Tim Meads lives in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, UK, with his better half, Daisy, and a house full of cats. He left a career in Television production in London to dedicate more time to the dozens of unfinished writing projects he'd been nurturing over the years. In the space of twelve months he's managed to publish a couple of small press stories, a children's story, and acquire a film column at The Alien Online. Since it was the Shadow Writer book that first hooked him up with the Midlands Horror Collective, he says it's especially rewarding for him to be a part of the site. He will be appearing in the second edition of Terror Tales in the New Year and hopes to finally finish his first novel, Bonefire, sometime soon.
Diedra's whole body hurt since her blood had frozen.
'I'm dead!' she yelled at the top of her voice but nobody listened. They just continued to glide back and forth, scoring the glazed ice with new skates, never paying mind to look down through the frost where her young face frowned back, ivory skin, blue-grey lips and eyes as empty as soap bubbles. Her school tie was pulled rigid around her neck, the red and gold striped fabric stretched across blackening skin where bruising hadn't been given the chance to blossom. Poor Diedra.
'What are you, blind?' She had only gone missing a few days before but already her friends faces were beaming with the fresh chill of winter. She tried to comfort herself by pretending they were taking a well-earned break from searching the surrounding fields for her body. But deep down, she was forced to admit that the blunted squeals of childish laughter vibrating through the frozen water suppressed no such melancholy. She might have squeezed out a tear if her sinuses weren't hardened with ice.
The blades grated past her face, cutting white lines through her vision. But she still recognized a few of the smiles that sped past. Jerome Hartley spun this way and that without a care in the world, as if Diedra never existed. But he knew who she was last week when they secretly met behind the caretakers shed after school.
'I love you.' He'd declared, the orange autumn sun catching his eye. Diedra hadn't believed him even then, but the sentiment had been enough to warm her through. She'd stopped herself smiling, realizing his little game, and watching breath cloud in front of his full, chapped lips. She'd still give herself to him, of course, but no use in letting him realize immediately. Besides, that wouldn't be very Diedra.
Now seeing him parade Julie Gibbons around like some trophy popsicle emptied her out. Gibbons might be her best friend, but she was cheap. And the pair of them could at least have waited for her to turn up dead. If she ever did.
They clung together for warmth. Diedra could tell by the way they held each other that their secret relations had been going on much longer than last Tuesday. Muffled words pushed through from the surface.
'I love you,' Jerome declared without even a hint of embarrassment.
'Talk about Déjà vu,' Diedra yelled.
'What about Diedra?' Julie's voice filtered down. 'I thought you loved her.'
'She was nothing, babe,' he said. 'I was just curious 'cos she was so weird an' all. It was never gonna be full on.' He pulled her closer. 'Not like me and you.'
Julie purred a little. 'Where do you think she is then? Do you reckon she's dead?'
'Oh yeah,' said Jerome in such a matter of fact way that anyone listening would be forgiven for thinking it was him who'd done it. 'Mercer killed her. Tell me you haven't heard this?'
Julie pulled away a little. 'Heard what?'
'Oh come on. It's all over town. The guy's got a shrine dedicated to her in his attic.'
'No.' Julie sucked back a gasp.
'It's true. My sister reckons she knows someone who's seen it. All candles and pictures he took without her knowing. Like in her underwear and on the john and stuff.'
'That's crap,' Diedra offered but Jerome just carried on.
'I told my old man too. He seemed really interested and said I might have to testify.'
'In court?' Julie seemed impressed.
'Yeah. Said it was evidence enough to send the pasty faced freak down, too.'
'But you haven't seen it, have you?'
'No, I know, but everyone's saying he did it and my old man reckons someone has to take the fall. And if they don't start making some headway soon, it'll be him getting his ass kicked.'
'Right,' said Julie with puppy eyes. 'That's really important.'
Jerome looked right into her. 'You should watch your back, Julie. He might be after you next.' He pointed over her shoulder as an uneasy figure slid onto the ice.
Julie glanced across to the edge of the lake. 'He's so creepy,' she said before leaning across and kissing Jerome in that clumsy teenage way.
'Slut,' Diedra squealed from below. 'You're a slut, Gibbons. You hear me?' She hissed up at them as they giggled and fumbled their way over the lake. 'And you kiss like a virgin.'
Philip Mercer slid past, face down and struggling like a young horse learning to walk. He was all knitted wool and duffle coat, behind which Diedra caught a glimpse of shirt and tie. 'What sort of kid wears a shirt and tie to the lake?'
His mother was a Jehova's Witness, which pretty much made Philip a Jehova's Witness. It meant he got out of morning assembly though, reading horror comics in the library instead. Not that such a privilege made up for being the only kid to dress more casually at school than at home.
Mrs. Mercer always wore black. She cried all the time, too. Gasping heavy sobs over the fish counter at the market, or whilst watching the school play.
Diedra's mother used to say 'The poor woman's still mourning her husband's death,' but it had been over five years since they buried him. Diedra thought misery suited Mrs. Mercer, and she admired the woman for sticking with it.
Of course, her behavior tarred Philip with the same brush. The weird brush, that is. His gangly lack of coordination didn't help whilst the excessive maternal influence pushed upon him day and night reeked of Norman Bates.
Philip would pass Diedra notes in Maths class with crude drawings of Vampires and peculiar words like "hypnotic" or "ritual" scrawled in the corners. She used to show them to Julie and the pair of them would laugh at how ridiculous they were. But she kept them all the same.
Everyone was giving Philip a wide berth on the lake. True, half the reason might be because his locked legs and razor sharp skates were threatening to cut anyone within a few yards to ribbons. But Diedra was more than aware that Philip Mercer was the most likely suspect for her disappearance. No one could see that the poor boy struggled enough to keep his own life together, let alone plotting the demise of others. All they knew was that he used to look at Diedra in an unnatural way. And that was more than enough for a conviction in a town like this. If they ever found her body, they'd see all the creepy little notes she kept in the school bag that still hung at her side. They'd find the one he gave her last Tuesday with a deranged cloaked figure and the word "murder" written beneath. Exhibit A. Diedra imagined it in one of those air tight baggies she kept her sandwiches in, held aloft in court by an overpaid lawyer whilst Philip's eyes filled to bursting with the sound of his mother's wails dripping from the gallery above.
But Diedra hadn't been near the Mercer house in weeks. And she'd never even set foot on the rotten wood porch, or stepped past the flaked paint of the front door to find out what lay beyond, behind permanently drawn curtains. Not that it had stopped her wondering.
It was in a classroom that her blood had spilled. Beneath the blackboard in Humanities 7 with the sun preparing to bury itself once again.
Detention had run long and hard. It was barely raining outside, non-rain that feels like a cold sweat. She'd been watching it through the window for nearly three quarters of an hour, listening to Old Jersey's red pen scratching across half-done homework. Every so often his pale eyes glared up at her between slick strands of hair before returning to his marking. But those eyes would linger awkwardly. And their intention was not appropriate for a teacher to press upon his student.
'Don't look at me.' She hated his eyes on her, sensing him turn to look along crowded corridors, watching her walk from one class to the next. Watching her walk away.
'It's her own fault,' they'd say, 'fishnets and eyeliner only gives off one message to boys.' But that wasn't the case at all. She was a rebel, pushing the school dress code to breaking point. Her torn sweater said she wasn't afraid to be herself. Only she was afraid. Sometimes people stared too long. And Old Jersey's animal eyes terrified her.
The near-retired Maths teacher was a popular target for student mockery. It didn't help that the man's form was stretched and sharp like a vampire from an old silent movie, but his odd mannerisms and expressions smacked of a time long since forgotten. His wife had died a few years back. It was inevitable that school folklore would label him a murderer. Not that anyone had ever found the nerve to ask him about it. Diedra didn't want to say anything. She had no desire to cause any trouble. But then, that wouldn't be very Diedra, now would it?
'I heard you killed you wife,' she said under her breath as if she couldn't help it. The words bounced around in the quiet. Old Jersey's pen stopped almost immediately.
'It all seems so obvious now,' she said through the ice to the villagers above, 'how could things have turned out any other way?'
Old Jersey had driven home with Diedra slumped in the passenger seat beside him, explaining Pythagoras and quadratic equations and becoming progressively agitated, clutching her cooling hand far too hard for comfort. He stopped on the bridge over the lake and leaned across to open the passenger door. The motor idled, exhaust breathing into the cold evening air as Old Jersey chewed his lip, desperately surveying the freezing water below. He pulled the door closed again and drove around in circles for a while.
'I would love to keep you, Diedra, Lord knows I would.' He giggled through a nervous sweat. 'I just don't know if I should.'
On his fourth crossing of the rattling bridge, he pushed Diedra's limp frame from the car without even stopping. His face a purple picture of seething rage. As her body hit the thin ice below and broke through, the car's little rubber wheels squealed off into twilight, accompanied by the frustrated sounding of a high pitched horn, and the angry cursing of the teacher from within.
As taillights faded, Diedra simply sank and listened to the sounds of night return, a few stars already piercing the clear evening sky. It would freeze tonight. She could feel it in her broken bones.
Now all she did was ache. The cold pulling at her skin. And no one was listening.
'For God's sake, I'm right here. I know you can see me.' But if they didn't want to find her then fine. Faces blurred past over and over, ignoring what was right in front of them. 'Don't bother then, just carry on. Yesterday's news am I? Well you just pretend none of this ever happened.' Diedra's voice wobbled a little as her shouting lapsed into whisper.
'See if I care.'
There was a whistling that blew from the trees at the side of the pond. Everyone stopped and stared. A few began to point. Jerome Hartley leaned into Julie Gibbons.
'They've come to arrest him, look. There's my old man.' Heavy footfalls sounded on the surface as three policemen clambered across to apprehend Philip Mercer. 'Told you it was him, the wide eyed freak.'
A muttering of disapproval rumbled through to Diedra's hardened ears from the village above.
'It wasn't Philip. For God's sake leave him alone.' But people still tutted under their breath and shook their heads. Jerome and Julie just giggled a little. Diedra could hear Philip begging them to let go as Mr. Hartley read him his rights and began carrying him away. And suddenly none of it mattered anymore. Where she was, how it was done, why she was killed. This was all about Philip now: poor Philip and his phantom guilt.
Or was it?
Diedra wanted to weep, wanted to break down and cry like never before but even that had been taken from her. Grief flooded out all the same, she could feel it. Frozen blood threatened to burst out of her withered form and burn across the white sky. She wanted to splash it amongst the snow. She wanted to stain everyone red. Then they'd see.
The policemen were halfway up the hill when the screaming began. Ice cracked at the lake's edges at first, revealing a frozen slush beneath. Villagers backed away as quickly as they could to avoid falling into the bitter water, trying to find a foothold amongst faltering shards. Terror was already stretching white faces by the time they collected in the middle of the pond. Like statues they watched as jagged crevices splintered the surface towards them. A few began to fall at first, already too far from the edge to wade to safety. The policemen ran back to the lake and could do nothing but watch as ice water bled into the thick fibres of wool and fake fur, weighing down its victim's limbs, sucking them under. Jerome and Julie were blubbing as the ice gave way and slipped them both into the unholy pool of blood and frost. Children thrashed in desperation, kicking out with skated feet and slicing open the skin of their gasping neighbours. The policemen moved themselves deep into the water until they could reach a few of the closest skaters but before they could start back to dry land, an unbearable cramp took hold and consumed them.
Breathless bodies floated around her. Grey faces stared with eyes like pools. 'See me now, can you?' She laughed. 'All of a sudden I'm a little more important.' She twirled in a weightless dance amongst black clouds of blood and ice, sparkling where the light caught her still-frozen skin. Her gaze drifted between the sinking, screaming masses to the water's edge where Philip Mercer stood watching the death begin to flower.
Diedra waved to him.
And Philip waved back.
(C) Tim Meads 2003
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.