Saturday, July 26, 2008

The End

So that concludes After. This is the first story I've published online, and the experience so far has been great. I've learnt a lot and I feel ready to take on something slightly larger.

Thanks to everyone for being readers, and especially to anyone who has supported me through emails, donations, or simply by following the story through to the end. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing.

Parts two and three of this story will follow at some as yet undetermined future date. You can keep up to date by subscribing to the main StoryBurner blog, which will carry all news related to my online works.

Till then, I'll see you around.

Christopher Frost
chfrost (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk

Twenty-Seven

Morning comes, pale and yellow and new. I find a small motor launch at the end of one of the jetties. Lisa carries the baby and I help her climb down onto the wet, rocking floor of the boat. The child blinks slowly, her face wrinkled and soft. Tiny fingers pull at the edge of the blanket in which she's wrapped.

"I love her," says Lisa. "Already I love her."

I start the boat. It is simpler than I thought. The engine is controlled by a simple switch, and there is a steering wheel just like in a car. I compare the map with the compass on the control panel, then pull away from the jetty, leaving behind the mainland and the Creatures and the place where I almost died.

I look at the baby. I look at Lisa. As long as I live I know that I will never let any Creature near either one of them. For as long as I live I will never let them be hurt.

The island is just a smudge against the slow yellow of the sun, so that I have to squint and shield my eyes to see it at all. Around the boat the sea is infinite and glistening.

Closer. I can see the rearing chalk cliffs and the dark stick of a tumbledown tower. Trees, and the yellowish curve of a beach.

Closer. I see a wooden jetty. I can’t be sure, but at the top of the cliff I see a moving, red dot. Someone’s jacket?

Closer. A flare from the tower paints the morning sky orange. Six small figures – barely more than coloured dots are crossing the beach towards the jetty.

Closer. They’re waving at me, at us. I can hear distant shouts, human voices. Another flare bursts. Lisa is awake now, and she joins me at the prow of the boat with the baby in her arms. Still the people on the beach are waving and I can’t stop myself from smiling.

Closer. Lisa leans her head into the hollow at the base of my neck. I close my eyes.

Closer.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Twenty-Six

Lisa goes into labour at midnight. I hold her hand and she screams at the dark, and I say:

“It’s all right,” because that’s what you’re supposed to say. Because I'm useless when it comes to this. I time the contractions even though I don’t know why you’re supposed to do that. I find almost-clean cloths and almost-clean water and wait and wait and wish I could do something to take her pain away. She’s praying under her breath.

Never have I felt quite so helpless.

Hours pass, but these hours have been squashed up so that they fly by in drips and tears. The contractions get steadily more frequent and more painful and then Lisa’s grip is crushing my hand as she struggles and strains.

“It’s coming,” she moans.

“What should I do?” I ask. I'm suddenly desperately scared, but she doesn’t answer, just shakes her head and another spasm crosses her body and she screams again. Then the head is visible and Lisa’s breath is one long scream. The head is out and she slumps back against the wall and she’s crying, gasping sharp, cold air. The head is out, but not the body.

“You’re nearly there,” I say, “Come on. Once more.”

“I’m tired." Her voice sounds faint. This place is far too cold, our breath evaporating even inside.

“You’re nearly there.” Then she tenses up once more and screams, and I reach down and support the slippery, bloody head as the rest of the body eases out. And then I’m holding the baby and it’s the smallest, most wrinkled and ugly human being I have ever seen. It is beautiful.

It slips free, and with it comes a bloody mess of tissue. The afterbirth.

“Lisa?” She looks asleep, and with a sudden stab of gutting fear I recall the stories I have heard of women who die during childbirth. “Lisa? I’ve got the baby. It’s fine, I’ve got . . .” I pause briefly to look at the slimy, crying thing in my arms. “. . . her.”

Lisa seems to wake up again, and takes the baby, holds it while I find spare clothes to wrap it in. I'm shaking. I can't really believe that it has happened, and that the baby is fine and alive. A tight knot that I've been carrying around for weeks seems to dissolve in my stomach.

By the time I’ve found blankets for the baby Lisa has fallen asleep with it cradled against her, and even sweating and haunted and tired as she is she’s beautiful. She wakes as I gently take the baby and wrap it up. Her eyes follow my every move.

“We need to cut the cord,” she says faintly.

I find a knife and twine in the kitchen and use a forgotten bottle of whisky to sterilise the blade. But I don't know what to do, and so it is Lisa who ties off the cord, cuts it quickly and cleanly. She holds the baby against her again before she goes back to sleep. And then it is just me.

It feels for a while as though the whole world is in this room, and is soft and real. Nothing can ever matter more than this. I take the empty gun and I go outside and I drop it off the edge of the sea wall into the ocean. Than I go back in and sit awake to watch them sleep, Lisa and the newborn child, everything in the world for which I might have hoped.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Twenty-Five

At the harbour we stop. The town is fronted by a concrete sea wall, lined with jetties. White boats bob in the water at their moorings, sails rising into the foggy air like vertical wings. The smell of the sea is strong and the air is blazing with cold. Our breath is mist.

"Which one?" says Lisa. But I know at once that we cannot leave the harbour in the dark. I hardly have any idea how to steer a boat in the daytime, and without being able to see where we're going we might run into a buoy or a bit of wreckage. It's bad enough driving in the dark, but if we damage the boat neither one of us would stand a chance in the freezing water.

"We'll have to wait till morning," I say. Lisa nods.

"I know."

We cannot wait for daylight out in the open, so we go into one of the many seafront caf├ęs and wander cautiously through to the backrooms. Boxes and plastic tables are scattered all over the place. Windows are broken and the roof is sagging under a rotten weight of water. What matters, though, is that there are no Creatures. We should be safe enough.

Lisa sits down on a crate and folds her arms over her stomach. Taking off my coat I pull it around her shoulders. "We'll be safe here," I say. "We'll go in the morning. A few hours, that's all."

"What if there's nobody there?" she says. It sounds like she's been waiting to say this for ages. Like she's scared, a little, of what the answer might be, but wants to hear it all the same.

I think about it. "What if there is somebody there?"

She laughs a little, nods, draws my arm over her shoulder. I sit down next to each other and we lean into each other. "I'm so glad I found you," she says.

"Me too." Then I wait until I'm absolutely certain she's fallen asleep before I continue in a whisper, "You saved my life."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Twenty-Four

The thing is injured, torn full of holes and lying on its back in the road, wings squashed and battered. Despite the fact that the gun is empty I don't stop pointing it at the Creature as me and Lisa climb out of the car, grab our bags from the back and take off down the road. Once the injured thing is out of sight I stick the pistol in my belt and take Lisa's hand.

"It's not far," she says. "We can still make it." She's shaking still. So am I. The weight of the baby must make it hard for her to walk, but she does not complain. Does not make a sound, except for her laboured breathing.

We pass a sign at the side of the road. "Portmain" it reads, and I recognise this as the name of coastal town closest to the island which was marked on the map. Lisa squeezes my hand. "Almost there," she says.

Another mile takes us over the crest of a hill and the sea comes into view ahead of us. In the darkness of the night it resembles a vast, black pit. But I can hear the noise of waves washing against the beach and feel the faint prickle of saltwater air. The road plunges downward into the main street of the town, where rooftops and the paper-white planes of maggot nests glow in the moonlight.

Me and Lisa follow it down, sticking to the edge of the grey road, ready at any moment to hide. But there are no Creatures and we soon find ourselves walking down the street, surrounded by silent houses lousy with nests. We move silently, afraid. The gun is empty, just a useless piece of metal now. If anything happens we are utterly defenceless.

Under her breath Lisa is praying. I hold her hand tightly, listen to the whispered, mumbled words. Is someone up there listening? And if they are, do they care?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Twenty-Three

It happens suddenly, in an instant. We have been driving for half an hour more, getting closer and closer to our destination. I am just beginning to relax about having the headlights on when I see the shadow flicking up out of the beam, all wings and teeth and I crank the wheel, stamp down hard on the brake. Something jolts into the car and Lisa screams. Claws puncture the roof, wrench through the metal skin, letting in a cold rush of air.

Adrenaline shocks through me, my blood thudding in my brain. The car swerves across the road, the wheel going loose in my hands. I can see the claws, great curved blades scrabbling at the jagged rents in the roof. I could reach out and touch them. They are a foot away from tearing off my head. The windscreen shivers with cracks, then breaks in a shower of glass. The car jolts again.

Above us, the metal peels away. A tearing screech. It is right there, the Creature, its teeth, its scent and skin and wings like black sails flailing in front of the sky. This is it. It is happening, exactly the way I feared. All my nightmares of the last few months made real and visceral.

Finally, the car comes to a shuddering halt. It feels like it rocks onto two wheels before it settles, and in that instant I don't have time to think about what I'm doing. I grab the gun from the dash, flick the safety, point it upwards and for the first time I actually pull the trigger. Twelve shots, wild and desperate into the night.

In the echoing aftermath there is silence. My arms shake and the gun clatters onto the floor of the car. I can hear the shushing breath of the sea, Lisa's panicked gasps, my own pulse strident in my ears. And then, overwhelming that all, the croaking hiss of the wounded Creature.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Twenty-Two

We drive for most of the day. The car has a full tank of fuel. Lisa navigates using the battered old map book we found in the glove, flicking between the pages. Hour after hour I drive along clogged and damaged roads. More than once we have to backtrack, or find alternate routes, trying to avoid the cities.

We pass by a maggot nest, and then another. Worryingly, I can make out the shapes of eggs within the white mesh. Big, translucent shells, filled with twisted shadows.

We come to a place in the road where an electrical pylon has fallen, blocking all six lanes. I park up while Lisa skims through the mapbook, tracing the spaghetti-mess of roads with her finger to find an alternate route. Then I turn the car around and set off again.

Another time we see a flight of Creatures, but they’re in the distance and quickly swoop out of view. We pass more maggot nests–whole forests transformed into sticky white clusters of eggs and sleeping maggots. I tense up as we rumble past in the car, picturing in my head how fast the maggots move. Faster than a car, certainly.

It starts to get towards night. I drive for as long as I can without headlights, but eventually the darkness becomes complete and I cannot see far enough ahead to keep going–I don’t even want to think what would happen if we drove right into a nest. So I pull up by the side of the road.

“We’re close,” says Lisa. “Only an hour more.”

“If I turn on the lights . . .”

“We’re so close, David.”

Just her voice there beside me is enough. The urge for this to be over, for these months of danger and pain and fear to finally end is incredible. In the dark I cannot see her, but I lean over and find her face with my hands and we kiss, once, quietly. I want her to be safe forever.

Then, without another word, I flick on the headlights, start the engine and drive.