(This story first appeared in the short story collection 'How to Make Monsters', first published by Morrigan Books in 2008):
by Gary McMahon
Joel stood at the side of the motorway and looked for patterns in the hypnotic movement of the traffic. The sky above him was black and starless; the moon lurked behind a thick black sheet, afraid to show itself. The only light came from the car headlights and the tops of the concrete lamp posts standing like alien trees along the litter-strewn central reservation.
The somehow malleable sound of hot wheels on cold asphalt began to unnerve him, so he moved away, dragging his feet on the stubbly verge. An empty crisp packet, blown by the evening breeze, snatched at the cuffs of his trousers; he kicked it away, annoyed as if it were a living thing vying for his attention. Even inanimate objects, it seemed, would not leave him in peace.
The loud chirping of his mobile phone interrupted his thoughts. When he failed to answer it immediately, the impatient tone changed to a song or jingle he had no memory of programming into the handset.
He took the mobile from his coat pocket and raised it to his ear, placing it against the side of his head before pushing the right button – modern life, he knew, was all about pushing the right buttons.
“Hello.” Traffic noise almost swallowed the word.
“Hi, Joel. It’s me.”
It took him a moment to place her voice. “Oh. Hi, Sue.”
“Where are you? I’ve been waiting for you to come round. The heating’s broken again. It’s cold. I could do with warming up.”
Joel gritted his teeth. The simple declarative sentences she often used when she wanted something, her light manner, the sexual undertones in her soft voice: it all made him want to end the call, terminate the discussion before it had even begun. “I’m on my way,” he said, glancing at the road, at the endless ribbon of traffic that promised an escape but never quite delivered. Where were they all going, these people? Everyone but him had a destination in mind, a route to follow.
Sometimes he hated Sue. She could not understand his motivation for giving up a steady job with a reputable firm. His decision to leave the rat race had terrified her and she badgered him constantly to go back to work, to earn some decent money so he could buy the things everyone else did and fit into the narrow slot society had kept for him since birth.
Her limited view of the world sickened him, but not enough that he could give up the warmth of her body on a cold night, or the way she would happily fellate him almost on demand, even in a public place.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he said, before tugging the phone away from his ear, drawing back his arm, and tossing the phone into the traffic. It clattered onto the hard road, spinning on some unknown axis until either a car or a small van rolled over it, smashing it to pieces and sending them skittering like insects.
“I don’t want you!” he yelled, not knowing whether he meant the phone or the woman whose voice was barely contained within it. It didn’t matter anyway, not now the thing was dead.
Joel walked away from the scene of his crime, following the line of the road as if it were a river that might lead to the open sea, feeling a sudden intense chill on his skin. The air had grown cold, and when he looked at the cars paused at the roundabout up ahead, he saw cobwebs of frost creeping across the rear windows.
If he cut across the wasteland to his left, then through the park, he could make it to Sue’s house in less time than he’d promised. Climbing the low fence, he peered through the darkness; he could see the lights of her street from here, but they felt less than welcoming.
The traffic noise dimmed as he moved away from the road, walking carefully across the rocky ground towards the opposite fence, which ringed the council-owned play park. As he drew near, he began to pick out familiar shapes in the darkness: the immobile swings; the roundabout, moving gently in the wind; the monkey bars a seven year-old boy had been hanged from by a gang of teenagers only last summer. The boy had died slowly; his killers were still in youth custody and probably would be for years, before they could be tried, sentenced, and finally discreetly relocated abroad with new identities.
He climbed the fence and entered the park. There was no one around: even the local kids were inside on a night as cold as this, or perhaps they kept away because of what had happened last summer, creating new myths and legends from the senseless murder of a small boy.
Stuffing his hands into his coat pockets, Joel stalked past the swings, not giving them as much as a glance. Something creaked – a dull, metallic sound – but he refused to acknowledge it and hurried his pace.
There was something on the slide: a long, humped shape perched at the bottom of the dimpled stainless steel ramp. Joel stopped, took his hands out of his pockets, and stared at the shape. It looked like a body, and for an instant he expected it to sit upright, its clothes falling away to reveal a thin white neck with a knotted football scarf biting into the soft flesh.
The shape did not move. Was it a bundle of clothes dumped there by passing fly-tippers?
Joel took a step closer to the slide, his eyes watering, his throat dry. He looked behind him, at the distant lights of the motorway, and then back at the sight he knew he had to deal with.
The truth was obvious. There was a body on the end of the slide.
He stared at it, not knowing what to do. Reflexively, his hand went for his mobile phone, and he cursed himself for throwing it away. Why did he always have to act out of pique?
“Are you okay?” he took another step towards the body, hoping it was just a tramp sleeping off his nightly meths or cider intake. “Excuse me.”
The body did not move. The ground beside was not littered with empty bottles, burned spoons, or used hypodermic syringes.
Joel put out a hand, left it there, hovering only inches away from the body. It looked like a man, but it was difficult to be sure. He was wrapped up in rags, and there were what looked like used bank notes stuck to his frost-coated clothing. Bills and receipts clung to his dark scalp and the flaky remains of his face. Joel tried not to stare at the decayed features, but was unable to look away from a mouth that yawned far too wide beneath a flattened nose, and eye sockets so deformed that they were beginning to meet in the middle of the misshapen head.
Vomit rose in his throat and he was at last able to avert his gaze. He ran across the park, heading in the direction of Sue’s street, where the lights still burned brightly. Once there, he could use her land line to call the police. His feet caught on tufts of frosted grass; his breath misted before his eyes, making it difficult to see. The night seemed darker than before.
“Keep going,” he muttered through lips cold and sticky as ice cream. “Just go.”
He followed the crude, unmade pathway that rose from the main park area and terminated near the end of Sue’s street. His feet slipped on loose stones but he did not fall. The undergrowth rustled as something darted behind a bush, but he tried not to allow the sudden commotion to divert his attention. The air closed in on him, wrapping chilled fingers around his arms and shoulders. He shrugged off the cold, thinking instead of the warmth of Sue’s flesh, the moist cavern of her open mouth.
Slowing now, he spotted a motionless couple at the head of the path, leaning against the broad metal post which served as a demarcation point between waste ground and residential street, a loosely defined line between the two extremes of wildness and urbanity. The couple were locked in an intimate embrace. They did not move, simply stood there, mouth-to-mouth, skin-to-skin, heart-to-heart. Their hands clasped each other’s clothing with a desperation Joel found nauseating.
“Excuse me,” said Joel as he squeezed by. “I need to call the police.”
There was no response; the couple were frozen in place, locked in an embrace that even time might not break. The cold rose from their bodies as a vapour, coiling like pale smoke from an unseen fire.
Joel ran along the street, heading for Sue’s house. Once there, this nightmare could end; a sense of reality would surely slot back into place around him. A group of youths in tracksuits stood outside one of the few darkened houses on the street, hoodies pulled up to cover their heads, stark white faces peering out with frozen expressions of loss and confusion. At their feet, a small dog was frozen to a garden wall, caught in the act of urinating, one leg extended, the paw adhered to the shiny brickwork.
The youths turned slowly in Joel’s direction; their movements were stiff, graceless, and even their eyes were glazed over with a skein of white frost.
As he ran, Joel became aware of the slowing movement of the planet beneath him, the grinding down of the heavens above. Everything was sticking in place, becoming rigid; society’s mechanisms were seizing up, the whole falling apart: the centre would not hold, not now. Too many things had changed; too much horror had been let loose by those who sought only to control the forces they had created. The war in
. The Iraq credit crunch. The looming crash of the property market. All the world’s systems were failing, freezing; there were cold days and harsh nights ahead, and Joel no longer felt part of the plan. U.S.
Sue wanted to marry him when her divorce finally came through, but all Joel wanted was to lose himself in the crowd, to become less than a number on whatever computer hard drive stored the information – names, dates, statistics – of the populace. Their relationship was like a corpse he’d been carrying on his back, dragging it around for so long that he had grown accustomed to its rotting weight. But now, in the middle of this current crisis, it was all he had left to cling to.
He threw himself against Sue’s front door, only noticing the iced-over windows when he paused for breath.
“Let me in!” He hammered on the door with hands gone numb from the cold. “Please…Sue!”
Staring at the front window, trying to see inside through the glazed patterns on the glass, he was certain that a figure stood unmoving at the window, a hand raised to its mouth. Frozen in place, like a waxwork dummy or a snapshot of how things used to be, were meant to be, before the big freeze set in.
He turned around and stumbled back down the path. The kids on the corner were still there, but incapable of even the most rudimentary movements. One of them went down, falling against the kerb, short torso shattering into large chunks that lay in the gutter like discarded meat products from a bankrupt freezer shop.
Joel stopped dead in his tracks, stunned into immobility.
The man from the slide was standing near the gate next door, staring in Joel’s direction; the partial face was, thankfully, obscured by the flapping paper receipts, torn and creased official forms and bus tickets that served as a cobbled-together mask.
“Follow me.” The voice was like stones rolling loose in a plastic bowl.
Joel began to cry but the tears froze on his cheeks. He stared down at his hands, his small white hands, and when he tried to open them the fingers snapped, one of them breaking off and falling to the ground between his feet. There was no pain; all feeling had gone.
“Follow.” There were other hazy figures behind this one, others who had chosen to make the transition and be saved. Sue was lost to him now, along with everything she represented. His old dreams were frozen, and to wake from them he must do as the figure commanded.
Joel stepped forward on legs growing stiffer, weaker, and more unresponsive with each passing second, and followed the man into a chill white world where something different – perhaps even another, better way of living – was preparing to hatch out of the ice.
(c) Gary McMahon 2011