I've been very happy to watch the numbers of people hitting the links to Efestival of Words, Hallowe'en Horror event tick by. When you take part in an event with other writers, many of whom are a lot more read than you are, you get nervous. It's been nice to see my excerpts get a good hit rate too! So thank you.
Below is another excerpt from Sleet Dreams, the opening of the story is here. Again, there is a coupon for 25% off Fragments for the month of October, over here, and lots of giveaways from authors taking part in the horror promotion, here. There is also a 5000 word excerpt from The Fool, and occult thriller novella, on the link. Enjoy!
One advantage to snow and ice was that trawling for decent food was a lot easier: nature’s fridge, she sometimes thought of it. But constant contact with frozen metal wore the soul down and ate into any warmth you might have. Her rucksack held a good supply of zip lock bags, so she could salvage what she could safely when she could. Keeping hands warm and dry was crucial and she’d learned to always use a thick pair of rubber household gloves over her woolen ones. Useful in pelting rain too, as it kept her hands dry no matter how much the rest of her dripped.
Wet days, or days with thick snow, were spent on her regular route of thrift stores and Goodwill. She was always searching for a warmer pair of boots or a thicker coat. She never scrimped on ice grips: she could not afford a fall. A sprain would be bad enough, a broken bone would end her independence, she was sure. She’d be in the spiral down to the shelters, and then the gutters, before you could blink.
Her driving force, her mantra, was if that she got through one more winter and kept on saving, she would one day be able to get on a bus and move back down south. Then she’d be in clover, then she’d be able to relax, and maybe get another dog once she’d found a decent place to live. She’d almost done it four years back, then Bertie had got ill on her and the bills on trying to keep him alive had wiped her out. Every day, as she moved through the alleyways, the sight of another unfortunate accompanied by their dog pierced her heart. Like the Ice Queen she’d once read about as a child, she felt there was ice in her eyes, moving into her bloodstream and freezing her soul. Sometimes when she woke up in the night, she still reached for his hairy hide to stroke and would wonder why he wasn’t there.
One day, one day, she’d be in the south and not have to worry, and she’d find another mutt to love and keep safe.
A really bad day, a terrible day, was a day when it was too fierce outside to go out at all. When no matter what she did, or where she might go, she’d be returning colder, hungrier, than when the day started. Those days would be spent in, aware that every moment the TV ran, the light burned, for every zing of the microwave... she was using up her precious electricity. She lived in terror of being stuck in the room without any electricity at all. To be cold, and hungry, unable to heat a cup of water to sip down whilst sucking on cheap candy. To be sitting in the dark waiting for her next pension draw. It had never happened yet: she forced herself to add extra to the card all year round to get her through the winter. And she maintained her routine at all costs, during the snow, when she could. It was the stick she used to beat herself out into the streets every day, while keeping her sights on the carrot in her head: of one day getting on that bus south. And on days where the cold had driven out that thought there was always the promise of summer: it would come. It always came: just as it always left.
Today was going to be a bad day. All she had was some peanut butter scrapings and noodles. It had been too wet, for too many days. She’d three outside coats in all, as drying out a wet one was painfully slow with little heat. Each were battered, bruised, and patched but didn’t smell and did a fair amount of work in keeping her from dropping down dead with cold, or being refused entry to the mall or the library. But all were still damp. She spent ages sifting through in her mind which one to go with. Outside, the rain was turning to snow and driving into the windows horizontally. Sleet. She hated sleet the worse. Snow was warmer than half snow, half rain, she was convinced. Sleet hit you physically, like little bullets, far more raw and draining than hailstones. Hailstones bounced off you. Sleet clung to you, drenched you, drained you, shivered into your veins. Sleet soaked through and down faster than anything. She looked out at the slushy streets and the people wading through to get to work, to get home from work, to do anything to get off the street at all costs.
If it had been just after social security day, as opposed to a couple of days before, she’d had stayed in, holding onto the last of the morning’s heat doggedly, spinning out the hours until the evening bounty arrived. Or maybe gone to the Laundromat and relished the sultry rush of steam laden air, as she worked through her few clothes methodically. Then rushed back to watch TV and hide, holding the warm clothes in a bag as protection against the cold as she dived back to her room. But it was not to be. If she stayed in the spinning disk on the meter might betray her. ‘Sides, she needed food and had empty pockets.
She wrapped her feet in three layers of socks and two layers of plastic bags. She really needed to find new boots, with intact soles, but soles were thin by the time she got her feet into any shoes, and the streets long and hard. Walking kept up her wiry strength, kept her heart pumping and her bones from growing too fragile. Walking was life, not just for the scavenging that could be achieved en route.
She took a deep breath before launching out the door, pulling warm air into her lungs and praying it would hold there for as long as it took to get to somewhere else.
It was, without doubt, the worst day of her life. Nothing had worked on any level. It was dark again, and she was wet, frozen, shivering, and hungry. She’d been so cold that when she’d walked past the filthy lump of rags that was Dolly, and Dolly had offered the usual swig of something foul and very alcoholic, she’d almost been tempted. Almost allowed herself to feel the flood of warmth as whatever gut rot it was rolled down her throat and set fire to her belly. Almost. Her hand had stayed, and then retreated, and she’d smiled at Dolly and moved on, as she always did. Dolly swore at her heels for being a stuck up bitch, as she always did. But next time they’d see each other, they’d smile, and Dolly would offer the bottle. And if she had it, Maggie would hand Dolly some food. It was a miracle to her that Dolly somehow kept going. No doubt she was so foul the rats were scared to nibble on her. Maggie knew that she wasn’t so foul that some of the equally foul street men didn’t woo her for her favors. How else was a girl to get ethyl alcohol? There but for the grace of God...
It was a long way back to her room. Even now, crying silently under her breath with the cold and the effort to keep moving, Maggie couldn’t face returning. If she went too early, the room would be cold. She’d be locked in there waiting out the moment the radiators sprang to life. It could sometimes take forever, it seemed, and it unsettled her badly. Brought her hard up against the walls of her life. No, she must get another hour, maybe two, out of today. Somehow. She had to eke out some comfort, somewhere, before she went back. She had to walk into the welcoming heat, and take advantage of every scrap of it: she had to stay away just a bit longer.
The wind picked up and drove sleet into her eyes; she stumbled, and gripped the walls of an alleyway, holding onto the corner to keep her upright. Across the road, someone fell over, and a couple of bulky figures moved forward to help. One of the helpers went down. The wind shrieked in her face, bringing with it the raw fury of the lakes that funneled all that cold into the canyons of the city: she had to get out of this onslaught.
She picked her way down the alleyway, trying to find the spot where the wind no longer tore at you, the walls calming the demon. The grabbing hands dropped and she was out of the wind’s assault. The sleet was hammering down on her now, from above, still lethal, still deadly, but no longer being driven into her sideways. She slumped back against the walls, no longer bothered about how filthy they might be, and tucked behind the corner of a dumpster. A moment: she just needed a moment, and then she’d give in, try and sneak on a bus and go home. Wrap her hands around a mug of hot water with a stock cube in it and dream of summer, watching something on the box. Wait until she’d dried, and then thawed on the radiators. Get herself into bed while the heat was still in the air, then settle down to listen to her radio and read a book.
As she stood to prepare herself for the battle back out into the wind, she noticed something gray and furry, back in the shadows. Was that a dog? Alone, abandoned? She moved forward. Oh dear god, please don’t let it be a poor dead thing, abandoned here in the cold and muck. She approached the mound cautiously; like humans, dogs were animals. Animals required caution until you had the measure of them. The closer she got, the less it looked like a dog, the more it looked like... a wolf? Here? It was hard to see, between the shadows, the falling sleet, and her tiredness. She called to the animal under her breath, making reassuring noises. The sleet was starting to settle in slush piles around the fur... surely it would move out of that puddle that would soon form ice, if it could...?
She’d had to kneel down, trying to ignore the stabbing pain in her knees as they soaked in the cold. Her hand reached forward to touch the thick pelt, but she couldn’t feel anything through her layers of gloves. She stripped her right hand free, and touched the pelt again, gently trying to shake whatever it was awake. Warmth flooded into her fingers, over her palms, as she connected with the fur. Whatever was here, wasn’t dead, that was for sure.
Shaking it brought no response. She took her other glove off, and tried to search around to find the head, the legs, anything, that would make sense of this shape. Her hands moved under into the slush and little daggers stabbed into her. Ice was forming well under there. A touch of panic prompted her to grab what she thought might be the ruff of the animal and pull it back up and out, trying to unfurl it. It gave too easily and she fell back onto the sludge of the alleyway. The fur had come with her, and ended up on her: it was a fur coat. She was holding the thick collar and the lining had been revealed up to the skies; the fur side was touching down on her body. Her butt was stinging, with both the impact and the puddle of sludge she’d landed in. She stared at the coat in her hands, then panicked and jumped to her feet as well as she could: the coat lining was getting wet. Without a thought, she stood and whipped the coat over her back, like a cloak: why was there a thick warm coat, lying in the gutter..?
The warmth, the unctuous slide of heat that smoothed out over her shoulders distracted her. The fur repelled the sleet, the cold. She felt the chill lift and her body relax. Even her frozen backside was warmed through. This is why they raised minks... to keep out the thick cold. This is why they suffocated them by putting their heads in jars... to keep the fur intact...
She’d never bought fur, ever. Not only had she never been able to afford it, she’d been repelled by the thought: repulsed. Now, as the seasonal enemy that relentlessly assaulted her was beaten back and conquered... she shivered her arms into the coat, snuggled it round her. The collar wrapped up over her head, in a hood. The coat went past her knees. The thick sleeves engulfed her hands. Only her feet stayed cold but with the rest of her warm, that was bearable. She closed her eyes and wrapped her hands tightly across her chest.
She no longer felt cold! She felt warm... she felt dry...she felt safe.
She stood, her eyes closed, drinking it in.
Her feet asked her to move.
She opened her eyes and was a little transfixed to find herself still in the alleyway. The sleet was still slamming down but it simply didn’t penetrate the coat at all. Her feet, however, still stood in freezing sludge. She looked down and shuffled them, urging the blood warming in her core to pump down and get her feet moving. Her feet responded, and the urgency to move diminished.
As she brought her gaze back up, she looked on what the coat had covered. What the coat had been hiding.
Her feet jumped back as her mouth let out a puff of silent, strangled air. It was a body: a woman’s body.
Maggie stared. It was not the first body she’d seen, and she supposed it would not be her last. It was, however, the most pathetic body she had ever seen. The woman was face down, her dark hair matted over her head. Nothing of her face could be seen. She was skin and bone. Like an old chicken stripped for broth making. The hand that lay dead and cold, so very cold, so very blue, on the rat droppings and rubbish the wind collected in the back of the alleyway, was tiny, shrunken: like a sick child’s. Ankles showed above canvas sneakers and below the hem of her pants: wasted. Maggie was sure that if she pulled back the sweater she could see there would be track marks all over her arms. A crack whore, no doubt. A body that wasted, a life that ruined, would rarely fall so far, without serious addiction. The sneakers were worn and split. Maggie pulled the coat tightly around her, tears dripping out of her eyes. To die like this, to die alone, face down in dog shit, in this cold... it was her worst nightmare.
The coat warmed her through.
How could this woman have such a coat as this?
The contrast between the clothing still on the woman – the body – and the coat Maggie now wore could not have been greater. Everything about the body screamed poverty and neglect. Perhaps she had stolen it...?
Thoughts of the body, and how she might, or might not, have lived her life, was scaring the bejeezers out of Maggie. She needed to go get help, and bring someone to this poor wretch, and get her out of the alleyway. She turned, and headed back out to the main street.
The wind picked at her within a few feet and the sleet once more slammed in horizontally. Or it tried to. With her muffler over her mouth and the hood covering her forehead and shielding her eyes, Maggie found she could stand against it. She was aware it was there, but it didn’t scour into her. She pushed herself into the wind and back up the street. She should find a telephone and call the police. She’d left her gloves back at the body and she pushed her hands into the deep pockets of the coat, wondering what they might hold. They held warmth: delicious, delirious, warmth. She moved down the street so quickly she was across the main road and skirting the park in a few moments. There were phones at the bottom corner, by the bus lines. As she walked, she felt the niggling weight of her rucksack: the coat felt tight and bulky across it and a cold draught slipped up the back of her legs at each stride – the shape of the bag causing the coat to billow out. She put up with it, as she couldn’t bear the thought of taking the coat off to unhook her back pack.
Maggie stared at the phone. Even though taking her gloveless hands out of the pockets and picking up that plastic handle would hurt... she should do it. She should call the police and ask for aid. She should.
Once she’d done that, however, there would be a whole world of standing around in the cold wet terror of the street. She might miss the heat going on... if she phoned and didn’t say who she was, there would be questions. The police would ask who’d been about at the time of the call. She looked up and down. Plenty of people on the way to and from work, fighting the elements as they plodded on. People standing at the bus lines beside her.
People were already looking at her coat. At the comfort it was affording whoever wore it, under that hood.
A spasm of agony flamed through her body. Oh my goodness, she’d stolen a coat off a poor dead woman! She was standing in the coat and that poor woman was back there, alone, in the sleet and ice...
She stumbled back up towards the alleyway. She needed to go back, give the woman her coat back, and then phone the police.
Give it back.
Everything in her rebelled: she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
She couldn’t go back to being cold.
She stood at the mouth of the alleyway, wondering at the feeling of not being cut in two by the wind; feeling her soul cut in two instead.
She turned away from the alley, faced into the wind and began the slog home.