Stuart Young has had over fifty short stories published in various magazines and anthologies including Kimota, Roadworks, Darkness Rising, and The Mammoth Book of Future Cops. His collection of short horror stories, Spare Parts, is available from Rainfall Books. His eBook of fantasy stories, Shards of Dreams, is available from Double Dragon. Seppuku, an action-fantasy comic set in feudal Japan, has been accepted by Engine Comics and is currently awaiting an artist. The Mask Behind the Face, a novella of religious horror, is currently under consideration with one of the UK's premier small press publishers. Stuart lives in Essex, England.
Carol hoped Dee hadn't done anything stupid.
Pacing up and down the living room Carol told herself that there was nothing to worry about. Dee was a sensible girl. She never made stupid mistakes.
Except of course the whole point of her going out tonight was for her to drown her sorrows over the stupidest mistake she had made in her entire young life.
She should have been back hours ago. Carol frowned, although she was trying to mend her control freak parent ways she still liked Dee to get home on time. Carol pulled back the curtains, peering out onto the street for a sign of her daughter.
Just cold hard streets, bathed in the blackness of night. Cars growled by, their headlight beams slashing at the darkness, sending frightened shadows darting across the pavement. In the gleam of the headlights Carol caught a glimpse of the graffiti scrawled across the walls on the opposite side of the street. Jagged, alien symbols, looking more like hieroglyphics than any letters she'd ever seen.
She frowned. The graffiti was the kind of thing that Dee's ex-boyfriend would've done for kicks.
Carol had hoped that Dee would go for a nice boy, someone kind and sensible, with good prospects. But no, she'd fallen for J. The biggest loser in the Northern hemisphere.
What a waste. Dee might have a penchant for listening to Eminem records, twisting her dyed red hair into dreadlocks, and signing herself D instead of Dee but she still had a brain in her head. When Carol saw the way J leered at Dee she knew where J kept his brains and it certainly wasn't in his head.
A swaggering foulmouthed lout, a fag forever dangling from the corner of his mouth and a bottle of beer glued to his hand. She always knew that he'd break Dee's heart and, sure enough, he had.
And now Dee was late home. And drunk. And emotional. And she hadn't called. Anything could have happened to her.
Letting the curtain fall back cross the window Carol stepped back and scooped up her mobile from off the coffee table. She stared at the tiny phone nestled in her palm. She had bought Dee one just like it for her seventeenth birthday. That first text she had received - HI, MUM! LUV DA BIRTHDY PRSNT! - made her fear for Dee's spelling skills but selfishly she felt the possible benefits outweighed this. The phone was a peace offering; a way for them to stay in touch, reopening the lines of communication that had been lost to them over the last few months.
Carol bit her lip. She wanted to call Dee, make sure she was all right. But she daren't. Dee would resent her checking up on her. She couldn't risk making Dee hate her again.
She had been too possessive. She didn't want anything bad to happen to her little girl. And so she made all the same mistakes her mother had made with her when she was a teenager. Laying down the law, telling her she could never see J again. Turning herself into Dee's worst enemy when all she wanted was to be her friend.
She never thought that being a parent would be so hard.
It didn't help that Graham was always away on business trips. Just like tonight. God, just once she wished someone else could be the responsible one who got to do all the worrying and she could just relax as they reassured her that everything would be all right.
She put the phone back on the coffee table. She folded her arms tight, clamping her hands to her body so she wouldn't be tempted to pick it up again. Staring down at the phone she willed it to ring.
The phone stubbornly continued its vow of silence.
Frustrated, she tore her gaze away. She couldn't keep this up all night. She'd go mad.
She strode over to the CD player, hoping that some music might serve as a distraction, taking her mind off Dee. Nervous fingers flipped through the CD collection, stopping when they reached Blondie - Greatest Hits. Yes, this would do the trick. Some great songs on this album.
Like "Call Me."
Urk. She scanned down the track list for a different song.
"Hanging on the Telephone."
Shoving the CD back in the rack she put on a Prince CD instead.
As Prince's falsetto filled the room she picked a lifestyle magazine up off the coffee table. She leafed through its glossy pages but couldn't concentrate on the airbrushed photos of J-Lo. Images of Dee filled her head. Lying sprawled on a deserted street somewhere. Battered. Beaten. Dead.
Please let her get home safely.
She didn't even understand why Dee had needed to go out tonight. When J dumped her it had been Carol she turned to, not her stupid giggling friends. Curled up on the sofa, Dee sobbing against her shoulder, seeking a mother's solace. They were friends once more, united in Dee's despair. They could do this every night until Dee was over J. Dee didn't need to go out with her friends, she had all the love and support she needed right here at home. Why did she need to go some club with a stupid name? OP8 or whatever it was?
But no, now Dee was out clubbing, being leered at by drunken louts eager to sample her soft young flesh, offering to help her forget J, pretending that they weren't scum like him, that they only wanted to comfort her.
Carol wiped her brow. With Graham away on business the only comfort she would get tonight was from the food cupboard. Ice cream perhaps. Or maybe cheesecake. She headed for the kitchen.
Opening the freezer she found the ice cream had gone. So had the cheesecake. Damn, Dee was supposed to have done the shopping today while Carol was at work. No wonder Dee had insisted on Carol not doing any cooking tonight, bringing in a takeaway instead.
Carol turned her attention to the cupboards. Empty.
Desperate for a sugar rush she turned to Dee's private stash of goodies, tucked away in the corner of the middle cupboard.
Dee's stash consisted of a single jar, the label eroded and worn where it had been wiped clean one too many times, the words and pictures describing its contents now a faded, illegible mess.
The contents was a dark brown sludge, probably some kind of chocolate sauce or syrup. Cautiously she sniffed at the jar. Ugh, yeast extract! Slamming the jar down on the shelf she marched back into the lounge.
As she passed the stereo the Prince CD segued from No into "Alphabet St." Glancing at her watch she realised it was too late to be playing music, it would disturb the neighbours, so she turned off the stereo and put on the TV, thumbing the mute button, hoping the pictures alone would be enough to distract her from her thoughts.
The national news was just finishing, the local bulletin would follow in a second. She flumped down on the sofa, seething that her munchies remained unsated.
God, she would kill Dee when she got back. Dee was dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!
Then she saw what was on the television.
A burning building filled the screen. Flames danced in the night air, smoke billowing up to join the clouds that hung in the sky above the building. And below this scene ran the caption "Live from the OP8 Club."
Carol froze. OP8 was where Dee had gone with her friends.
She stabbed at the remote, bringing the volume back up. ' … unsure how the fire started or how many people are still inside. For now firefighters can only struggle to contain the blaze. Now back to the studio.'
Carol's eyes widened, silent whimpers dying in her throat. The remote fell from her limp fingers to thud on the carpet. A shaking hand reached to her mouth as if searching for the cries of distress she wanted to utter.
Please let Dee have left the club before the fire started. There was some other reason why she was late home. Some other simple, harmless, perfectly reasonable explanation.
Except Carol couldn't think of one.
She dove for her mobile. The numbers on the buttons blurred before her eyes. These bloody phones were so small. Fumbling for her purse she found her reading glasses and slipped them on. The numbers sprang into sharp relief and she jabbed at her address book, calling up Dee's number.
Dee's phone was switched off.
Carol clasped her hands to her head, jamming the phone against her temple in the process. Its buttons dug into her flesh, the random series of commands causing the phone to cry out in a series of distressed beeps.
Taking a deep breath she forced herself to straighten up. She was no good to Dee like this. She had to get a grip.
She called Graham. Maybe Dee had rung him, told him about some change of plans for the evening.
Graham's phone was switched off too. Of course, it always was after ten o'clock. Didn't want to look like a henpecked hubby in front of his business pals.
The police would know whether Dee had been caught in the fire. Whether she had escaped unscathed or if she was a smouldering chunk of charred flesh.
She ran out to the hall to the other phone, she didn't want to risk the mobile's batteries cutting out halfway through the call. Snatching up the receiver she wondered if the police was the right emergency service to ask for. Perhaps the fire brigade would be more appropriate, or perhaps the ambulance service. Did the operator offer advice on who to call?
It didn't matter, just dial! Her hands shook so badly she could barely hit the buttons. Concentrate!
Okay, once more!
Her mobile rang, its shrill tone cutting through the air, making her jump.
Dropping the other phone she ran back into the lounge and snatched up her mobile.
A picture message had been received. But from who? She stared at the tiny screen, searching for the caller's number.
It was from Dee.
She gave a single strangled sob of relief then collapsed onto the sofa. The adrenaline had been the only thing holding her up and now she sagged like a deflating balloon. Putting her hand to her eye she pushed her reading glasses to one side as she wiped away a tear. 'You silly cow,' she sniffed. 'You'll give yourself a bloody ulcer.'
She sat motionless for a moment, her hand pressed against her eyelids in case any more tears should come. Eventually, her composure regained, she opened Dee's picture message.
What she saw made her recoil in horror.
The picture showed the OP8 dance floor, engulfed by flames. Fiery fingers groped for victims, eager to wrap them in their blazing embrace. Smoke swept across the dance floor, so thick and dense that it was a wonder that it could remain airborne. Around the edges of the picture people writhed in agony, the flames melting their skin, the smoke filling their lungs. And in the centre of it all stood Dee, screaming, terrified.
Carol whimpered. This couldn't be happening. Dee wasn't at the club, that wasn't her in the picture, it was some other girl, someone who looked like her, someone Carol didn't care about.
It couldn't be Dee. It couldn't!
Through her tears she could barely make out the text message beneath the picture. HLP!
Her entire body jerked as she forced herself out of her despair. The message was an S.O.S. One of Dee's friends must be trying to tell the outside world there were people still trapped in the club. If Carol was quick enough she could phone the fire brigade, tell them to focus their rescue efforts on the dance floor area.
Maybe she could still save Dee.
God, how long had she been staring at the phone crying like a little baby? Stupid, stupid cow! If Dee died it would be all her fault!
This last thought nearly made her drop the mobile and she quickly shifted her grip, grasping it tight, as if it was the most precious thing in the world.
Before she could dial 999 the mobile beeped, signalling another text. Another message from Dee's phone. She opened it quickly; maybe Dee had escaped the fire, or at least moved to another part of the club. She needed to know where to send the fire brigade. Somewhere in the frantic tumult of her thoughts she wondered why the messages were being sent to her rather than the fire brigade. Then she realised; 999 didn't come with picture messaging facilities. Pictures could get the situation across quicker than words. Besides, a phone call would be next to impossible over the screams of the dying.
She opened the message and then she realised there was another reason why the messages weren't being sent to the fire brigade.
The phone showed another picture of the nightclub but this time something else moved within the flames. Black shapes, all teeth and claws, like pieces of night that had been brought to life. Their bodies twisted and turned in on themselves, as though they didn't fully exist in either this world or any other. Although everything else in the picture was frozen somehow these strange creatures could still move, one moment skittering across the floor like giant insects, the next floating through the air like poisonous gas.
They moved towards Dee.
Dee's face twisted in horror, the picture unable to convey the sound of her terrified scream. But beneath the picture ran a text message. HLP ME!
As Carol stared at the picture something drifted out of the mobile, a tiny tendril of blackness that spiralled up towards the ceiling. The shape resolved itself into one of the creatures. It glared down at her, looking even less substantial than in the picture, like the fading image from a half-forgotten nightmare. Even as she gasped in horror the creature dissolved away to nothing.
The mobile beeped again. Quickly recovering herself she opened the message, dreading what she might find.
The creatures had crept closer to Dee. Their faces twisted in malicious delight, snakelike tongues lolling from leering mouths. Dee's own features were blurred in the picture, but that couldn't disguise her terror. MUM! I'M SCRED!
Another creature sprouted from the mobile to float up above Carol's head. This one clung to the wall in the corner of the lounge, at the point where the ceiling intersected with the two walls below it. For a long, horrible moment it hung there, its body the consistency of heavy smoke, and then it too disappeared.
Shivering, Carol turned back to the mobile.
Dee's face filled the screen, as though trying to crawl through the lens to escape her plight. Her naturally pale skin seemed even paler, almost translucent, and despite the desperate pleading in her eyes they had become faintly dull. It wasn't just the smoke obscuring her features, or her spirit gradually fading away from her as she grew ever weaker; it was as if she was being eroded, gradually erased from existence. HLP!
Another thin finger of blackness erupted from the phone, turning into yet another creature. It hovered above the sofa then dropped onto the cushions with a heavy thump. Claws dug into fabric, tearing, shredding, then the creature turned to wisps of blackness once more, evaporating into nothingness.
Carol stared at the rips on the empty sofa then back at the picture of Dee's terrified face, the features slowly crumbling away.
Carol frowned. The less substantial Dee became the more tangible the creatures became, turning from phantasms to solid beings. The phone was their hotline to reality.
But the big question, the question that vibrated throughout every fibre of her being, remained unanswered: If the creatures could use the connection between the two mobiles to transport themselves out of the club could Carol use it to transfer herself in?
The idea was crazy. Even if she somehow, miraculously, managed to zap herself into the club she would never be able to fight her way past all the creatures. And even if she did she didn't know if she would be able to transport herself and Dee back to safety. It was crazy. Utter, utter madness.
But she had to try.
Fingers trembling she called up Dee's number and typed in a quick message. I'M COMING.
She pressed send and the world vanished.
Sound tied itself into knots, garbled snatches of conversations buzzed by her head; strange words in an alien language. Pictures flashed before her eyes, fractured images of bizarre new worlds; reality reduced to a broken jigsaw, the pieces scattered across infinity. The sounds and images swirled together, creating a vortex of distorted levels of existence. She tumbled over and over, buffeted by the powerful currents of the opposing realities. Caught in the slipstream she plummeted towards the centre of the vortex.
Screaming, she found herself vomited out onto the club's dance floor.
She hit the ground hard, the impact jarring through her body. She tried to ignore the pain, tried to blend it in with all the other sights and sounds that assaulted her. The heat of the flames; the coarseness of the smoke that caught at her throat, threatening to choke her; the crackling and popping of flames and frying skin; and -- oh God, it was horrible! - the stench of burning human fat.
But the most important thing was the scene before her.
Dee, surrounded by the phantasms. The creatures were almost on her, their outstretched claws so close they were practically brushing her skin. The phantasms leering, Dee shuddering, cowering at the twisted promise of their perverted touch.
A scream burst from Carol's mouth. She didn't recognise the sound as any particular word, she didn't even recognise the sound as her own voice, but even past the jumble of emotions the cry carried - fear, hate, love, disgust, hope - the meaning was clear:
Get away from my daughter!
Jumping up she ran towards Dee. She didn't know what she was going to do, she was just running on pure adrenaline, but she did know the only way the phantasms could stop her trying to save Dee was to kill her.
The phantasms halted their advance to stare at her. She could see the amazement on their faces, the total disbelief at seeing a suburban housewife charging towards them. If the creatures had a sense of humour no doubt any second now they would burst out laughing but for this single precious instant they hung above Dee, paralysed by shock.
That was all the opportunity Carol needed.
Grabbing Dee's wrist she yanked her away from the phantasms, dragging her behind as they raced across the dance floor. With her free hand she thumbed the buttons on her mobile: GO.
As they ran Dee's mobile flew from Dee's hand, clattering across the floor. It landed at the feet of the phantasms, breaking the spell of disbelief cast by Carol's unexpected entrance. As one the phantasms surged after them.
Carol's instinct was to run even faster but a wall of fire blocked their path. Skidding to a halt she fumbled with her mobile, attempting to send the picture message that would send them home. Smoke obscured her vision, hiding the send button from her.
The phantasms drew closer.
Spluttering from the smoke she peered at the mobile's buttons.
The phantasms were almost on them.
Squinting, she found the button. She stabbed at it so hard she expected her thumb to burst through the other side of the phone.
The club winked out of existence. She felt herself tumbling through the disorienting world of garbled words and fragmented images once more. But this time it didn't bother her. This time she had Dee with her.
The twisted vortex of sound and vision spewed them out, back into the real world. Carol slammed into the living room floor, the carpet grazing her face.
She sat up, tears stinging her eyes. Dee was safe! Her little girl was safe!
Reaching over she hugged Dee, pulling her tight, never wanting to let go.
Her hands passed through Dee.
Gasping, she flinched away and stared at Dee. Patches of transparency ran through Dee's body, her entire frame a wavering mixture of flesh and nothingness.
She shook her head. No, this couldn't be happening. She had saved Dee. This wasn't fair!
Dee stared at her in confusion her face crumpling, half of it visible, half of it existing in some unreachable netherworld. 'Wht's the mtter? Wht's wrng?'
(C) Stuart Young 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.