September 30, 2019

WOE BETIDE by Paul Alex Gray

The wind poured in the open window
with a sound that seemed as if
it was a living thing...
Nicky Hay grabbed me after school on Halloween and told me he’d give me and me nan a Glaswegian kiss if we didn’t have his money tonight. He held me up by my shirtfronts, my buttons popping onto the concrete as his mates snickered around him.

“Comin’ round after tea, Stuart Marks,” he said. “Best have me two hundred quid, bawsack.”

“My Nan’ll stop you!” I cried foolishly, getting myself a punch in the guts for the cheek.

“That old bat! She’s half blind and half dead. Half brain-dead too! Tell her to get the money or else.”

It was almost dark by the time I got home, and Nan knew something was up right away.

“What’s happened with you?”

“Nothin’.”

“Don’t give me that,” she said squinting at my shirt. “What’s happened?”

I wanted to just leave it, get to my room and shut the door on everything, but it all came pouring out. I’d been a mess ever since my sister Ella went into hospital. She’d been going round with Nicky, even though he was a bastard, and she’d taken to using the smack he’d been selling. Last Friday she’d had too much and passed out in the Tesco. They took her in and said she’d be okay, but she’d been carrying Nicky’s gear, so the cops took that away.

“Nicky Hay done it,” I said, bawling as Nan took me in her arms.

She patted me on the back as she licked her lips and tutted under her breath. It had just been me and Nan and Ella for years, since Dad ran off and Mum died. She’d come down from the islands, said she’d care for us well, even though I’d never met her before and Ella had only seen her once as a wee thing. Nan was an odd one, barely five feet tall, with a big wart on the tip of her crooked nose. She was always going on about superstitious stuff, telling us how things were in the old days.

Apparently, she was a teacher once, but she didn’t work anymore. She looked after us though, but she’d had a hard time reigning in Ella once she went into high school.

“Come on love, let’s have tea.”

She fried up some fishfingers and sat to watch me eat. When the clock chimed four, she stood up and said she’d be back in a minute. I stood in the doorway and watched her walk down the stairs and across the Thornchapel Estate park, past the swings that had been broken years ago and taking a wide berth from the chairs where everyone shot up.

I went back inside and flicked on the telly to watch The Goodies, thinking it might make me laugh and take the worry away. It didn’t help, and I just sat there, watching but not really seeing, biting my nails till they were chewed right back and stung. Outside some kids were setting off crackers, screaming and shouting, running around the trees that swayed in the wind. A few droplets of rain, or maybe even sleet, tinkled on the glass. I was so caught up with watching that I didn’t hear Nan step in.

“Get away from there,” she snapped, and I jumped.

She placed her purse on the table and took off her coat, walking over to latch the window shut.

“Go put the kettle on,” she said.

I lit a match and held it to the gas cooker, placing the kettle on top. I sat on the chair, watching the flames, blue and bright and I tried to shake the vision of Ella, laying in the room of the hospital, all pale and looking like she was dead. A crinkling sound distracted me, and I watched as Nan opened the plastic wrap on a box of Penguin biscuits. I looked at her with surprise. We only had things like that for birthdays and Christmas. She ignored me, focused on laying the biscuits in a circle on one of her fancy plates on the table. Right beside it was an envelope, stuffed with something.

I looked from the envelope to Nan who stared back at me with a steely expression.

A loud knock at the door came and she straightened up, walking to it and swinging it open, letting a wash of cold air in. Only laughter came back, and I walked up beside her, peeking out to see some of the kids that lived down below running off.

“Just some kids tricking us,” I said.

Nan harrumphed and shut the door. I tried to distract myself, but my stomach was in knots and I kept going to the bathroom even though I had nothing left to pee. Then at last, there was another knock at the door.

“Evenin’ Ma’am,” said Nicky, standing there in a black leather jacket that he’d probably nicked from the high street shops. A couple of his lads was with him, I don’t know which ones exactly. While Nicky was always good at having a hard look on his face, these other two just looked shifty.

“Evening Nicholas,” said Nan. “Won’t you come in.”

“Aye, it’s cold outside, I think we just might.”

They brought the cold in with them and moved to the table. Nicky caught me staring at him and he gave a wink, then chuckled and whispered something to his mates. They laughed out loud as they crowded round the table, reaching down for the penguins.

“Ah, Nanny Marks. You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble.”

“Cup of tea?” She asked as the kettle whistled.

“Got anything harder?”

“No, sorry. Black?”

“Aye, go on then,” said Nicky, sitting at the table.

Biting into another biscuit, crumbs dripping down his mouth he looked for a moment like he might drop the swagger.

“How’s Ella?” he asked.

Nan returned with several cups of tea on a tray, motioning for me to come over and get mine.

“She’s doing all right,” said Nan.

“Really sad to hear about what happened,” said Nicky. “She’ll have to watch herself. Using too much of that stuff can make you sick.”

Nan simply sipped at her tea.

“I take it that’s for me then?” asked Nicky.

“Aye. It’s yours.”

Nicky reached for the envelope, but Nan placed her hand on his, gripping his large fingers tight with her small ones.

“She’ll no be seeing you again, now. You hear?”

Nicky snatched his hand back and adjusted his collar, giving his mates a cold look.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” he said, pulling a cigarette out of his pocket. “That young lass sort of had a thing for me. Not sure she’ll be able to stay away for long.”

He lit the cigarette and took a drag, blowing a cloud of smoke across the table at Nan.

“Oh, this all right then?” he sneered.

Nan sat up straight and gazed at me.

“Stuart. Could you open the window please? Bit warm now.”

The wind was howling outside, the panes of glass shaking back and forth, but I walked to them and opened it up. The sky was lit up by the city, the clouds wearing a sickly orange glow. Gusts of wind lashed at me, sending the curtains flying in. Nicky and the boys stood up, taking the last of the biscuits. He passed the envelope to one of the others who tore it open and started counting the banknotes inside, before nodding at Nicky and placing them on the table.

“I’m fine for your little lass to see me,” he said, flicking the cigarette out the window. “But she’s got to be more careful. Don’t let her make a mistake like that again.”

“Oh, I don’t think she’ll be worrying you any longer,” said Nan as she came and stood behind me.

Nicky stared at her a moment, then laughed and shook his head and picked up the bank notes.

“Right lads, time to party.”

The wind poured in with a gust so strong that it knocked one of the teacups off the table and sent papers flying. The sound was a shrieking howl, so loud and deep that it seemed as if it was a living thing, growling its way through the alleys and walkways of Thornhill Estate.

“Bloody hell, might want to shut that,” said Nicky, walking to the window and reaching to close it.

“Woe betide he who harms my kin.”

Granny’s voice echoed heavy, as if it might crush the sound of the wind.

Then the light shifted, or at least it seemed like it. It was as if the darkness of the night somehow reached into the apartment, a cold grey hand halfway between smoke and dust. Another came, then another, swirling around Nicky and the other lads as an awful crying noise shuddered and shook.

“Look away, lad,” I heard Nan whisper above the sound and she shifted my body, facing the television. The screen was a blur of static and white noise, but in its reflection I could still see. Something… things were grabbing Nicky and his mates, lifting them off the floor, tendrils snaking around their bodies as they screamed and hollered. Plates crashed the floor and bank notes and paper zipped around.

“What are they?” I cried, my hands trembling.

“Sluagh, laddie. They’re not here for you, but don’t look at ‘em.”

I wanted to turn but she wouldn’t let me. In the reflection of the telly I saw the lads tossed up and about, arms and legs flailing as if they were rag dolls. All I could hear was the terrible shrieking, and of something much darker and more ancient, a rending of noise that snaked its way through my ears and stabbed into my chest.

Then suddenly it was gone, and I turned around, moving to the window. In the night sky I saw a shifting mass of black and grey, darker than the clouds. It looked like bats, or great black birds, flying up and above the apartment, soaring east and away.

Nan shut the window and locked the latch, pulling the curtains shut. She picked up a teacup and reached down for one of the banknotes.

“Be a good lad and gather up all that money for me,” she said, moving to the kitchen and filling the kettle once more.

“What were those, Nan?”

“Never you mind, lad. You let it go now, just let it slip away.”

I was numb, my eyes wide, but I picked up the notes, dropping them into the envelope and placing it on the table. I was shaking, not just from the cold.

“Turn the radiator up a little,” said Nan, bringing a tray to the table in front of the telly.

She flicked it on, going through the channels to the BBC where the news was about to start.

“Come sit with me, lad,” she said. “Got one more pack of penguins here.”

She opened the wrapper and beckoned me forwards. My shakes were slowing down, and the room was warming up nicely. Nan poured a cup of tea and patted the couch, so I sat down beside her, letting the vision of what happened flow and fly out of my thoughts as I picked a penguin up and took a bite.
 
Paul Alex Gray writes linear and interactive fiction starring sentient black holes, wayward sea monsters, curious AIs and more. His work has been published in Nature Futures, Andromeda Spaceways, PodCastle and others. Paul grew up by the beaches of Australia, then traveled the world and now lives in Canada with his family. On his adventures, Paul has been a startup founder, game designer and mentor to technology entrepreneurs. Chat with him on Twitter @paulalexgray or visit www.paulalexgray.com 

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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