Illustration by A. Gristwood. You can find her here: https://www.facebook.com/A.Gristwood.Art/
Because I've had a busy week, I thought I'd cheat on this weeks blog and post a short story I wrote a while ago... I promise to have something more bite-sized up next week :-).
I’d always wondered how Billy felt when he died. Rumour spread like rats through a sewer; the people in town said all his dealings with the wrong kind of ideas had cursed him. According to some, his body was found trussed up like a chicken on a spit in the middle of the woods; according to others, he’d had his heart ripped clean from his chest and then staked to a tree. I was five at the time, and the twenty years since haven’t helped quieten speculation.
Death in any town is troublesome. But in ours? It never happens. At least, it shouldn’t. My name is Tabitha Meadows and I’m Custodian to the three-hundred and seventy-five people of Somerton— the link between them and the outside world. But being dogsbody and peacekeeper to a village in a rift outside of time is about as joyous as shovelling donkey shit for a living.
Still, if you don’t want to die, and you promise to not turn into a complete fruit-loop because your neighbours are eternal, Somerton is the place to live.
Of course, that’s if you can find us.
“Tabitha Meadows!” Olive’s voice crackled behind me as the familiar prod of her walking stick dug into my calf.
I stared at the red letterbox on the edge of the road, smoothed my skirt with one hand and let the white envelope flutter through the rectangular hole.
“You hear me, Tabitha Meadows?” She prodded me again.
“It’s a good job I’m not a dog, Olive.” I spun around to face her. “Because you do that to a dog? It’ll bite back.
She raised her stick in the air and waved it. “There’s been bad business with some of the folk at church. And now I can’t find ‘em.”
I held out a hand to hush her. “And this is this my problem, how?”
“Because the Hermins’ weren’t at coffee mornin’.” She stamped her boot and nodded.
“You sure they aren’t hiding from you again?”
“They ain’t hiding,” her voice crescendoed like a cat about to fight. “Something ain’t right. There were talk.”
I sighed; town talk and Olive Crisp were like a pair of worn shoes— where one trod, the other followed. “What do you want me to do about it, Olive?”
“What it is that you people do.”
“There’s lots of things my people do, like fetch supplies, drive cars—.”
She spat out her words like a dirty curse. “I want you to find ‘em, of course.”
“I’m not spending my morning traipsing across town because you’ve had another falling out. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
Olive’s eyes darted around; she lowered her voice in a panicked whisper, “It weren’t just normal talk. It were blasphemous, I tell you. About… Billy.”
“Billy.” I folded my arms and rolled my eyes.
She flapped a wrinkled hand and hissed, “Don’t be saying that name so loud. Bad omens.”
“I read Billy Goats Gruff to Mrs. Spooner’s class the other day. Does that count?” I raised my eyebrow and smirked.
“They were talking about his curse, girl.”
Her Gorgon-esque expression and patronising tone did little to penetrate my apathy for her plight. “We’ve been over this a thousand times. Curses don’t exist, Olive.”
“You try telling that to his poor Mama.”
“Olive. It’s been twenty years since… Billy. And in my five years as Custodian you’ve concocted more stories about his death than I’ve had hot dinners. Perhaps you should note these tales down and sell them?” I nodded. “Might make yourself a bit of money, you know.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Miss Tabitha Meadows.”
“Then don’t poke me with your stick and call me girl when you want help.” I placed my hands on my hips and continued before another word spewed from her mouth. “Billy’s body was never found, Olive. Everyone knew he was fond of eating wild mushrooms and getting high. It’s also common knowledge that his Mum dragged him here because she couldn’t stand the thought of losing another son. If you ask me, he either wandered off—high as a kite—and found himself outside of the boundary, or, he left of his own free will because he couldn’t take being stuck in his sixteen-year-old body after forty years of puberty. Contrary to your beliefs, not everyone wants to spend eternity existing inside this town.”
She gurned until her lips disappeared into her leathery face. “What would you know? You’re twenty-five. Barely old enough to wipe your own arse.”
“Olive Crisp! Don’t they teach you in church that if you haven’t got a nice thing to say then don’t say anything at all? A bit of humility goes a long way here. How about on my next trip into the city I pick up a book on the subject?”
“Don’t you dare go waving your freedom in my face, Tabitha Meadows.”
“Freedom?” I snorted. “You chose to be here. I didn’t. The day I got landed with Custodian duties I lost everything. Friends… Home… Job… Fiancé.”
“Quit whining. Ain’t no man dumb enough to court you.”
I pointed a finger at her. “Stop digging that hole before you fall in it, Olive.”
“Don’t you be threatening me, missy.”
I turned to walk away. Olive’s voice cut through the air like nails on a chalkboard, “They said there’s a way to let it in.”
I stopped, took a breath and gritted my teeth. “Let what in?”
“What do you think? The tooth fairy? Death, you fool. They said the boy found a door to let death in. They were going to open it, and then tell him where I lived.”
I bit a chunk in my cheek to stifle a smile and faced her. “And why would they do that?”
“How the hell should I know?” she replied indignantly.
I stopped fighting the need to smile but made no effort to list the reasons why this town would be better off without Olive Crisp.
“Said it’s up at that cursed tree, the one where… he was found.” She pointed her stick behind me, toward the woods. “And it’s your job to stop that kind of thing. So do what you’re meant to, and stop them.”
I glared at her for a long, hard moment. Olive Crisp was the most ungrateful, spiteful old bat to grace the earth. But a lynch mob set out to crucify old Crisp would give me a headache I didn’t need.
“Fine.” Without bothering to explain myself, I stormed along the road, up the hill, and into the wood.
Olive needed a bone to chew on, so I’d give her a big tough one to get her gnashing teeth into. Hopefully, it’d tire her jaw and she’d quit badmouthing people long enough for them to settle down.
I reached the top of the wood, pulled out my phone and clicked the camera on; slowly, carefully, I walked around the tall, dead gnarled tree that the towns’ folk thought was Billy’s, filming broken branches and bare roots. Unending time for small minds ran imaginations crazy, but a tree was just a tree. I’d call a town meeting, force them all to watch the film until their eyes blurred, and then make Olive publicly apologise to the Hermins’ for being an old biddy.
As I turned to leave wind rippled along the ground, lashing goosebumps across my skin. I clasped my elbows and shivered. Stupid Olive and her tall talking of curses. About to storm back down the hill, into town and demand an emergency meeting, I made one glance back.
That’s when I saw him.
A red-haired boy—no older than sixteen—dressed in jeans and black jacket, lifted a finger to his lips. I recognised him instantly. I know the dead when I see them, and Billy Baker was most certainly dead.
He nodded toward the town and smiled. “Death’s coming for them. Whether they want it or not.”
The church bell rang. Dong. Dong. Dong… it went on and on, vibrating through the air like an unhinged note. I swallowed the ball of fear, turned tail and ran until my lungs burned and my legs seized—down the hill, through the street— I didn’t stop until I reached the church steps.
It was two days later when we found Olive Crisp dead in the woods. Tongue torn from her head, bible clasped to her chest, she looked like a modern-day recreation of some macabre renaissance painting. Mr. and Mrs. Hermin were discovered shortly after, only their corpses were laid out like blinded angels in prayer.
And I thought it’d been tough babysitting the folk of Somerton? It was only when they started dying that my real problems began.