Friday, 11 July 2014

You were good to Me, Partner

This came second in a competition last year. Was written in 2 hours under test conditions in grade 9.

I run. Not in fear or longing – I run for joy. I run through the sea of green grass whispering and swaying as I brush past effortlessly. Suddenly, I feel the coolness of the meadow change and the sun is now beating hard on my back, sand dancing around my ankles as I bound along the beach. I wade into the waters and, stupidly, dive for the breakers. A loud sound deafens me and all turns black as a wave comes crashing down in a fury of deep blue. For a moment I am trapped in my own fear, but soon I resurface in the world of reality in Afghanistan, bereft of such simple pleasures as a luscious meadow, or such a nice beach. It’s a world of war.
Panting on my makeshift day-bed, I scan the room (a large, dirt-brown tent) for my partner. I spot him already suited up and heading towards me. He helps me into my vest and we pull the canvas door aside, emerging into the full wrath of the midday sun. We set out together, me eager and racing ahead, my partner armed and cautious. Military troops direct us to an open plain where we have recently been operating to clear mines. I am relatively confident in this situation; a lifetime of training in mine-detecting has prepared me.
The yellow-brown dirt is bare and untouched by human feet save where a few mines had been unearthed on previous days. A sniff of the air and I know what has happened – it’s already occurred twice in one month. My partner and I make careful tracks across the sandy ground; me leading and him trailing behind, putting his life in my hands. We reach a place where particles of dirt are only just settling around a deep cater. An elderly man is gasping out his last breaths, his legs blown to smithereens. Not too far away stands a frightened child, clawing at her face, shoving fists in her mouth, tears making tracks down her plump, soft cheeks. She wails and screams as she stares at the half-person lying in the sand. My partner gently picks up the dying man’s broken body and shows the girl how to hold onto my vest-belt as we guide them back through the mine-riddled field to solemn troops waiting to whisk them away and lead us back into the safety of the tent.
The remainder of the day is filled with mine-detecting and clearing as we work to make safe the outskirts of this poverty-stricken village. I overhear men saying that it is estimated a few hundred lie in the seemingly endless expanse of yellow-brown dirt. But that is just a rumour.
Tonight we are congratulated on our rescue but the atmosphere holds a certain air of mourning because the old man has passed away.  Still, my heart is filled with contentment after a long and tiring day of work. And to my most profound thanks, I am honoured with a slab of meat from my partners’ plate – a rarity to someone of my status whose diet usually consists of canned food.
After all but a few lonely troops have sought their hammocks, my partner and I find a quiet spot and we sit and he talks. He talks about his weakest moments, about his most profound joys. He explains his worries, then his plans for the future, and all the while, I listen. And I listen like a true friend; like what he has been to me. No matter if his mates want me out of the tent because of my low status, he lets me in. instead of ignoring me mindlessly, he includes me. He has been kind, loving, and the best friend anyone could ever ask for. And thus we have spent our lives in one another’s company in willing servitude to the endangered lives of others.
When finally his trails of words dwindle and die in his mouth, he chooses to sit and lie beside my mat on the floor and we sleep in the safety and comfort of each other’s warm and friendly presence.
*          *          *
We wake bright and early to face the day. Eyes groggy and mouth contaminated with the vile taste of morning-breath, we stumble around in the early light. After a bland and quiet breakfast with the rest of our team, we ready our gear and begin the day’s work. Dawn is greying the sky and the sun soon follows to banish the black silhouettes of the night and, like reviving cold hands by a fire, replace them with the warm details and colours of the day-time world. As the morning progresses, the town awakens and becomes alive with the stench of petrol, raw meat and careless filth.
A group of children begin to play a game with a ball of dry twigs not too far from our site, and some part of me longs to run and jump and play too. It is only about ten minutes later before we hear the screaming. I speedily turn and am confronted with a child standing in the un-excavated area of our site. The ball is just out of her reach but she won’t move to get it. My partner is thinking ahead of me and he carefully makes his way towards her. Once he has reached her location, he calls for my assistance. I instantly realise that the girl is standing on a mine and must have heard the click of the metal plates and froze. Thank goodness.
My mind is racing as I fly to his aid, but little do I realise my tracks parting from his imprints left in the dirt. And so I am almost unaware of it when I feel the unfamiliar metallic “click,” thrumming and echoing though the earth and vibrating up to my feet. It is only curiosity that makes me halt where I stand. Nonetheless, I am able to recognise my situation in a matter of seconds. I look at my partner in fear, but he cannot see it in my eyes. I try calling him over, but cannot hear me. I must do this alone. With no rocks, nothing to shift the weight onto the mine, I decide to slowly crawl on my belly, millimetre by millimetre. I am a light, skinny little fellow. Perhaps if I inch my body off it, I can still get away and it might detect my presence. Might. Foolish hope.
I am almost all clear of it when it springs up abruptly, the “clang” of the mechanism filling my ears and welling up in my soul – cold, deadly, and alone. I am engulfed by first orange, then red, then black. My feeble, small body is thrown forward in its almighty power – a toy discarded by a spoilt toddler. I hit the earth barely conscious, pain spreading to every peaceful place in my body. My vision is wavering and my ears are overwhelmed with a dull ringing noise. I see the blurred shapes of people rushing around me. Then I only see colours. The edges of my sight become a cloudy black, like all things good have fled from the world. Then I see my partner, and all my hearing, vision and happiness rush back. But he is not happy to see me. His eyes hold great sadness. Tears spill down his face and he rocks me in his arms.
“It’s going to be alright,” he says. “It’s going to be alright.”
And all I want to say is I know, I know, because as long as I’m with my partner, everything will be alright. But I can’t, because I’m just an ordinary Army Dog doing his job.
You were good to me partner, and I will miss you.

The Creature and The Boy

The girl skipped seemingly merrily along the cobblestone road, humming a lullaby; two long, blood-red plaits swinging from side to side behind her. Her little leather slippers had a thin metal heel that clicked and clacked as she made her way through the foggy, early-morning light. She clasped her hands together behind her back, shaking only a little.
The night, which had once seemed so frightening, was now deemed a blessing. When it was dark, you could pretend - even forget. That was good. If you thought happy things, they couldn't hurt you. And so the little girl skipped and sung and thought happy things, keeping her eyes closed save for momentary blinks, just to make sure she was going the right way.
She had walked these streets her whole life - only nine short years. She knew the way to the tavern. It was still hard to look at the bodies and maintain her endless lullaby to keep the scary thoughts away. People she knew - people she loved - fenced all the roads in town with their bodies on pikes, bloody and stiff, their faces twisted in agony - skewered to the ground because they let their imagination get the better of them. One messenger alone had managed to mount a horse and ride off to carry tidings to the next town. Survivors could only pray that he made it. But it seemed a slim hope.
The creatures took the most joy out of killing children for they had the wildest and most vivid imaginations. But this one young girl was strong. Even as she saw others fall pray to their nightmares, she would hum her lullaby and close her eyes - denying it all. A child's imagination can think the most terrifying things yet can also remain calm through chaos. Thus the game of chasing the children was ever the more exciting. And so as the child took in her surroundings through a quick peek, she saw the bodies, felt the light fingers grab and pull at her, looked at the monsters faces and felt their breath on her cheek, but never meeting their eyes. That was when they got you. But she kept skipping and humming and only acknowledged their presence with a sharp intake of breath but nothing more. If you kept your eyes open then you risk succumbing to your own fears. So she closed her eyes and continued her long stroll to the tavern.
Something tripped her. Her right foot got caught momentarily, flipping off her slipper. Her eyes opened wide and her hands came out to catch her fall. Her lullaby ceased. She landed on her hands and knees, scraping over old scabs. She dreaded the process of getting to her feet because she couldn't do it with her eyes closed. They felt her hint of fear, she could tell. And in realising it, she herself acknowledged her fear. This was bad. Ghostly black fingers walked up her spine to her hairline. She kept still, frozen in fear. A bead of sweat formed on her brow and her head began to throb. The creature waited patiently for her to dream up something nasty, some horrific death for herself.
She suddenly broke the spell of terror and flew to her feet. Her breathing increased. The creature came right up to her face, the smell of death on its tongue. She closed her eyes quickly. More fingers pulled at her. Many, many more. They pinched and pulled, taunting and hungry for the blood beneath her skin. And the little girl was helpless to deny them her fear. And as they pulled harder, her shuddering breath grew sharper and shorter, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. And just when she was about to whimper, about to open the floodgates of her nightmares, a single, shrill note poured forth - amour against the horrors of the world. And the lullaby continued.
The fingers drew back in disappointment but the creatures trailed her still. She wiped her eyes and continued her stroll to the tavern.
Her stomach rumbled. The tavern was the safest place with food. Not far now. In fact, only at the next intersection. That was just as well. And so the long minutes stretched as the little girl made her way to the tavern door until she was standing in front of it. She opened her eyes and sighed. It was over. Here, she could eat and sleep and shut out the outside world. Besides, rumour had it that five people had survived in this tavern. They were almost accused of witchcraft a few years before but it was decided to drop charges for various reasons that have been lost to us through the course of history. When her family had tried to run to this place last night, she had heard the screams and felt the blood spatter but had refused to stop singing, refused to stray from her path. And when, in the morning, she found she now travelled alone, she once again denied the truth and simply kept walking, never missing a note, never slowing her pace.
And now she was here, at the refuge, where she would be safe and among other survivors. She could get through this, she told herself. And so she lifted a small, shaky hand to the doorknob, turned it and swung it open.
And her scream filled the tavern, and echoed off the walls, seeping out into the early day. A thousand evil nightmares were released to the demon-creature that lurked behind that creaking old tavern door. Small red eyes burrowed into her soul and retrieved them, baring its fearsome sharp teeth to keep her petrified in terror. No lullaby could save her now.
And so once it was finished, and her little body lay limp and still warm in the creatures arms, she too was skewered to the roadside - a declaration of power and ruthlessness, instilling fear in the surviving souls, making them easier to kill.
And so it was a long and tiring battle when aid from the next town finally came - a battle in which the human race lost. But more and more brave soldiers rode in, swords in hand, believing they could defeat the monsters. But each fell pray to that greedy, blood red gaze. Hearty, fearless men were diminished to cowards before that stare. And so it was a full year before they were certain each creature was killed. Some say the smart warriors simply blindfolded themselves and charged through the town swinging their blades wildly. Others speak of these people as white-witches, erasing the dark, evil creatures from this world with their good magic. There are a thousand different tales telling the story of how they defeated those monstrous creatures. Some were wild superstitions, some were sensible possibilities. But nobody really knows. Now, off to bed. You've had your fix of scary stories."
Geoff sat up in his bed and threw the covers back. He was far from tired.
"Did they get them all?" he asked eagerly.
His grandfather sighed. "I believe so. There was no way to really be sure. You see, when the creatures were killed, they vanished to ash. The warriors did not know how many they killed. They were rather small things, when they folded themselves up. Their arms were stick-thin, black rags hanging from their coat hanger shoulders, their robes flowing and constantly moving, even if there was no breeze. And they didn't have feet either, or none that anyone could see - they seemed to hover just above the ground. Their teeth were easily 20cm long - thin and useless, but a good tool to scare. They were rather feeble and pathetic things, but they had everyone so suppressed in fear, that no one dared to stand against them. After all, the inhabitants of that town were only simple farmers. Or so the tale was told."
"So its true? The story is real?" the boy enquired.
"I believe it," replied the grandfather.
"So how do they know they really killed them all?"
"No more questions! Off to sleep. Come on now." The old man began to tuck the sheets around the boy again, but Geoff just threw them back off, defiance shining on his eyes.
"You're hiding something," he accused stubbornly. "And I won't sleep until you tell me what is is."
"You won't sleep even if I tell you what it is."
"Try me," the young boy prompted. There was a moment of annoyance.
"Fine," the grandfather reluctantly declared. "There has been a few instances where murders have been undeniably odd. I used to be a police officer, as you know, and sometimes we would listen in to the detectives questioning and interrogation. Sometimes close family members would say that the victim had always feared to die that way. I'm not the only on with such suspicions. The story has become so widely known that the "survivor" has been granted a nickname. Nick they call him... I don't know. Maybe it means nothing. But I have a strong suspicion that someone is still out there devouring souls."
At this point Geoff was staring wide-eyed, mouth hanging ajar. His grandpa nudged him with his elbow.
"Good luck sleeping, boy," he chuckled to himself.
"I'll sleep like a baby!" Geoff retaliated as he snapped out of his daze.
"Oh whatever." His grandfather gave him a peck on the forehead. "Goodnight Geoff."
"Goodnight Grandpa," Geoff replied, sinking deep under the covers in relaxation. Grandpa tousled his hair and then left his bedside, closing the door behind him. Geoff closed his eyes tight but could not erase the mental images of the creature Grandpa had described. He new it was not real but some traitorous part of him kept him awake and fearful. He was soon sweating under the covers and so he pulled them aside just enough to stick his legs out. He kept his eyes closed all the while. There was a tickle at his feet, a trick of the wind. Of course we know otherwise. It wouldn't be a good story of we didn't mention the Creature just one more time. So the boy squinted his eyes and wrinkled his nose and tried to pull his feet under the sheets again, but of course, a frail, bony long hand tightens around them. The boy’s eyes opened wide to a sea of red. The Creature's face was right up against his, breathing down his neck. The beast shivered with pleasure as he waited, with anticipation, for the child to divulge his secret fears. The boys' muscles tightened and terror was written plain on his face.
And the creature waited.
The thing, Nick, shifted a hand to the boy’s throat, attempting to speed the process but to no avail. After a moment, the boy burst into laughter. Nick's eyes glowed with fury, and his weak hands closed around the boy’s throat. They had little effect but the boy’s breath quickened as there was less of an opening for air. He wheezed out one more giggle, before attempting to speak. Even when he did, it was taxing. His voice came out as a whisper; croaky and soft.
"You and I are not so different, my friend," he squeaked. "We are both weak, but we have such potential..."
The Creature snorted and moved away from the boy. He was giving him nothing to feed on, useless human.
"Wait!" Geoff cried anxiously. "Don't leave me here! I want to kill, like you do!"
Nick turned around slowly. He had encountered many human's emotions in the past, but he had never felt anything like this. The human child was radiating longing - a longing to be him, Nick – and thought he saw something in the boy’s black eyes akin to… adoration? Could it be? Nick felt a connection to the boy that he had never had with any other human. He could not kill this human child, yet he could not walk away. Living almost a century on this planet, the Creature had learned a few simple words and how to make the sounds that said them. The boy looked up into those burning, swirling, fire-filled eyes, and silently pleaded. The eyes that looked at the beast were not innocent like a child's eyes should be, but black like clotted blood. The child had killed before, and Nick thought he felt a smear of red on his human soul.
In a deep, unearthly tone, Nick spoke.
The word resounded off the walls as if they were in a metal box, and left a faint ringing in the ears, like the sound of fingernails grating on a blackboard. Geoff slipped out of his bed and walked over to the tall, slim figure - unafraid. He took nothing with him, not even shoes. The boy wore only his blue striped pyjama bottoms. Nick extended his hand, illuminated in the freakish blue light that seeped through the window. Without a backward glance, with no hesitation, the boy looked up to Nick and placed his soft little hand in his, and the instant the two touched flesh, they were gone with a thin wisp of black smoke. The Creature and the Boy vanished into the night without so much as a sound. Fear will draw them to you, no matter how far away you may be. Never think you are safe, for they can appear at your location at any given time. You won't even have time to scream, nor draw another breath. No time for last words; no time for regrets. Guard your children and educate them well, for the Creature and the Boy are coming,

 And they’re raising all hell.