The following is an excerpt from my recently completed horror novel (the title is a great big, sticky secret), a segment set in the schooldays of one Edward Kemp … a man who believes that he will always find himself in the path of the bad things, his foot stuck in the tracks while a train full of Life thunders towards him, a man who always finds himself on the wrong side of the Fan/Excrement Interface. The following incident isn’t the first time, and if the novel ever breathes the sweet oxygen of publication, we’ll see that it won’t be the last … 🙂
Edward and James hurried across the schoolyard, and automatically Edward had glanced about to see if they were under surveillance by any of the teaching staff. He saw only two of them nearby – Miss McDermott, a Chemistry teacher, and Mr Lytton, who, rarely for his profession, managed to teach P.E. in a friendly and enthusiastic way that didn’t involve treating the less athletic pupils (like Edward) as if they were something close to the bottom of the food chain. Their relationship was more than just professional, according to rumour and a number of graphic and imaginative felt-tip illustrations in the boys’ toilets, and right then it had seemed to Edward that the rumours were true. Mr Lytton was saying something to Miss McDermott that made her giggle, made her cover her laugh with one of her small, delicate hands.
They seemed incapable of taking their gaze from one another, and so hadn’t seen the two boys slip around the corner to the high-walled area behind what would have been the bike sheds, had any child been foolish enough to bring his or her treasured bike to the vandals’ paradise of Shelby Park Comprehensive.
He followed James to where a group of perhaps five or six boys had gathered around Robert Clay in a tight, excited cluster. Clay stood a head taller than any of them, his big, dirty hands clasped conspiratorially close to his chest, smiling in that odd, unsettling way of his, thick grey teeth bared with a mixture of viciousness and stupidity. The way he had smiled one time when he’d jammed Edward’s fingers in the door to the Physics Lab.
Edward hovered at the group’s perimeter, trying his best to remain unnoticed, but then James was plunging excitedly into their midst, tugging at Edward’s sleeve, pulling him along with him. They pushed their way to the front of the little crowd, Edward knowing that such an intrusion wouldn’t be tolerated if it weren’t for the distraction of whatever it was Clay was concealing. Suddenly they were at the front, only a foot or two away from Clay himself, and Edward shifted uncomfortably, feeling horribly vulnerable and exposed.
The last time I was this close to him, he remembered thinking crazily. My nose was pouring blood.
‘Come on, Clay.’ One of the assembled boys was saying. ‘Come on, let’s see it.’
‘Shut up.’ Clay told him. ‘I’ll show you when I’m ready.’
His voice was already harsh and grating thanks to his pack a day habit, but then Edward had noticed that it was also beginning to change as it deepened. It had a weird, fractured quality that was the aural equivalent of glasspaper applied to the eyes.
‘Hurry up, then.’ the boy insisted, moving excitedly from one foot to the other. ‘Before a teacher -‘
‘I said, shut up, or I’ll kick your fucking teeth in.’ Clay commanded, and wisely the boy fell silent. ‘I don’t give a fuck about the teachers.’
He was enjoying it, Edward realised, enjoying the novelty of controlling them all without having to use his fists. Even so, Edward had understood that it wouldn’t last forever, for one fundamental reason: using his fists was more fun.
Very slowly, Clay started to bring his hands away from his chest. Between his thick, grimy fingers, Edward could see something small and grey, though he couldn’t quite make out what it was. Clay began to unfold his fingers, his grey smile broadening into a grin, and the assembled boys gasped in admiration at his revealed prize. A small bird nestled in his hands, a very young one, Edward thought. He was no expert, but he guessed that it was maybe a sparrow or something. Patches of pink, veiny skin showed through the gaps in its sparse brownish-grey feathers and its wings, naked, bony little things, fluttered weakly.
‘Found it outside the gates.’ Clay told them softly. ‘It must have fallen out of its nest or something. Now it’s mine.’
With a surprising gentleness, he pinched the edge of each of the bird’s wings between his thumb and forefinger and spread them a little, revealing its thinly feathered belly and two spindly pink legs that kicked uselessly at the air.
‘Look …’ Edward heard James whisper hoarsely beside him. ‘You can see its heart.’
Edward nodded. He’d already seen it, the tiny, purple-black blob pulsating madly in the centre of the sparrow’s breast – his own heart had seemed to be pounding in unison with it, a rapid, terrified beat. He watched the bird’s pink-grey skull, no bigger than his own thumb, dart frantically about, its black, bead-like eyes sparkling. Its beak opened and closed, opened and closed, venting its fear and confusion in tiny, squeaking cries.
Still smiling, Clay continued to draw his hands further and further apart, until the bird’s wings had been unfolded to their full span. After a moment or two, Edward realised that he wasn’t going to stop – his hands continued to move, stretching the struggling bird between them.
‘You’re hurting it.’ one of the boys observed. He sounded shaky and excited – the look on his face was one of dark anticipation, and Edward felt sickened and ashamed that he too was transfixed by what he was seeing.
The bird’s fragile little wings were extended to their absolute limit, now; Edward could see the thin cords of tendon connecting them to its quivering body pulled hard and tight. And though Robert Clay’s smile remained the same, masklike and detached, his eyes glittered.
Edward stared, unable to pull his gaze away from the sparrow’s vain efforts to escape, its wings twitching fruitlessly in Clay’s grasp. The meat of its abdomen was stretched tight as a drumskin now, becoming shiny as it threatened to –
‘Clay, wait, I think -‘ he started to say.
But it was too late. The bird split as if unzipped, the tiny body coming apart with a sound like a hundred stitches tearing at once – Edward saw the wet, crimson mist exploding in front of him, then suddenly saw nothing at all. He screamed, tasting the thick, coppery heat on his tongue. He heard James shrieking beside him, and as he wiped frantically at his eyes – Oh God it stings please God don’t let me be blind please – he saw that James was shrieking at him, they all were, all of them except Robert Clay, who, incredibly, wasn’t holding a baby bird in his hands anymore, but only two pieces of red rag.
The understanding of what had happened had slammed into him then, like a vast weight impacting against his chest, and he had felt his stomach flex, threatening to add his breakfast to the reeking muck on his shirt, his hands, his lips. He tried to scream again, managing nothing more than some strengthless wheeze – panic had seized his windpipe, cold and implacable, and he fell to his knees, gasping.
He heard running footsteps as the boys scattered, each cursing or grunting some formless syllable of disgust. All of them except Robert Clay. As Edward’s vision began to clear, he saw that Clay was staying exactly where he was, both halves of the sparrow still twitching slightly in his hands, red dots speckling his face like a spray of pimples. He grinned blankly down at Edward’s plight, and with sick, nightmarish clarity Edward saw that even his teeth were flecked with blood.