The following piece is published as part of our TLM Young Writers series, a dedicated section of The London Magazine‘s website which showcases the work of exceptional young talent aged between 13-21, from the UK and beyond.
It’s not a crime to be curious.
That simple fact is what’s led him to end up stuffing his knapsack with an assortment of things that normally have no business being there. Normally. A scarf that just so happens to be ideal for somebody who’d rather their face went unseen. A chunk of nut and raisin-infused bread snuck borrowed from the loaf his mam keeps wrapped up in the kitchen (which he can never resist sampling at the best of times). And the battered old woodcutter’s axe he can barely raise any higher than his shoulder – just in case.
That bag has been packed for days now, wedged out of sight in a corner of his clothes chest. He hasn’t been able to bring himself to do anything more than that. Until now, that is.
His teeth clench at every tell-tale creak of the floorboards under his bare feet, even though he isn’t really doing anything wrong. He gives them a hard prod with his toes all the same. Traitors.
As he fervently hoped, the front room is clear of any mother-shaped obstacles when he slinks downstairs. Just the rough-hewn table and chairs sitting in their usual corner and the mismatched sideboards pushed up against their usual walls, although one of them now has what looks like fresh creamy milk waiting patiently atop it.
Right on cue, a distinctive voice swells from beneath the threadbare carpet.
‘Arlo, that milk was just delivered this morning! Don’t you go drinking it straight from the bottle!’
‘No, Mam,’ he half-mutters, setting down the glass bottle he definitely wasn’t just raising to his lips.
This is okay. Perfect, really. If she’s down in the cellar, that means she’s probably busy making preserves to sell at the market or something again. By the time she notices he’s neither in the house nor working in the garden, he’ll be well away. And then… then he’ll have some answers, whether she likes it or not. Satisfaction curls in his chest like a languid cat.
Arlo inches out of the door shoulder-first, lifting and lowering the latch as noiselessly as his fingers can manage – the same fingers that nearly drop the scarf twice when he knots the stained grey fabric over the lower half of his face, cursing the pit of his stomach for the uncomfortable feeling spreading through it like so much spilt mead. What does he even have to feel guilty about? It’s not a crime.
Enough of that. Enough of it all.
He darts one glance over his shoulder, back at the rusty rooftop and their patch of garden, a weather-beaten face spotted with a mishmash of flowery freckles (except for the bit with his mother’s favourite lilies arranged on it, obviously. Those she keeps spick and span and never lets him go anywhere near, though he has no idea what she thinks he’ll do to them). Then he starts to run. His legs set about their task in earnest, without taking directions from his mind. He already knows the kinds of places where he can find them… not that it’s any huge secret anyway. Or rather, it’s a secret to everybody; the sort little kids hear all about as soon as they can toddle a few steps. Then they get their ears bruised with dire warnings to stay well away from it. Stupid. As if that won’t just put ideas into their tiny heads.
He’s not a kid anyway, Arlo reminds himself, puffing his chest out a little despite how short his bursts of breath are growing. This is no daft childish game. It’s something important. Something that goes hand in hand with the way he’s been jolting awake lately. Gagging around a yell jammed in his throat; a weird sort of dread tying his insides into hard knots. Or opening his eyes to find a stupid wetness spilling down his cheeks…or, he stifles a groan at the memory, heat rushing to his face, soaking his bedsheets.
He doesn’t know if he’s having nightmares, hallucinations, terrors, whatever. How can he? They float away like soap bubbles on washing day every time he tries to latch onto them. But it feels familiar to him, in all the places where it shouldn’t. One morning, he even woke up with the ghost of a name on his tongue and of blood suffocating him with its metallic tang. That’s all they were, though. Ghosts. And they vanished just like that, leaving nothing behind but a dragging weight in his chest.
Arlo just doesn’t know. Yet he’s sure – he’s sure he remembers, no matter how dimly.
To make matters weirder, talking to his mam hasn’t been any use whatsoever. No sooner do the words leave his lips does she butt in to set him some chore or another, or else shifts the topic in a way that curls his hands into fists. The last time Arlo tried to ask her about it, she had her own grilling ready for him – ‘Who have you been talking to? Who’s put all of this in your head?’ – and something in her tone, something strange and strained, made him drop the subject like a hot coal.
He supposes some part of him wanted her to laugh at these dreams that he can’t even remember and at him forever confusing them with real memories. That’d be better than having this brush-off tossed his way instead. Anything’s better than that.
So, this is all her fault, if anything. All she has to do is be straight with him, just like she is with everything else…but no. Instead, he’s been left to flail in the dark and driven to a straggle of shacks, several miles apart from any other dwelling.
At least, any human dwellings.
Arlo’s foot chooses just the wrong moment to catch on a particularly mean-spirited tussock. He stumbles as gracefully as a sledgehammer in a knife fight, the scrubland sailing up to greet his face. It’s not until after he clambers back up (along with a muttered spate of the words his mam indulges in when she thinks he’s out of earshot) that he gets back to reflecting on the rumours that’ve flown thick for as long as he can remember.
The Hexes. The things that hushed voices repeatedly call witches, demigods, monsters, spirits, fae, devils and everything in between. And the only ones in this world who can shed any light on what’s happening to him.
As far as Arlo’s concerned, Hexes are the sort of stuff that everyone acts so certain about like they know everything that is to know. Yet when they’re asked if they’ve ever even seen one for themselves, their faces flap-like fish caught up in a net. And that’s the thing with all these rumours. His mam’s market customers insist they’ve spoken to others who’ve seen Hexes melding with slivers of moonlight and devouring the stars. Somebody has a relative whose neighbour knows someone who swears blind that the lot of them are descended from the legendary Ironflayer clan – that kind of thing.
None of them really know anything.
Before long, Arlo will.
* * * *
Their shadow’s just slightly out of sync. Maybe it’s the gloom playing tricks, or maybe all those tales have made Arlo ridiculously paranoid. But he could swear that the very silhouette of the Hex is something a little too slow, a little too disjointed. Something that breathes.
Arlo tries to keep his head fearlessly raised, his eyes darting from corner to corner as the Hex breathes life into a candle wick, birthing yet more shadows, and shadows of shadows, from everything it casts its azure-tinged flame upon. The grip on his bag tightens, all the same, clenching around the long bump of the axe’s handle.
He can’t make out their face. Not really. Every time he attempts to get a glimpse, it melts away somehow. In the end, he resigns himself to running his fingers in a weird erratic rhythm along the splintery surface of the table, not unlike his mam’s at home. He has to wrench his mind away from the thought of what her face would look like if she knew where he is right now.
Arlo doesn’t see the Hex placing the mixture down in front of him. One moment there’s nothing there but the elaborate symbols (probably occult-y hieroglyphs or something) carved into the tabletop; the next, kaleidoscopic light spills out over its surface from inside a vial. Specks of gold dance in its contents, rising and falling, swallowing the colours and spitting them back out.
His brow furrows, one hand coming up to rake through damp hair.
‘You want…me to drink that?’ The question rasps in his throat.
The shadow opens its eyes, two acid-green spots burning into Arlo’s face. But the Hex doesn’t so much as turn their head, let alone halt. ‘Not a crime, neophyte, I’m sure?’ they ask at length, words emerging as though they’ve drawn them out from some deep well. They echo off cold damp stone that isn’t there; they drip down his neck like icy, brackish water. ‘And neither are such answers as you seek. Drink.’
Arlo stares at the unknown mixture. Just like the Hex’s shadow, it stares back, pressing spectral hands against its crystal prison. Drink.
He has to. Doesn’t he have every right?
His fingers obviously agree. Despite the stupid tremor running through them, they greedily close around the vial and prise out the cork, letting loose vapours that ghost over his skin.
The brew blazes its way down his throat and sets his stomach alight. Cough after cough rattles deep in his chest. He isn’t sure whether he’s been forced to his knees or not. Those gold spots have returned to swarm his vision, scratching out everything before him.
Arlo’s head rolls from side to side, trying to find where the Hex has disappeared to, trying to get some sign that this is what’s meant to happen. All that comes out is a mangled noise (has his tongue always been this heavy?) before it snakes into his head and swallows him whole. And the floor beneath his feet – or is it the entire world? – caves like a house of cards…
and tips him down, down, down into a slough of phantoms lurking,
waiting to snare him in its murky waters. A quicksilver voice sings him to his fall.
‘Memories don’t sleep, neophyte. They only like to pretend that they do.’
* * * *
Cold. Cold biting at his skin like a million tiny pinpricks. Cold tendrils creeping around his heart, around the very flow of blood through his veins. And the kind of silence that comes when time itself is suspended.
Even so, the masses of limbs and soulless white eyes watch him.
He watches them right back, as empty of fear as they are of flesh and blood. How can they live here? What do they feed on?
Whatever your head offers us, is their answer, as they bare bloodied teeth in a gory grin.
As if in explanation, the golden scratches swimming at the edges of his vision fall away, only to be replaced with a face he feels like he knows. A face that cradles him in its familiarity yet crushes him beneath the expression etched deep in every line of it. He can’t place that expression. But the voice belonging to that face (didn’t that voice once call something to him about a milk bottle, a million years ago?) drips with it.
What’s going to happen to him?
Him. Him, him, him.
He stares at the place where that disembodied face hangs long after it’s flaked away like a butterfly drawn on a wall. Is he the reason for that shattered look in her eyes?
That’s when a twisted symphony – blurry and broken but somehow sharp enough to pierce him over and over again – awakens from the depths of some excruciating black hole spreading through his head.
Screams of a name. That name isn’t his own. It’s a name that once slept in a little bed next to his and proudly showed him the worms it had dug up with a stick behind the house. Once. It’s gone now. But also not gone at all.
It’s still there, out in the garden – only this time, it’s below the earth. He never saw that happen. A whisper in his heart knows it did, all the same, and knows exactly where (don’t ever touch the lily patch).
A wasted limb, ending in long yellow claws, stretching out from underneath his mattress…its grey splinter teeth, the smaller body leaping in front of him and trying to wrestle its grip from his ankle…the blood. So much blood splattered so far. He remembers wondering how such a small person could hold that much.
And everyone kept it hidden from him, she kept it hidden from him, his mother- no, their mother, theirs–
That clawed arm, those teeth-
It’s coming back.
It’s coming to finish what it couldn’t before.
His cry seems to come from across an ocean. The pain explodes, taking every long-stifled spectre with it as his fingernails dig into his scalp like they can tear it away.
Gone is any idea of who he is, where he came from, what he was searching for in the first place. All of it is crossed out, scrubbed from existence, until only a blank wall remains. With one thing painted on it in burning black letters.
* * * *
It’s not a crime either, to want to be sure. To have to be sure, to know. The second the rough wooden lid is prised open with numb fingers, something cold and black grips his heart anyway – and he wouldn’t care if it struck him down where he stands.
The lid slips, joining the shovel on the lilies beneath his feet. Its fall could almost be called soft if that wasn’t so wrong. But how could anything be more wrong than this?
He isn’t sure how long his gut chokes him, burning his throat, nostrils, eyes. When they finally give up, he drags a sleeve across his mouth. Huddles in the hole that seems to be opening into a bottomless chasm even as he clenches himself against its side, blurrily aware of the damp earth pressing into his forehead. Just like the nothingness seeping through his soul.
Little by little, one arm raises until barely two inches separates it from the arm in the box. One so alive. The other so grey, like the shadow they’ve become. And small. And folded with withered flowers over a sunken chest.
The gashes. So many. He wonders if it’ll do the same to him.
Those phantoms laugh. Play in his head.
Ari Raine is 21 years old, studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Staffordshire University.
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