One Hour Before
Caroline waited in the car when Lee collected supplies from the art shop. She watched the traffic and swarms of tourists ambling along the street. The hot weather always brought them out in droves; the old city was like a magnet for tourists and their cameras.
Across the street she spotted a troop of children dressed in bright colourful clothes. Caroline guessed it was a school trip, but from the look of their attire they looked foreign. She wondered why the youth of England paid so little attention to the wonder of colour. Everywhere she went she saw white faces, black hair, dark clothes and grim angst ridden expressions. What was the fashion called? Eemie’s or Eemons, something like that. Dark and gloomy, thought Caroline.
The troop of school children stopped outside a large wrought iron gateway encased in an ancient crumbling stone archway, the teachers pointed out the features. It was like watching a chain of human rainbows. Caroline froze when she saw the children point at an insignia on the archway keystone.
She made a sudden connection with the school children’s bright clothes, the Water Aid poster and Tom’s painting. Beautiful colours shimmered before her eyes, the water drops on the poster and the mirage of gentle yet frightening rain merged into one image in her mind. The world outside Lee’s car seemed to blend into one single mass of throbbing colour, like a 60’s acid flash back. She had been a wild child back in those days but had never experienced such a vivid and real trance.
For a few moments it was a wonderful and uplifting sensation, but it also scared Caroline like nothing ever had. She blinked and wiped tears from her eyes but the colours kept on swirling and blending together right outside the car. There had to be a good reason for her sudden hypnotic state, a brain haemorrhage or blood clot perhaps, or maybe she was having a stroke. No, silly head, the colours are outside the car, not inside and not in your head. Think, girly, think good.
She brought her rapid breathing under control and concentrated on the dashboard, the dull grey plastic felt safe and solid. The buttons and switches were all in the same place, not swishing back and forth or doing anything weird. That’s better, normality. She chanced a peek out of the windscreen then closed her eyes. The world beyond the glass was twisting into mass of shapes that reminded her of Monet’s paintings, smudges of colour that blended together but still made sense.
That was it. The world had changed into an oil painting.
“Why?” she breathed.
She opened her eyes. The oil painting world was still there, shifting and dancing all around her. Something was changing in it – a palette of grey was infiltrating the colours, tainting them like a virus. The ancient archway moulded itself into a black hole surrounded by silvery grey teeth. The colours were draining into it like water pouring down a plug hole. Caroline realised she couldn’t look away, something pinned her eyes open. It wanted to her to see it, to watch it devour the world around her. The ugly dark mouth was moving slowly toward the car, sucking in everything around it.
Caroline struggled against this dark power, her heart raced and she could feel sweat rolling down her face. Thoughts of strokes and blood clots vanished from her mind, this was something unnatural and it was focussing its attention on her. She strained against its will but she knew the black mass would eventually consume the car and then her.
There had to be a way to stop it. Something had triggered the world around her to change. The colours! That was the connection but not the answer. Gran, come on, this isn’t rocket science. She could hear Tom’s voice as if he was sat beside her. Where did the greyness come from? Where did you see it last? Imprisoned and flat. Think quickly, Gran, because it’s coming for you. Caroline wanted to scream but she was paralysed from the eyes down.
What was Tom trying to tell her? What greyness? There wasn’t any greyness in her life, not now she had Lee and Tom to care for. The only grey she remembered was…
“Grabhorn,” she gasped suddenly.
She heard a violent scream erupted in her head like the sound of a million violins. In an instant the world of colour and darkness vanished. Tourists continued their trek and the school tip children marched out of sight. Cars and cyclists hurried by the car and everything was normal again, everything except Caroline who trembled and panted.
When Lee opened the car door she jumped and yelped. Lee dropped into the driver seat and gave her a concerned look.
“Cal? You okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied after a moment. “I’m fine, kiddo. Did you get what you needed?”
Lee nodded. “Ordered some new paints and brushes. They’ll be delivered next week.” He frowned at her. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look…well, sweaty.”
Caroline was still trying to attempt to come to terms with what had happened to her. “It’s the heat, dearest, guess I should have wound the window down. Be a lamb and put on the air conditioning.”
When the waft of cool air washed out of the vents Caroline breathed a sigh of relief. She wanted to tell Lee what had happened to her but she knew he would take her to the doctors or worse, the hospital. There was nothing wrong with her, but something was wrong nonetheless.
Twenty Minutes Before
Lee set his back against the bench and stretched his legs across the picnic blanket. Tom had taken three minutes to wolf down his lunch whilst telling his Dad and Gran about his awesome goalkeeping techniques. Lee attempted to slow his son’s full pelt story with a few questions but Tom wasn’t buying it, he wanted to get back to his friends before they started losing again.
Tom asked for some money so he could buy a drink from the kiosk. When Lee pointed to the bottles of water in the cool box Lee backed away and shook his head. He wanted Lucozade, not water.
“It’s what proper athletes use, Dad,” Tom told him.
Lee handed him a five pound note.
“Cool!” said Tom and jumped to his feet.
“I want change, Boon, not just a few coppers!” Lee called after him.
“I don’t know about football but the lad’s got plenty of speed,” said Caroline.
Lee nodded in agreement. “You’ve been a bit quiet, everything okay, Cal?”
“Fine as can be.” Caroline glanced down at him. “I’m soaking up the rays and taking in the atmosphere, dearest. Sure as goodness beats squatting in my tiny back garden.”
“I like your garden,” Lee replied. He forked more noodles into his mouth. He spotted a white plastic packet with Chinese characters lying on the blanket. “Rock, paper, scissors for the fortune cookie?”
Caroline seemed preoccupied by something. “Cal?” Lee prompted.
“Sorry dearest, you go ahead and take it, I’m stuffed like a Christmas turkey.”
Lee set aside his noodle salad and popped open the wrapper. When the cracker broke open Lee held up the slip of paper and chuckled. Enlightenment & Joy will find you today. Nicely vague, as always, but also not far from the mark. Today felt like a turning point, maybe it was the warm summer sun, the polite breeze in the air or the fact that he felt relaxed and calm for the first time in months. His artwork was the talk of the town and his agent was one big smile. Despite Lee’s dark moods he was enjoying painting again.
He decided he would stay on with Caroline for a while longer. They made a good team and Tom was settled there, his schoolwork had improved and he was happy. There was no point upsetting the flow just because he wanted a place they could call home, besides Caroline had made it very clear that her home was theirs too.
Maybe instead of moving out he could rent a studio, nothing fancy but somewhere with more space than Caroline’s back room. His latest piece took up a lot of room, he was very aware of how the grey monster seemed to choke the colour out of his makeshift studio. Caroline was certainly mesmerised by it even though the scene was dark and gloomy. At gallery evenings people often asked Lee where he took his inspiration from and he replied with the usual bullshit – landscapes, walking in the country, photographs, and poems and so on. Collectors would nod and smile knowingly at one another. But the same couldn’t be said about his latest series of dark, moody works, they seemed to come from nowhere else other than his imagination. No prompts to work from, he just let his emotions flow through the brush onto the canvas.
Caroline dozed in her wheelchair, an inflatable neck support kept her head from sagging. Lee could hear her soft snore and glanced around to see if anyone else had heard it too.
Her secret was safe with him.
Her snoring reminded Lee of when he started his current project, Grabhorn. She had been watching Celebrity Master Chef in the living room, making the occasional comment and sipping her tea. Lee liked to paint to music, loud obnoxious stuff according to his ex-wife but at Caroline’s he used his iPod so not to disturb her.
The night he started on Grabhorn he painted for hours without a break. The brush swished and daubed over the canvas as the music pounded into his skull. At 3AM he sensed he was being watched and found Caroline in the doorway staring at the painting as it slowly took shape. He gestured to the painting and she offered him a thumbs-up. An hour later he switched off his iPod and massaged his aching arms. He was surprised to see Caroline behind him, fast asleep and snoring like a purring cat.
That was a proud moment for Lee. His work had either bored her to sleep or his passionate strokes had been mesmerizing enough to lure her into a peaceful slumber. He wheeled her into her bedroom and carefully lifted her onto the bed, pulled a sheet over her and turned off the light. In the studio he stood with his hands on his hips and examined his work. The shack in the dark valley looked frightened like an abandoned child. The thick dark clouds and mist sought to envelope the shack, pushing it into the ground, squeezing and choking it like murderous fingers scrabbling to finish the evil deed. Lee hadn’t given much thought about the painting; he just let his hands do the work. There was something intoxicating about it and he loved how it seemed to draw him into the valley. A tiny part of him was bothered by its raw angry style. His agent wanted to do a weekend exhibition of his work and called it Grey. Lee didn’t especially like the name but he was proud of his recent gloomy pieces and agreed.
But Grabhorn wasn’t just gloomy, it was dark and twisted. A nightmarish scene that felt claustrophobic and chilling. Lee had never felt such a strong connection with any painting and it bothered him enough to consider leaving it out of the exhibition.
That night he awoke several times as nightmares chased him through his dreamland. His sheets were soaked in sweat and the following morning he felt drained and lifeless. Late night painting was an adrenaline rush but the next day felt worse than a hangover. He didn’t return to the studio until after Tom had got back from school with a C- and a sad face.
After Lee had pinned his son’s classroom painting to the top of the canvass he felt less afraid of Grabhorn. Had his own painting actually scared him? If so what did that say about his mental attitude? Hey, I’m an artist, I process things differently to normal people. Tom’s painting of the rainbow tree inspired Lee to add a bridge over the dark Grabhorn valley river. At least it gave the shack and whoever was inside it a chance to escape the darkness. It took Lee weeks to finish it and by then he needed colour and light like an addict desperate for a fix.
In the park he sighed deeply and leaned back to let the sunshine caress his face.
He enjoyed his fix.
Tom sprinted to the kiosk and bought two bottles of Orange Lucozade and one bottle of Cherry Powerade. His best friend, Rob, was relieved to see him jogging back to the football game. Rob didn’t like being a goalie; he was a scorer and a glory hunter, not like Tom who got a thrill from saving the ball. He thought of himself as a protector, a guardian who watched over his friends and team mates.
“We’re losing again aren’t we?” asked Tom. He popped the cap on the Cherry Powerade and squeezed a stream into his mouth. The remaining bottles he dropped onto his hooded top behind the tree trunk goal post.
“How’d ya guess?” said Rob. He pointed to Tom’s top. “What you bought them for anyway?”
“Dur, I’m thirsty, why else?” Tom told him.
“Yeah ‘cause that makes sense. You got an ice-cold bottle of water right there you dumbass.”
Tom hadn’t forgotten about the bottle of water the hobo gave him but Rob’s knowledge of it startled him. With his foot he flipped his hoody to cover it up. “That’s for my Gran,” he said. “She says she only likes that brand so I’m saving it for her.”
“Whatever. I’m gasping, man, give us one of them would ya?”
Tom chucked a bottle of Lucozade at him. “Get lost then,” he said with a smile. “I’m the goalie, you’re the famous striker, so go win the game back for us.”
Rob gulped half his drink and lobbed the bottle behind the goal. “Yes mum.” He gave Tom a playful punch on the arm and jogged away to rejoin the game.
Tom watched the football intently, with Rob back up front the other team didn’t stand a chance. Every so often Tom glanced back at his top and thought about the hobo. He hoped he was okay. Maybe he should have called for an ambulance anyway. It wouldn’t have hurt to make sure the old man got checked over. The hobo had been so insistent. Why wouldn’t he want to see a doctor? Hell, that question was way down on the list of bizarre questions left unanswered.
Take it. Keep it safe till the time’s right. Ye’ll know the when an’ where an’ how, jus’ don’t question the why, ye get me?
What the hell had he meant by that? The bottle of water was still ice-cold. How was that possible? It had been hours since the hobo had left him standing there and the bottle still has condensation on it. There was no ice inside, Tom had checked, but even if the whole thing had been frozen solid it would have melted by now.
Tom was so fixated on his weird encounter with the hobo that he failed to see the ball shoot straight through the goal. One team roared, the other groaned and jeered at Tom for losing his shit. Offering all the apologies he could as fast as he could, Tom raced after the ball. It bounced between a bunch of students who scowled at him, and a pair of office workers doing a crossword puzzle.
The football splashed into the fountain and Tom kicked at it. He didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon with soggy socks so he jabbed the ball until it sloshed to the edge of the fountain. He grabbed it and the water level dropped suddenly. Tom stepped away and saw a crack form at the bottom of the fountain. Bubbles seethed upward but by the time they reached the surface the water had all but drained away.
The crack widened and the fountain stopped flowing.
Tom frowned and glanced back at his friends.
Someone in the park started shouting.
Chaos shattered the tranquillity of the park.
To be continued.
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 3 photos as a prompt. This SPP had another great twist which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed slipping into Ground Fall.
There’s no Arcane Insane this week, apologies dear blog reader, but the painting at the top of this post (Resilience by Christina Deubel) pulled me in with such force that all I’ve worked on this piece since last Sunday, 24th July. I’ve been kicking a plot idea around for some time but couldn’t find the right way to approach it or how to get it started.
Years ago I wrote a number of short stories between 10,000 and 30,000 words, not realising they weren’t really short stories but novellas. I had plenty of time on my hands and this seemed the right length to tell those tales. Now I’m back into the swing of writing I’m finding the stories take on a life of their own, and Ground Fall is no exception.
Part 1 is around 3,700 words, Part 2 and Part 3 are about the same, Part 4 & Part 5 are roughly 6,000 words each. Part 5 is the conclusion! I estimated the entire piece would finish at around 15,000 words but the final count was 21,000. Ah well, a story tells itself in its own way, who am I to argue! I didn’t want to make you groan with the size so I’m splitting it into chunks, easier on the eyes I hope!
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.