasted for slightly too long, until she grew uncomfortable and looked away.

A child in one corner spoke rapidly to her mother, asking when they could leave.

"Matthew Crawford,” repeated the receptionist, “For Dr. Hardy. Are you here?"

Her eyes scanned the waiting room, checking each tired face for a response.

The man in the charcoal suit rose and moved to the desk, his steps making little sound.

"Oh,” she smiled, “It was you. Were you daydreaming or something?"

Matthew leaned lightly on the desk and nodded.

"Something like that, yes. May I go through?"

"Very shortly,” she said, handing him a piece of paper and a cheap plastic pen. “Dr Hardy's current client has just finished, so he'll be out in a moment, and then you may go in. Just fill this out for me first.”

He slid the paper towards himself and began to fill it out.

"How has your day been, Mr. Crawford?"

He glanced up, holding her eyes for slightly too long.

"Excellent, Ms..."

She clasped her hands together.

"Luna," she smiled. “First name, that is.”

He leaned a little closer.

A precisely applied amount of cologne crossed the space between them.

"Well. Nice to meet you, Luna. My day has just improved. And yours?"

She weighed his answer carefully. "Well,” she said. “I've just, you know, I've been here. Working. Not too bad."

Matthew nodded, running a hand down his tie. He looked through the double doors to his right, as if the force of his gaze would draw them open.

"What are you doing after you leave here, Luna?”

"Ugh,” she sighed. “Well I need to shop. Or maybe I’ll just get takeout. Not sure. You?”

He tilted his head slightly.

A balding man burst through the double doors, his surviving hair brushed over the space on the top of his had. The man’s mint green tie was loosely done and his fly was down. Matthew glanced at him for only a second as he waddled past. Luna kept her eyes fixed on Matthew.

Matthew looked back to her and frowned. “Well that sounds-”

Luna laughed. "I was only trying to make you squirm,” she said, almost a whisper.

He pushed the form and the pen back to her, echoing her smile. “Well, you succeeded.”

“If you’re asking me to dinner, Matthew, I’m in.”

He studied her for a moment, then nodded. He took a business card from his pocket and paced it on the desk. There was no logo or insignia, just neat black print that read:

MATTHEW CRAWFORD

SENIOR PARTNER

CRAWFORD INVESTMENTS LIMITED

“Call me when you get home,” he said. “I’ll pick you up.”

He didn't wait for a response, already walking towards the doors that the balding man had burst through.

The receptionist watched him leave, then picked up the card between her fingertips and flipped it over.

The back told her his number, and nothing else.

/

Matthew followed a worn corridor lined with fake timber, mirrored pairs of closed white doors passing him on either side. Framed, gold-accented accreditations punctuated the spaces between them. The second last door on the left was slightly ajar, and he rapped his knuckles on the frame.

"Come in!"

Dr Hardy looked over her laptop as he opened the door. A set of headphones circled her neck, nestled between her long dark hair.

She turned towards him, smiling. Her eyes were a piercing blue.

"Matthew?"

He nodded.

"Lovely. Come in! Make yourself at home. I'll be with you in a moment."

She turned back and resumed typing.

Matthew didn't move. "Your last patient’s fly was undone."

She didn’t miss a beat. "Well, I do hope you told him."

"He was in quite a hurry. Should I be concerned about the way you practice?"

"That man’s problems are mine and his alone,” she said. “And I will approach yours with the same sensitivity. Does that tell you enough?”

“For now. Is he an alcoholic?”

“I will not discuss another patient with you, Matthew. Do come in."

She returned to her keyboard, and Matthew was left to survey the room. A battered leather couch sat under the window, a mismatched armchair to its left and a beanbag at its feet. A round cross-stitched rug distracted from the floor. The back wall was occupied by a large dark bookshelf, filled mostly with what appeared to be fiction. The room felt like it belonged in somebody’s home, in stark contrast to the rest of the building.”

"No therapist's chair?"

"They’re overrated,” she said, still typing. “Just sit wherever you like. I’ll stay over here."

"Can I lay down?"

"Certainly."

"How regularly is the floor cleaned?"

“Twice a week. Yesterday was the last."

He left his suit jacket on a brass hook inside the door, then slipped his shoes off and lined them up below it. His feet carried him to the rug. He glanced at the fading sunlight through the window, then laid down. A fan turned lazily above.

Matthew closed his eyes, allowing the doctor's keystrokes to arrange themselves into dissonant song as he waited. His breathing slowed, and slowed.

When he opened his eyes Dr Hardy was sitting on the couch, resting her chin on her hands. The laptop was next to her.

He blinked his eyes groggily.

“You fell asleep,” she said.

He frowned.

"Do you always fall asleep so easily, Matthew?"

"No. How long was I gone?"

"Eighteen minutes. It seems like you needed that."

"I’m sorry."

"No problem. Would you like to continue with the session, or reschedule? Are you okay?"

"I’d like to continue, Dr Hardy. I’m fine.”

"Call me Clementine. Do you often fall asleep unexpectedly?"

His eyes followed one of the fan blades, circling like carrion.

“No. Not during the day.”

She typed.

“Have you been particularly tired, or strained, of late?”

“Yes.”

“So what is it that brings you here?”

"I'm not entirely sure,” he said.

"That’s okay. What was running through your mind when you rang the clinic?”

"That I might be unwell. I'm always angry, or tired, or both. My work is draining."

"I see. Are these symptoms affecting you physically, apart from the falling asleep?"

"I haven’t been falling asleep,” he said sharply. “That has never happened before.”

"Of course. Do you think that you’re unwell because you’re angry, or that you’re angry because you’re unwell?”

“I think they are the same thing.”

“How long have you felt this way?"

"Years. Intermittently."

The room was quieter for a moment while she typed, and he watched her.

"When was the last time you felt excessively angry?"

He thought. "Last Thursday night."

"Okay. And how often do you feel this way?"

He turned back to the fan. "It used to be infrequent, once every few months, maybe. Now, once a week or so. Maybe more."

"So it's just about due for it to happen again? Today, tomorrow?"

"Not today."

She tapped a finger against the side of her laptop. "So you can feel it coming."

“Yes,” he said, closing his eyes.

"So you can predict this anger, to an extent. Do you feel anxious when you know it’s approaching?"

"No,” he whispered. “I feel excited.”

Her typing ceased. His eyes remained closed. Hers watched his face, not blinking.

The sound of keystrokes crept back into hearing.

"Can you talk about that excitement?"

"You ever watch that show, Dexter?"

"I did. Though I didn’t make it to the end."

"The ending was terrible anyway. I mostly only watch old films, I have no idea why I watched it. But they made this whole show about a psycho killer, and then gave it a happy ending. Ridiculous. Anyway, you know how he got that urge to kill? It built up, until he couldn’t take it. This incredible pressure. The desire to feel that anger, to channel it, just builds up, I can hold it off for a while, but it always wins. It always takes over. And then I feel better."

Her typing was rapid.

"I see,” she said, slowly. “And what happens when you get angry, Matthew?"

He rolled the balls of each thumb over his forefingers.

"I'm not insane," he said, studying the fan.

She sighed, moving the laptop to one side and leaning forward. A lock of hair fell across her cheek.

"Madness is a construct, Matthew. It was an invention, built to serve those who created it. Just like money. To me, you seem intelligent, and painfully self-aware. Though of course, you already know that.”

"You would be wrong if I didn’t. I would hope that challenging the intelligence of your clients is not standard practice, Clementine?”

She smiled. “Only when suitable.”

“I’m aware that madness was invented,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it has no power. Controlling the undesirables, the invention of hysteria, the panopticon, Foucault, all that. I just don’t want you to put me in a category, make assumptions. Not yet.”

"That is not how I practice, Matthew. When you get angry, what happens?”

"My mind changes. I kill. Not people, just, things that look like people. Nothing living. Mannequins, usually if I can find them. And I process time differently.”

"Mannequins? Because they’re representations of people?”

"Exactly. But I would never actually kill someone. The thought of that..."

He shivered.

"So you find and destroy representations of people, and that satisfies you for a time.”

"Until I feel the need again, yes. So I’m not worth writing a show about. There’s no blood on my hands. Probably better off, though. You know. Legally."

She nodded. "Of course. And what do you mean about time being different?"

He frowned. "It passes at a different speed. It's like being in a dream. Like I'm just a puppet. Someone else is pulling the strings."

"Does losing control like that scare you?"

He shook his head. “No. Deep down I believe it’s all me.”

Clementine was quiet for a while, staring at a point just past him.

"Well,” she said. “In that case, I’d say what you’re doing is healthy.”

"Explain," he said.

"I would guess that you have experienced events in your life that are unspeakable. We will not address them today, but what you're doing is nothing more than emotional discharge, dealing with the scars those events have left on you. I think it's fortunate you created this outlet. It’s entirely possible that the time between outbursts has decreased because you’re feeling more guilty about your behaviour. If you accept what you do, that may reverse."

"I was expecting treatment, not validation.”

She smiled. “Which of those would you prefer?”

“I don’t know.”

"You have no desire to murder a person, correct?"

"No.”

“Would you admit to such a desire?”

“I believe so.”

She leaned back into the couch.

"Are you feeling the urge now, Matthew?"

His head twitched, like a wasp had stung his neck. He said nothing.

She typed for a moment, then caught his eye.

“I think that’s enough for today,” said Clementine. “Immediately after your next expression, I want you to record everything you remember, and your thoughts and emotions afterwards, and bring it to the next session."

“Expression?”

She glanced out the window. The light was failing, headlights visible as they needled a distant treeline.

“I felt it was more subtle than outburst. I'll ask Luna to book the same time next week?"

He nodded. "Thank you."

"And, be nice to her, okay? She's a lovely girl."

Matthew held her gaze from the floor, then rose silently. He put his shoes and jacket on, entered the hall, and carefully shut the door behind him.

Chapter 3

6 min Link

The sky was almost completely devoid of light, save for a crescent moon and a stubborn band of purple clinging to one edge of the horizon.

Matthew strode through the parking lot, breath misting, halting before the black sedan parked in one corner.

He drove four blocks away and parked in an alley, studying the rear vision mirror prying eyes. He opened the boot and removed four wheel covers and two rectangles of metal, placing them in piles on the ground. He changed the wheel covers from their current black to the new metallic, then held each of the pieces of metal over his number plates. They each leapt forward as he brought them close, adhering with a magnetic click.

He paused then, standing in front of his car. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, dragging the sharp air deep into his lungs, holding it captive, releasing it only because his body demanded it.

He then returned to the driver’s seat and drove three blocks back towards the clinic and shut off the car, out the front of a tired old house with no lights on. A skeletal tree arched its fingers above, its few remaining leaves a dry brown. From there, he could see all of the clinic’s parking lot. Three cars still remained; two white sedans, one large red van.

Matthew produced a small camera and held it between his fingertips, a notebook resting on the passenger seat.

Over the next half hour, three people left the clinic. Two of them took a white sedan each, one walked into the street and became lost to the night. Neither Dr Hardy or Luna had left the clinic yet, and Matthew’s twitching grew more intense.

Ten minutes more, and the clinic’s door opened once again.

He became still, his breath held.

The branches above him creaked.

A wheelchair came through the opening, its occupant rolling herself into the night.

Matthew brought the camera to his eye.

Another figure walked behind the wheelchair, closing and then locking the front door. The two approached the van, and as they did its back door opened and a wheelchair lift whirred towards the ground.

The two waited, their frosting breath lit by the streetlights and the van’s warm glow. Matthew’s lens began to click.

Dr Hardy rolled herself onto the wheelchair lift, Luna standing at her side. The women appeared to be talking, even smiling, as she ascended.

When the door had closed again and Luna had gone round to the driver’s side, the van rolled towards the street, nose to the suburbs, away from the city.

Matthew took one more picture, and then followed.

/

“So what happened with James?” said Luna, looking back.

Dr Hardy sighed. “The poor guy managed to convince himself that he was in love with me. He started taking his bloody pants off. I thought then was good time to mention my legs. And the family.”

“He didn’t take it well?”

“No, he didn’t. He got very upset and started mumbling about all the months he’d wasted seeing me.”

Luna turned back to look at her passenger, courting the idea of laughter. Dr Hardy shrugged.

“Poor guy,” said Luna.

“I feel very sorry for him. He came a long way, and God knows how much I just undid. Though I admit, I’m a little relieved we won’t be seeing him again. The client after, Matthew, pointed out that he’d left his fly down.”

“Hmm. I didn’t even-”

“I bet you didn’t,” laughed Dr Hardy. “Little taken with Mr. Crawford, were you?”

The night rolled by, the van humming over the road.

“You were listening?”

“Well, James had his head buried in the lounge, crying, what else was there to do? Speaking of, I actually got to use the lounge today, when Mr. Crawford was in.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. What do you mean you got to use the lounge?”

“You know, the new one-”

“Right, how did you use it? How the hell did you get on it?”

“Mr. Crawford fell asleep. I crawled over there.”

The van was silent, briefly, and then Luna erupted into laughter. “That was ballsy,” she allowed. “But you’re dodging. You spied on me.”

“That sounds a lot worse that what it is.”

“You don’t get to decide what it is, Clem.”

“You know I like to get a feel for new clients, and I had nothing else to do. Hearing them interact with you helps me do that. The way people treat service staff tells you a lot about them. For example, James hardly ever acknowledged your existence, he treated you poorly. Mr. Crawford made no assumptions about you because of your job. Listening gives me an advantage.”

“Therapy is not a game you need to win, Clem. You’re supposed to give me a heads up if you’re gonna do that. That was the go. Jesus.”

“Don’t tell me what my job is. Besides, you’re an awful actor. You don’t act naturally if I warn you.”

Luna was silent.

“I’m sorry, Loon. Really. Look, I won’t do it again without asking. I promise. I don’t care about the clients so much that I’m willing to piss you off.”

Luna relaxed her shoulders. “Damn straight, girl. What music do you want on?”

“You pick. I’m not fussed.”

“Neither. Radio it is!”

Luna flicked through the stations, settling on 1960’s pop.

“So,” said Dr. Hardy. “Crawford. What was your take?”

“Can’t you leave work, you know, at work?” said Luna.

“I’m not asking for that reason. You’re seeing him tonight, aren’t you?”

“Oh. Well, yeah. Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“He gave me his card. So I will maybe give him a call.”

“A card! Isn’t that a little creepy? Or just weird? Maybe just old fashioned.”

“Before today, I might have said yes. Nobody’s ever given me their card before. And now someone has, and I was totally okay with it. He seemed interesting.”

“How so?”

“He’s...it’s hard to put into words. He had this way about him. Like, a little too smooth, but I got this feeling there was something more, like he wanted me to know it was just an act. It was almost like he was hoping I would see through it, inviting me.”

“He didn’t give me that. But it lines up with my take.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He’s damaged. You should know that. But I think he’s harmless. Perhaps even kind, to those he trusts. If you go, just be careful, okay?”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t do it?”

“No. I’m just saying you should call me if you feel uncomfortable.”

The van slowed and turned onto a concrete driveway, the surface cracked and uneven.

“Can’t promise that, Clem. I just feel like he’s gonna be a bit of fun, for a night. Maybe even for a morning. Something different. You really gotta get your hubby to fix this shit up, by the way.”

“The drive? Yeah. Bit of a sore spot. It’s not for lack of asking. It was hard enough getting him to install the handrails and all that.”

Luna pulled the handbrake, then turned back to face her passenger.

“Are you two okay?”

“We are just fine.”

“That sounds evasive, darling Clementine.”

“You know I hate that.”

“And I hate when you ain’t straight with me. Look me in the eye and tell me you two are alright. He hasn’t come to despise you and the ground roll upon?”

The women held each other’s gaze, as a passing car’s headlights cut through the car like lightning. It parked across the street, though they did not see.

“We’re alright,” said Dr Hardy, smiling lightly.

Luna held her gaze, then nodded unhappily. “Fine. Let’s dismount you then.”

Once on the ground, Dr Hardy moved to the driver’s side and gave a mock salute as Luna got back in.

“As always,” said Dr. Hardy, “Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Luna nodded. “Hai, sensei.”

The doctor laughed, wheeling forward. “

“Maybe.”

“Night Loon. Good luck on your date!”

“G’night,” said Luna. “I never said I was definitely going!”

The porch light came on, yellowing the night. A few ragged plants came into view, tall and severely angled.

Past them, the house’s front door was held open by a thickly muscled arm cuffed with flannelette, and Clementine rolled forwards. A few seconds more, and she had disappeared.

Chapter 4

14 min Link

The television mumbled quietly, drenching the two watchers in unflattering light. The news presenter wore a red pantsuit, gravely relaying the events of the day.

“The search continues for Tracey Kirk, 28 year old mother of two. Last seen six days ago, it is currently believed that she was abducted in the early hours of last Friday morning. We have new information here which points to her involvement with the drug trade, which police have said-”

The doorbell rang, filling the house and nestling in the corners of each room. Luna snatched up the remote and turned the TV down, lifting herself off the armchair.

The bearded human across from her didn’t move, looking entirely at home in a pair of boxers.

“You expecting someone?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

Luna stretched her arms above her head, already standing. “I am. Don’t you move a muscle, big fella.”

“Can do,” he said. His eyes returned to the screen for a moment, and then he frowned. “Wait. Wait. You’re wearing a dress. And fucking lipstick? Oh shit! Is this a date? Who is it? Dude? Chick? Other? Yes! Why didn’t you-”

“Danny. Shh. Calm your farm. I’ll spill when I get back.”

“Aw c’mon. Y’know I’m a details guy. You want me to camp out in my room tonight? So you can have, y’know-

“Shh. No-”

“-the freedom to explore the boundaries of your sexuality?”

“I think you should stay in your room all the time,” said Luna, walking around the lounge. “And never talk. I’ll text if I need some space, alright?”

He shrugged. “Righto. Bring back ice cream if you can. Vanilla. Or mint. Peace among worlds, friend.”

“Peace!” she called back, walking the hall.

She fitted an eye to the peephole.

Matthew was dressed in a different, darker suit, staring impassively at plants scattered around the porch. She took a small bottle from her bag and sprayed perfume onto her neck, adjusted her dress, and then opened the door.

“Hi,” she said.

“Luna,” he said. “Hi. Are you well?”

“Very,” she said, moving to the footpath. Enjoying the garden? Rental place, no point planting anything. So, do you have a place in mind?”

“Quite possibly,” he said, falling into step beside her. “But I’ll keep that to myself for now. I hope you didn’t eat?”

They passed on either side of the red van, its nose against the garage.

“Not yet,” she said. “Wasn’t up for a second dinner tonight, I’m only a hobbit on weekends.”

“Excellent. Are your toes only hairy on weekends, too?”

She laughed freely, stopping in front of the small white car parked behind the van. “Have you read the books?”

Matthew pressed a button on his keys. “Only the main three.”

“Well then. You’re off to a strong start, Mr. Crawford. Is this officially a date?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said, opening the passenger door and gesturing towards it. “Ready?”

She nodded, and bundled herself into the leather seat. Matthew walked around and seated himself, stirring the engine to life with the press of a button. He glanced towards his passenger.

“Interesting choice of car you’ve got there,” he said, nodding at the van. “Do you travel? Boyfriend?”

“That ugly thing? That’s my housemate’s. He’s your cookie cutter, free-spirited, travels-in-a-van sort of a guy. Mine’s in the shed.”

“Interesting,” said Matthew.

“He’s definitely something,” she smiled.

“I was talking about you, Luna.”

Her cheeks reddened slightly.

“Oh. Well, thank you. What about you? I didn’t see any cars like this parked in the lot this afternoon.”

Matthew began to reverse, though he kept his eyes on her.

“This is my leisure car, I suppose,” he said. “Nothing fancy. It’s just nice to have something different, so I don’t feel like I’m coming or going to work.”

“I’ve never dated someone with the ability to own two cars.”

“Well, not to be presumptuous, but if we end up at my place, perhaps avoid the garage.”

“I didn’t mean to say it was intimidating. Just how many do you own?”

They were gliding down the street, theirs the only pair of headlights visible.

“I retract my warning, then. I have...a few. I work on them as a hobby.”

“I can only picture you in a suit. And that just wouldn’t look right underneath a car.”

“I pull it off surprisingly well,” he smiled. “I’ve got a few suits just for that purpose.”

“I’d like to see that,” she said.

The car reached the end of the road and flashed a light of left intention, sending its occupants towards the city.

/

Clementine’s husband was pointing out their front window, across the street.

"You see that fancy as fuck car parked out the street before?” he said. “The black secret-service-looking fucker. Was here when you came home. You listening Clem? Our neighbours are buying new cars, making their house payments, and we can't even afford to feed ourselves. I’m sick of eating cheap meat. All because you don't have the balls to leave your shit clinic and get a real job."

Dr Hardy’s knuckles were white.

“Real job, like yours? Standing in one spot for eight hours? And, my God. Balls, Hamish? If I could, I’d kick you in the balls, and you’d be on the ground. There’s nothing strong about fu-”

She didn't see his fist coming.

Instead, she only experienced a curious whirling sensation, a dull pain, and then she was staring at the ceiling fan, limbs sprawled awkwardly, wheelchair tipped to its side side with one wheel spinning.

Hamish planted a foot either side of her.

His knuckles were shiny and reddened, and this did not make immediate sense to her.

"See what you made me do?" he said. “Standing on the spot? You aren’t even qualified for that. Don’t talk shit about my job.”

The pain rose up then, her jaw first stinging, then screaming for attention.

“I pay for fucking everything,” spat Hamish. “You can barely afford your meds.”

The room seemed to sway.

"You hear me, Clem?" said Hamish, sounding far away.

She looked up into his eyes, dull green and flecked with rage.

Her own were blank.

The sound of a baby rubbed at the edge of their hearing.

Hamish stepped away slightly, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

"Great. You've woken him up.”

He walked up the hall, and the doctor remained on the floor.

When the pain had receded a little, she crawled to the lounge, leaving the wheelchair in its sorry state. She hoisted herself up and cocooned herself into a blanket. Her eyes found the wall and she began to observe it in detail.

/

The chosen establishment was peculiar.

If a person had spent the majority of their lives watching film noir, and had then decided to construct themselves a bar and music venue that was, quite literally, underground; unswayed by the simple confine of profit, and inspired by their preferred genre of cinema, this would be the end result.

Though nobody was smoking, the air was nonetheless perforated with a swirling mask of something, as well as an abundance of sound. One wall was occupied by half-circle booths, most of them filled by groups of glass-clutching whisperers, their heads bowed carefully towards each other and their senses oblivious to the rest of the room.

The bar itself stretched across the opposite wall, lined with plush stools and backed by shelves filled with hundreds of bottles. Warm light poured forth from the counter and shelving, and the three staff wore red tuxedos and white gloves, their movements deft as cocktails were ordered.

“Oh my god,” said Luna.

“Too much?” said Matthew, leaning his head in.

They stood just at the bottom of the steps that led in. Across the room, a stage was veiled by heavy velvet curtains, light creeping from underneath, inviting.

The floor in between was divided in three. Just before them, a handful of round tables, each circled with chairs. After that, a series of gambling tables; blackjack, poker, a single roulette table, each manned by staff and a dozen players or watchers.

“Am I even allowed to be in here?” said Luna, raising her voice. “I feel like it’s costing me money to just stand here.”

Matthew shrugged. “Well, there is usually a cover charge.”

“And yet we didn’t pay one,” she frowned.

“I have my ways,” he shrugged. “Shall we start with a drink?”

She nodded, and they crossed the floor with her arm looped through his.

They perched at the only two-person gap along the bar, surrounded on each side by men in suits and women in dresses.

Before Matthew had a chance to signal, Luna wolf-whistled at one of the staff, then offered a smile as a chaser.

The barman approached.

“Madam?”

“Beer. Whatever’s on tap.”

The bartender almost appeared to wither slightly, then nodded.

“Certainly. And the usual for sir?”

“Please,” said Matthew, pushing a bank card across the counter.

The bartender took the card without a word, and walked away.

“Mr. Crawford,” said Luna, “are you by any chance an alcoholic?”

“Because I have a usual?”

“I’ve only heard that line in movies,” she laughed. “I thank you for bringing it into the real world, without even trying.”

“No, of course not. And if your next question is to do with bringing all my dates here, I haven’t been on a date for a very, very long time. This is strange for me.”

“Fair enough,” she said, as the bartender placed a healthily crowned beer and a whisky sour in front of them. “I believe you. Then, why the usual? What’s your usual situation, if not a date?”

He took a sip.

“If I said you needn’t worry, would that suffice?”

“No. But I don’t think any amount of prodding will help, so alright.”

“Thank you. You may just get an explanation out of me later, with that attitude.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Crawford. I feel like I’m a character in the bloody Shining, by the way. Bartender a figment of my imagination. This place doesn’t feel real. Am I about to go all axe murderer on my own family or what?”

“That’s why I like this place. Old school, without trying too hard. And you know that carpet from the Shining?”

“The red and orange hexagon pattern.”

“It’s in one of the side rooms here. Perhaps that is a little pretentious, or maybe it’s just brilliant.”

She leaned in close, looking sideways at the bartenders. “The tuxedos are a little pretentious.”

“Perhaps just a little,” he smiled. “You make sure to let the owner know.”

“But apart from that, very impressive. I’d never even heard of this place.”

Luna picked up her beer, attempted to glean some kind of insight in its amber depths, and then drank half. Matthew watched her, bemused.

“I take it it’s alright?”

“It’s beer. Now, I feel like we’ve arrived at the part where we buckle down and get to know each other, and I’m more pleased about it then I expected.”

“As am I. Well then, Luna, what can you tell me about yourself?”

/

The house had surrendered to darkness.

Dr Hardy finally pushed herself off the couch, then spent the next few minutes getting back into her chair.

She went to the kitchen and hunted through the cupboards, taking care to close them without a sound. She upended a wine bottle into a glass, drained it, filled it again.

She moved towards the hall, holding the glass between her thighs. Her face had stopped bleeding, though it was already swollen and bruised.

Stopping first in Amos’ room, she paused by the crib and watched over his sleeping form. He stirred slightly, rolling towards the bars, and she held her breath.

The baby scratched his face, wiggled his nose, and then rolled back over. She emptied her glass a little, and then left. Her face was more damp than when she had come in.

The next stop was her own bedroom, already occupied by the sleeping form of her husband. She bored her eyes into him.

She drained the rest of her wine, leaving the glass on her bedside table.

One hand fished under her thigh and produced a large, clean, kitchen knife.

She held it, allowing it to catch the light that glowed from the hall behind her, slowly lowering it towards her husband’s neck.

/

“Seriously?” said Luna. “You’ve never been to a beach?”

“Nope,” laughed Matthew. “Somehow, it’s just a thing I never got around to doing. I have no idea how.”

The pair hadn’t moved, though they were several drinks further though the night.

“You - not even as a kid? I can’t imagine life without it.”

“Nope, not even as a kid.”

“Half the fun was finding sand for days after,” she smiled, glancing thoughtfully at the air above Matthew’s head.

“Our family wasn’t really big on doing things together,” he said. ”There was always too much happening. Are you remembering what it was like right now?”

“Yes. I bloody am. Oh my God. We’re going to the beach together. I mean, you know. If, you want…”

“Yes,” he said, raising his glass.

She clinked hers against it.

“I usually wouldn’t say something like this,” she said, “Because it comes off as clingy and stupid, but I’d really like that.”

“Luna, I-”

He was cut short by an amplified voice from the stage:

“Ladies and gentlemen!”

The heavy curtains swept open to reveal a small assemblage of black-clad people clutching instruments: one behind a grand piano, flexing his fingers, a drummer sat behind her kit besides him, one person held a double bass, a saxophonist and trumpeter stood to the left, and a flutist waved to the crowd from the right.

The speaker stood before them all, wearing all white: gloves, top hat, and tuxedo.

“Welcome to La Maison du Temps!” he said, with a flourish of his hand. “I hope we’re all having an excellent time this evening. I’d like to welcome our fabulous house band to the stage, composed entirely of residents of the apartment block above your very heads! That includes yours truly, for I have the pleasure of providing vocals tonight. May I not disappoint.”

He turned to the band, waving his arms in a loose interpretation of a conductor, and they launched into a piece of jazz.

“Now,” continued the speaker, as the band played on. “It has been made known to me that one of our ex-members is with us here tonight.”

“Fuck,” said Matthew.

“We’ve even sourced a violin for him, because we knew this opportunity was far too good to allow it to simply pass us by!”

Luna threw a sideways look at Matthew. “No way.”

“Matt,” said the speaker, throwing his hands out wide, “Get on up here!”

His sleeve fell down to reveal a heavy gold watch, punctuating all the white.

“Will you excuse me?” said Matthew.

Every set of eyes in the room began to scan, searching for the mystery musician.

“Of course,” said Luna. “You’re too bloody much.”

Matthew smiled, standing. “For that, I am very sorry.”

All eyes in that smoky room honed in on him, waiting to see if this man had stood to fulfill the speaker’s request, or to perhaps visit the bathroom at an inopportune moment.

Matthew walked directly to the stage, and the speaker was lit with a brilliant smile, leaning forwards to clasp his hand and pull him up. The crowd stirred, slight applause even breaking out, and a cyclone of chatter backed it up. The pianist left the stage for a moment, returning with a small case, and handed it to Matthew.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” continued the speaker, arms spread wide, “we are in for an absolute treat. Our friend here found himself unable to continue serving the band a few months ago, and yet here he is on the stage again! Without further adieu, la bande de la Maison du Temps!”

And with that the band picked up both in speed and volume, the vocalist bouncing the microphone between his hands and rocking back and forth, as Matthew opened the case and brought the instrument forth.

/

Dr Hardy gave a sigh, sliding the knife back underneath her legs and taking it and the glass back to the kitchen.

She put the knife into the drawer and the glass in the sink, and then rejoined her thoroughly unwounded husband in bed, hoisting herself with the triangular handle that hung over her side of the bed.

She picked up her phone from the bedside table, the glow making her face seem even more sunken, bruised, and tired, and she began to type.

/

Luna’s handbag flashed with light, and she tore her eyes from the stage to glance towards it. She fished a hand through her bag, snatching jealous glimpses back towards the stage, finally producing her phone and squinting at it:

Hey Loon. still out? You have a very fair half hour window in which to reply, after which I will call the police etc. (mostly a joke, but please tell me you’re safe)

Just a heads up, won't be in tomorrow. Feeling a cold coming on.

Clem xx

Luna bit her lip as she read it, then glanced back up. Matthew had just applied rosin to his bow, and was bringing it to his instrument: his first pass across the strings produced an audible, evil hiss, causing him to wince slightly, however he reapplied his bow without hesitation and his instrument began to sing.

His expression was sparse, tastefully weaving notes between his fellows, allowing them moments of their own as the band played on with the speaker now singing some abstract song of love and loss, though he too offered his talent only sparingly; seeming more focused on dancing to the sound of his companions.

The crowd was rapt, and Luna struggled to return her attention to her phone. She took a swig of beer and then replied:

all dandy love. were at some crzy underground pub!! the band just got him up to play violin. What. i’ll send you a vid. and 4 sure no worries. ill let the others know in the morn. rest up clem x

Luna switched to her camera and recorded the band for the rest of the song, sent the footage to Clementine, then stashed the phone and turned her body fully towards the stage, watching Matthew’s animated movements, the music flooding that underground room, the listeners happily drowning.

Luna closed her eyes, far from the only person to do so, and was taken away.

Chapter 5

5 min Link

Dr Hardy woke.

Her breathing was fast, and she rolled to her right, eyes fixed open.

The other side of the bed was empty, and her breathing slowed. She waited a while, just breathing.

She rolled down the hall to Amos, who was in that rare state that was nothing. Not crying, not sleeping, not eating, not expelling. His tiny pink face rolled slowly as a model of the solar system rotated above his bed, too involved to even notice his mother’s approach.

“Good morning baby,” said Clementine.

Amos clenched a soft fist, smiled briefly, and deeply considered something. He then began to cry. Clem smiled sympathetically and rolled forward, unlatching one side of the crib and bundling him into her arms.

“What is it, my love?”

He locked her eyes.

“Hungry?” she said.

She sniffed his diaper, and raised an eyebrow.

“No poop!” she said, “let’s come out to the kitchen then.”

Amos exchanged his crying for a look of half-hearted discontent, as if trying to decide what extreme of emotion to display next.

Slowly, they made their way up the hall, Clementine alternating between wheeling on each side and balancing her child on her lap.

When they reached the spot where they could greet the morning light, she offered her child some food, and he accepted. She sighed into the chair as he worked, feeling the warmth of the sun prick at her skin.

A reflection caught her eye, her head turned.

The kitchen knife was on the bench - no - in the bench, embedded, tip down, an inch sunk into the worn timber.

It was not where she had left it.

The sun seemed to fail, and her skin went cold. She saw the babysitter’s car arrive, and hastened to remove the blade.

/

Luna woke.

She stared at the ceiling above her, and was confused by what she saw. This was not the cracked yellow-white, low to the ground ceiling she knew. The pseudo-chandelier was not there.

No. This ceiling was far above her, clean, sloped, and wooden.

She blinked a few times. She rubbed her eyes, and rolled to the right.

Buried amongst crisp white sheets was the sleeping form of Matthew, his face bearing a shadow of grey stubble, and Luna blinked with a little more purpose.

“Shit,” she whispered.

She waited for a moment, listening to his breath, and then slowly extracted herself from the bed. Her head pounded in protest, and she stopped in the middle of the room, clenching her eyes.

Her clothes were scattered across the floor, and she tiptoed about, putting them back on. Her purse was by the door. She rifled through its contents, pulling out her phone and tapping at the screen, though it refused to light up. She checked that everything else was there, and then began to move towards the door.

“Luna?”

She bit her lip, and turned.

Matthew was sitting up, scratching his chin.

“Morning,” he said.

“Uh, hey. Morning.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. You?”

“It’s okay if you want to leave. It’s just difficult to get around from here.”

“Uh, that’s cool. I’ll call a cab or something.”

“That might set you back a little. And buses don’t run out here.”

She frowned, but sat lightly on the edge of the bed. “Where’s here?”

“We’re a little way out of the suburbs, that’s all. You don’t remember the drive?”

“No, of course. I think. Maybe not quite the length of it, I was...distracted.”

“So was I. I still am.”

They observed each other openly for a moment, the morning light filtering through the window. Luna glanced through it, and saw only the upper reaches of some trees, and craggy ranges beyond that she didn’t recognise.

“I definitely don’t remember any stairs,” she mused.

“I carried you.”

Luna dropped her shoulders and laughed. “How manly!”

“Not particularly. I don’t think it was an elegant feat.”

“You drove us here drunk?”

Matthew shook his head vigorously. “No. God. Chauffeur. I’ll have someone bring my car back later. There’s others here, so, no big deal.”

She edger a little closer. “Oh. Right. So, uh, did we….”

“No. At least, I’m pretty sure we didn’t.”

“But I’m naked.”

“As am I. But I still don’t think so.”

“Right. Are you okay with that?”

“I had no expectations, Luna.”

“Neither did I. Hang on. Were you, like, up on stage? Playing the violin? Did I dream that?”

Matthew slouched forward. “That was real. I don’t know how they found out I was there. I’m sorry.”

Luna smiled, and laid back into the bed. “Sorry? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s almost nice to see try so hard,” she said, making an exaggerated sigh and splaying one hand across her chest. “That’s just about too much for this lady to handle.”

He said nothing for a moment, just smiled.

“Perhaps next time I shall dial it down, then?”

“Next time,” she said. “You presume too much. So you used to live in that building, that’s how you knew the place?”

He tilted his head, his body tensing. “What makes you think that?”

“They said all the band members live in that building, and you used to be one.”

“Ah,” he said, and relaxed. “Well, I still have an apartment there. I stay there sometimes.”

Luna nodded, seemingly satisfied.

“You have a phone charger?” she said.

“Which sort?”

She held her phone out for him to see.

He nodded, and produced a cord from beside the bed.

Luna plugged her phone in, then waited a few seconds before turning it on.

The screen flashed into life and she groaned.

“Shit!” she said. “Why don’t you have any bloody clocks in here! I would’ve been gone if I knew what time it was. I’m gonna be late.”

“I’ll drive you. Nine to five, right?”

“Right. Usually finish later, but-”

Her phone chirped, and she looked back at it.

Hey Luna. I’ve woken up much better, I’ll be coming in. You okay to pick me up? xx clem

If you’ve already left, don’t worry about being late. Don’t speed

“Shit!” said Luna.

The phone chirped again.

Also don’t text and drive

“What’s wrong?” said Matthew. “More than being late?”

“I need to pick up Dr Hardy.”

“Oh. Of course. Well-”

“Of course?”

Matthew didn’t falter. “Same workplace,I suppose.”

“Right.”

“Well, I could get her as well,” he continued, “If you’re both comfortable with that.”

Luna sighed. “No, that wouldn’t, quite - that wouldn’t work. Could you just take me back to my place?”

“Sure. We can grab you some food on the way. I’ll text my driver.”

“Uh, yeah. Alright. I can’t believe you have a driver. But, eating might make me feel human again, because right now I feel like I’m dying.”

“Oh,” said Matthew, laughing, “Thank God.”

“What?”

“I’ve been trying so hard to hide it,” he said. “I thought it was just me.”

Chapter 6

7 min Link

One week later

/

The rain had accepted that its time was over, and had given way to snow.

The driver sat motionless behind the wheel, watching the powder flash into life from the depths of the night, dancing across his windshield to collect around the wipers.

He watched it build up, tiny, temporary structures of ice, coming together only to be dashed apart by the next burst of wind, and then rebuilt again, his wipers the foundations.

The car was parked off the road, in the gravel carpark of a small lookout that offered impressive views of the city, when the weather permitted. Tonight, however, the lookout seemed like nothing more than a steep drop into nothingness, his car pointed towards a gulf of darkness, through which the lights of the distant city were visible only occasionally.

A halo of trees circled behind him, on the other side of the road, building themselves a layer of frosty skin as the driver waited.

Two ziplock bags of white powder sat on the passenger seat, one small, and one much larger. The red axe sat beside them, its head hanging over the edge of the seat. He glanced over every few seconds, eyes flitting between the collection of items.

The driver watched the snow for a few minutes, breathing slowly, and then rolled the radio’s volume up. An irritating ad for industrial cleaners played first, and then a talk show resumed.

“So Jenny, you’ve chewed up the ad break to ‘ave a think,” said a voice, sounding like someone plucked straight out of a tractor. “What do you think it means? For you listeners out there, we’re discussing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and one of the most famous lines of the piece in particular-”

“That’s right, listeners,” said another voice, feminine and refined. “You ready to tell them the line, Slick?”

“I’m ready, Jenny. That line is this: I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

“I get the shivers just hearing it.”

“No doubt. But we’re here to talk ‘bout the meanin’, not how you feel!”

“Don’t you think the two could be related, Slick?”

“You tell me, and the listeners, Jen. What do you think he’s on about there?”

“I want to first say that Stephen King’s Dark Tower series opens by quoting this line, so there’s some rich history here. It’s not just that this is perhaps one of the better knows poems of the last century, you find the piece everywhere. Most folk probably know some of the lines, but not who wrote it. But anyway, back to our dust line.”

“Tell ‘em, Jen.”

The icy clouds between the lookout and the city arranged themselves in just the right way, for just a few seconds, and the city lights became briefly visible. The driver observed this.

“Alright,” said the woman. “What I’ve come to think, is that in this line, Eliot is talking about time. Let me give that line in context for our listeners. So lines 28-30 of the Waste Land are as follows:

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

“Shivers, Jen.”

“I think he’s just talking about time, and the inconsequentiality of human existence. He’s trying to tell you that the sun will rise and set on your whole life, and then you’ll become dust, and the universe won’t even bat an eye. Nothing means anything, everything is pointless. Relative to the universe, we are nothing.”

“That’s some heavy stuff,” said Slick, his accent dulled.

“It is. Eliot’s dust is just a representation of our fear, a symbol of the one sure thing about our lives; that it’s going to end.”

A pair of headlights flashed in the darkness behind the driver, and his body tensed.

Snow dashed against his windshield, urgent.

“Alright,” said Slick, “we’re going to take some callers, get their take on this dust-”

The driver switched the radio off, then picked up the smaller of the two bags and held it against his interior light. He held it there for a while, then slipped it into his coat.

He looked up at the rear vision mirror, watching his guest.

The old sedan rolled over the thin layer of snow, silent against the wind, coming around to the driver’s side, slowing. It came to a stop just before the metal guard rail, that which marked the boundary between the flat earth of the carpark, and the sheer cliff that dropped away to the ravine below.

The driver turned off his interior light, and stepped out of the car.

He stood, leaning against his car, and closed his eyes.

When he opened them, there was a mannequin standing in the snow, between the two cars.

He heard a voice, and the mannequin seemed to move.

You got the stuff? it said.

He held the small big in the air, then tossed it on the ground.

The mannequin hesitated, then came to life. It bent forward, creaking, and the driver saw that it had a wig on, though not a flattering one. The wig had a bald spot, and some of the hair from the side had been brushed over the top to cover it.

The mannequin picked up the bag and opened it, plastic fingers struggling in the cold.

It stuck its nose in the contents, then stuck a finger into the bag. Where a person’s mouth would be, a small hole opened, and it put that finger inside.

Yeah. Alright.

The mannequin turned and picked up a shopping bag, and showed the inside to the driver, then handed it over.

The driver went around to the boot and threw it in.

Now for the rest of it, said the mannequin.

The driver climbed inside the car, his back to the mannequin, and tucked the axe under his coat, the edge riding hard in his armpit. He then picked up the larger bag, and got back out of the car, his side hiding the axe tilted away. He threw the bag over.

The mannequin opened it, and began to repeat the procedure with its finger. As it did so, axe appeared from underneath the driver’s coat.

What the-

The driver leapt forward, the axe already swinging, and planted it firmly into the mannequin’s chest, sinking to the shaft.

The mannequin made a terrible, inhuman noise.

It seemed to visibly deflate, like an awful plastic balloon, and it dropped the bag.

The snow grew heavier.

The driver moved forward, catching the mannequin as it began to fall, retrieving his axe with a grunt.

He dragged it around to the passenger side of the old sedan, and bundled it in, closing the door behind him.

The then retrieved both bags of powder and the bag of money, and placed them on the back seat of the mannequin’s car.

He retrieved a cinderblock, a tin of gasoline, and a lighter from the boot of his own car, then returned to the mannequin’s car and got in the driver’s side. He placed the block at his feet.

His plastic passenger almost seemed to be moving, but the driver paid him only a few seconds of attention. He twisted around and doused the back with the gasoline, then bumped the car into reverse and backed it up, back towards the road, until it was the length of a swimming pool from the metal guard the shielded them from the cliff edge. He turned the car slightly, off to the right, where the shield ended and there was slight gap between the cliff and the road going back down the mountain.

The clouds cleared again, and he could see the city. His eyes reflected its light, just for a moment, two tiny golden galaxies stuffed into a pale, impassive face.

He pushed the stick into neutral and shifted the cinder block forward, until it was wedged against the accelerator, holding it down.

The car began to growl, and the tachometer rolled up into the red.

He turned again to his passenger.

Please-

The driver smiled, and leaned over. He laid a hand on the mannequin’s face, caressing.

“You knew this was coming.”

The overcoated man flicked the lighter on and grabbed a wad of cash from the bag, setting it alight. He then threw them both into the back of the car stepped smartly out of the car, putting the window down, then closed the door.

He leaned against the car from the outside, and found the mannequin’s head rotated pitifully towards him. Its chest was soaked with dark red.

An orange glow flooded the car, the back seat covered with flame.

“You’re going to die,” said the driver. “You can either sit there and do it slowly, while I watch, or put the car into drive.”

The mannequin made a wet sound, as if liquid was sputtering from its nonexistent mouth.

“Put the car into drive.”

Piece of shit.

“DRIVE.”

The driver stepped away, and he heard the car clunk into gear. It gave a mechanical scream, and then the tires bit into the snow and it threw itself forward, hurling itself towards oblivion.

It was all of four seconds before the car had covered the space leading up to the cliff, perfectly straight. It clipped the edge of the rail with a dull clang, spraying snow across the night, and the car was lurched sideways into the air and over the edge.

The driver stood in the snow, one hand in his pocket, the other clutching the axe.

He waited, and waited, the world cloaked in snow and silence, but he heard nothing. The snow and the wind made the world too small.

He indulged the thought of how thoroughly twisted the car would be, how unrecognisable its occupant.

He returned to his car and sat inside it for a few minutes more, typing on his phone. He then he began the drive home, noting an orange glow in the ravine far below.

Chapter 7

7 min Link

“Crawford? Matthew Crawford”

Matthew stood, his eyes fixed on the receptionist. The other occupants of the waiting room hardly stirred, each of them too occupied with the contents of their own minds.

He walked towards the desk and rested his fingers lightly on its edge.

“Very nice to see you again, Mr Crawford,” said Luna.

Matthew nodded. “And you...what was your name? Do we know each other?”

“You could say that,” she smiled. “There’s nobody scheduled before you today, you can go straight in.”

“Thank you. Dinner tonight? My place?”

Luna rolled her head back and gave an exaggerated sigh. “If you insist. I’ll be there around 7.”

“Bring your favourite drink, and I’ll cook my favourite meal. How’s that?”

“Perfect.”

“Any dietary requirements?”

“Mm. Not really. As long as its gluten free, vegan, organic, locally grown, sugar free...I’ll send you a list?”

“I watched you eat a ten dollar steak and chips just two nights ago.”

She shrugged. “It’s this new thing I’m trying.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

They held each other’s gaze for a moment, and then he was gone.

/

Dr Hardy’s door was closed.

Matthew knocked twice, firmly.

“Come in!”

Dr Hardy was seated behind her desk, her laptop shut. She simply watched Matthew as he entered, removing his suit jacket and shoes.

He turned to her then, hands folded into each other, head slightly bowed. Specks of snow swam across the window.

Dr Hardy gestured a hand towards the beaten old lounge, and her patient walked to it and laid down.

“Hello Matthew.”

“Good evening.”

“How are you doing?”

“Excellent. And you?”

“Perfectly well. Are you ready?”

“More or less.”

“May we begin by discussing your workplace?”

“If you wish.”

“Excellent,” said Dr Hardy. “How has your work been, this past week?”

Matthew tilted his head. “What happened to your face?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve masked it well, doctor, but there’s bruises under your left eye, and on your jaw. Who did that to you?”

The doctor bowed her head, hair closing like two curtains. She glanced up between them, her eyes tired.

“Will you talk to me about your work if I tell you?”

“Certainly.”

Dr Hardy laced her fingers, straightening. “Very well. My husband came home, intoxicated. We had an argument, which he lost, and then we had a fight, which I lost.”

Matthew angled his body towards her, his brow wrinkled. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did you call the police?”

“No. I’d prefer to handle this myself.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“It is your turn, Matthew.”
“Fine,” he said. “My work has been...difficult. My father is restructuring the company, so I’m spending my time reassuring our clients that their relationships with us aren’t going to change, that they won’t be affected. Misguided, overgrown children, each and every one of them. And I’m lying through my teeth, but I have to.”

“That sounds frustrating.”

“It is.“

“Are you annoyed at your father for doing this?”

“Of course.”

Dr Hardy nodded. “So have you raised the issue with him?”

“No.”

“When was the last time you spoke to him?”

“Years ago. Maybe ten.”

Clementine seemed to absorb this.

“Then why do you work for him?” she said.

“Because he can’t stay where he is forever.”
“You plan to take his place?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

Matthew arched his spine, stretching.

“Dr Hardy, is this conversation an intelligent use of our time?”

She tapped her fingers on the desk and sighed.

“Matthew, when you walk into this office, as a patient, you entrust yourself into my care. I promise you that everything I ask, every word that I speak, is carefully chosen. These questions are both useful and intelligent, and I am not asking them because I care about you. I’m asking them because I have a job to do, and it’s a job that I do very well. Questioning-”

“Doctor-”

“Shut up. Questioning the nature of our relationship, Matthew, that is not intelligent. As I have noted before, you strike me as a sharp man, so I’m disappointed that I felt the need to spell all of this out for you.”

Matthew’s face contorted, and then immediately relaxed. The transition was seamless, as if the the former had simply not existed at all. He remained silent for a time, watching her.

“Fine,” he said flatly, with no emotion at all. “Yes, I plan to take my father’s place, because it’s all that I know how to do. I feel assured, somehow empowered, by that choice, as little choice as I have had in making it. Once I’m there, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll expand, maybe I’ll change the company’s direction. Maybe I’ll fire every employee and destroy the company just to fuck with him, or his memory.”

“There’s that self-awareness, Matthew.”

He propped himself up on one arm. “And?”

“And nothing. Last time you were here, you said that you were getting urges again. Did anything happen since then?”

“Yes.”

“Did you record your thoughts and feelings afterwards, like I asked?”

“I did.”

“Can you show them to me?”

“They’re not pretty.”

“Mental illness isn’t pretty, Matthew.”

He became silent and still, turning his attention to his palms. “Do you treat all your clients like this?” he said quietly.

“I adopt a particular approach for everyone. In your case, I feel that you respond best to honesty. If I mince words, or lie, you’ll only perceive that I am wasting time, or you will likely know that I am lying. I also doubt you take offense very easily.”

“Very perceptive.”

“I apologise if any of my beliefs about you are wrong, or if I actually caused offense. None was intended.”

“No.”

“So, can you show me what you recorded?”

Matthew paused, then nodded and stood, taking his phone out.

He thumbed through it, then placed it on the desk in front of Clementine.

The glow illuminated the ugly patch on her cheek.

“Thank you,” she said. “This is some sort of journal entry app?”
“First result for journal in the store.”

“Right. Do I have your permission to read the contents of this entire journal entry, as it were?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Alright. Sit back down, if you wish, allow me go through it.”

He obeyed, and the room became quiet.

Clementine opened her laptop, and then studied the phone intently, typing something every now and then.

Matthew paced, moving to the window. He held one hand against the glass, at first recoiling against the cold, then allowing it to stay.

When Dr Hardy was done, she locked the phone, the click filling the room, and slid it back across the desk.

“This is unrelated,” she said, “but I can’t remove it from my mind.”

Matthew didn’t react, watching the snow.

“This morning I was watching the news,” she continued. “They were saying that last night, a man drove his car over a cliff up in the hills. Some kind of drug kingpin. Just put his foot to the floor, allowed gravity do the rest. Pressures of the job, perhaps? Seems like a pretty good way to go, honestly. Maybe he should’ve come and seen me though, might have changed his mind, hey?”

Matthew placed his other hand on the glass and lowered his head. “That’s...quite a dark sense of humour, doctor.”
“Yes, well. You get that in this job. At the bottom of this journal entry, it’s actually recorded the latitude and longitude of where the entry was written, and the time.”

Still, Matthew did not move, but something changed in his posture.

“And I’ve just typed those coordinates into my laptop,” she continued, “and it’s put me near a lookout up in the hills. Isn’t that interesting? You might have driven past this person, perhaps, on their way to commit suicide.”

Matthew placed a foot behind him, then twisted towards her.

“Doesn’t that make your head spin, Matthew?”

The space between them seemed to stretch, and grow dark.

His eyes burned the air, tiny points of awful light.

“Is that how you look at your mannequins, Matthew?” she intoned.

He took a step forward.

“Can you hear me, Matthew?”

He took another.

“How many have there been, Matthew?”

He took two more, his face as stone.

“Too many, Matthew?”

His feet made no sound.

“Or not enough?”

He had crossed the room, and was standing before her desk. He calmly lifted her corded phone into the air, tugged the cord from the handset, and placed it back down.

Dr Hardy sat in her chair, fingers laced, watching him.

“We could have enjoyed each other a little more, doctor,” said Matthew. “This is a shame.”

He walked around to her side of the desk, one hand brushing the arm of her chair.

She looked up at him.

“I’m only interested in helping you,” she said.

He placed a hand on her cheek, gently as a mother with her newborn, running a finger down her jaw.

He removed it.

Clementine exhaled audibly, and without breaking eye contact, reached an arm to the desk.

He tensed. She opened a small, hidden drawer under the desk’s surface, and pulled out a small, sealed envelope.

She held it out to him.

“I have a proposition,” she said.”

He studied her face for a few moments, then took the envelope between two fingers and backed away.

Snow fell outside, where daylight was in its final retreat.

Matthew replaced his shoes and coat.

He glanced back at her a final time, then left the room, closing the door silently behind him.

Clementine Hardy waited a full minute, counting the seconds laboriously under her breath, then spilled from the chair to the floor and began to shiver.

Chapter 8

8 min Link

“So,” said Luna. “Tell me, baby, what’s your story?”

Clementine frowned. “What?”

“Where you come from, and where you want to go this time, huh?”

“Luna, you’re not right.”

“What? You don’t know that song?”

“I know that you just called me baby.”

“Oh my god woman, I’m gonna put that on right now.”

Luna changed the track, glancing between the traffic and her phone.

“So,” said Luna, “where do you want to go? Just home, or you need groceries or anything?”

“Straight home, Loon. Thank you.”

“Sure thang,” replied Luna, nodding her head to the song. “You okay back there? You seem...particularly yourself.”

“James is dead,” said Clementine.

“Holy fuck.”

The music stopped.

“Yeah,” said Clementine.
“You mean, zipper-down James? Patient James?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

They drove in silence for a moment, the weight settling.

“You’re not, like, blaming yourself, are you? Clem?”

“I wouldn’t have lasted this long if I was prone to doing things like that. This is not the first time.”

“Don’t get snappy. I know that. This sucks. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, Loon. I’m sorry too.”

The night passed them by, clear air broken by streetlights.

“So,” said Luna, “this is the question everyone goes for, but what happened?”

“He drove over a cliff”

“Fuck!”

“I know. Feel better?”

Luna laughed, and sighed. “No. Maybe. Yeah, actually. Well, would you mind if I come and stay tonight? Or even just for dinner?”

“Oh. No, it’s alright. Thank-”

“Well bloody Hamish isn’t going to help you out here, I feel. I was meant to go over to Matt’s place, but I’ll bail in a heartbeat.”

“It’s okay, Luna. I’ve got Amos.”

A flash of brilliant light flooded the car, and Luna recoiled against her chair.

She threw a middle finger out against the night, wound her window down, and yelled, “Turn your high beams off fuckwit!”

The offending car rolled past on the other side of the street, and Luna sighed.

“Sorry Clem. Anyway, I just feel like, I dunno, maybe a person needs to be able to form sentences to make another person feel better about stuff.”

“You’d be surprised, Loon. That little face heals the soul. Almost as much as swearing a whole bunch.”

“Huh. Maybe you should rent him out or something, or just put him in your office and let him do his thing. You can skip work and charge the same.”

“I can’t think of any way that would end badly.”

“You sure you don’t want any food? Ice cream, choccie, whatever?”

“Mm-hmm. I’m fine. Look, a less morbid topic, how are you and Matthew going?”

Luna clicked her tongue. “Are you asking as his therapist, or as my friend?”

“Your friend, of course.”

“I don’t believe you, but alright. We’re doing pretty well. He’s different to anybody I’ve dated before, by a bloody mile. Probably the first guy I’ve dated with any sort of real class. He’s rich. Crazy rich. Not overly sensitive. Doesn’t overestimate his sexual ability. Buys dinner. Y’know, the whole package, pretty much.”

“Beautiful.”

“Alright, I’ll quit the bullshit. I honestly feel like he’s a good person. Top shelf. I have no idea what you’re covering with him in therapy, but I know you’d tell me if I had anything to really worry about. There’s not, is there?”

“No. I’d tell you, Loon.”

“Cool. Well, we’re still in the whole, like, familiarisation phase, so we’ll see. But no complaints here, I’m having a good time.”

“I’m happy to hear it.”

“Clem?”

“Mm?”

“Is there anything else wrong?” said Luna, twisting to look her in the eye. “I know you’ve just lost a patient, and that’s obviously a huge deal, but, I dunno. It feels like there’s something more.”

“That’s all,” said Clementine. “Eyes on the road.”

“Alright, Clem. Look, I still don’t believe you’re alright, so if at any point you want to call me and tell me how right I am, I would love that. For now,” she trailed, as the van swung into the driveway, “I’ll have to love you and leave you.”

“Will do.”

Once she’d exited, Clementine rolled up to Luna’s window, and they exchanged a worn smile.

“Luna, sometime soon, maybe in the next few days. I might need a huge favour. Like, mother of all favours, I’m going to owe you big time, favour. I’m going to owe you even more than I owe for my degree, kind of favour. Will you be able to help me?”

Luna pursed her lips.

“Like I definitely want more information than that, because you have given me literally none, but I also feel like you won’t. So, yeah. Of course. You’re scaring me a little, but yeah.”

“Alright. Thank you. See you in the morning.”

“Love ya,” said Luna, looking down at her friend. “Maybe piece together some sort of explanation, have it on my desk by tomorrow?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Clementine, and rolled away.

Hamish had opened the door, and stood under its frame, arms crossed.

Luna watched the distance between the husband and wife shrink, her expression mournful. She sighed and began to reverse away.

/

Across the road, the occupant of a parked black sedan watched them, his hands resting on the steering wheel. The passenger seat held the red axe, waiting.

The driver watched the van leave, and he watched the man standing in the doorway fail to move as the wheelchair approached him.

He watched the man scowl down at the woman before him, talking for a while before allowing her to pass, letting the door clatter into her wheel as he retreated and let her in.

He watched the front door begin to close, but before it did, the occupant of the wheelchair looked back across the road, towards the sedan, straight at him.

His hands tightened on the wheel and he took a sharp breath, then he reached one hand for the axe.

/

“There’s that fucking car again,” said Hamish, once inside, his fingers prying the blinds apart.

“What car?” said Clementine, quiet.

“That black car, right across the street. You telling me you can’t fucking see that?”

“Not from down here, Hamish.”

He glanced at her, then scowled. “I pointed it out to you last week. I was curious who the fuck around here was driving a car like that. Could only figure someone’s living in the wrong neighbourhood, or someone got their fingers into some nasty shit. Didn’t find out anything.”

“It’s just a car,” said Clementine, softly. “It might not even be the same one.”

“Same plate. I’m not the type to make shit up.”

Clementine closed her eyes.

“Fine then, Hamish. Go out there, see who it is.”

He let the blinds snap shut and turned back towards her.

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? Get me to go and tap on some druggie’s window. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you about this. What are you making for dinner?”

“I did not have a very good day. I was hoping we could order something.”

He took two heavy steps towards her.

“Right. And how are we gonna pay for that?”

Clementine stared vaguely at his face for a moment, and then started to leave the room. “I’m going to check on Amos. Talk to me when you’re ready to be a human being.”

/

The driver was still holding the axe, and had moved his other hand to the door handle, ready to spring.

He hesitated, breathing carefully, watching the light shift within the house.

He put a hand into his suit jacket and removed the small envelope, looking at the single word printed on its exterior: Please.

He considered, then laid the axe down and opened it.

He held the letter lightly, his dark eyes flitting across the neat, handwritten characters.

He folded it, paused, then unfolded it and read it again.

He looked up at the moon, which was a neatly edged crescent, small and vulnerable. He folded the letter up again, put it back into the envelope, and started the car.

/

Hamish’s ear twitched, and he moved back to the window.

He watched the headlights come alight, the car pull out from the kerb, and roll down the street.

He blew air between his teeth, then grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat at the beaten dining table.

/

Much later, once Hamish had drunk himself to sleep on the couch, Clementine rejoined her husband in the front of the house. She went to him and shook his shoulder, counting the number of bottles scattered throughout the darkness. The count was high. She nodded to herself.

One end of the dining room table had a larger, mismatched chair partnered with it. Some of the bottles were strewn there. At the other end of the table, there was no chair, and this is where Clementine positioned herself. She pulled her laptop out of the pouch on the side of her wheelchair and powered it on.

She then place her phone next to her laptop, the two devices emitting light that hollowed her cheeks, and she waited.

The phone indicated that the time was 12:57.

She began to work on her laptop, opening a few web pages, glancing back at her phone every few seconds.

She stopped typing, then clasped her hands in her lap. The phone’s screen had gone dark, so she tapped it back to attention. 12:59.

She unlocked the phone, one fingers pressed firmly against one of the volume keys, the volume falling from full to muted.

She sighed, staring at the screen, then put it back on the table, and leant back slightly.

The web page she had left open had the words Create an account on it, in large type, followed by several blank fields requesting personal information. She eyed them each in turn, then looked back to her phone.

The phone’s clock struck 1:00, and she looked over at Hamish. She grimaced.

She sat motionless, then, one hand poised next to her phone.

The room descended into some strange, dreamlike state, as if both time and sound had briefly forgotten to enact themselves upon the world.

This remained so for three minutes, after the phone screen had gone dark again, until it lit up.

Clementine sucked in a breath, and picked it up. She had a message, from an unknown number. It said:

I’m in. Talk soon.

She shivered, and began to fill out the information. She glanced behind her, at her sleeping husband. Spit flecked one of his cheeks.

The account she created was for Artemis Murphy, who was nineteen, and lived nearby. She found a face by searching for “young blonde haired woman”, and picking one that looked both mischievous and inviting.

She spent an hour writing fake posts, scheduling some to appear over the next few days, and then sent a link for the profile to the person who had messaged her. She glanced at her husband again. The spit was gone, thought she did not notice.

Chapter 9

8 min Link

Three days later

/

“So this is it?” said Luna, one hand on the wheel, one hand clutching a travel mug. “Your big favour?”

“Yep,” said Clementine, sipping from her own mug.

“The favour of all favours, which will put you in more debt than you’re in for your degree, is this?”

“Well, we are going to be outside in the cold. That’s quite dreadful.”

“You know I love the snow,” sighed Luna. “I’ve even got my wellies on.”

Clementine laughed. “To sit in a car for hours?”

“Well, y’know, just in case we want to go for a walk or something. Might want to stretch our legs after the first one.”

“Look, if you’re prepared to push me around in the wet, you’re very welcome to.”

“Ugh. Such a bother. What are we seeing, anyway?”

“All part of the surprise, my friend.”

“No! I hate surprises!”

“Too bad, Loon.”

“Tell me the first one, at least.”

“How about I tell you the overarching theme?”

Luna considered, taking a sip. “Alright.”

“Classic horror.”

Luna exhaled loudly, putting her cup down.

“Clementine Hardy, you know me too well.”

“I know.”

“Can you please explain to me why this is such a huge favour? We both love movies, we both love not being at home. And cocoa. And each other. What’s-”

“Forget it, Loon. I was in a weird emotional state when I asked. I felt small, and something as simple as this felt huge.”

“That’s rubbish and you know it. Look, so long as you explain yourself to me while we’re there, I’m cool,” said Luna. “Fair?”

“Fair,” said Clementine.

They were quiet for a moment, as Luna pummelled the van into the next corner. It lurched to one side as it rounded the turn, and the wheels ignored friction for the briefest of moments.

“I’m sorry, Loon,” said Clementine, quiet. “I’m just not sure how to explain it.”

Luna tried to catch her passenger’s eyes in the rear vision mirror, but Clementine’s head was tilted forward and masked by hair, her shoulders sunken.

“Oi,” said Luna. “Dickhead.”

Clementine glanced up and smiled. Her eyes did not participate.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Luna. “Explain it when you’re ready. Sorry ‘bout that turn, that was bloody silly. I reckon that if you drove, you’d never let me do it.”

“Maybe short distances,” said Clementine. “Short, straight distances. And only if the road was dry.”

“So, the opposite of right now.”

Clementine nodded.

“Look,” said Luna. “We’ll be there in five, how about we listen to something cheerful for the rest?”

“Some 80’s music, perhaps?”

“Perfect.”

/

The drive-in cinema was almost empty. The space in front of the screen was a broad expanse of tarmac, broken up by the poles that had been planted like some artificial crop. A few cars were already there, their places claimed. Fog licked at the edges of the cinema, but the sky was clean and the moon watched on in its own pensive way.

A large red van appeared at the edge of the field, coming in from the left side of the five-story screen, and rolled out to join the others of its kind. Each car slowly settled into place between the poles, headlights shutting off and sharpening the night, the screen still dark.

/

“You ready for this?” said Luna, looking up at the screen.

“You bet,” said Clementine, in the passenger seat beside her. “Just have to go to the toilet first.”

Luna blinked. “What! You just made the effort of climbing up the front. You really can’t hold it?”

“I didn’t have to go until I got up here. You know how it is.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll drive you up to the stand, then.”

“I’ll wheel,” said Clementine, clambering across the rungs set in the ceiling to the chair in the back. “You stay here.”

Luna looked up towards the screen, then squinted at the small squat building perched at its side. “That’s like a hundred miles, in wheelchair terms.”

“Which makes we want to do it all the more,” said Clementine. “Can you just help me outside?”

Luna grumbled, but went round the back of the van and began lowering the lift with her friend snared inside it. “You’re a stubborn bastard,” she said.

“Thanks Loon.”

The rest of the descent went in silence, until the metal whirring came to a halt and Clementine gave a thin smile, then moved forward and around the front of the van.

Luna returned to the driver’s seat and pulled out a packet of chocolate.

/

The driver sat calmly behind the oversized wheel of a semi-trailer truck. The truck had blacked out-windows, and, from the outside, appeared cold and empty, forgotten.

He watched the cars roll by on the road below him, some heading back the way he came, towards the city, some heading out, up into the hills that formed a barrier to the rural areas beyond.

There was a small dirt road in front of the truck, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, with a tall fence either side. Some of the cars passing by slowed, indicated, and disappeared into the dirt-paved gap between the fence.

The driver watched them from above, making a mark in a notebook he held in one hand each time a car entered the gate. Each mark was made with a dry scratching sound, his pencil painfully sharp.

His phone lit up, and he looked down at it. His lip twitched. He lifted it to his face.

“Yes,” he said.

“He just messaged me,” said the caller. “He wants to know where he’s going to meet Artemis.”

“Is he in there?”

“Not yet. Five minutes out.”

“Alright. Are you sure about this?”

The caller sighed.

“Don’t make me waste words,” she said.

The driver was silent for a few seconds. “When does the first movie begin?” He said.

“Ten minutes.”

“Perfect. Tell him that Artemis is running late, and that when she arrives he should come and get in her car. I’ll text you the make and model. There’s...plenty of space. It’ll be parked right up the back. She’ll be about fifteen minutes, just after the movie starts.”

“What - what’s your plan?”

“Just keep your phone with you, doctor.”

She said nothing.

The driver hung up.

/

Clementine was stopped a few metres from the concession stand, staring at her phone. Her jaw was a hard line. She remained as such for a time, then wrote a message in a flurry and sent it.

She looked up.

The drive-in’s lone employee was watching her from a small window. He gave a slight nod as Clementine looked at him. He had a plain, unassuming face

“Miss,” he said, leaning forward. “You may want to move. We get any more cars coming through, they might not see you in time.”

Clementine looked past him, further up the road to the flat edge of the fence in the distance. The dirt road that crossed the space was invisible in the dark, though a pair of headlights were bouncing along it, coming towards them.

She tucked her phone into the wheelchair’s pouch and approached the employee. He was older than might be expected, and his eyes were full of caution and intelligence. And something else she couldn’t place.

“Thanks,” she said. “Can you point me in the direction of the bathroom?”

“Sure,” he said. He stuck an arm outside the window, then gestured to Clementine’s left. A gold watch was around his wrist. “Just around that side. We don’t quite have the facilities you may require, will you need any assistance?”

She shook her head. “I’ll be fine. Thank you. You look familiar, do we know each other?”

He raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid not, miss. Perhaps in a past life.”

She held his gaze for a little too long, then began moving around the side of the building.

“Miss?” he called.

She looked back.

“Do be careful. It’s dark around there. I need to replace the globe.”

She kept moving, making it around the side of the building, the screen and the cars hidden from her view.

She exhaled the breath she had held from the moment she saw the employee, a hard knot in her gut. She pulled her phone out again and brought up her photos and videos, scrolling back until she found what she was after.

The screen showed a video of a shakily recorded band, playing to a crowd in a dim lit bar. The music was just discernible as jazz, and the attendees moved in a dreamlike sway.

The frame of the video lifted higher into the air, over the heads of the crowd, Luna obviously having realised she wasn’t getting the band in properly. Clementine could see them now, just. One man held a violin, though he wasn’t playing yet. His eyes matched her own for moment, and even across that boundary of time her blood ran cold.

She persisted, cradling the phone in her lap. The band moved around the stage, playing an instrumental section, and someone approached from the shadows at the back of the stage to reclaim the spotlight: the vocalist.

The man danced, using his legs to paint the canvas of the stage, and the band quieted as he brought his voice into the song. It was silky, moody, menacing.

He held one hand in the air, a flash of gold bouncing from his wrist.

She paused the video, returned the phone to the pouch, and pushed her face into her hands.

The sudden clunk of a door snapped her upright.

It was the lone employee from the concession stand, the vocalist from the video. He stood in the darkened opening, the watch only just visible, his face even less so.

He stepped forward, allowed the door to close behind him. Clementine’s nails dug into her chair. He crossed his arms. A stray beam of light and a lock of greasy hair fell across his brow.

“Miss?”

She did not respond.

“Not having second thoughts, are we? That wouldn’t end well.”

“You - you’re working with him?”

His face held almost no expression, perhaps a little surprise. “What?” he said softly. “I meant about the toilet, miss. I never heard the door open.”

She blinked a few times. “Sorry. Thought you were someone else. No, I’m fine, just enjoying the air.”

The man nodded. “Sure. Just holler if you need anything, Ms. Hardy.”

He turned on one heel and retreated back inside. The door thudded shut after him.

Clementine went forth, shaking.

Chapter 10

15 min Link

The first movie had started, its audio sounding from the radio of every car at the drive-in.

The screen showed a group of people trudging through the snow, dressed heavily and carrying scientific instruments. A dog followed them, and the music suggested someone was about to disappear.

Luna had her feet up on the dash, half-watching the film, though she stole worried glances towards the concession stand. She continued to do this even after Clementine reached the building, talked to the employee, and disappeared around the corner.

Had she not been doing so, she might not have seen the worker leave, return to the stand, glance around, and then leave again. She also might have not seen him exit on the opposite side of the building, his dark form stealing across the gravel, more a blur than a man from this distance, and arrive at the car parked in the darkness beyond.

Luna’s attention was wholly diverted.

The shadowy car’s headlights flashed on. It rolled up to the dirt road and turned towards the cinema, circling the entire audience, moving right to the back of the parking spaces. It circled Luna and parked somewhere behind her, she adjusted the mirrors to keep it in sight.

It came to a stop in the furthest row back, towards one corner, and it became almost invisible as it turned off its headlights, only its bumper lit by the icy light from the screen.

She seemed to consider what she had watched, and shrugged, thought she left the mirror pointed towards it.

Luna directed her attention back to the screen, glancing in the direction of the building, hoping for a wheelchair-shaped silhouette against the light. Instead, she noticed that one of the cars that had already parked, far down the front, turn on and loop all the way around to the back of the cinema.

It came to a stop a few spaces from the sedan, and she could make out the number plate.

“Oh, shit,” she said.

She fumbled for her phone and dialled Clementine, putting the call on loudspeaker.

The ringing tone buzzed angrily, and she silenced the radio.

“C’mon, Clem. C’mon. Pickup. Pickup.”

The phone continued to ring.

“Hi,” said Clementine. “You’ve reached Doctor Clementine Hardy. Leave-”

Luna hung up, swore, then called again.

“Hi,” said Clementine. “You-”

Luna swore again, hung up again, scrunched her face up, then moved her face close to the mirror so that she could see both of the new cars.

Both sets of headlights were off, and both were still.

The pickup’s door opened and a man got out. He was wearing a flannelette shirt with the sleeves up, and held something in one hand. He walked around the front of the sedan, opened the passenger door, and got in.

The sedan was filled with the briefest of flashes, as if a lightning bolt has just earthed itself within the car, and Luna took a sharp breath.

She dialled again, and Clementine answered immediately.

“Hey, Loon. I haven’t drowned. Just been pooping.”

“Clem-”

“On my way back, hang on.”

“WAIT-”

The call ended, and Luna looked towards the stand. She could see nothing.

She opened her door, and climbed onto the bonnet, then the roof.

The squat form of Clementine was down there, rolling slowly uphill, though still a long way off.

Luna sat back down and returned her gaze to the mirror, and her breathing shuddered. The sedan was still there, the pickup truck was not. She dialled Clementine again, and at the exact same moment, one of the van’s side doors thunked open and slid open. Luna began to scream, jerking sideways, and found her head engulfed by a thick forearm.

Something cold and small and terminal pressed against her neck.

Her scream was cut short before it made any sound, and the call connected.

The arm forced her head towards the invader, and she found herself looking into Hamish’s dull eyes.

The hand holding the gun with the silencer on its end was close to his face, and he raised a finger to his lips.

“Clem?” said the phone. “I said I’m coming, woman. You okay?”

Hamish nodded. Luna was shaking, crying silently.

She took a moment.

“Yeah,” she managed.

“Yeah?”

“No - no worries, kemosabe. Butt dial.”

“Alright. Won’t be long. I can see the car.”

The call ended.

Hamish said nothing, though he released Luna’s head, and she shuddered away.

“Where the fuck is she?” he said.

“Went - went to the bathroom. Coming back.”

He said nothing for a moment. Then, “I’m going to crouch down. Make a noise, you both die. Nod for me.”

Luna nodded.

“Put the sound back on,” he said, peeling the gun’s cold edge from her neck and pointing it at the radio.

He then trained it back on her, retreating to crouch behind the passenger seat, as she kept her eyes fixed wide on him, rolling the volume up.

“When she gets close,” said Hamish, “Go outside and open the back, straight away. Like normal. Stay where I can see you, and do fucking nothing. Understood?”

Luna shivered.

Hamish sighed. “Nod for me, you stupid bitch.”

She nodded. He lowered the gun.

“Fucking christ,” he said. “Tell me when you’re about to get out. How close is she?”

Luna’s eyes circled the gun barrel, then she turned to look outside. Clementine was perhaps two rows and ten car spaces away.

“Still - still a bit,” said Luna.

The next ten seconds were excruciating.

“Okay,” said Luna. “I’m getting out.”

“Wipe your face,” said Hamish.

Luna rubbed each cheek against her sleeve, then looked back at him.

“Good. Go.”

She hesitated briefly, gave Hamish the finger, which caused him to inhale sharply, then she opened the door and slammed it closed behind her. She waved at Clementine, whose cheeks were flushed with the cold, then glanced past her at the screen.

On it, a body was lying in the snow, surrounded by spurts of blackened blood and a darkened ice pick. A ring of people stood around the body, their faces hidden by their parkas.

Luna stood tall, basking in that white light, head tilted, a moon goddess.

A battered pickup was parked a few car lengths in front of the van, its tray filled with blankets and pillows. One of the occupants, a middle-aged man holding a beer, had stuck his head around the side of the cabin and was watching Luna quizzically.

“Howdy, neighbour,” said the man.

“Howdy, Flanders,” said Luna, under her breath.

“What’s that?” he shouted, leaning further, his breath steaming the air.

“Howdy, friend!” she yelled back.

“All good over there?”

Luna nodded. “All good.”

The man gave a thumbs up and twisted back around. Clementine was close, and Luna moved around to the back of the van and opened the doors. Hamish was sitting in the space between the wheelchair lift and the front seats, gun pointed at her chest.

Luna looked at Clementine, trying to catch her eye, to plead, to send her a silent message, but the woman’s head was bowed. Luna said nothing, and Clementine came around the side of the van. She finally gave Luna a passing glance, and then stopped between the doors. She looked up into the van. Hamish bore a manic smile, his grip on the gun tightening.

“Hi love,” he whispered.

Clementine said nothing, just sunk into her chair a little more.

“So I met Artemis,” continued Hamish. “She turned out to be a he. You have fun, setting that up? You think I didn’t fucking know?”

“I don’t really care, Hamish,” said Clementine.

“You fucking what?” he spat, his grip tightening.

He raised his weapon to head height, and as he did, Luna leapt forward and slammed the doors shut. She held Clementine’s eyes for the briefest of moments, and the doctor nodded.

“Run,” said Clementine.

A filthy muffled curse came from inside the van.

Luna turned her heel and ran, Clementine watching mournfully as she did.

Luna ran towards the back of the field, towards where the man with the golden watch had parked his car and been shot, towards the last few empty rows and the line of trees that lay beyond, heels slamming into the tarmac, her breath steaming, golden hair bouncing in the cold.

The van doors burst open from the inside and Hamish growled, leaping out. Clementine threw her wheels forward and caught him mid-jump, knocking him aside and holding on, dragging her out of the chair. They landed in a heap, Clementine on the bottom absorbing the brunt, the air forced out of her lungs in a limp wheeze, as Hamish pressed his thick hands into her belly to push himself up. He took two steps forward, pulled the gun up to his eye, the moonlit target down the barrel, and squeezed the trigger.

A silent bullet flew across the night, and a plume of dirt sprayed up fifty metres away. He shot again, and Luna twisted awkwardly and fell.

Hamish grunted, and Clementine screamed; an inhuman wail that split the night.

Across from them, a car door slammed shut, the window winding up. Hamish stashed the weapon in his belt, glaring at the car, daring. It didn’t move. In front of the van, the beer-holding man twisted back around the cabin of his pickup.

“Hey! What’s goin’ on over there?”

“Mind your fuckin’ business,” shouted Hamish.

The man started to get out of the truck, and Hamish pulled his gun.

“Get the fuck back in the tray!”

The man obeyed, his eyes bright and white, and then he was out of view.

Clementine’s husband turned his attention back to her.

“You,” he spat. “I can’t believe you had the guts to come here. You wanted to watch? How much did you pay that piece of shit?”

“Nothing,” she said, propping herself to her elbows, looking him in the eye. “I only had to ask.”

Hamish squatted down, swung his hand back, and slammed the back of it into her face.

“We’re going home,” he said, using both hands to pick her up, and threw her like a sack of flour, clearing the wheelchair to land heavily in the back of the van. She collided with the lift apparatus and came to a sudden stop, whimpering.

He slammed the doors, spat, took the gun back out of his belt and walked around to the driver’s seat, glancing briefly at the movie.

Another body lay in the snow, covered in blood. This time only the killer stood over it, his parka hood down and his face shining with glee.

Hamish turned the key and they begun to move.

They made it to the edge of the field before either of them spoke, halfway to the concession stand.

“Where’s Amos?” said Clementine to the ceiling, her voice thin.

They rolled over a bump and she groaned.

“Fuck knows,” said Hamish. “Haven’t seen him all day.”

”Clementine closed her eyes. “So you were awake that night?”

“I saw enough. I woke up needing to piss.”

They passed the concession stand, putting the screen and the numerous sets of lit headlights behind them, joining the winding road that led to the fence and the exit.

“How am I gonna teach you, Clem?” he said, glancing back, waving the gun around. He turned back to the road. “You’re mine. Amos is mine. That’s how it’ll fucking stay. You reckon killing your friend is enough of a lesson?” he continued. “Huh?”

He looked back again, his jaw grinding. Clementine’s body was hard to see, but her eyes were closed, and her legs were sprawled awkwardly underneath her.

They rounded the final bend and it became suddenly apparent that the way was not clear.

A two-trailered semi truck was parked across the front of the way out, half its wheels listing into the trench of grass that separated the fence from the road. The cabin window was tinted, but the light was on and a vaguely human shape sat in the driver’s seat, holding a large piece of paper between its hands.

Hamish came to a stop before the fence. For once he had nothing to say. He simply got out and marched up to the cabin, gun in his left hand.

Clementine could smell blood, see it reflecting light in splotches around her. Her landing had finished on something sharp. Despite this, she forced herself up and crawled forward, lunging into the front of the van. She watched her husband step onto the rung below the truck’s door, and swing it open.

The driver’s seat was occupied by a wooden mannequin. Hamish did not move for a moment. The mannequin was decorated with a black wig and a charcoal suit, and a had a road map taped between its posed hands.

Hamish lowered the gun, his shoulders sunken.

Clementine made a noise representing something between utter hysteria and complete happiness.

A darkened shape rolled out from underneath the truck cabin, sprung to its feet, grabbed Hamish’s shirt from behind with both hands, and slammed him into the ground, ripping the gun from his grasp in the same motion.

Clementine could imagine the sound of the breath being crushed from Hamish’s body.

The figured took a few steps back from Hamish, who was still wheezing on the ground, but starting to get his hands under him.

The figure glanced towards the van. Matthew’s steely eyes were unmistakable, even in the dark.

Matthew looked back at Hamish, who was halfway up, and shot him in both kneecaps. Hamish screamed and pitched forward, collapsing onto his face.

Matthew surveyed his work, then ejected the mag and dropped it into his hand. He threw it high, over Hamish, into the long grass that grew along the fence, and then dropped the empty weapon to the ground.

Hamish growled, attempting to stand, then growled and pitched forward again, this time sprawling across the ground. He looked up at his assailant’s calm face, then lunged across the gravel towards those well-slicked shoes.

Matthew stepped neatly back, then pressed his palms together in mock prayer.

“This is how dear Dr. Hardy spends every single day,” said Matthew, staring intently at Hamish’s face. “You’re pathetic. You lord your strength over her. She strides through life more elegantly than you ever could.”

“Fuck you,” said Hamish.

Matthew nodded, as if expecting this response, and walked over to the truck cabin.

As he did, Clementine crawled towards the van’s door, opened it, and spilled onto the ground. Blood caked the fabric on her back. She began to crawl towards her husband.

Matthew pulled his small red axe from the cabin, and turned back towards them. He cocked his head at the woman scrabbling through the dirt, rotating the hilt between his hands.

“Matthew,” she whispered.

He paused.

“There was never any mannequins, were there?”

“No,” he said.

Matthew walked towards Hamish, who had rolled onto his back, raised the axe above his head, and buried it in Hamish’s chest.

Hamish managed half of a word before this happened, but it was trapped within him as the blade sunk between broken ribs. He spluttered. His chest was red. His hands wrapped around the hilt, tugging desperately for a few seconds, then stopped, went limp. He made a few wet choking sounds, and then he was gone.

Matthew surveyed his work, unphased.

Clementine’s hands balled, crushing the dirt and rock between them, her face a terrible mixture of emotion, fierce and resentful and joyous.

“Well,” said Matthew, turning his body towards her. “Are you happy?”

“No.”

“As I expected. Now your turn.”

She looked up at him, as he planted one foot on her dead husband’s chest and wrenched the axe out. He began walking towards her.

“Why?” she said.

He paused. “Why kill you? You’re smarter than that, Clementine Hardy.”

“No,” she wheezed. “Why do any of this? Convince me you were-” she coughed, “schizophrenic. Date Luna.” She pointed at the red-shining body. “Kill him. This was at no small risk to yourself.”

Matthew rubbed his forehead. “I don’t have time for this, Clementine.”

She rolled onto her back. “I’m impressed. I always believed a person would feel some desire to justify themselves in these situations.”

“Then you understand less about people than I expected.”

“Was this all just a game? Were we all just pieces for you play with?”

He sighed. “No.”

“Then what? What?”

He looked into her eyes.

“Revenge,” he said.

“Against who?”

“Against you, darling Clementine.”

She hesitated. “What did I do?”

He ran a finger down the axe, the skin on its end turning red. He looked at it with distaste.

“What I told you about my father, his company, that was all true. I left out that we deal in powder. Sometimes grass. The old man was depressed, tired, and ready to retire, ready to leave it all to me. I was a prince, coming on king. You know what happened then?”

Clementine nodded.

“Good girl. He came and saw you, and you changed his mind, fucked it all up. He came back to work and said the business was going legit. Left everything to the whole family, split even. I lost millions. We all did.”

Clementine’s face was devoid of comprehensible emotion.

“I couldn’t just kill him, he’d changed the will. I don’t give a shit about money, I wanted power. And I have none. I didn’t just want to simply end your life, Clementine, I wanted to ruin it. Have it fall apart. You ruined mine. I did some research, made up a story, and you ate it up.”

Clementine’s head lowered, her hair fell across her face.

“And the axe?” she whispered.

He glanced at it, dripping red, and grinned. His face seemed strangely bright, his eyes rendered in horrible detail as he looked down at her.

“Because it’s fun,” he said.

He began to walk towards her, bringing the axe above his head, blood dripping, the light on his face growing stronger as his hands greeted the sky as if in prayer.

The light continued to grow, his face bright white, and he finally stopped. They could hear an engine.

Matthew looked towards the light, and found that were two. They were attached to a rapidly approaching car, barreling towards them.

There was a long moment in which he attempted to escape, some animal part of his brain screaming at him to move, run, duck, panic encompassing his face as he dropped the axe and begun the motion of diving to one side, but it was far too late.

The car filled the space beside Clementine, clouding her with dirt as she rolled out of the way, and the vehicle plowed into Matthew with a sickening crunch, all taking place in a handful of seconds.

Rather than being dragged under or thrown over the bonnet, Matthew’s body was carried, his legs warped and wrapped under the hood while his torso and head were married against the top, for that half a second before the car moved on and collided with the truck cabin.

Matthew’s midsection disintegrated between the car and the side of the truck, which shuddered and wobbled back with the impact.

Dust streamed forward through the air, dragged by the car, looking like silver rain as each particle was caught be the moon.

The car was the same sedan that the man with the gold watch had driven and died in, now crumpled and with sputtering lights.

The front of the car was filled with inflated airbags, and someone was trying to escape. The door opened, and out fell a blonde haired girl, matted with blood, collapsing to the ground with her seatbelt torn from its casing.

She met Clementine’s eyes and smiled, then passed out. Clementine was beyond emotion, beyond pain. She rolled over and looked up at the night sky.

Red and blue light began to stab at the air, mixing with the silver, sirens clamouring as heavy-set cars pulled up on the other side of the truck. Four pairs of boots marched the truck to the small fenced in area decorated with the bodies of four people.

The boots stopped abruptly as they saw the scene before them.

Clementine saw them, thought not their faces, and then she saw nothing.

Chapter 11

2 min Link

The room was not white, as one might expect. It was the muted average of earth-brown and tree-green; an easy, earthy colour, that did well to disguise the room was in a hospital.

When Luna woke up in that room, she remembered at first that brief disorientation she had felt waking up in Matthew’s house the first time, and af first believed she had something of the same kind.

Then, slowly, she remembered everything else, and she saw the medical apparatus that surrounded her bed, the thick white cotton sheets that wrapped her.

She clamped her eyes shut, breathing heavily for a few minutes.

The sun’s came through the window with rays that were heavy and golden, a million specks of dust floating lazily in its light, a beautiful slow motion hurricane.

When Luna opened her eyes, she watched this spectacle with great interest, her eyes bright and clear. She tried looking to her left, and she winced in pain, but followed through.

Dan, her housemate, was sprawled across a yellow plastic chair, deep asleep and hair plastered to his forehead. One foot was on the ground, the other hanging across one of the chair’s arms. A tiny mountain of spent coffee cups and torn snack wrappers surrounded him, on the bedside table and the window sill behind him.

Luna smiled at this scene, an echo of home, closed her eyes for another while, then turned to the other side, wincing again. There was another bedside table, another chair, and an open door. A woman stood just outside it, back to the room. She was dressed in blue and had one hand resting on the weapon at her belt.

Luna blinked heavily at the uniform, then turned her attention to the table. It was propping up an enormous assemblage of flowers, cards, and soft things. She smiled, and slowly, cautiously began to read them. The first one was from Dan, and began with:

Since you’ve been shot,

How about we go out for shots?

/

In another room, in another city, Clementine Hardy awoke.

The walls were white, and there were no furnishings, just two male policemen standing on the inside of the door, which was closed. Their attention turned sharply towards her as they noticed her move. She tried to move, and found that both her arms were shackled to the bed.

She continued looking around. There were no cards. There was no furniture. Her wheelchair sat directly across the room from her, battered and worn. In it, a mannequin sat facing her.

Its midsection seemed crumpled and distorted, but it was hard to tell beneath the sharp charcoal suit. Its head was crowned with a silver-grey wig, and a small bunch of dead flowers were taped to its left hand.