The air was wet with the promise of rain, yet it would not rain. Vernon could smell it as he walked across the lawn of his garden. His rather nice garden. Underneath that promise was another, a salt tang, a message born in on the wind. It was time.
Dora had been pleased with her story when she first wrote it. Now she felt crushed. The group hadn’t been brutal, not wilfully. Never that. it was just honest opinion from fellow writers who all wanted to succeed, and wanted her to succeed too. So she kept telling herself.
She thought some of the newer writers like Joe and Abby might even have been impressed, but no, they simply pointed out all the flaws they thought stopped it becoming a better story. Only Ian had liked it. Even though he mostly wrote science fiction Ian was the only one who seemed to get what she was doing. And Vernon, he had liked it too, at least a bit.
“This is a good story, Dora, well-written in your usual style.” Vernon paused in that way he always paused. He stroked his white beard and gave an apologetic smile. “But –”
With Vernon there was almost always a “but”. And he had been right, too. She could see that now, how the encounters could be more vivid, the dialogue sharper, which scenes could be cut. The first three pages were a wasteland.
The emails she had from agents and editors often contained one of those “buts”.
After the session Ian and Dora walked from the pub where the group met, down to the station through the city streets. The evening crowds were light, the pavements wide. As they walked their shoulders occasionally bumped. Once, their hands brushed together.
Dora took a breath. “What do you think of Vernon’s writing? I mean – really.”
“Feeling jealous, Dora?”
“No. Well, yes, a little. It’s just that I think he’s not actually that good. I mean, he’s not a bad writer, but he’s not great. We put him up on a pedestal because he’s published, and he’s so successful. There are other people in the group who are just as good. People with just as much imagination.”
“Lidia is really good.” Lidia was their newest member, from Eastern Europe, Estonia. Young and energetic, tall and slender in that graceful long-limbed East European way, Lidia was regularly getting published and getting recognition, building a reputation. And writing in English, her third language. There, if anywhere, was a source of jealousy. Dora didn’t feel it. “That’s what I mean.”
“And you, Dora. That story of yours today was great.” Ian made eye contact. “It had real emotional punch.”
It felt natural for his arm to go around her shoulder, her arm around his waist. She held him tight.
“You’re good, too, you know.”
Ian gave a short laugh, a lopsided grin. “I do keep getting those glowing rejections.”
“Vernon says you’re the best writer in the group.”
Ian laughed again. “Apart from Vernon.”
Every year one, two, sometimes even three Vernon Grainger books hit the shelves. Science fiction, fantasy, historical drama, occasionally thrillers or even detective drama. All were “Vernon Grainger” books. Other authors envied his effortless ability to move between genres, Publishers Weekly called him “a modern phenomenon”, a quote his publisher put on every front cover.
“He’s has to be doing something right. Two books a year, he works really hard,” Dora said.
“And his ideas are great.”
They waited at the station for their trains. Ian’s arrived first. Dora hugged him, kissed his cheek beside his mouth, smiled into his eyes. “You’ll get there. I know you will.”
“Maybe. Whatever Vernon’s got I wish I had some.”
“Amen to that.”
Dora was right, Vernon worked very hard indeed. Sometimes he ground the words out one at a time, sometimes they flowed like there was a river of prose welling up inside. Most of the time he just wrote.
It wasn’t enough. It never had been.
All Vernon had ever wanted was to write. To write you had to live, and to live –
Years before his hair turned grey, then white, before the signature beard, before he became one of the Grand Old Men of Fiction, Vernon realised that in itself writing was not going to be enough. To avoid some tedious time-consuming energy-sapping day job, to have a proper shot at this writing life and take it seriously as a professional, then sacrifices would have to be made.
So he made them.
Ian didn’t come to the next meeting. Dora didn’t mind too much. Since that last meeting they had exchanged a few emails, chatted online. Once – heart in her mouth – a phone call. She just thought he might have let her know.
He didn’t come to the next meeting either. No emails. No online updates.
Dora wondered if he was ill. “Has anyone heard from Ian?”
“Sorry, no,” Vernon said.
Everyone else was more interested in the story Lidia was telling:
“I’ve arrived.” Lidia covered her mouth when she laughed. “Somebody actually asked me where I get my ideas from. I’m a real writer now.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Wholesale from Boise, Idaho?”
“The little old lady…?”
Vernon sat back and smiled. “Where was that, Lidia?”
“At a friend’s party. I was telling them about –” Lidia’s eyes were bright. “I haven’t told you yet, I think I might have an agent.”
Vernon sat forward. He wanted to know everything. Who that agent was (he knew them, obviously), what they had said.
“It’s not certain yet,” Lidia said. “They just said they’d take a look at my novel.”
“You won’t leave us, will you?” Dora said. “It’s such a shame that the best writers leave.”
Joe and Abby agreed: “We need your advice.”
Lidia promised. “I’ve learned so much from you guys.”
Vernon grimaced and for a fleeting moment he looked sick. He finished his beer in two great gulps. “Who wants a drink? We should celebrate. My round.” Dora, like everyone except Vernon, didn’t like to have a drink until the meeting was over. Vernon took an order for soft drinks and went downstairs to the bar.
Lidia smiled, she covered her mouth. “Vernon drinks a lot.”
Joe grinned. “He’s a professional! One day we’ll all have to drink as much as Vernon.”
“I don’t think I could.”
Dora leaned forwards and touched Lidia’s forearm. “Thanks for saying you won’t leave.”
“Does nobody ever come back? You’d think… You’d think one of them would.”
“Wilf does,” Joe said. “Every now and then.”
Wilf was from before Lidia’s time. First he had an agent, then a three-book deal. Everyone was so pleased. Vernon called him the one that got away.
“We just have to accept it. They’ve got deadlines now.”
“I guess they think they don’t need the group any more.”
“I’d just like to think writers aren’t all selfish. Paying it forwards.”
“Actually, it’s not people like Wilf,” Abby said. “He’s still around, still writing. It’s the ones who start to make a bit of progress, a few short stories published, and then – they just drop out of sight.”
Abby had just described Ian. Dora hoped it wasn’t true, Ian was a good writer, his ideas were clever, funny, witty, and original. He’d been in anthologies, he was writing a novel, his third unpublished novel. She liked Ian, she thought Ian had liked her. Dora looked up and saw Vernon standing at the door with a tray, listening.
Vernon started forwards, put down the tray and handed round the drinks. He raised his glass to Lidia. “Congratulations. Keep this up and you’ll be the best writer in the group.”
“Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Mr Grainger –”
“Phew, OK. What are you working on, Vernon?”
“It’s a kind of a horror, a children’s fantasy that goes wrong, terribly wrong. There’s a theme of trust, and betrayal of trust. Innocents and innocence against the night…”
“It sounds quite twisted!”
“I’m having a lot of fun with it. I get paid to do this, you know, I have to keep reminding myself.”
“It feels like your writing is getting darker.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Is it that a market-driven thing?”
“No, not at all. I don’t want to write to the market, I never have. Obviously there are realities, things that have to be satisfied. Do that, give them what they want and then you’re free to do what you want. As time goes by, as I’ve got older, I’ve become more interested in certain aspects of the world, what people have to do to survive. There’s no grand message, I’m still writing to entertain, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Some things get under your skin, the realities of life, the way things actually are.”
“You’re in a writing group –”
“That’s right. Always looking for new members, good writers who want to develop.”
“It sounds like they’re lucky to have you.”
“Not at all. People don’t understand how these things work. I’m lucky to have them.”
Ian woke in the dark, upright, restrained. Splayed. Naked. The air was warm. He couldn’t remember. He didn’t panic. He was proud of that, that under the cold God-awful fear that dried his mouth and whirled in his mind, his guts, his soul, he somehow kept it together.
He tested the bonds, thick leather straps, tight and secure at wrist and upper arm, his ankle, knee, and thigh, around his waist and throat. He was laid out on an X-shaped frame, his feet on a surface. The space he was in felt low, the air stale. He was underground, a basement.
He thought about screaming then decided not to. Whoever it was didn’t know he was awake. He had some time and needed to make the best use of it. Keeping it all together.
Ian turned his head left and right. In the far left-hand corner was a blue glow, a pilot light. On the right an impenetrable blank space. Something clicked in the black, a loud metal snap. Ian jerked in his bonds and bit down on his cry. He knew what that was, a timer relay, mundane and ordinary. There – the roar of gas, the blue light grew as the boiler came alight.
The dimmest of dim glows from the boiler’s window showed a low ceiling, a wide empty room, bare walls, a work bench. The black space resolved into a reflective black wall. Ian frowned, a wall of glass. A two-way mirror.
Something thumped the glass and the whole long wall of it quivered. Ian struggled and strained, they knew he was awake, infra-red cameras. They were coming! Terrified, Ian felt his balls crawling back inside his body.
The boiler burned for ten long minutes then clicked off.
“Help me,” he said, oddly self-conscious. It sounded like a question. He was thirsty, his mouth dry. “Help me!” he said louder, then shouted at the top of his voice: “Help me. Please, help!”
His own voice mocked him, horribly loud in the silence. He was very frightened.
Dear God, I’ve never prayed to you before. I beg you, help me now. dear God of love, blessed Jesus.
Ian hung in the straps. Alone in the dark the fear was exhausting. He closed his eyes and went – away.
A light snapped on, bright and white. Vernon walked in dressed in navy overalls and black wellington boots. Vernon. Ian blinked awake. Vernon.
“Vernon. Christ, what are you doing? Let me go.”
Vernon said nothing. He walked across to the work bench and busied himself there.
Ian saw the room was tiled, like a swimming pool, the glass wall the side of an enormous aquarium. He watched Vernon lay out a red cloth edged in white, a shallow bowl, a heavy book. “What are you doing?”
Vernon ignored Ian and stepped back. Ian saw he had laid out a small altar. Muttering, prayers, the scrape of a match. Incense smoke plumed and scrolled in the still air. A drift of smoke caught in Ian’s throat, an acrid stink, reeking and ammoniacal.
Vernon faced Ian. He was sweating, his eyes hooded. “Would you like a drink?”
“What are you doing? Let me go, Vernon.”
“Would you like a drink, Ian?”
Ian thought this through, the need to establish rapport. “Water. Please.”
“Would you like something stronger?”
Vernon breathed deep, the overalls tight against his paunch. He took a quarter-bottle of cheap whisky out of his pocket, opened it and drank. “I don’t have any water.”
Ian felt very calm, almost like he was in control. “Whisky, then. Thank you.”
Vernon held the bottle to Ian’s mouth. He drank the raw whisky in gulps and swallows, felt it burn its way down into his stomach.
Ian nodded. By the time he pulled back the bottle was three-quarters empty. Vernon returned to the altar and lit two candles that burned with a strange empty light.
The light penetrated the glass wall and shone through the water like twin beacons, reaching far back, and down, down. Ian struggled with the gigantic shift in perspective, very glad now he had that drink. This was not a tank in Vernon’s basement, the glass was a window to a dark ocean.
Vernon’s lips were tight with tension, his small neat teeth showed through his white beard. “You do understand, don’t you, Ian? I need to know this. You’re the best writer in the group. Tell me you understand. Please.”
“No, I don’t bloody understand. You’re jealous? Is that it? Whatever you’re going to do, stop it and let me go.” Ian put every ounce of command and authority he has into his voice: “Vernon. Let me go!”
A tick pulsed in the corner of Vernon’s eye. “I only do this when I have to.” The corner of his mouth twitched in a reflex grimace. He looked away, through the glass wall. “I have my deadlines, too.”
Something enormous rushed up out of the depths, huge and implacable. It thumped against the window and the glass boomed and rippled. The creature writhed in front of the candles pulsing colours Ian had never seen, new colours. For the briefest moment he marvelled that he could see them.
Then the creature unfolded into a vast new shape, coiling, twisting. Ian saw an eye. An enormous eye. It looked at him, into him, through him, and – Oh God! He felt its hunger.
The thing in the tank pressed against the glass. Long arms twisted, rows of flat muscular plates, toothed sphincters clenched and gaped. Beaked mouths, a dozen mouths, a hundred eyes. Vernon gave a long shudder and turned back to Ian, his eyes glazed, his mouth slack and wet. There was a golden knife in his hand, the wide blade curved like a claw.
For a moment Vernon stood stock still. Then he laid his hand on Ian’s naked stomach. “Everyone has a story inside them, Ian. It’s time to find yours.”
David Gullen’s short fiction has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies. His SF novel, Shopocalypse, published by Newcon press, is available from all good highstreet and online bookstores, as is his recent anthology, Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales. David was born in Africa and baptised by King Neptune He has lived in England most of his life and has been telling stories for as long as he can remember. He currently lives behind several tree ferns in South London with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold. He is the current Chair of the Milford SF convention. Website: http://davidgullen.com/