My collection of short stories, The Geometry of Hell, is still available to buy for your Kindle on Amazon US and Amazon UK.
To encourage you to snap it up, here is the second story from the collection, a favourite of mine. If you like it, please buy a copy of the book. It costs less than a decent cup of coffee and it’ll keep you up at night just as effectively. Promise.
Poke it with a Stick
It was Jason who couldn’t resist poking it. Inevitably, Jason.
He and Jess had wasted away the long autumn afternoon playing in the woods. ‘The Woods’ was a rather generous description for the patch of dying vegetation that bordered the estate and provided a slender demarcation from the four lane motorway roaring past on the other side. But the residents had always referred to it as ‘the woods’, and so ‘the woods’ it had always been. For Jason and Jess it had long been their refuge, somewhere they could hide away from the rest of their lives and play the games that their dwindling childhood still allowed them. The highlight of their last summer had come when they had built themselves a den, really nothing more than a tent erected from dead branches and an old bed sheet they’d found soiled and abandoned, but for a few days it was something special, something of their very own. Then they’d turned up one morning and found that the West Tower Massive had commandeered it as a base house and were busy getting amped up under the sagging cotton roof. When the boys had arrived, the ‘fuck-you’ glares from the new residents had told them all they needed to know. The next day, the den had simply been gone. On the estate you couldn’t dwell on such things. You just kept your head down and carried on. Churchill would have been proud.
Jason had called on Jess early that morning. Jason had cadged some cash from his mum’s purse and spent it on a massive bottle of low cost, low quality cider. Jess would have preferred it if he’d brought crisps. They were sitting in the hollow, hiding behind shrubbery, the fat cider bottle bubbling on the ground between them like an unexploded bomb. They had been happily occupied for a time flicking used condoms at anyone unfortunate enough to be using the underpass. They had finally scampered back into the heart of the interior after a particularly juicy specimen had hit a teenage girl pushing her bawling offspring right in the middle of her scowling face. Now, they were both exhausted and nursing painful stitches from running while consumed with laughter. Jason swigged the cheap alcohol and gave a sigh of pleasure, wiping the residue from his lips with the back of a grubby hand. Jess sipped less eagerly. To him it tasted of nothing but carbonated copper and it made his face glow like sunburn and his head swim.
‘Taste’s good, yeah?’ Jason leered.
Jess agreed. He always agreed with Jason. He’d learnt a long time ago that everyone tended to be happier that way.
And for a while, they were content.
It was never quiet in the woods; the motorway provided a constant symphony of vehicular sound. But there was something else today, another sound, closer, that slowly crept up on the boys until it had their full attention.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Jason asked, wrinkling his nose. It was a steady humming, the sort of sound that one of the fluorescent lights that lined the long concrete corridors of the estate would make just before it went out. Once you heard the sound, it was impossible to ignore it again.
‘It’s coming from over there,’ Jess nodded his head toward the electrical junction box that stood like a solitary tombstone in the middle of the hollow. Its surface was covered completely by graffiti from a dozen different hands, tag upon tag, each obscuring the one beneath until there was nothing left but colourful chaos. It was perhaps the most accidentally beautiful thing on the estate, but Jason and Jess had always been blind to its appeal. It didn’t do anything, and you could never get the door open no matter how hard you tried. And they really had tried.
They sauntered over to the rainbow coloured box, no reason to be cautious just yet. The noise got louder, became more clearly an angry, hollow buzz. As they got closer, they could see what appeared to be making it.
‘Is it a wasp’s nest?’ Jess asked, puzzled. It didn’t look like a wasp’s nest. He’d seen one once. It had been hanging in the corner of their attic, back in the house they’d lived in when they were still a family. Jess’s dad had called to him, helped him up the ladder to the attic and shone his torch into the gloomy rafters so he could see it. It had terrified Jess, something his dad had been only too keen to poke fun at. He’d pushed Jess forward into the attic, even though he screamed and thrashed to get away, drowning in the sound of those furious insects. His dad had laughed and laughed at him, then slapped him round the face when they got back down the ladder for being such a sissy. Jess’s face had turned a bright, vivid pink and stung for the rest of the day. That was one of the happier memories he had of his father.
That horror in the attic had given of a noise like this thing, but that nest had looked as if it were made of cardboard or paper. This thing, this thing was moist, fleshy. Bloated, like something that had been left for a month too long in the refrigerator.
‘Fuck knows what it is. Could be a wasp’s nest I suppose.’ As if Jason would know either way. But there was a palpable danger to it, a simmering threat that was difficult to ignore. It hung from long sticky stands, a network of tendrils like the web of an oily spider. The sac of the nest was the size and shape of an egg, grey and slick like a ball of snot, pulsing slightly with the rhythm of whatever moved inside it. The hum, the continuous buzzing hum that it made crawled into your ears and made camp behind your eyes. It was almost hypnotic, darkly soothing, like a familiar nursery rhyme screeched by a harpy.
Jason still had the stick he had been using to toss soiled condoms. Of course, he had to poke the nest. As soon as the two boys had seen it hanging on the wall there was never going to be any other conclusion.
Jess stood behind him, sheltering in his shadow, not so keen on the idea. Jason was tentative at first, probing with the stick. He poked it at the ‘shell’ of the nest. The surface was pliant, giving under the pressure. The buzzing got louder, more agitated.
‘Leave it now, Jase,’ Jess hissed.
‘Hang on, I just want to-‘
Jess never found out what. Jason pushed the stick forward, too hard. The sac popped like an old deflated balloon, a burst of rancid air farting from it.
‘Oh, that stinks,’ Jason’s face twisted, Jess covered his nose and mouth with a hand. ‘What’s inside it?’
Jason moved toward it, peering closer despite the stench. The nest had sagged, the membrane of its sac was thin and the skin flapped loosely. There was something inside, something that wasn’t a wasp. It had too many legs, legs that thrashed and writhed. Jason moved in for a better look.
‘What is it?’ Jess asked.
‘I dunno, I can’t really-‘
Then it spat at him. Without warning, a glob of something green and putrid hit him full in the face. Jason squealed and staggered back, rubbing at it with both hands. Whatever it was sitting inside the nest gave a final, contented sigh and withered away. Its purpose was accomplished.
Jess was at Jason’s side, uncomfortable with the sound that his friend had made, the fear and the disgust that had betrayed his normally tough exterior. ‘You alright?’ he asked, tentatively.
‘Course I’m fucking alright,’ Jason snapped, but his voice didn’t convince. ‘This is disgusting; I got it in my fucking mouth and everything.’ He spat on the floor, and retched. Jess carefully craned his neck to look into the nest from a safe distance, but there was little left to study. It had withered away to nothing; the sticky tendrils now falling from the corners of the wall and the ceiling, any secrets that the disgusting thing might have yielded were now just rotting away into mulch.
Jason swigged from the cider again, trying to cleanse the taste from his mouth. He kept drinking until there was nothing left in the bottle but dregs.
‘You sure you’re alright?’ Jess asked.
Jason glared at him, almost angry. ‘Let’s get out of here, this shit fucking stinks, I need to change my clothes.’
He marched up the bank of the hollow, still wiping at his face. Jess gave one last look at the thing that had spat at his friend. It was now little more than a congealing puddle at the base of the multi coloured box. He shivered but wasn’t sure why.
They parted in the stairwell of the Westside Tower. Jason lived on the fourth floor, Jess the seventh. The distance mattered when you were twelve.
‘You going to come round later, after me mum’s gone to work, yeah?’
Jess nodded. Jason had an Xbox and the place to himself most evenings. This was heaven to a twelve year old. Invitations to spend the evening there were rarely refused.
‘Yeah, sure. You sure you’re okay, Jase? You don’t look well.’
His skin had turned very pale, but there was a livid red rash growing across his jaw where the nest-thing had spat at him. His eyes were bloodshot, watery and he was blinking constantly. And he smelled, at first it had just been the residue of the stuff he’d gotten over him, but in the short time it had taken them to get back home the smell had gotten really bad, and it was clearly coming from Jason himself. He was humming with it. And he was sweating, it was running down his face and it wasn’t warm today, they hadn’t seen sunshine for a week at least. Jess had a sense that it was the sweat that smelt so bad, that whatever BO his mate was producing it had suddenly moved beyond the strength of any body spray to combat.
‘What are you, my fucking doctor? I’m fine, piss off, I’ll see you later.’
And Jess did as he was told.
Jess’s mother didn’t work, but she was as absent as Jason’s most evenings. There was a new boyfriend, someone she hadn’t introduced Jess to, someone she hadn’t even told of the existence of her twelve year old son. There were other boyfriends as well, some he knew and often saw around the estate. He tried not to think about it too much, tried not to listen when other people used words to describe her that he pretended not to understand. She wasn’t a bad mum; she just did what was necessary to keep their heads above water. Jess knew this because she told him so.
She had left him a note informing him that there was some food in the cupboard, but as far as he could tell this consisted only of biscuits and honey nut cornflakes. He ate the cornflakes straight from the box in hungry handfuls and watched TV until it was time to go down to Jason’s.
He knocked on the door. No doorbell, not at Jason’s house. There was no answer, and Jess peered through the cracked glass that made up the top half of the door, glass barely held in place by peeling black masking tape. There were no lights on inside. Jess tried the door, tentatively, and it opened inward without any protest. The flat was small, no smaller than the one Jess shared with his mum, but there were less personal touches, no pictures on the walls, no ornaments, no signs that its current occupants had done anything to make this collection of rooms into a home. It made it look barren, but smaller somehow. It always felt stifling when you came into this flat, as if you were swallowed up as soon as soon as you stepped over the threshold. It normally stunk as well, the smell of home cooking gone wrong, the residue of a hundred burnt offerings scraped onto a plate and then, in due course, tipped uneaten into a waste bin. It stunk today as well, but a different stench, a far worse one. The stench that Jason had carried home with him from the woods. It made Jess’s nose wrinkle as he stepped inside, and he put the back of his hand to his nose to block it out. It was sweet, cloying, but somehow rancid, like dog shit dipped in syrup.
‘Jason?’ Jess called, quietly. His friend didn’t answer. But at the back of his consciousness, at the very edge of his senses, Jess could hear the same buzzing, humming sound that had come from the nest.
‘Jason?’ he said again, but this time it was little more than a whisper. Every instinct in him screamed to him to turn and run, but this was familiar terrain, he knew this flat well, he could navigate his way through it with his eyes shut. The familiarity soothed his nerves, told him that nothing could possibly be that bad, not here in a place he knew well enough that he could have drawn a map of the stains marking each wall.
Jess opened the door to the kitchen. The smell instantly got much worse, and he gagged, tasted the burning flavour of his own vomit trying to escape. The buzzing was worse as well, as if he’d taken the lid off a bottle of bees. There were no lights on here either, but the curtains weren’t drawn so the glow of the street lights and the East Tower opposite crept in through the windows and gave the room a sepia glow. It was enough light to see the shape of the furniture, to form shadows on the bare walls. But not all the shadows made sense to Jess, and as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he understood why.
Jason’s mum hadn’t left for work that evening. She was on the floor, one leg bent and twisted beneath the other, her hands sprawled out to either side, reaching for something they never found. There was steam rising from her face, like warm breath on a cold morning. But Jason’s mother had no mouth left to breathe with. There was nothing but a burning void between her eyes and her throat, a scorched and blistered travesty of what she had been, her blood leaking onto the floor along with bone and muscle and skin that had been melted from her face, congealing around her like candle wax.
Jason was squatting over her, his head bent down. It took Jess long, horrible moments to even begin to process what his friend was doing, what he had become. He was drinking, nosily slurping the residue of his mother through a straw. But it wasn’t a straw, Jess began to see that. It was a part of Jason, a tube that was protruding from the centre of his face, a long, awkward thing that he was using to suck up the soup he had created. He was buzzing, it was Jason that was making that noise. It sounded like the Cyberman helmet Jess had gotten a couple of Christmases back, that made your voice sound all funny when you put it on. Only Jason wasn’t wearing a mask.
Jason heard him. His head shot up as if his hair had been pulled. He looked at his friend with a face that didn’t belong to him, didn’t belong to anyone human. He looked at Jess with more eyes than belonged on that head, and the gaping maw that had opened up and torn through what used to be his mouth pulsated around the hungry proboscis. He looked and, somewhere beneath the horror, he smiled.
‘Tastez good, Jezz. Tastez gooooood,’ he buzzed with a voice that made Jess’s nerves tingle.
Then something spat out from the proboscis and flew into Jess’s face. He screamed, but it didn’t do any good, his lips were already starting to melt away. By the time his jaw bone started to sizzle, Jason was pushing him down onto the carpet. And when the pain finally arrived, and he found there was nothing left that he could scream with, his friend had already begun to drink him.
‘Tastz good,’ he buzzed again as he slurped up. But Jess couldn’t hear him.