To defame to devour the.., p.5
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       To Defame, To Devour: The Prequel to a Time-Travel Adventure, p.5

           Lewis J Jones
 
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  *

  BANG! BANG! BANG!

  Alex bolted upright and rubbed his face. The grandfather clock wore the expression of quarter past eight in the corner of the room. The door blew open the moment he pulled on the handle, but to Alex’s surprise, the top step was empty.

  BANG! BANG! BANG!

  The three loud knocks rapped through the house from behind him. Battling the door shut and turning around, Alex felt as though his insides had slid into a bucket of ice: through the square glass panes of the back door he could see three dark figures. The shadows swayed in the brisk wind. Taking hesitant steps through the bright hall and into the gloomy kitchen, Alex could see their heads move in sync, following him.

  ‘Hello!’ The middle figure spoke abruptly in a loud, booming voice.

  Alex stopped. His racing heart lurched within him. ‘Hello,’ he replied with a quiver.

  ‘We are sorry to disturb you. So sorry,’ said a woman in a calmer tone. ‘We hope we haven’t scared you. Our vehicle has faulted, er—broken, not far from here.’ She pointed back to somewhere beyond the heavy snowfall.

  A sharp gust of wind shot at the three figures, nearly knocking them over, so Alex hastily unlocked the door and offered them refuge, luring them into the brightness and warmth of the hall in order to see them better.

  The central body emerged first, dressed in a long black cloak and propped up by a silver cane. Peering down at Alex through his thick bottle-end glasses, the man lifted the corners of his mouth, which was set in an aged, wise-looking face. ‘Hello again. We can see each other now!’ he announced in his lively voice. ‘My name is Winton, and it is a great pleasure to meet you this evening.’ His striped black suit and waistcoat were briefly exposed as he bowed over one arm.

  As the shorter man and the woman joined him on either side, Winton guided them further into the house.

  ‘This is Irwin here,’ Winton said. The man had jet-black hair, a square-ish face and a particularly strong, short jawline. ‘My son-in-law.’

  Irwin shook Alex’s hand firmly and nodded to him. ‘A pleasure it is to meet you,’ he said.

  ‘And this is my daughter, Evelyn,’ Winton continued, ushering her forward.

  ‘Please, call me Evie,’ she insisted.

  Evie curtseyed, and her golden hair brushed her shoulder. When she rose again, Alex noted how remarkably similar to his mother she appeared; Evie too had a small, round face and bright eyes that gleamed like perfect gems, though hers were green, not blue.

  Unsure whether to reciprocate with a bow himself or some grander gesture, Alex shyly offered, ‘Hello, I’m Alex.’

  The three strangers glanced to one another before Winton craned his neck around and commented on how beautiful the house was. But then the guests appeared quite lost. Evie continued to stare at Alex, wringing her hands in some state of concern.

  ‘I must apologise again if we scared you. That was far from our intention,’ she said. ‘As we mentioned, our vehicle has broken and we wondered if we could possibly borrow your . . .’ Evie’s voice lowered before drawing to a halt. ‘Your . . . er, the erm . . . a way to communicate, to speak to . . .’

  ‘A telephone?’ Alex suggested.

  ‘Exactly, yes. Thank you,’ Evie said, blushing.

  Frowning with curiosity, Alex motioned to where it sat beneath the mirror.

  Irwin picked up the receiver, and after examining it, held it the wrong way up against his ear while pressing seemingly random numbers. Winton smiled apologetically at Alex before moving to help Irwin. His cane clonked repeatedly against the floor as he shuffled.

  After inviting Evie and Winton into the lounge, Alex filled up four glasses with water in the kitchen. Upon returning, he found them sitting where he had drifted off to sleep earlier. The space between seemed filled with secrets; their faces were mere inches apart, and words were slipping from the corners of their mouths.

  ‘I feel quite the hypocrite wearing this,’ Alex heard Winton say; he was stroking the silver watch on his wrist. But their conversation quickly turned to gratitude as Alex passed them their drinks, and the concerned looks on their faces subsided.

  The embers in the fireplace were snoozing quietly as Alex sat down on the sofa nearby to feed on their warmth. Not knowing quite what to say, he began by asking where his guests were from.

  ‘London. I grew up close to what was Mayfair,’ Winton said.

  ‘I know where Mayfair is. My uncle gave me a book about London before he took me to Hyde Park earlier this year,’ Alex said. ‘Where were you heading tonight?’

  Winton glanced at Evie’s jittering knee. ‘To see a friend,’ he replied. He paused. ‘It has been terrible weather though, just terrible.’

  ‘Are you home alone?’ Evie asked with an undeniable clench in her voice.

  ‘My uncle was here but he had to leave. It’s my aunt—she isn’t well.’

  ‘I am most sorry to hear that,’ Winton said sincerely.

  Irwin set down the receiver and walked into the lounge. ‘It is done,’ he said, and in a gesture, he toasted to Alex before swiftly draining his glass.

  Rising from beneath the faint screech of the wind outside, a dull humming emerged from somewhere in the room. It gradually rose above the grandfather clock’s persistent ticking and the fire’s waning crackles. In a swift movement, Evie set her bag on her legs, prised open its mouth and peered inside. Winton and Irwin leaned in closer around her as Alex watched on.

  ‘What is it doing?’ Irwin whispered.

  ‘It hasn’t done this before!’ Evie said, sniffing nervously. ‘Look! They’re spinning!’ she almost yelled, pointing to the concealed, resonating object within the bag.

  ‘We barely know what it is capable of. We weren’t told much about—’

  ‘We weren’t told anything!’ Evie snapped.

  Winton clambered to the window, unaided by his cane, but the closing storm meant that nothing but black sky and white earth was visible.

  Evie was blinking rapidly now, and visibly panting. ‘This isn’t right! What are we going to do? We have to get back to the children! Imagine if we didn’t, just imagine!’

  ‘We’ll be fine, don’t worry,’ Irwin said as he swooped his arm around her. ‘It’s getting stronger,’ he called to Winton.

  He’s right, Alex thought; the humming sound was definitely escalating.

  ‘It must be them, but how could they know we came here?’ Winton asked. ‘How could they have followed us back?’ He turned away from the window. ‘It didn’t say specifically why we had to come; no more was said, was it?’

  ‘We don’t even know why we are here!’ Evie said, her words strained through gritted teeth.

  ‘What choice did we have?’ Irwin said.

  Alex noticed in the window behind them a flurry in the snowfall, a sharp gust of wind and then—

  BOOM!

  Everyone jolted as the red front door sailed recklessly through the hallway, ripping the telephone from the table in its stride. A ghostly wall of dust floated into the house. Figures shifted behind its veil. Before Alex could gasp for breath, red and green pulsating lights rained into the lounge. In a series of deafening explosions Alex dived to the floor, guided by instinct. Evie, Irwin and Winton crashed down around him as the house was plunged into a raging battle.

  Rubble blasted through the room, cascading down upon Alex and his guests as shots ripped through the air. A particularly bright, pulsating light fizzled overhead and struck the grate in the fireplace. A huge fireball swelled into the room, it’s heat almost blistering their skin, before oddly swallowing itself whole.

  A glisten of silver caught Alex’s attention: in Irwin’s hand, a metallic device rapidly twisted and wrapped around itself until a weapon with a pointed, glowing tip formed, fitting his fingers like a glove. Irwin pushed to his feet, and with white shots screaming from his gun, he rushed defiantly into the war zone.

  As the wall separating the hall from the lounge blew apart a
s though made of cards, Alex skidded onto the kitchen tiles, half crawling, half being pulled by Evie. A vivid green pulse struck the back door up ahead, shooting shards of glass in all directions. Winton threw out his arms, allowing his thick cloak to shield Alex and Evie.

  ‘Under you get!’ Evie demanded, shoving aside the kitchen chairs around the table and pushing her host beneath it. ‘Stay here!’ she shouted over the deafening battle. ‘Don’t move unless your life is in undeniable danger! Do you understand?’

  Alex’s mouth tried to form words but his voice failed him. He drew in his knees. Another earth-shuddering explosion boomed close by.

  ‘You must stay here and keep quiet!’ Evie yelled, and after forming a protective barrier around Alex with the chairs, she and Winton hurried away.

  A violent flash of red light illuminated the kitchen. It sounded as if an angry giant was throwing a lifeless rag doll around the house. Alex gripped the hair around his temples as his world spun. Everything was beginning to slip away. Sounds were fading, colours were draining. He squeezed his eyes shut; his senses blurred into one another before they came crashing together. The pressure built, soared in his head, rose higher and higher, until—

  BOOM!

  Another explosion.

  Alex opened his eyes. He continued to pant through the ensuing stillness. It felt as though a hefty hand was forcibly plunging down his throat and plucking out his precious gasps for air. One by one his senses returned and kindly began to piece together his surroundings. He could make out the muffled creaks of the splintered house and an irregular tapping noise somewhere nearby. There was a strong smell of burnt wood in the smoky air. When his vision cleared, it revealed chairs askew around the table as though an invisible monster had tried to seize him. After a quiet minute alone, and with no further sign of movement, Alex crawled out, heaved himself up and moved slowly into the hall.

  The swinging chandelier caused lifeless shadows to dance all around Alex as he navigated his way through the destroyed room.

  ‘Alex!’

  Evie rushed towards him, visibly shaking. A trickle of blood flowed in a tiny river down her forehead. She latched on to him. ‘Were you hit? Are you all right?’

  All he could do was shake his head. Evie secured him under her arm. Vicious flames burned from holes stamped into the walls; furniture, snapped and splintered, was strewn across the fractured floor. With his glasses resting lopsidedly on his bloodied nose, Winton hurried them along, followed by Irwin, who had a bruise swelling on his right cheek.

  A short distance from the front door Alex’s feet drew to a halt. In the short corridor opposite the lounge were the bodies of two men. They were dressed in long black cloaks and lying on their backs. Their gaunt white faces suggested they were dead but their chests, which rose and fell very slightly, assured him otherwise.

  ‘Almost there love, keep going,’ Evie muttered over the whirling hum from her bag.

  Alex and his guests had barely walked ten paces into the deserted street when a bright light swung over their shoulders. They turned to see a small red car crash up the kerb. In the drivers seat Alex could see Abraham, but it wasn’t the Abraham who had left previously. The previous look of terror was now locked with a distinct sadness upon his face. He was trembling, shaking as much as Alex knew he himself should be having just experienced what he had. It was only after Abraham wiped his eyes that he glanced up to spot the four of them. Looking next to the doorless house barely visible through the blizzard, he leapt out of the car and yelled: ‘WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!’

  Alex had never heard his uncle scream before; his bones quivered and his skin shrieked with goosebumps. Something was definitely not right. Abraham rushed over and grabbed Alex in an embrace that a boa constrictor would have been envious of, covering every inch of him with his protection.

  ‘What happened?’ Abraham panted, on the verge of sobbing. ‘What the hell happened? Are you hurt? Are you—’

  ‘I’m fine, I’m . . . all right,’ Alex said, suffocating under his uncle’s weight.

  Abraham continued to mumble something, and when he came to stare at Alex, his wet eyes were bulging from his face. It was only as his uncle said it for the third time that Alex heard it clearly: ‘We have to go.’

  He found himself suddenly being pulled to the car by Abraham’s iron grip and promptly smothered with a chequered blanket in the front seat. He said his uncle’s name five times, and finally grasped his hand to get his attention.

  ‘What’s the matter? What’s wrong?’ Alex asked. ‘Why were you crying?’

  ‘You need to keep warm, that’s what’s the matter,’ Abraham replied. ‘It is very cold. I need to keep you warm. Keep you safe. You must be warm.’ His preparations complete, Abraham closed the door and rushed off to inspect the broken house, not noticing the three visitors nearby.

  There was a knock at the window, and Alex saw that his three guests were standing on the other side of the door.

  ‘I’m afraid we must be leaving too,’ Evie said, stooping down between her father and Irwin as Alex pushed open the door. Her words, however, were not followed by any others; suddenly, and once again, everyone seemed at a loss as to what to say. An apology? A ‘nice to meet you’? A ‘see you around someday’?

  Winton cleared his throat before speaking in a slow and sorrowful voice. ‘One day I truly hope you find it in your heart to forgive us for what has happened here on this rather . . .’ He looked up, searching for the right word. ‘. . . betwixt night. I hope for that the very most.’

  ‘I know not if I will ever forgive myself for what happened here tonight,’ Evie began. ‘I . . . I . . . I just wanted to say . . . I . . .’ She lifted her head. ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

  On the verge of tears, she turned away into Irwin’s embrace.

  ‘Take care, my friend,’ Winton said, and he closed the door.

  As quickly as they had arrived, the visitors had left, vanishing within the blizzard. Abraham entered and started the car some minutes later, seemingly too overcome to have noticed the guests. The vehicle rumbled to life and sped off back down the road from which it had come.

  As the streets blurred by, Alex found that the only words in his head were the final ones Evie had said to him. Again and again he heard them, as if they were a colossal tidal wave washing away every other thought and feeling. Despite his attempts to elicit his memories, he could not recall whether he had mentioned his grandparents to the three mysterious people.

  Abraham’s muttering breaths kept rising and falling over the steering wheel. A spiderweb of wrinkles crinkled around his eyes as they squinted and strained. ‘We have to go, get back,’ he kept saying. ‘Go back to Maud, yes . . . Get home, get back, sort it all through. It’ll be fine!’ He laughed with a sob before shaking his head.

  ‘What is wrong?’ Alex asked very quietly. ‘Please, please tell me.’

  ‘I know . . . I just know . . .’

  ‘Know what? What aren’t you telling me?’

  ‘I know!’ He slammed his hands upon the steering wheel, as if to persuade himself of this more than Alex. ‘They are . . . they are . . .’

  ‘Who is? Is it Maud? Is she all right?’

  Confused and aggravated by his uncle’s avoidance, Alex tried a different approach. ‘Why did you come back so quickly to get me?’

  Abraham’s gaze did not move from the road ahead. ‘I had to come and get you—had to know you were safe, keep you safe . . .’

  Alex was exhausted. ‘What has happened?’ he asked wearily. ‘Please tell me.’

  Abraham did not respond. Instead, the car gained speed; the onslaught of snow consumed them further and further. They were nearly there.

  Silence.

  No words.

  And then only one.

  ‘Gone.’

  Abraham finally turned to look Alex in the eye. The passing street lamps lit up the stream of tears upon his face. ‘They are . . . they are gone.’

 
; Dread dropped into Alex’s stomach, and he felt himself sink deeper into his seat. The sensation of fear shooting through his body was breathtaking, spreading to every empty fibre between crown and toe. It felt almost as if something had fractured his body. ‘Who is gone? G-gone where?’

  ‘They are just . . . your parents . . . they won’t be . . .’ Abraham’s words fell from his mouth. ‘They are gone.’ He faced the road again.

  That was it: the sudden, stunning and lasting truth.

  In the wing mirror beside Alex everything was fading away, draining into white, yet through the windscreen ahead a path was being thrown at him that he had no choice but to take; the unknown, swallowing them both up, was coming into sudden and immediate clarity from the darkness. Upon facing the wall of daggers before him, Alex felt the first sensation of warmth since leaving his house: a gentle tear rolling down his cheek.

  And Alex didn’t say a word because none came to him. And he didn’t move an inch because he felt that if he did, his body would simply shatter as if it was made of the finest and purest glass in the world. But shatter it did nonetheless, and away he went.

  AN EMPIRE OF DREAMS

  — CHAPTER TWO —

  When and Then

 
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