"Jesus!" the taxi driver said. And then: "Did you just see that?"
The woman in the back lied. "See what?"
She felt him looking at her in the mirror, his gaze moving from her face to her cleavage and then the point where her legs crossed.
"There was some kind of animal, I think. Stapled to a tree back there like a post it note, or something."
"Yeah?" she said. "I guess people in the country don't have much else to do with themselves."
The man snorted to himself and went back to listening to the radio and concentrating on the white lines in the road.
"Did you know that some animals -- like frogs -- can reproduce asexually?"
"Really?" Lydia said, trying to sound interested. "Fascinating..."
"That means that if there are no women frogs left in a pond the males can grow ovaries and shag themselves. No wives, no girlfriends...lucky bastards."
The animal had been a fox. The car's headlights had illuminated it quite clearly. The white, staring eyes. The iron bar shoved through it's chest, pinning it to the tree. The maggots in its fur. Lydia had seen it, all right.
Three hours ago she'd gone to a bank, taken out the three thousand pounds she'd saved over the last five years, gotten into a taxi and said: "Take me to Freetown, it's on the Welsh borders."
Half an hour before that she'd gotten a call from her mother's neighbour.
She'd been sitting in her tiny cubicle -- it was decorated with funny pictures of cats she'd printed off the internet -- and pretending to work while playing Galaga on her desktop when the phone had rung. She picked up the receiver and a woman said:
"Hi, is that Mrs Duchamp?"
"This is the switchboard. Got a lady on the other end says she needs to speak to you about a family emergency. Okay if I put her through?"
"Uh, yeah. Go ahead."
The line had clicked several times and then a woman spoke.
"Hi...is that Lydia?" the woman had said. "I don't know if you remember me...I own a farm five miles down the road from your mother's house."
Lydia was silent for a moment.
"I'm here," Lydia had said. "I remember you. It's Mrs Price, right?"
"That's right," the woman said. "I'm calling about your mother."
Lydia had no answer to that. She looked around the office -- noting that her boss was glaring at her from across the room. She saw him pick up a telephone extension and key in several buttons and instantly knew he'd be listening in.
"They were saying down the pub," the woman, Mrs Price, had continued, "that nobody's told you yet. Well I didn't think it was right coming from some lawyer so I thought I'd tell you myself."
Lydia said nothing. She'd waited for this moment to come. Wondered if there'd be tears. If she'd wail. Instead, she coughed.
The woman had continued: "Your mother died yesterday..."
"I see," Lydia had said, her voice even. She may as well have been responding to an observation about the weather. "Is it still alive?"
Lydia thought she'd heard the woman sigh then. A sign of relief? Had Mrs Price agonised over how to bring up this subject for hours before she'd called?
"I can't say I know what you're talking about." The phone shuffled on the other end of the phone as if Mrs Price's hands were shaking. "But...I let the dog out last night and...he never came back this morning."
Lydia didn't hear the rest. She'd left the cubicle in her office, giving Steve the finger as she went, gone straight to the bank and withdrawn her savings before jumping into a taxi where a portly, balding middle-aged man with milk-bottle-thick glasses had said:
"The Welsh border?! Do you have any idea how much it would cost to get there from here?"
Lydia stuffed half the money she'd withdrawn from her account into the little hole in the partition between driver and passenger, folding it in half so it would fit.
The man's eyes had gone wide and he'd wiped his cheek as if there were saliva there.
"I'll have to radio it in to clear it with my boss," he'd said.
"I'll wait," Lydia told him. "Oh, and we need to stop at a petrol station on the way there."
Three hours after that she was sat in the back of a black London cab that rolled along dark roads lined with fields and woodland that stretched away into the night. Every few hundred yards there was something dead on the road: badgers, foxes, rabbits.
"Did you know that there are no recorded fatalities from black widow stings?" the taxi driver said, breaking Lydia's trance. "Not one. It's a myth, like."
The car thumped twice as something was shredded under its wheels.
"There's a lot of dead animals out this way, isn't there?" the taxi driver said.
"Things die out here all the time," Lydia replied.
She lit a cigarette with her pink Zippo and pressed the button that made the window roll down, blasting her with cold air that reeked of fertiliser.
"Oi! You can't smoke in here. It's against the law."
"There's fifteen hundred quid in your pocket," Lydia reminded him. "That's almost three times as much as it would cost with the meter on. Just air it out after we're done and if anyone asks, it was some drunk you had to throw out."
The taxi driver turned in his seat as if to regard her for the first time.
"You know, that's the most you've said to me since we left London."
Lydia shrugged, finished her cigarette and tipped it through the open window before lighting another.
The taxi driver said: "I've been trying to quit myself but..." He took a pack of Lambert and Butler from the glove box and shook one out, lighting it with a disposable bic lighter. "...this isn't a typical day for me."
The first drops of rain hit the window, leaving long streaks.
"My name's Bob, by the way."
Lydia told him hers.
"That's a nice name, that. Lydia."
"It does it's job, I suppose," Lydia told him.
"Tell me something, Lydia. The whole drive up here I've been thinking --"
"I'm inclined to doubt that, Bob," Lydia told him.
Bob laughed. "But, seriously. Why pay so much money for a taxi all the way from London to the areshole of nowhere?"
"Well, Bob..." Lydia thought about how she could explain it all to this random, fact spewing taxi driver. The smell of the thing in the walls, her mother's lunatic smile and the dead animals... "It's a bit of a long story."
"What's the short version?"
"My, my, Bob. You are a nosey one, aren't you?"
"I suppose I am," Bob said. "I suppose I'm in the wrong job, really. Most taxi drivers see their passengers as a captive audience they can talk at, telling them about how bad the weather is, or politics or whatever football team they support. Me? I like to hear people's stories."
"And tell them facts?" Lydia suggested.
Bob waited for a reply. The windscreen wipers beat like a metronome in the silence.
"My mother died," Lydia said.
Bob was quiet for a while. He nervously fiddled with the radio, changing the station a few times until he settled on one that played pop hits from the 60's and 70's.
Lydia smiled. "Have I made you feel embarrassed, Bob?"
"Nah, nah. It's just, you know... I thought that maybe there was a good reason for you not wanting to chat. And there's me, sticking my beak in and making you talk about it like a flipping eejit."
Lydia threw her second cigarette out the window and closed it. The rain was really coming down now and leaving long streaks across the outside of the glass. Mercifully, it made it harder to see the animals. It had obviously started killing closest to the house at first; the animals she'd been seeing here since Bob had started talking were mostly skeletons. Old kills.
They were close now.
"Don't worry, Bob. Me and my mother weren't exactly close. We had...a falling out about five years ago and haven't talked since -- never will now, I guess. The reason I'm willing to pay so much money is two-fold. Firstly, well, I'll be coming into a large inheritance soon, and I can afford it."
"Splashing it about a bit, eh?"
"Second reason?" Bob asked.
"I need to get to her house as fast as possible. There's no train stations near Freetown. And not one of the cross country bus services go anywhere near it."
"Does she have pets or something?"
Lydia laughed nervously. "Something like that."
Bob lapsed into silence again but Lydia felt that he wanted to ask more.
Visibility was pretty poor on the road but Lydia could make out something huge ahead, crouching in the night like a spider. As she watched, lightning lit the sky and the house seemed to leap out of the dark.
"Jesus," Bob said. "Is that your mum's house? Looks like something out of Scooby Doo."
Lydia laughed a bit too hard.
The house was four stories tall, brick and Elizabethan. Green moss crawled up the walls like rotten fingers. Surrounding the house was a large tract of land that at one time was neatly trimmed. As they rolled up the gravel driveway the grass was nearly as tall as the car on either side, and waved wildly in the wind and rain.
"Jesus," Bob said. "This grass needs trimming."
The car parked in front of the house and Lydia felt a moment's hesitation. Her heart beat wildly in her chest. It had all seemed so clear in her head just a few hours ago, but now...
Bob pressed a button and the lights came on in the back.
"This would usually be where I asked you for the fare," Bob said.
Lydia brushed her bare feet against the petrol canisters stacked neatly against door.
"Listen, Bob," she said. "I only gave you half the money I took out of the bank this afternoon. The rest, minus what I spent on these two cannisters of petrol, is here."
She showed him the wad of notes.
"If you wait while I go inside, and then drive me back to London, the rest is yours."
This time Bob looked hesitant. The earlier look of greed was replaced by one of concern.
"Look, Lydia. You seem like a nice girl. If I was twenty years younger and not married, believe me, I would have made a move on you...but I don't know if I can accept so much money..."
"I'm not crazy, if that's what you're worried about."
"It's not that, it's just..."
"You just drove a strange girl with two canisters of petrol to a stately home in the middle of nowhere and that's all the weird you can handle for one day?"
Bob opened his mouth to say something and then simply nodded instead.
"It's simple. I'll give you the money up front. You just wait thirty minutes for me to come back. If I don't, you leave."
Bob thought about it.
"Okay," he said. "I'll do it."
Lydia smiled. "You're all right, Bob."
"I like to think so," Bob said with a smile.
She grabbed the handle and went to open it, then Bob said.
"You're not in any kind of trouble are you?"
Lydia thought about it then said.
"No. But somebody is."
She opened the door and the wind howled. She suddenly realised she was not dressed for the weather. She was still wearing her casual dress, tights and high heels. She took one cannister in each hand.
"Bob?" She had to shout over the wind and the rain.
"No matter what happens, promise me you won't open your doors for anybody else."
"I promise," he told her. "I'm already well into overtime here. I want to go home and have my tea. But I really think I should be asking you about the petrol cans."
Lydia folded the rest of the money and placed it into the slot between the plexiglass shield.
"Or maybe I'll just shut my big fat mouth and wait in the car, instead?" Bob said.
Lydia nodded and slid the door shut. Bob watched her intently as she walked up to the big wooden door, placed the cannisters on the ground, bent over to retrieve a key from a false rock and unlocked it. She picked up the cannisters, took one look over her shoulder to make sure Bob wasn't staring at her arse (he was) and stepped inside.
Bob's eyes almost bulged out of his head when she bent over to pick up the rock.
"The arse on that..." he whispered to himself.
She stood up quickly and looked over her shoulder. Bob smiled innocently. He thought she bought it.
Then she picked up her cannisters and walked into the black house, closing the door behind her.
"Mad as a bag of rabbits, that one," he muttered to himself, checking his watch and noting the time.
Something in his peripheral vision caught his eye and he looked up. In an upstairs window, something seemed to shift out of sight. He couldn't be sure what he'd seen but he felt the hair on his forearms stand on end.
Alone in the car, Bob shivered.
The darkness inside the house was absolute. Even with the tiny curtains fully drawn the room was as black as the space between galaxies.
"Well, Fuck," Lydia said, realising that she hadn't brought a torch.
She held her hands out in front of her and felt blindly for the coffee table she remembered from memory. She hit her hand on something long and metal, which fell to the floor with a clunk.
She took the pink zippo lighter out of her purse and spun the wheel. The little flame leapt high and provided just enough light for her to see the candlestick she'd knocked to the floor. She picked it up and lit it, holding it like some governess in a 19th century gothic horror novel.
Even in the relatively little light the candlestick provided she could see that the house was in disrepair. The large, grand front room was full of cobwebs, the walls were scratched and peeling. Most of the furniture was covered in plastic sheeting.
She found the light switch and turned it on. The room was flooded with dazzling light.
She walked around, taking in the family portraits that hung on the walls, and lighting other decorative candles along the way.
A large painting of Lydia, her father and her mother stood over the fireplace. They were smiling. Lydia's father was hugging her mother, whose belly was large and swollen in pregnancy. This was the latest picture of them all together as a family. He'd died a few months later of a self inflicted shotgun wound.
Lydia smiled sadly. A single tear ran down her cheek.
There was a loud clunk from the second floor.
"Hello?" Lydia called. "Anyone in here?"
She thought she heard scampering, but it could have been her imagination.
She tried to form the name she hadn't said in five years, the name of the thing that had ripped her life to pieces and made her wake up screaming night after night. But some protective part of her brain wouldn't allow her.
She went to the staircase and looked up. Frayed carpet, now threadbare and thin, ran upwards to the darkness of the second floor. Once it had been luscious and rich. She remembered how it had felt under her feet on the night when she'd left fifteen years ago.
"Lydia," her mother had said, from halfway up the staircase. "Lydia, wait!"
Lydia had paused, a backpack full of clothes strapped to her shoulders.
"I'm leaving and you can't stop me."
Her mother's face was gray and lined, so different to how it had been before it was born. Back then, even in pregnancy she'd had an almost effervescent glow to her skin. Her hair had been thick and black.
"Promise me, Lydia."
"Promise you what?" Lydia had said.
"Promise me you won't tell them about my boy."
Lydia had meant it. Her mother's eyes almost seemed to swivel in her head. Her hair was like a nest of snakes.
Lydia had paused.
"When I get where I'm going, I'll send you a letter with my address. I want a thousand pounds every month. Cash."
Her mother had nodded.
"And," Lydia had said. "He doesn't leave the house. Ever"
"But he needs his exercise!" Her voice was high and whiney. "He's a growing boy."
"Listen y,ou crazy bitch. It doesn't go outside." Lydia went to the door, opened it and shouted over the shoulder: "If it ever leaves here again I swear to God I'll kill it myself."
Then she'd slammed the door and walked out to freedom.
She'd hoped she'd never have to come back.
Now she stood at the bottom of that staircase again. Now she flicked the switch and walked upstairs, the petrol inside the canisters sloshing. When she got to the top she unscrewed the little cap and began to splash the cannisters everywhere -- on the walls, the carpets and the little figurines placed on shelves all over the second story.
Then she opened doors and splashed petrol inside. She managed to douse three of the six rooms on this level when the first cannister ran dry.
She took a quick breather, took a cigarette out of her bag and almost lit it until she remembered what she'd been doing.
"Stupid, Lydia," she said, putting the cigarette back in its box.
"Stupid, Lydia," a voice agreed.
Lydia's blood ran cold. Something skittered to her left, a sound like a snakeskin being dragged across sandpaper. It came from the wall to her left.
"So you are still here then, fuck face?" she said, trying to keep her voice calm and level. "Why don't you come out? I've got a surprise for you."
At the end of the hallway was a hatch in the ceiling with a little drawstring. If she pulled on that string the hatch would open and a little staircase would come fluttering down.
"Let me tell you a story," she said. "You like stories, don't you?"
An enthusiastic thud came from the ceiling directly above, raining dust particles on Lydia's head.
She walked to the end of the hallway, keeping a wary eye on that hatch.
"A long time ago, a few miles from here, there was a pub."
Lydia tried the door to her father's study and found it unlocked. The room was thick with dust and the smell of mould.
"One day a man turned up that the locals didn't like," she rifled through old drawers in a large cabinet until she found a small metal box. "Not because he wasn't local, no. Because...he was wrong."
She took the metal box out of the drawer and tried to prize open the rusted twenty year old lock with an old letter opener from her father's desk.
"His eyes were too far apart, his teeth were too sharp, his accent was too foreign," Lydia said, grunting with exertion as the lock resisted. "He didn't quite know what sort of drinks to order and when he tried to pay he didn't have money. Just precious gems."
The lockbox opened with a pop. Inside were old, grainy photos of her father as a boy, an old medal and something bulky underneath a handkerchief.
"The story goes that he was thrown out because he made the barmaid nervous; but when five stout men laid hands on him he flipped out. One of those guys was Lleyton Hewlett, a strong dairy farmer from a few miles down the road. He got a nasty bite on the side of his face and died of toxic shock a few days later."
Lydia carefully unwrapped the handkerchief to reveal an old luger automatic pistol.
"That same night our mother was out taking a walk. She couldn't sleep and, back then, she thought that the countryside was a fairly safe place. She came home covered in bruises with most of her clothes torn off. She only said one thing before she went into shock."
Lydia careful loaded a clip into the pistol and pulled back the funny little hammer. The click was especially loud in the silence.
"'There's a man in the woods...but he's not really a man'."
Lydia went back into the hallway and reached for that little drawstring attached to the attic door.
"They never found that man, if he was one..." She pulled the cord and stepped back as the ladder extended, each run ticking into place. "Mother seemed to get better after that. Especially when she found out she was pregnant."
She put her hand on the ladder's little rail to steady it and put her foot on the first rung.
"Nine months later you were born."
She started to climb.
"The midwife who delivered you? She never delivered another baby. Last thing I heard she went to a psychiatric hospital in Swansea and never left."
It was pitch black in the attic. She lit her little bic lighter again and was glad she'd not brought the petrol with her.
"I'm only telling you this," Lydia told the darkness, "because I doubt mother ever did."
Her eyes were starting to adjust and she made out several items in the attic. She saw a bed, some old broken toys, scraps of food and old magazines littered the floor.
"She probably let you go on thinking that the man who put a shotgun in his mouth rather than listen to the way that you breathed at night was your father."
Something moved in the darkness, flitting from its hiding place behind a pile of boxes.
"He was my father...and you killed him..."
She raised the pistol, aiming it at where she'd last seen movement
"...and now I'm going to kill you!"
The gun popped once and jerked in her hand. The flash illuminated the shape of something monstrous.
Harvey had grown.
Whereas once he was a gangly little thing with oversized forearms he now resembled a shaved albino chimpanzee. He ran on all fours and disappeared behind a pile of boxes.
Lydia fired four shots into the darkness and heard something yelp.
She climbed the last few steps into the attic, holding the lighter in one hand and the gun in the other.
It lay on the floor behind the boxes in a pool of black blood. It had no eyelids and its bulbous, insectile eyes stared into nothingness. Its naked skin was sickeningly pink, like a newborn baby.
Lydia gagged at the smell that came from its body. She'd once sat in an office across the street from a halal butcher one hot summer day when a powercut had made the meat go rancid in the heat. This was worse.
"I hate you," she told it.
She raised the pistol and pointed it squarely at her brother's head.
The ragged hole in the centre of its face was ringed with sharp, uneven teeth. It moaned weakly.
Her hand waivered for a moment. She felt her resolve weaken. She'd come to kill a monster, now she was faced with an ugly broken, helpless thing.
"Damn it," she said.
Then it struck. It came off the ground like a jack in the box, aiming directly at her face.
She screamed, swinging the pistol at it and hitting it squarely in the center of its face. Then she turned and ran.
It got one claw on her dress and ripped away fabric and left four perfect lines of gouged flesh across her shoulder.
Lydia grunted, but didn't stop as she ran for the ladder. She tripped over her own feet as she reached it and fell headfirst in an untidy mess through the portal, bouncing off the ladder and hitting the petrol soaked floor below with a thud that drove all the air from her lungs and cracked one of her ribs with a sound like a wet branch snapping.
Somehow she was still holding the lighter, gripped tightly in her sweaty left hand. The gun was gone.
As she struggled for breath she saw him, Harvey, his face a grinning demonic mask in the perfect square of darkness directly above.
"Sister," he said, his voice was like filth oozing out of a sewer grating. "Missed you, sister. Missed your sweet smell."
He was coming down the ladder slowly, like a spider, headfirst.
"We're going to play games! Fun games!"
He was close now. She could feel his breath on her face.
She sucked ragged air into her lungs. Crazily, she saw Harvey's clublike penis dangling between his legs as he placed one claw, palm down, to the left of her head and stepped down from the ladder.
"We can play doctor and nurses. It'll be like you never left!"
He was crouched directly over her body now, his huge forked tongue lolling from his mouth.
"Harvey," Lydia said, "would you like a kiss."
He smiled. The horror of it was enough to drive a man mad. He nodded his head like a child offered a treat.
"Well, then pucker up, sweetie."
He tried his best to pucker but his lips were jagged and shapeless. Lydia found herself thinking about an advert for an animal abuse charity that had featured a dog with a birth defect that made him look like he had a permanent grin. Harvey looked like that now. She almost burst into hysterical laughter as she leaned in closer to the aroma of rot that came from his insides.
"This is how I kiss monsters," Lydia said in a sultry whisper.
She lunged forward and her teeth clamped down on Harvey's pointed nose.
Harvey wailed in pain and tried to pull away but Lydia clamped down harder. She felt his flesh, curiously soft like raw chicken, give slightly and then the taste of his blood filled her mouth as he fell back against the ladder, clawing at the place where his nose had just been.
She spat out the rancid meat and got up. Harvey was still wailing, his voice sounded like a klaxon.
"You won't be needing this anymore," she said, as she drove her heel as hard and as fast as she could into his swinging penis.
Harvey let out an human groan of pain. His look of surprise would have been comical if it wasn't for the ragged skin and oozing black fluid in the centre of his face.
She stepped back as he fell face first with a wet slap onto the soaked carpet, splashing petrol everywhere.
"Fucker," Lydia said. She picked up the second can of petrol and popped the lid and started splashing it onto Harvey while saying "Fucking fucker," over and over again.
Harvey roared in pain and rage.
Lydia clicked open the lighter and flicked the little wheel. It sparked but didn't catch.
"Fucking shit fuck!"
Harvey's bones clicked and cracked as he drew himself up to his full height. His bones seemed to be snapping and reshaping. Now he towered over Lydia with his long, ape-like arms hanging down past his knees and ending in razor sharp claws.
Lydia tried the lighter one more time. It sparked into life and ignited her petrol soaked hand.
Lydia screamed and tossed the lighter where it hit Harvey square in the chest.
Harvey was covered in petrol and when the lighter hit him he sputtered into flame with a loud whoosh.
Lydia's whole arm was also ablaze and she flapped it wildly like a bird with a broken wing.
Harvey came at her. Even covered in flame she could still see those black orbs, filled with hatred, lust and hunger.
Suddenly, she was running, chest aching, arm still covered in flame.
The whole second floor was burning now and the smell of Harvey's flesh reeked like rancid animal flesh thrown into a fire.
Her arm was blackened and raw as she took the stairs two, three, four at a time and felt her ankle go as she jumped and rolled at the bottom.
Harvey chased her, clumsily bouncing off the walls and sending out gouts of flame wherever his body touched petrol soaked carpet or wall.
She managed to open the door and fell over in the rain, rolling in the mud just outside the idling taxi.
The car door opened and Bob was standing over her.
He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her arm, putting out the flames the rain and mud hadn't.
His eyes widened as he stared into the house.
"What the hell is that?"
The door was slowly swinging closed as something, some burning horror, crawled toward it, popping and sizzling.
"My brother," Lydia said.
The door closed and the thing was gone
There was a loud crash from upstairs as several of the top floor windows blew out, shooting tendrils of flame and black smoke into the night.
Lydia felt Bob reach under her and pick her up. The pain in her arm swelled into an unbearable rawness and she closed her eyes as the rain soaked her face and body.
Bob put 20p into the coffee machine and whistled to himself as the machine spat out a plastic cup into a holder and filled it with brown coffee-like fluid.
The hospital was dead quiet at this time of night and Bob rocked on the balls of his feet as he stared up the sterile corridor at the open door of Lydia's room.
Bob was sniffing suspiciously at liquid in the cup when a young, tired-eyed doctor in white scrubs walked up behind him.
"Excuse me. You came in with the young lady, right? Mr...?"
"Bob," Bob told him. "I'm not family. Just her taxi driver."
"Right," the doctor said.
"How's she doing, doc?"
"Well, she's going to need some serious work on that arm, but as long as it doesn't get infected I think we can save it."
There was a moment's silence between them. Bob took a sip of his coffee, gagged and placed the cup down next to the machine with his thumb and forefinger.
"Listen," the doctor said, "about that injury..."
"You wanna know how she got it, right?" Bob said.
The doctor nodded. He had his pen and chart in his hand.
"Right," the doctor said. "Any signs of mental health issues?"
"I think she set herself on fire," Bob said. "Completely mental, I reckon."
The doctor raised one eyebrow in a manner that showed he disapproved of Bob's assessment.
"The police have been called about the fire. You'll need to give a statement but --"
A piercing scream cut the doctor off mid-sentence. He turned and ran toward the source of the sound -- Lydia's ward -- with Bob hot on his heels.
He ripped back the curtain to reveal Lydia tugging weakly at the IV in her bandaged arm.
A nurse appeared and the doctor barked an order to prepare a sedative.
Lydia saw Bob and her eyes widened.
"Bob!" she said. "I fucked up, Bob!"
"What are talking about, love?"
"Remember what you said, Bob," she was struggling against the nurse holding her down while the doctor placed the needle into her IV. "Some animals...when there's no other animals around...impregnate themselves..."
She was out. The machines beeped their steady rhythm.
"I'm afraid you'll have to leave, Bob," the young doctor told him.
Bob wasn't listening to him. Rain clicked steadily against a window. He thought of the thing that he'd seen dying slowly, engulfed in flame. The doctor kept talking but Bob simply walked to the window and looked out at the hospital car park.
He thought he heard screaming off in the night. He thought he saw movement in the dark.