Lee stared at the dark chasm where the central path had been. The entire thing had dropped into the ground in a perfect line. Sun light reached down into the darkness. Lee saw layers of soil and stone and roots protruding from the sides. He peered over the edge into the dark void below. The path was nowhere to be seen. Beside him people cautiously approached the edge and stared down into the crevice.
“What’s going on?” asked a bald headed man next to Lee. “Are we under attack?”
Lee shook his head. He didn’t know. “It’s gone,” he said after a moment.
“It’s an earthquake,” said a teenager on his left.
“We don’t get earthquakes in this country,” replied the bald man.
“Yeah we do, up north anyway, sometimes,” the teenager said. He stepped closer to the edge and Lee held out his hand to stop him. “It’s okay mate, I’m not going to fall – “
A slab of grass gave way and the teenager lost his balance. Lee grabbed his arm and yanked him back. The section of turf slid forward and dropped over the edge. The teenager stared at the earth where he had been standing. His eyes were wide and his bottom lip trembled. Lee noticed a dark patch spread across the kid’s crotch.
“You were saying?”
“Get away from me, man.” The teenager pushed Lee’s hand aside and ran off.
“Maybe it’s one of them sink-holes,” said the bald man. “I’ve seen them on Google. The rain erodes the substructure until there’s nothing left but holes then the ground just gives way.”
“It’s not a hole,” said Lee. “Geology doesn’t do nice neat lines.”
“Whatever it is someone’s got a lot of explaining to do,” said the bald man, as if this was a mere inconvenience to him and not a natural disaster.
Lee had been so occupied with staring into the chasm he hadn’t noticed the people on the other side. He looked up to see hundreds of people covered in dust. They stood in groups, talking quietly and looking back at those on the other side. What was once a complete park of lush green grass, trees and happiness was divided into two halves. Lee looked along the gaping hole where the path used to be, his breath caught in his throat when he saw the chasm wasn’t just limited to the park.
The city centre oasis was surrounded by a wrought iron fence on all four sides. Beyond that roads led into the city centre and the suburbs. Where he expected to find cars, busses and cyclists he saw nothing but an ugly dark trench. The same chasm that had opened in the park had also dropped the roads into a dark pit.
The bald man followed Lee as he hurried to the fence. On the other side of the road a small group of people stood on a narrow stretch of grass barely four feet wide. The layers of concrete, rocks and dirt fell away beneath them. Pipes jutted out of the chasm wall several feet down, water spewed into the darkness and power cables hung limp like spaghetti.
“What’s happened to the roads?” asked the bald man.
“They’re gone too,” said Lee. “You still think it’s a sink hole?”
The bald man shook his head. “No. No way.”
“Pavements are gone too,” Lee said. “Everything except the grass and buildings has fallen into the ground.”
“Why?” asked the bald man. “How?”
“I don’t know,” said Lee. He needed to find Tom. The thought of him being sucked down when it happened made him feel sick, but he couldn’t leave those people stranded on that tiny island either.
“Can you help us?” asked a woman in a floral print dress. “We’re stranded over here.”
Lee looked around. He needed something that would serve as a bridge. Benches were too short and branches would take a long time to crack away from a tree. There had to be something he could use, like a ladder. That would be perfect. The road was probably only about fifteen feet across.
“Colin,” said the bald man.
“Colin. I need you to help me with something.”
“Uh, sure. What are you doing?”
“We have to get those people off that island,” said Lee. “That column could give way any second. If they move around too much it might collapse. We need to make a bridge.”
“No. I’m not. But I have an idea.”
“I’m with you, chief, really, but that’s a big gap,” said Colin.
Lee waved at the woman in the floral dress. “What’s your name?”
“Daisy,” she replied. “Please. Can you help us?”
“We’re going to try, Daisy,” said Lee. The other people beside her were motionless. They stared at those opposite them, too afraid to move or speak. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” He smiled. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Colin followed Lee as he raced along the length of the chasm, through the trees to a long narrow shed beside the kiosk. Thankfully the shed door was unlocked and Lee jabbed the light switch. The bulb remained dark. Of course, thought Lee, all the power cables have been severed. There was barely enough light streaming through the dust covered windows for him to find what he was looking for.
They carried two sets of ladders apiece back to the fence. From the corner of his eye Lee could see chunks of earth dropping away from the column wall. It wouldn’t stay upright for much longer. With Colin’s help they locked the ladders together. Lee climbed over the fence and stood on the edge of the chasm. He tried to avoid looking down but it was hard to avoid the gaping hole disappearing into darkness right beneath his feet.
It took both of them to hold the ladders in the air over the none-existent road. Lee knew they only had one shot, if they missed the ladder bridge would topple into the void. The tip of the ladder thumped onto the grass in front of Daisy and one by one the stranded people crawled across.
Lee expected some form of thanks but all he got was a kiss on the cheek from Daisy. The rest shuffled away in a daze. Lee kicked over his cool box and picked up an undamaged bottle of water. With the dust cloud cleared away sunshine beat down on the park and its bewildered prisoners. Lee wiped sweat from his brow and gulped the refreshing water.
“So what’s next?” asked Colin, who was stood a few feet away.
“I need to find my son,” Lee replied. Colin trailed after him as he climbed over fallen branches back to Caroline. “He was playing football with his friends when it happened, whatever it is. How you holding up, Cal?”
“Shocked, dearest,” she said with a weak smile. “Like all these other poor souls. What do you think caused all this?”
“Never heard of anything like this before,” said Lee. “Colin here reckons it could be a sink-hole, but they’re usually circular. I supposed it could be something to do with the substructure, years of road works and building undermining the ground…but honestly, I don’t think that’s it.”
“There’s always a rational explanation for things,” Colin said.
“Is there?” asked Caroline.
“Yes. There has to be.”
Lee figured Colin was the sort who needed a reason otherwise the possibilities were too frightening. Lee wanted to know what was going on but he was going to find Tom before he did anything else. He fetched out his phone and sighed with dismay when saw there was no signal. He selected Tom’s number and pressed CALL anyway. It beeped in his ear and he put the phone away.
“No signal,” he said.
He watched Colin do the same and noticed people nearby were also checking their phones. It was no use, like the light in the ground keepers shed had failed. When the ground fell power cables had been torn apart, that also meant phone masts no longer put out any signal.
“I’m going to find Tom,” said Lee. “Colin, would you do me a huge favour and keep an eye on Caroline for me? Sorry. I didn’t mean to assume. Did you have anyone with you?”
Colin shook his head. “No. I was just taking my lunch. My wife and I live out in the country, too much noise and stuff to find any sort of peace.”
“Would you mind then?” asked Lee. “I can’t hang about. Tom could be hurt.”
“Sure, chief, I’ll hang about,” said Colin. “We’re going to need a plan or something soon before it gets dark.” He looked around at the park. Groups of people huddled together, some shook their heads, others waved their arms and many were still trying to use their phones. “There are a lot of people here. If they don’t get answers soon there’s going to be trouble.”
“What do you mean before dark, kiddo?” asked Caroline.
Lee knew what Colin meant. He’d noticed it too. “The emergency services aren’t coming,” he told her. “We heard sirens when ground opened up but my guess is they were on the road which is now gone. The power is out which means no one can call for help.”
“But it only just happened,” said Caroline. She looked from one face to the other. “Someone will come. They must. All the roads can’t have just vanished.”
Lee shrugged. “All I know is the roads here are gone and that means ambulances and rescue people can’t actually get here.” Caroline looked frightened and overwhelmed. “You and Colin stay put. I’ll find Tom and then we can try and figure this out.”
“Be careful,” Caroline called as Lee jogged away.
Lee climbed over fallen branches and picked his way through abandoned picnic areas. He passed small groups of people but didn’t stop to talk to them. He caught snippets of conversation and heard some strange theories behind the bizarre incident. Some were pointless gibberish about terrorists, others consisted of earthquakes and volcanic activity, he even heard someone say it was a scientific experiment gone wrong.
He didn’t know where people got their information but he was confident enough to rule out seismic activity. Earthquakes don’t steal roads and footpaths and terrorists didn’t have the ability to create perfectly straight chasms in the ground.
As he searched the debris of the park for Tom he realised that he had been thriving on his adrenaline rush. He had kept his feverish energy bubbling beneath the surface when he rescued the group from the column. But as he worked his way across the park he had a sense of urgency that bordered on panic, to a point where all of his senses were on fire. The last time he had felt so in tune with his body and mind was the night he started painting Grabhorn.
What a shitty time to feel inspired to paint, he thought. He felt guilty for wondering if the ground falling away had caused damage to his paintings, and worse still when he hadn’t considered if Caroline’s house was okay. The buildings over the road, no, over the chasm, looked undamaged which prompted Lee to question the reason how and why they were still standing. Why were the grassy areas unaffected?
None of it made any sense.
He pushed the questions to the back of his mind when he cleared the copse of trees and stumbled into the wide area used as a football pitch. He saw Rob and the other boys huddled together in the centre of the pitch, staring at something in the distance. They turned when they heard his footsteps. Lee scanned the group and when each face turned out not to be Tom’s he felt his stomach knot up.
“You boys okay?” Lee asked. “Have you seen Tom?”
He didn’t miss the glance Rob gave the other boys. “He’s over there,” said Rob. He pointed at the other end of the football pitch then held up a finger to his lips. He lowered his voice. “We can’t get to him. Something stops us every time.”
Lee slipped through the group and saw Tom stood alone facing a bank of black fog that had risen out of another chasm. It rolled upward like a cloud bursting from a volcano but instead of billowing into the sky it collapsed in on itself. It reminded Lee of a lava lamp, the hot wax constantly rising and dropping. The fog was flecked with grey which Lee took to be ash, though it didn’t appear to be wafting in a breeze but rather a gentle rhythmic cycle. The fog was breathing.
“What’s he doing?” asked Lee.
“I thought you’d be able to tell us,” said Rob. “When the dust and crap was gone, and we saw all the holes in the ground, we got our stuff together and waited right here. Our parents knew where we were and they’d probably come find us sooner or later.”
Lee was surprised. “Well done boys. At least you’re being sensible about all this, not like the other idiots running around. Doesn’t explain why Tom is over there. I’m going to get him.”
“You can’t,” said Rob quickly. “That stuff won’t let you.”
“What? How can…dust and ash stop you?”
Rob shrugged. “We’ve tried. Every time one of us gets close we get pushed back really hard. Greg got a cut on his arm when he was pushed and Timmo’s back is all grazed and bleeding.”
Lee was frustrated. The chasms, the dust and now a strange breathing fog cloud was bullying his son’s friends. He could accept the ground fall, just about, but a mass of fog or dust that behaved like it was alive? It was ludicrous. Mass hysteria, it had to be.
“Try it for yourself,” said Rob. “Just don’t shout. Shouting pisses it off.”
Lee walked forward several paces and felt the air around him change. He felt resistance against his body similar to walking through water. There was a strange smell, musky and dank. It reminded him off meat left on the barbecue from the night before. By the time he was half way to Tom he was struggling to move his legs, the air had taken on the consistency of mud.
He could see Tom clearly. He stood a few feet back from the narrow chasm, arms limp at his sides and his head titled to one side. Lee recognised that pose, it was the one he naturally formed when thinking about something. Tom wasn’t the brightest kid, he would never be a mathematician or scientist but that didn’t mean he was stupid. He had a tendency to over think things, he spent too much analysing instead of doing, with the exception of his art. One bedroom wall was cluttered with with a collage of drawings and paintings, a collection of abstract forms and ideas.
Lee watched the black fog as he pushed against the air. It’s rhythm had changed from a relaxed ebb and flow, like a calm ocean lapping on the shore, to an agitated pulse, the flecks of grey snatched back and forth. Lee’s muscles were tired from the exertion but with every step he was more determined to reach his son. Ten feet away he stopped and caught his breath. His arms and legs were heavy and his shirt was drenched with sweat. He tried to call out to Tom but his voice locked up and all he managed was a cough. The fog twitched and changed from soft clouds to spiked fronds that whipped into the air.
Tom glanced over his shoulder and smiled at him then turned back to the fog. That was enough for Lee to know he was okay and unhurt but it encouraged him to keep trying. He forced his body against the air but it pushed back. He held up a hand and touched the air like he was pushing his fingers through a bowl of chilled custard.
“Boon,” he cried out as his feet started to slide back.
Tom didn’t turn around. “I’m okay, Dad,” he said. His voice was severely muted by the almost solid air. “Don’t worry. It won’t hurt me. It won’t hurt anyone.”
“What are you doing?” Lee shouted. “Get away from it, Tom. You don’t know what it is.”
The fog heaved its bulk further out of the chasm and bent over Tom. Stubby fingers flexed and reached down to grab his son. Lee felt like he was inside a snow globe looking up at a child trying to fit his hand around the glass dome, only it was too big to pick up.
“I know what it isn’t,” said Lee. “And I know what it thinks it is.”
With horror Lee knew the fog wasn’t the result of a terrorist attack or geological catastrophe. It intended to snatch his son and drag him into the chasm, and that meant it could think and reason. He yelled at Tom to move back but he either couldn’t hear or refused to act. He was a few feet away. If only he could get a grip on Tom’s hand he could haul them both back to safety.
Lee pushed a shaking arm out and leaned into the air. A twisting coil of fog unfolded from the mass and lashed out at him. He tensed and closed his eyes tight. When nothing happened he unclenched his eyelids to find the tentacle writhing over an invisible barrier that surrounded him. Lee stared in amazement as his son had a one sided conversation with the fog.
“You can’t hurt him neither.” Tom spoke quietly and clearly, using the same patient tone when explaining to his Gran how email worked. “You can threaten us but that’s all you can do. You’re just a bully. That’s all you can be because you don’t know how to be anything different. Me? I’m a goal keeper. I keep the ball from crossing the line. Yeah, if you prefer to call me a guardian, I’m okay with that. I’m not stopping you from doing anything. I just know that you won’t. You can’t hurt us and that’s the truth. You know it is.”
The fog lunged down at him, the strong black fingers jabbed and grasped but they couldn’t touch him the same as they couldn’t touch Lee.
Tom laughed suddenly and shook his head. “I’ll still be here when you come back,” he said. “Yeah, you heard me. It’s not like I can go anywhere is it? You should have thought about that before you acted. You will leave now. Yes, you will. You don’t have a choice. Bullies need to lick their wounds before they lash out again. No, I won’t regret it. I have nothing to regret. Goodbye.”
Lee felt the wall of air give way and he fell over. The fog peeled itself away from Tom and retreated back into the chasm. The stale musky smell vanished and the sun beamed across the football pitch. Tom, with his head still tilted to one side, turned and walked over to Lee. He held out a hand and helped Lee to his feet. He pulled his son against him and wept. It was over and they were safe.
“It’s gone for now,” said Tom when he looked up at his Dad.
“Yeah, I can see that, Boon,” Lee replied. He knocked dirt and leaves from his sweat drenched t-shirt. He had so many questions, too many to organise into an orderly line. “What the hell was it?”
“A bully,” said Tom.
“No.” Lee kept his anger at bay. He was relieved to have found Tom but his joy lasted mere seconds. “That’s not good enough, Boon. I need answers, real ones this time. No BS.”
Tom nodded and took his Dad’s hand. “I probably won’t tell it right,” he said.
“Tell it like it is, Boon,” said Lee.
His friends were waiting for them, anxious expressions and questions waiting to spill from their mouths. Before any of them could speak Lee directed them away from the football pitch and back to Caroline and Colin. Lee noticed a group of bedraggled people using his makeshift bridge to span the gap over the main path. A few of them looked over at Lee but he couldn’t make out their hushed conversation.
“Everything okay there, chief?” asked Colin.
“Yes and no,” replied Lee.
“Folk have been asking about you, kiddo,” said Caroline. “They think you know something. I told them you were looking for Tom so they said they’d come back.”
“Oh great.” Lee swigged the rest of his water then went to fetch the cool box. He handed out the remaining bottles to the boys sat on the grass. “Take it slow, lads. That’s all we have left.”
“There’s already been a run on the kiosk,” Colin said. “Lots of shouting and arguing there was. If the rescue teams don’t come soon there’s going to be a lot of thirsty people.”
Lee glanced around at the park. Aside from the long crevices, the dust and leaves that covered the grass, it didn’t look all that different. People congregated in groups, blankets were repositioned and an uneasy silence settled over the park. Okay, so that bit is different, thought Lee, it’s too quiet. He couldn’t be sure but there appeared to be fewer people than he remembered after the dust had settled.
“So what’s the plan, chief?” asked Colin.
“Boon, you’re up,” said Lee. He flipped the cool box over and sat on it. Tom groaned and looked away. “Just start at the beginning. Take it slow, okay?”
“It’ll take ages to tell you everything,” said Tom with a sigh.
“We’ve got plenty of time,” said Lee.
“Actually we don’t,” replied Tom.
He started with the dust cloud and by the time he’d finished his audience had grown. People had drifted over as rumour spread, from a simple tale told by a young boy to an actual reason why it had all happened. After a moment someone asked him if he knew who the terrorists were, another asked how he knew so much. Then the questions came thick and fast and Tom wasn’t given a chance to answer any of them. Lee pulled his son over and tried to keep everyone calm but the crowd was frightened and angry. They wanted answers despite the fact that Tom was only a child; he knew things they didn’t which meant they had someone to vent their anger on.
Things were getting out of hand, the crowd was growing and Lee realised it was only a matter of time before someone did something stupid. People often moaned about the boundaries and restriction that kept modern society in check, but when all that was taken away the view beyond the safety net was dark and forbidding.
It was Caroline who brought the rabble to order when she bashed a plastic plate against the side of her wheelchair. Lee tensed, ready to jump and protect her should anyone lash out.
“My Grandson has had a traumatic time and you should be ashamed of yourselves.” She looked from one face to the next. “Everyone is scared and that’s okay but do you honestly think a ten year boy knows if this is the fault of terrorists or earthquakes? I don’t want to risk insulting anyone but I have to ask, are you that stupid?”
No one spoke. Lee watched for a reaction but none came.
“Something has happened,” said Caroline. “We don’t have any answers to our questions so I suggest we all calm down and wait for someone to come. Until they do we need to make sure the injured are taken care of and the young and elderly are kept in the shade. In this sun heat exhaustion and dehydration are what we should be concerned with, not questions and rumours.”
“She’s right,” said Colin. “We must be practical here. If anyone has medical training can you raise your hand.” A few people did and Colin glanced at Lee. “Good. Let’s get organised and work through the problem. We’ll have the injured over by the kiosk and the children and old folk under the shade over by the fountain. Don’t go near trees that have been uprooted, especially that big oak. The last thing we need is someone getting squashed if it falls. I need some volunteers to help me do a head count and check the supplies in the kiosk. Fighting won’t get us anywhere so let’s work together.”
The crowd dispersed and Colin hunkered down beside Lee. “Good speech,” said Lee.
“Thanks, chief,” said Colin. “I work as a trouble shooter for big corporations. These people aren’t that different from those sat in a boardroom.”
“But at least they can get up and drink from the water cooler,” said Lee.
“That’s our biggest problem,” Colin admitted. They watched the crowd working to Colin’s instructions. “Mind if I get going? If I don’t keep them busy they’ll run out things to do.”
Lee laughed. “You don’t need to ask my permission, Colin. If anyone’s in charge here, it’s you.”
“That’s not what they think, chief,” said Colin. He stood and stretched his back. “I’ll check the supply situation in the kiosk and come back.” He looked at Caroline. “If you need anything just shout.”
“Mind yourself, kiddo,” she said.
Lee was left with Tom and his friends. “No one moves from here, agreed?” They nodded and Lee looked at Tom. “That was some story, Boon. When you feel like telling us another, let’s try and keep in amongst ourselves, okay?”
“Next time we won’t be able to,” said Tom.
“What next time?”
“I left out the scary part,” said Tom. He glanced at his friends. “It’s coming back.”
Tom lay on his back and stared at the stars. With the power out there was no light pollution staining the air. The sky was a beautiful black canvas waiting for someone to join the dots. He was tired from dragging fallen branches across the park most of the afternoon but couldn’t sleep. He thought about the crevices that had opened up and his bizarre conversation with the Maw. He understood why his Dad had been afraid for his safety and tried to explain that he was never in any danger. The black fog couldn’t hurt him, it was a fact that no one could understand.
His Dad had given the boys chores to keep them busy throughout the afternoon, from clearing up rubbish to gathering branches into piles, enough to keep a fire burning until dawn. Tom heard that a few people had been listening to the radio on their phones. Either they couldn’t get any reception or radio stations were longer broadcasting. Colin said that didn’t mean anything other than the power was out, whether that was local or national. Tom found it strange how shocked some people were to learn the chasms might not be limited to the city but spread all over the country. What difference did it make? It wouldn’t make them any less stranded.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon his Dad had taken Tom over to the large oak in the centre of the park. Colin had warned them to stay away because the roots had popped out of the ground and it looked unstable. But Tom told his Dad the tree was fine, it wasn’t going to fall over. When asked how he knew this, Tom just said: “Because it won’t.” So they sat beneath the old oak and his Dad asked him to fill in the blanks of his story.
“Why do you call it the Maw?” he asked Tom. “How do you know it even has a name?”
“I don’t know how, Dad,” said Tom. “I just do. It’s like knowing that when you get in the shower you expect to get wet. When the Maw came up I just knew what it was called.”
“Is it responsible for all this?”
Tom shook his head. “No. It’s just a bully. Something else made all the holes. The Maw was probably just in the right place at the right time, well, from its point of view anyway. It’s all sort of connected.”
“You said it was coming back. When? Why?”
Tom tilted his head to one side and stared at nothing. “You know like a family tree where the branches go all the way across and down? The Maw is one of those branches. It’s really old, like ancient, but not very clever, like it’s been around for so long its memories are faded and all it does it hate and hurt stuff.”
“Does it have parents?”
Tom struggled to answer this one. “Kinda. I guess the Maw is like a kid in the playground but isn’t allowed to play very often. And when it does the other kids don’t want to play with it so it gets mad.”
“That’s why it’s a bully?”
“I think so,” said Tom. “At least that’s how I saw it. It had a tantrum and I told it off. It’ll remember me when it comes back. But I think it’ll bring the rest of them with it next time.”
“The rest of its family?”
Tom pulled a face. “They’re not really family. I don’t know how to say it. They’re so old that words like family don’t mean anything to them.”
“When are they coming?”
“How do you know …nevermind, you just know, right?”
Tom nodded. “Sorry Dad, I know it doesn’t make sense. I can’t help it.”
“I know, Boon. Do you know why this has happened?”
“Sorry.” Tom fiddled with a twig. He felt he should know but one piece of the jigsaw puzzle was missing. “On its own the Maw can’t hurt anyone but with the others…I can’t work it out. I think they come from somewhere else. Not here. They watch us all the time and wait. It’s like they’re trapped somehow, or were.”
“That means something or someone let them out.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Tom snapped the twig in two and stared at it.
“Do you know how to put them back…back wherever they came from?”
Tom held the twigs up and examined them. He knew they were just twigs but they were more than twigs, they were part of the old oak, even in their ruined state. Just like he was part of his Dad and Gran, and so on back along the family tree until…
He looked up suddenly. “Not yet,” he said. “But I will. I think. You need to check with Colin. There’s something wrong.”
“I sort of noticed that, Boon,” said Lee with a quick smile.
Tom shook his head and dropped the twigs. “I mean there’s something bad happening. Like right now. There aren’t as many people here like before.”
Lee climbed to his feet and Tom followed him back to the main campsite. No one spoke to Tom when he sat down in the shade. He tried to make eye contact with his friends but they avoided him. Only Rob gave him a tired smile before turning away. Tom knew they were scared but they shouldn’t be scared of him.
When his Dad came back he saw the worried expression on his face. Tom knew people were going missing. After a thorough search of the park it remained a mystery how people were leaving. The only bridge they had was the one to the other side of the park, and that was surrounded by road sized crevices like everywhere else. Colin made his rounds and told everyone to stay away from the edges as the earth could slide out at the slightest touch.
Sunset gave way to night and no rescue came. A fire was lit in the centre of the campsite. Pre-packed sandwiches were handed out from the kiosk under Colin’s watch. Tom overheard him tell his Dad the only edible food left were chocolate bars and sweets. The kiosk had a small store room with bottled water and fizzy drinks, enough to last a day at best. After that they were in real trouble.
Tom ate his sandwich alone under the old oak tree and watched the stars come out. His friends had barely said two words to him since he had told his story. He wasn’t sure if they believed him or not, either way they were frightened of him. The strange looks people gave him hadn’t gone unnoticed either. It was as if they blamed him for the catastrophe even though Colin had told them it couldn’t possibly be the fault of a ten year old kid.
When his Dad marched him back to camp, Tom was in a foul mood. He didn’t like how everyone stared at him and liked it even less when muttered to one another. Colin stood watch at the fire and Lee patrolled around the perimeter, but never ventured beyond the orange glow.
One by one everyone fell asleep, exhausted by the day’s events, everyone except Tom who stared at the stars. Just after midnight he crept away from the camp to pee. When he returned he saw his Gran watching him, the firelight reflected in her eyes. She ushered him over and he sat beside her makeshift bed.
“Tough day, kiddo,” she whispered.
“The worst ever, Gran. Everyone hates me now.”
Caroline propped herself up on her elbow. “They’re just scared. Everyone’s allowed to be scared once in a while.”
“Because there’s nothing to scared about,” said Tom.
“Because you see things differently,” said Caroline. “They only see what is, not what should be. That’s how you could stand up to the black thing, the Maw?”
Tom didn’t think that was true but he nodded in agreement anyway. “Even Rob won’t talk to me,” he said with a scowl. “He’s my best friend. Probably should’ve kept my mouth shut.”
“You had to tell your story, kiddo. Whether they believed you or not, it was the truth.”
“Yeah well the truth sucks, Gran.” Tom sighed and smoothed a hand over the damp grass. “What good is the truth if I’m the only who can see it?”
“Who said you were the only one?”
Tom looked up at her. Caroline smiled and gave him a wink. She told him about how the world outside his Dad’s car had melted into a moving painting, and about the dark hungry mouth that fed on the colour and tried to consume her. Tom listened, fascinated by her words, the way she weaved them together to describe her terrifying ordeal was like watching poetry and art dancing inside his mind.
“Why was it coming for you, Gran?” asked Tom when she finished.
Caroline shook her head. “If I knew maybe we’d both be a little wiser,” she said. “That thing pulled the life out of everything around it, just like the way people have been going missing all afternoon.”
“When did you know about that?”
“When the dust thinned out people were still running blind, bumping into each other and falling over the edge. I couldn’t do anything to stop them. I tried to warn people and tell them to stop pushing each other. But they couldn’t hear me. Who takes any notice of an old biddy in a wheelchair these days?” Caroline waved her hand at Tom when we pointed at himself. “Apart from you, kiddo. When the sun came back and everyone was looking at the holes I did a quick calculation. There were over two hundred folk left in the park by then. It’s just an estimate, mind you.”
“No way are there that many now,” said Tom. He twisted onto his front and looked at the groups camped around the fire. “Probably about a hundred left.” He looked back at Caroline. “So where are they going?”
“I reckon you know the answer to that, kiddo.”
Tom did but he didn’t want to say it out loud. The Maw had been rising over the edge of the chasm and snatching people when no one was looking. He suspected it was using the crowd to feed whatever was in the dark depths.
“People think there’s a way out,” said Tom. “No one’s seen anyone leave but the rumour is that one by one they’re getting out of the park. Only they’re not, well, not how they’ve been talking about anyway.”
“Down,” said Caroline.
Tom wasn’t afraid of the Maw but the cold dark depths frightened him more than anything. Something was down there, feeding and gathering its strength, ready to rise to the surface. But then what? Again that piece of the puzzle was missing and try as he might Tom couldn’t see the picture without it.
“You said the Maw called you a guardian,” said Caroline. “What did it mean when it said that?”
Tom wasn’t sure. “It didn’t actually talk. I just heard it. Not a voice exactly…a feeling or something. Like when you can sense someone’s watching you. I don’t know how to describe it properly, sorry. It thinks I’m here to protect people. Dad says I protected him from the Maw but I didn’t, not really. I said it couldn’t hurt my Dad and…well, it just couldn’t.” Tom sighed. He hated not knowing how to explain what he knew and how he knew it. “It tried to hurt my friends but I knew it couldn’t. Even when they came after me it chased them back but didn’t hurt them they way it thought it could.”
“Do you think it’s evil?” asked Caroline.
“It doesn’t think like that,” said Tom. He was sure of that much. “Good and evil aren’t what this is about. The Maw and the other things are older than words.” He dropped onto his back and looked at the sky. “It’s like taking a big shark out of the sea and putting it in the pond in your garden. It might take a while for it to flap about and eat your fish but then it needs more. It isn’t angry. Fish don’t get angry. I saw a thing on TV about that. But it is hungry.”
“So it needs to eat things,” said Caroline. “Like us?”
“If it doesn’t feed it dies,” said Tom.
“I don’t like the sound of that, kiddo.”
“Because starving things are willing to take risks for their next meal,” said Caroline. “Like how it tried to get you and your friends.”
“The Maw is a bully but it doesn’t eat people,” said Tom. He thought his Gran was thinking too much about fairy tales. “Besides, it’s not thinking about risks, not really. Does a fly consider the risks when it lands on your arm? It just plops down and looks for food.”
“Exactly,” said Tom. “But more than that. Crap, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I wish we were back at home watching TV and Dad working on his painting. He probably would have finished that landscape by now if none of this had happened. He said he only had a few finishing touches left.”
“Yeah. Funny name,” said Tom. “I don’t know if I love it or hate it.
They were silent for a while. Tom listened to his Gran purring beside him. He loved how she was able to take his mind off his problems with her simple questions, leading him slowly away from whatever troubled him to more positive places. Tom knew what she was doing but he never let on.
He felt his eyes close and let sleep wash over him.
To be concluded in Part 5.
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a piece of fiction between 50 and 1500 words 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.