20 May 2007

Henry Carter's Journey

Henry Carter’s Journey was my first attempt at a Weird Tale in several years. They had been a favourite genre when I was a teenager but had fallen out of favour when I began to write science-fiction and comedy. I’m now coming back to this style of story, as I feel there is a lot of mileage left in it yet.

It is a long understood fact that our perceptions of the world around us affect how we interact with one another and that these interactions will, in turn, affect our perceptions. With this idea in mind, Henry squatted in the undergrowth beneath a tall tree in a forest that cut sharply into the side of the city of Croftsbridge, and attempted to will himself invisible lest the foul creatures that stalked the city discover him.

It had been an hour since he had escaped from the institution in which he had found himself imprisoned; under the ever-watchful eyes of those who would collaborate with these beasts. He was certain they would now be searching the area to find him. He had laid low, kept away from the roads and made his way to the city to find Jessica, his daughter. She had told him, before they were separated and he was captured, that she was in trouble and that someone had been following her. Fearing for her safety, he had overpowered the guards and fled his prison during the night.

He looked around once more, checking he was not being followed, and crept carefully forward until he reached the edge of the forest. He looked out upon the river that wound its way through the city. On the far bank was a tract of grassland that he would have to cross if he was to reach the flat where Jessica lived.

The river was shallow but the night was cold and Henry did not wish to risk swimming across to the other side. There was a bridge visible in the distance and he headed for it under the cover of the forest. He treaded lightly, tensing at the sound of each branch that cracked underfoot and every trick of the wind through the trees that made him believe someone was talking nearby. After a painfully long time creeping toward his goal Henry stood before a low stone wall that marked the boundary between the forest and a footpath that crossed the bridge. He took a deep breath and tried to steady his nerves. Crossing this barrier would put him out in the open, where he would become easy prey for the creatures that now infested this city.

He placed a trembling hand on the cold, mossy stone and hoisted himself up; dropping soundlessly onto the concrete path on the other side. His heart beat quickly and his thin, white cotton shirt stuck to his sweat-covered back. He stood and brushed the dirt from his white cotton trousers and looked around. There was nobody in sight but he felt certain he was not alone.

Henry jogged toward the bridge, hoping to cross it quickly and reach the relative safety of the shadow-clad streets on the other side. He looked over his shoulder regularly, expecting to see his jailors close behind, or perhaps even one of the hideous creatures, those mockeries of men, trailing him, ready to strike without warning.

He heard laughter ahead and froze. He could see no one else in the area. Could it be his imagination? He thought it unlikely, as he had never known himself to be prone to such tricks of the mind. The laughter came again, accompanied by guttural speech he could not hear clearly enough to understand. The sounds came from an alleyway that lead onto the street near the end of the bridge. Henry looked around for somewhere to hide, but there was nowhere.

His heart pounded in his chest as he saw two figures stagger out of the alley, talking to one another in a slurred replica of language. He froze in terror as the creatures spotted him and he instantly recognised them as two of the beasts that had invaded and subverted his city, in their mockery of human form, twisting good society to their foul will. The shorter of the two slapped the other on the chest with the back of its hand and pointed at Henry. It slurred something in its course tongue. The other creature laughed and together they staggered toward their horrified target.

They lurched forward and Henry could smell the sharp tang of tobacco and alcohol clinging to them like a fetid aura. Soon they were upon him and Henry found himself pressed against the metal railing that ran the length of the bridge. The taller of the fiends demanded something of him but its thick language was difficult for Henry to understand. He tried to push past the foul half-men and continue on his journey but the shorter of the two blocked his path.

They pushed him against the barrier once more and the taller assailant pulled at Henry’s clothes. Henry pushed them away with as much force as he could muster and when the shorter one lunged at him he struck back, landing a heavy blow on the beast’s jaw and leaving it sprawling on the concrete.

Henry turned and ran as fast as he could toward the town. The other attacker chased him but Henry was much faster and soon outpaced it.

He found himself standing on the rough cobbles of a back street that ran in a crescent between two rows of houses at the foot of a steep hill, on top of which stood a church. The silhouette of the church was a welcome sight. He had seen it every day for fifteen years, for his home was a small house whose garden bordered the church’s grounds. Nearby stood a row of houses converted to small flats in which he would find his daughter, if he was not too late already.

He heard footsteps behind him and the harsh sound of electronic chatter. Could one of the guards from his prison have found him so soon? If so, the guard had yet to reach the street in which he stood and he still had time to escape. He scrambled over the high wall that divided the cobbled street from the paved yard at the rear of one of the squat houses and carefully lowered himself far enough to drop soundlessly to the concrete.

The hiss of electronic speech over the guard’s radio came perilously close to Henry’s position and it was all Henry could do to remain still instead of succumbing to his fear of recapture and fleeing. He held his breath lest the guard hear him breathing or somehow find another clue to his whereabouts and, thus alerted, quickly set upon him with the malice he had come to associate with the creatures he so feared.

After several minutes crouched in darkness and fearful to move even an inch, Henry heard the guard’s footsteps on the cobbles as he walked off down the road. Henry exhaled as slowly and soundlessly as he could. He was certain this was a trick to lure him out of hiding. He remained still, listening for any sign that the guard, or something worse, was waiting nearby. When he was sure there was no one else around he crept to the gate, lifted the latch and opened it slightly so he could peer through and check the lay of the land.

There was no one in the street, as far as he could see. Bolstered by this revelation, he steeled himself to emerging from the yard. The gate was old and, he felt, likely to make a sound when opened any further so he closed it carefully and turned back to the wall. It was slightly taller on this side, as there was a short step down into the yard from the street. Nevertheless he found himself able to reach up on tip toe and grab the top of the wall with both hands. Hoisting himself up, he glanced around quickly to make sure the street was still clear and, seeing no one, he pulled himself over the wall, dropping to the ground with only a low crunch of brick fragments to signal his landing.

He hurried to the end of the street and stopped only to check the adjoining road was clear before crossing. As he was nearing the kerb on the other side, a rock struck him on the back of the head. He staggered, his mind awash with pain and brief disorientation. He turned, saw another rock heading for him and ducked with only seconds to spare. The rock hit a shop window behind him with a loud crack, setting off the alarm.

The missile throwers were running toward him now and he recognised them as his assailants from the bridge. The rage that burned clearly in their eyes served only to enhance the hideous nature of their appearances in Henry's eyes. Despite their obvious efforts to appear human – the humanoid form, the clothes, the attempt at language – Henry saw now the vicious animal that lay behind the disguise. These creatures wanted to kill him, just as others like them wanted to kill Jessica. He knew he was no match for such ferociousness, so he fled.

The sound of the shop alarm wailed in the background but Henry could hardly hear it over the echo in his head of the rapid pounding of his heart. He gasped for breath as he ducked and weaved to avoid the succession of rocks flung by his demonic pursuers. He was not far from Jessica's flat now. If he could keep up this pace, perhaps he would make it.

Police sirens wailed somewhere nearby. Henry decided they were unlikely to be interested in him and put them out of his mind. The street he was aiming for was just around the corner. He was almost there! The smile on his face, flushed as it was, disappeared as another rock struck him on the back of the head. He stumbled, tripped over his own feet and landed flat against the concrete. His pursuers laughed and ran toward him, shouting angrily in their course tongue.

Henry recognised very few of their words but even these were not necessary to understand their intent. These gaunt figures, mockeries of the decent folk Henry had known before the terrible events that led to his imprisonment, meant to harm him; no doubt to satisfy some demonic pleasures or exact revenge for his escape on the bridge. Henry's mind filled with thoughts of his daughter and how he must reach her before it was too late. Fear mixed with rage and he lashed out, slamming his foot into the knee of the taller creature and scrambling to his feet in the resulting commotion.

The smaller being swung at Henry, slamming its fist into his gut and sending him staggering backward. He lashed out again, striking his attacker square in the face, drawing a trickle of deep red blood from its lip. He followed this with a kick to the groin and his attacker crumpled before him, roaring in agony. Henry fled once more while the taller beast's attention was torn between him and his companion.

Henry raced around the corner as fast as he could. He could see the house! He was so close now, so very close. The garden was unkempt, which was unusual, but that was neither here nor there. The door was ajar too, which gave him cause for concern. Jessica never left the door to the house open, nor did the man who lived in the flat below her.

He ran to the gate, his heart pounding with the exertion. The taller of his pursuers was close behind him but if he could get inside he would be safe for now. He ran through the open gate and inside the house, slammed the door behind him and leaned against it while he caught his breath. His head pounded with each beat of his heart and he could feel his skin tingling. He had made it! Jessica needed him and he had escaped the prison to come to her rescue, as he always knew he would.

The creature outside pounded on the door for several minutes before eventually giving up. Henry waited in the hallway with his back against the door, barring entry in case the wood should fail to keep the creature at bay, until the wretched attacker left. When he was certain it was safe to move again he looked over at the stairs to his daughter's home.

His attention became immediately transfixed on the black and yellow striped tape that hung limply from the door frame at the top of the stairs. Although his knees threatened to buckle beneath him he walked forward slowly. Could he be too late? After all he had gone through, all the obstacles he had overcome, could he have failed at this final hurdle? Hands trembling, he gripped the handrail as he climbed the stairs and at the top he gripped the tape. He read it, all the time challenging it to say something other than what he knew it must:


'Jessica?' Henry called. His dry tongue stuck to his teeth and made it hard to speak.

There was no answer. 'Jessica? It's your Dad,' he called.

Still there was no answer. He tried the door and found it unlocked. Inside, the flat was a mess. Jessica had never been the tidiest of people but the books and magazines scattered across the floor were not what he had expected to see. He searched the house, finding each room in a similarly ransacked state.

Unsure what else to do, he sat down on his daughter's sofa and stared at the wall. He could make no sense of it. Jessica had been worried, yes, but he had assured her that he would come around as soon as he could leave work. Surely she would have waited for him? Her not being here did not make sense.

He looked around again, scanning the room for a note or at least some clue as to where she had gone. There was no note, but there was something far worse. On the deep red carpet by the archway leading to the entrance hall was a patch of darker colour. He shuddered at the thought of what it could be and stood slowly, as if it might disappear or somehow become less real if he gave it enough time. It was still there when he knelt beside it and felt the hard, matted pile.

It was clearly blood, and it was dry.

Henry did not know how long he spent weeping by that bloodstained patch with his thoughts clamouring for position in his mind. He was too late! How could this have happened? He had promised he would come! He should have come sooner. He should have done something at least. Now it was too late.

A knock on the door brought him back to his senses. He looked up to see a tall man entering. He recognised the man immediately: he called himself Doctor Franks and he ran the prison where Henry had been held. He had prevented Henry from reaching his daughter in time.

'Hello, Henry,' Doctor Franks said, calmly. 'I thought I would find you here.'

'This is your fault,' Henry spat. His fists clenched in readiness for a fight. 'I was too late to help her. You and your prison saw to that.'

'I thought we discussed this, Henry,' said the Doctor, edging forward slowly. 'There was nothing you could do. Come back to the hospital and we can discuss it.'

'I'm not going back there. Not with you, 'Doctor', not with anyone!' Henry snarled.

The doctor advanced, slowly and calmly but in a manner that was nevertheless threatening to Henry. This man was barring the only means of escape. Henry would have to force his way past if he was to get out of here.

'Get away from me!' Henry cried as he ran for the door.

He pushed the doctor with as much strength as he could muster, sending him sprawling. Slamming the door behind him he ran down the stairs, almost tripping several times in his desperation to escape. He reached the front door, now stood open again, and ran straight into a policeman waiting outside.

'Get off me!' he cried, struggling against the man's iron grip.

'Come now, sir,' the policeman said. 'Let's not have any more trouble.'

'You've got to let me go,' Henry pleaded. 'The man in there wants to lock me up. He's afraid of what I know!'

'Thank you, Constable,' said the doctor, emerging from the doorway behind Henry. 'If you could help me get him into the car it would be most appreciated.'

The two men dragged Henry to the car, fighting his desperate struggles to escape. The doctor climbed in beside him and the policeman sat in the driver's seat.

'I'm sorry for what happened to your daughter, Henry,' the doctor told him as they drove back to the hospital. 'I know her death has been a terrible strain on you but you must believe that I'm here to help you.'

Henry glared at his captor. 'You don't know the first thing about it.'

'I know you're under a lot of strain but with time I will help you get better,' the man said.

The doctor smiled what he thought was a reassuring smile but to Henry it betrayed what lurked behind that mask of flesh. It was all so clear now. The doctor was one of them, too!

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