Scroll down to read the third chapter from my debut horror novel, FOR RYE. Grab yourself a copy by clicking the above image. I very much hope you'll join me for the nightmare...
Scroll down to read the third chapter from my debut horror novel, FOR RYE. Grab yourself a copy by clicking the above image. I very much hope you'll join me for the nightmare...
There was a constant in Millbury Peak: pure, wholesome tradition, running through the town’s history and into its present like an arrow. Change was not on the menu. The small but fervent council had devoted three years to challenging and eventually overruling the proposed development of an industrial estate on its south-east corner, an orgy of concrete that was the complete antithesis to this thread of tradition so vehemently held by its residents. The rabid little consortium never once backed down, tirelessly standing guard over the town like a pride over its cubs.
Traditional values kept Millbury Peak on the straight and narrow as generations of townsfolk dogmatically followed in the footsteps of their forefathers, at times fanatically defensive over their treasured sense of unity. Don’t come a-knockin’ with anything on your mind other than the local crochet club or the biannual gardening gala and you’ll get on just fine.
And today, as autumn sank and winter rose, something neither regular nor rare for the East Midlands maintained a stubborn watch over the town and its surrounding grassy planes: the mist remained.
The small congregation huddled tight as crowds of headstones kept a solemn watch through low-hanging fog. The group would have liked to be larger, but Thomas Wakefield, his unseeing eyes gazing aimlessly into the mist from his rusty wheelchair by Renata’s side, insisted on a modest gathering. He also demanded the service be held in the cemetery surrounding the decrepit, now abandoned church in which he’d spent his life giving impassioned sermons before retirement. This was all in spite of the still pimple-faced Edwin Ramsay’s – Thomas’s successor as town vicar – protestations, for whom the newly built replacement in the heart of town was Millbury Peak’s ticket to modernisation. A wish shared by no one.
The eager young cleric had taken over as vicar after Mr Wakefield’s declining health tore him from his charge. The new church, which replaced the crumbling relic overlooking today’s humble burial, was Ramsay’s brainchild; five minutes with the rosy-cheeked clergyman was enough to witness his pride in the pale, plasterboard facility bubble over like champagne. Thomas Wakefield’s glass, however, was very much empty. His decision regarding the ceremony’s venue had been final. He insisted on a great many things on a great many days, usually from his loyal wife, Sylvia – until she’d been burnt alive upon an altar barely thirty yards away.
Every breath Renata drew was a terror, with so much as a twitch of her finger feeling like an announcement of her presence. She kept her gaze fixed on the rippling grass, away from the eyes – those carving knife-eyes – eyes that speculated, judged, concluded.
Where’s she been all these years?
Is she even bothered?
She could at least shed a tear.
Not for the first time during the service, she risked a glance above to make sure the clock tower remained. Sure enough, her childhood friend was still there, looming over the crowd. It hadn’t abandoned her, not like the others.
The vicar’s monotonous drawl droned on while the police tape over the church’s sealed entrance fluttered noisily in the wind, a hyena cackling from the sidelines.
‘As in life, so in death, Sylvia Wakefield shall inspire us to live our lives fully and with courage…’
The coffin sunk with a terrible creak.
‘…and upon those who adored her most, let God grant solace in His promise of reunion. For in all the Wakefield family have endured, all they have lost—’
Thomas snorted, his blind eyes locking on Ramsay.
‘—uh, their place in Heaven is ensured. I ask the friends and family of this cherished woman to bow their heads for Sylvia Wakefield’s favourite prayer.’
There was a bellowing roar.
The Harley skidded to a halt on the track, spraying dirt into the face of a stone cherub. Despite Thomas’s drowning in the fraying, black robes of his old cassock, Renata was still able to detect the tightening of his emaciated frame. His face glowed red.
Like a balloon.
‘What is that accursed racket?’ he spat.
Quentin stepped off the bike and approached the congregation amid tutting and shaking heads. He knelt in front of the elderly man. ‘Mr Wakefield,’ he announced with clichéd US theatricality, ‘sorry for interrupting. I’m here to pay my respects to what I’m told was an awe-inspiring woman, an angel who—’
‘Get this beast OUT OF HERE,’ roared Thomas. Spit dotted Quentin’s glasses.
The young vicar lowered his prayer book. ‘Mr Wakefield,’ he said, ‘Mr Rye consulted with me before the funeral and I gave him my blessing. He feels profound remorse for his novel playing any part in Sylvia’s death, and has expressed a deep desire to—’
‘The man’s a damned hatemonger, Ramsay!’ Trembling fingers tugged at his yellowed clerical collar as he spoke. ‘With God as my witness I want this foul soul away from my wife.’
Quentin rose, wiping his glasses. ‘Mr Wakefield’s wish is my command,’ he said, smiling at the shocked faces. ‘I’ll leave you folks to it. But know this.’ He scooped a handful of dirt and held it over the open grave. ‘I’m gonna do everything I can. Sure, I don’t know who did this, and I can’t give Thomas and Renata back their beloved Sylvia…’ The dirt trickled from his fingers. ‘…but that doesn’t mean I can’t help make things right.’
He looked to his audience, shaking the remaining dirt from his hand.
‘I’m keeping on my rented accommodation in Millbury Peak. My production company’s gonna film the latest movie adaptation of my work right here in your magnificent town.’
‘We’re talking big-budget here, guys. Trade, jobs, recognition. It’ll bring all these things to Millbury Peak. Nothing can replace Sylvia,’ he looked at Renata, ‘but that won’t stop me giving something back.’
‘Out…NOW,’ exploded Thomas, before breaking into a coughing fit. Chatter erupted.
‘He can’t do this—’
‘Nobody wants him here—’
‘Mr Wakefield’s wife just died—’
Renata, paralysed with terror, watched Quentin walk silently to his bike. The prattle was suddenly decimated by another roar, this time from the tower as its bell tolled noon. She turned her eyes to the great clock face of the stately stone column, then, glancing back down, met Quentin’s eyes as he revved the engine. He flashed a gentle smile before tearing down the track back towards Millbury Peak.
‘Father,’ she’d said, ‘it’s been a long time.’
Their reunion had been blunt. She’d found Thomas alone in front of the dead fireplace, save for the decrepit grey mongrel in an immobile heap by his side. The rusted tag hanging from its collar read the name ‘Samson’, the same name transferred to every grey mongrel Thomas had owned through the years. She wondered what number he must have been on now. Samson Mark VI? Grey mongrel replaced by grey mongrel. If only everything in life was as simple as Samson.
Ramsay had been taking care for the former vicar prior to Renata’s arrival, before terminating his duty and leaving the responsibility of her welcome home party to the old man and his senile canine companion. She’d froze before approaching the gaunt figure in the wheelchair, horrified at the pastiche of memories that was her childhood home – or, more specifically, horrified at what now encased the home.
The minimal décor still functioned only in painting a picture of a home, not creating one. In this respect, little had been removed or added since she last stood in these wide open rooms, with mainstays such as the heavy doors and thick oak shutters having proved immutable through the passing decades, not to mention the grandfather clock by the door, its hands now dead, the eternal ticking of its pendulum silenced. The main divergence from memory, and the source of Renata’s horror, was the house’s state of uncleanliness. Corners where Sylvia’s duster once obsessively frequented were now pinned with festering cobwebs, while dust floated from the Persian rug as Renata crossed the hall. The door handles even left a sticky residue on her fingers, a thin scum presumably covering much of the house. She’d frantically wiped her hand on her long pleated skirt.
So much out of place.
The week since her mother’s passing wouldn’t have been sufficient for this degree of filth to take hold; Sylvia Wakefield had quit her compulsive cleaning long ago. Aside from her mother’s obvious abandonment of a once manic cleaning habit, the damp-plagued ceiling and mildew-stained walls betrayed the presence of issues beyond the neglect of routine housekeeping duties. The house was a shadow of its former self.
Two whitened orbs had shot at her, glaring blankly, then resumed their vacant lazing in their eye sockets as she’d approached the armchair. The blindness of his eyes should have been a relief, but Thomas Wakefield didn’t need sight to put her on edge.
‘It’s good to see you,’ she’d said, dropping A Love Encased into a brimming wastepaper basket. Her pale face tightened in disgust as a cockroach scuttled over the binned book. She’d closed her eyes and thought of those white walls. So clean, so orderly. Everything in place.
‘I was sorry to hear what happened,’ she’d continued, eyes still shut. ‘Mother’s at peace now.’ Peering through half-closed eyelids, she’d seen the man’s face twitch, more as if recalling a forgotten detail than his deceased wife. ‘I’m going to care for you, Father,’ she’d continued, ‘until we can arrange something more permanent.’
Was now the time to ask about her brother, Noah? Her father’s leathery lips pursed. As part of a lifelong habit, one of his ragged fingernails tapped and scraped out some frantic pattern on the arm of his chair like a confusion of meaningless Morse code.
The lips tightened. The finger sped up.
She’d finally managed to coax something from the old man when enquiring as to the following day’s funeral arrangements – who would speak, was he acquainted with the minister, why hold it a stone’s throw from where his wife’s flesh melted from her bones just a week prior (well, maybe not that part) – to which he’d grunted some names and times and Bible verse numbers. His biblical utterances made her shudder. Bible studies had ended for Renata long ago, Baby Jesus having checked out of her life the same time as everyone else. That didn’t stop his mention jolting her like a defibrillator.
Suddenly she’d noticed the ghostly condensation following her father’s words. Her disgust at the state of the place had seemingly overwritten her sense of temperature. She’d knelt by the hearth, Samson watching through one half-open eye, and started a fresh fire. Flames lit the musty room, giving the man’s cracked face a warm glow. It was then the reality of whom she was knelt before dawned upon her.
Despite the atrophied muscles of his trembling, cadaverous form, the core of Thomas Wakefield remained, the part which caused grown men to hold their tongues and divert their gaze. The underbite protruded even further in his old age, seemingly reaching up for those wild, arched eyebrows – eyebrows of the same faded copper as the thin smattering of hair on his scabby head. His face looked like it had been smashed then glued back together, a roadmap of wrinkles consuming every inch of skin. As for his once-broad shoulders, they’d shrivelled to resemble a scrawny clothes hanger upon which sat his quivering head in place of a hook. The tattered clerical collar hung loose around his throat, beneath which threadbare robes sagged over a wasted body. Youth had abandoned Thomas totally. Although his shell was in tatters, the same man from her childhood lurked inside, fingers forever locked in that twitching fist. Her mother had made her promise to take care of this man should anything ever happen to her, but all Renata saw in that reeking armchair was a monster.
And tonight, the crispy remains of Sylvia Wakefield cast to the earth, here they were, father and daughter. With the carrots cut and potatoes peeled, Renata stood simmering water over the hot stove, staring into a bubbling oblivion. She stepped to the sink and turned the tap. Rubbing her hands under steaming water, she thought of the coffin, pressed down this very moment by six feet of soil. That sweet six feet should have been hers, it was meant to be hers, yet somehow her mother had taken her place, and she’d taken her mother’s place: by the stove, cooking for a monster.
It would have held.
Stonemount Central crept back into her mind. The thought of those eyes – those watching, scrutinising eyes – caused her heartbeat to quicken, her mouth to dry. She forced her thoughts back to those long, white corridors. Those sweet, serene corridors…
It hadn’t always been this way. Once, she’d been indifferent to the presence of others. She’d lived happily outside the waters of her mind, introversion a concept of no consequence. Everything had changed when her father moved them to the new house. The first time he’d raised his fist to the girl marked her permanent relocation to these waters, the never-ending narrative of her thoughts becoming her only place of peace.
Time marched on and reality transposed from the outside in. Thoughts and dreams and stories became the only plane in which she felt sane, her head breaking the water’s surface only when unavoidable.
Will you please pay attention in class?
The waters would part.
What did you learn in school today, girl?
She’d peer out.
My love, they’re just bruises. He would never hurt us, not really.
Back under she’d go.
It was this introversion she had to thank for her profession; her life as a novelist was down entirely to the waters of her mind, her font of fiction. This career in romantic literature was, in turn, to thank for her life of reclusion. It was also responsible for her sole experience of that thing called love – not that that had ever shown itself outside the pages of her paperbacks.
By the time they’d told her she was finally well enough to conclude her years in hospital following the crash, it had been obvious to all she was destined to live apart from the world, away from the pain that plagued her when around other human beings. Five of her novels had been published before even leaving care, and these provided her with sizeable unspent savings. Options, her doctors had called them. The option she’d suggested had been received surprisingly well, so long as she found her way back for regular checkups when instructed. What she’d proposed may even be for the best, they’d said. They were right. It had been for the best.
A two-hundred-year-old cottage on a secluded, unpopulated island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland – unnamed, save for the unofficial title afforded by neighbouring islands: Neo-Thorrach. Gaelic for ‘infertile’, the nickname originally referred the island’s inability to grow anything of any value to anyone, leading to its lack of habitation. Once word got around of the strange hermit lady in residence upon Neo-Thorrach, the name took on a dual meaning as the bored children of the islands concocted stories of the woman. The ‘Neo-Thorrach Buidseach’, she came to be called. The ‘Infertile Witch’. She was no witch, though. Far less glamorous. The sole inhabitant of Neo-Thorrach was nothing more than a second-rate romance writer who needed to be alone with her thoughts and live out her days at her Adler typewriter. Away from the eyes.
Now, in the presence of just two blind eyes, Renata and her father dined in silence. She ate little, her decade and a half of hospital food having permanently crippled her appetite in the years since. Her courage to mention Noah remained as absent as her hunger.
Thomas’s shaking grew worse as the evening wore on. She sat watching his trembling frame, curling her fingers into a fist to stab uncut nails into the palms of her hands. She looked at his twisting, yellowed talons. Maybe they weren’t so different, after all. Had she intended to give herself a few more decades, could this have been a window into the future she’d planned to abandon? It didn’t matter. Soon, nothing would matter. Disease and degeneration had picked away at her father through the years like a fussy eater, but something with a far greater appetite had torn into Renata. Thomas’s flesh was on a steady decline, but Renata’s once creative mind was ravaged; somewhere along the line, her gift for writing had flown from the tiny island of Neo-Thorrach, never to be seen again. For days at a time she’d sat at that typewriter, the rain and gales battering the stone walls of her cottage as doggedly as her publisher’s written demands for more cheap romance.
There was no escaping it. Inspiration had abandoned her.
As her ability to write had dissolved, so had her bank balance. Inhabiting an uninhabitable island was an expensive deal. Generator and purifier repairs were costly, not to mention food and fuel deliveries, forever left in an agreed location away from the cottage so as to maintain her reclusion. A private courier had even been required so as to be able to correspond with her agent and publisher. Manuscripts out, cheques in. That had been the arrangement, until the manuscripts stopped sprouting from her aged Adler. Then the cheques were replaced with demands for contract fulfilment. A couple of failed novels and the correspondence finally ended following one final ‘don’t write us, we’ll write you’.
And that was that. The writing ended and the debts began. She’d tied that noose as an alternative to being forced into bankruptcy, into offices and appointments, into repayment plans and probably a job in the real world. But the noose was put on hold following the detective’s letter. She’d have skipped the funeral had it not been for the promise. Her mother had gone through years of hell for her, and the responsibility of honouring the dead woman had possessed her like a demon. But where had that damned promise landed her? Back in this house after nearly thirty years with one of the parents who’d left her to rot in that hospital. She shouldn’t be here. She ran a finger over the outline of the rope crammed into the front pocket of her mother’s apron.
She knelt by the hearth, considering whether to restart the fire as Thomas’s unseeing eyes bored into the back of her head from his armchair. She turned and flicked a dirty-grey moth from a cushion before perching on the sofa. The moths had been a staple of the house for as long as she could remember, an enduring torment for Sylvia whose relentless cleaning had done nothing to dissuade their stubborn residency. Their place of nesting had always remained an enduring mystery, the pursuit of which her father strictly forbade.
She cast her eyes to the sprawling oil painting above the mantelpiece. The imposing spectacle had been a childhood horror; waves clawed at screaming men and women as they fought for higher ground, their expressions of dread detailed to perfection. As a girl, Thomas had ensured her complete understanding of the scene’s depiction: the Great Flood, rising to rip the accursed mortal coils from these vile sinners.
Her father was infatuated with the thing. He reserved a special look of adoration for the painting, one which only his beloved Noah, and maybe the latest Samson, ever found themselves on the receiving end. However, behind that wooden, fixed smile, Renata’s mother had held a very different sentiment for the framed flood, a sentiment which idled just outside the facility of Renata’s recollection.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Thomas’s spluttering. They’d sat in silence for hours, the fire now reduced to glimmering embers. She instinctively glanced at the grandfather clock, only to find its hands frozen in the same place as when she’d arrived.
‘It’s late,’ she said, working an antiseptic wipe over her hands. ‘Sorry, Father. I don’t know where the time went. I’ll get your medication.’
Renata made for the hallway and ascended the creaking wooden staircase, cringing as the hem of her ankle-length skirt hung dangerously close to the grimy steps. She glanced down the gloomy hall to Noah’s room at the far end, then squeezed into the small lavatory on the landing. She took the opportunity to give her hands a quick wash and adjust her hair grips, then opened the medicine cabinet. A pharmacy’s worth of bottles and blister packs awaited her, many of which bore the same name: Dexlatine. The muscle relaxant, as a note left by Ramsay had explained, was less a sedative and more a paralysis potion, a single pill having the ability to calm Thomas’s shaking body and, once the drug had time to take effect, subtly freeze his muscles into a motionless state. A tub of Vicks, bottles of painkillers, and packets of sleeping pills filled the remainder of the shelves, the latter of which would ease the mind inhabiting the paralysed nerves into unconsciousness. The medications were a drastic measure, but his temper was savage enough at the best of times. No one wanted to see how much worse it could get when sleep deprived.
Renata hurried back to the living room with Thomas’s dose of Dexlatine. She hoped it would ease the journey to the master bedroom, but she was slight of frame and the steep stairs proved a struggle. It was like carrying a downed climber the wrong direction to safety; how her mother accomplished the feat she’d never know. Stored on the landing was a second wheelchair in which she wheeled him to the bathroom. She had no trouble translating the scorching scowl he gave her at the offer of assistance.
The transfer of Thomas into his nightclothes was an awkward affair, during which he kept his cloudy eyes locked straight ahead on the discoloured wallpaper behind Renata. She pulled the sheets over him, wincing at the feel of the filthy fabric, and sat on the end of the bed, watching the quivering covers settle.
She placed a sleeping pill in his mouth and held a glass of water to his coarse lips. He swallowed then let out a long, rasping sigh. She looked down at the blister pack and bottle of pills in her hands. Her mind wandered back to hospital, back to that pure, perfect white. How she missed those corridors, those empty, endless—
‘What is it?’ he croaked suddenly.
Renata looked at him. ‘Father?’
‘Tell me what it is you want to say, girl. You’ve been stuttering like a freak all evening.’ Saliva hung from his lips like liquid stalactites. ‘Out with it.’
She glimpsed the man she used to know, still manning the cockpit of this ruined vessel. ‘I…well, Father, I…’
‘Lord, have mercy,’ he said. ‘The girl babbles like her mother.’ Renata jolted as dynamite suddenly exploded from the frail old man’s mouth. ‘SPEAK.’
She took a deep breath and threw a fresh shovel-load into the little engine’s furnace.
‘Father,’ she began, fingering her jersey, ‘sorry, but…I was hoping to ask you about, well…’ Another shovel-load. ‘…about Noah.’
In a Quentin C. Rye scary story, such a scene may have been embellished with the pattering of rain against the window, maybe some thunder and lightning for good measure, or the shadows of branches reaching across the room like bony claws. In this scary story, however, the evening was calm and fresh, the room well-lit and claw-free, yet the moment froze as if on a triple dose of Dexlatine. Within this paralysed second, she waited.
‘I expect you’d like to know when he’ll be joining us. I expect you’d like to know when he’ll be arriving…’
‘Well, I mean—’
‘…so YOU can leave.’
‘I’m sorry, Father. I just—’
‘Let me tell you what I’d like to know, girl.’ He struggled to his elbows, fighting the paralysis already taking hold. ‘I’d like to know why God gave me a girl, one who soiled my family with nothing but anguish and misery.’
She stepped back as the monster emerged.
‘I’d like to know,’ he snarled, ‘why after all these years of service, our heavenly Father took from me the only righteous thing in my life.’ His crooked fingers tried to reach for her but were held back by the medication, an invisible protector. ‘Except I already know the answers, child. I know because the Almighty has granted them upon me through the unfolding of tragedy – the tragedy of my family.’
Renata stumbled into the half-open door.
‘He has revealed to me that this family…’ His milky eyes swelled towards her, a torment on her flesh. ‘…is forsaken.’
Outside, the fields swayed gently in the placid breeze. Although it would return, the mist eased its watch for the night, the clear, crisp moonlight blanketing the calm comings and goings of the meadows surrounding the house. The clock tower was audible from across the pastures, tolling the midnight hour.
Renata’s hand gripped the doorframe. She watched in terror as the skeletal shape of Thomas Wakefield gave off a violent spasm, before finally sinking into the mattress. He stretched his face in her direction as he deflated, his jaw extending with unnatural elasticity.
‘Change in will…’ he hissed.
‘…strength of service.’