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Asterisk Anthology: Volume I

Round 1 Runner-up

Apples to Ashes

by Alexandra Peel

 

“It’s closed.”

“Course it is. Idiot. It’s six o’clock.”

“I’m not an idiot, Alan. Mum says you’re not to call me an idiot.”

“Oy! You two, over here.”

“Come on, idiot.” Alan ruffled his younger brother’s hair.

The two jogged to where Will was squeezed halfway through some ancient, unsecure railings. Alan laughed madly, David, his brother joined in.

“Get lost!” Will barked, “Give us a shove, come on.”

Alan and David pushed at Will’s rotund shape until he popped through like a Tiddlywink counter. David giggled.

“Stuff off squirt! Come on Alan, you next.”

Alan, being of a slighter frame, had less trouble passing through the narrow gap. He slid onto the damp grass and gestured for his brother to follow. David stood on the pavement looking along Priory Walk. There were no street lights here. Tucked away behind industry and businesses, it became almost deserted after five o’clock.

“What if someone catches us, Alan?” He said.

“No-one’s here, Davey, come on.”

“Leave him he’s scared. Come on, Alan. Let’s look for shrapnel or bombs!” Will wandered off, kicking at small stones and an empty peanut can someone had thoughtlessly tossed over the railings.

“I’m not scared, Alan,” David said.

“I know Davey. Come on, you’re tiny, you’ll fit through no problem.” Alan held his hand through the railings. “You’re with me. Never mind Will, he’s only teasing.” Then leaning his mouth close to the iron bars, he whispered, “He’s an idiot.” David smiled at his brother, and taking his hand, passed through into the grounds of the priory. Alan shouting after Will, “There won’t be any bombs. That was ages ago.”

They found Will standing on a carved lump of masonry, chest puffed out as he declared in his deepest voice,

“I am the King and you are my subjects! Now kneel.”

“It’s wet.” Alan objected.

“I said kneel.” Will bent forwards, “You’ve got to do it, I’m in charge. I’m Henry the Eighth and you’re the monks.” He straightened, “Off with their heads!”

The boys made swishing, slicing sounds and gargling noises.

“You chopped off my hand.” Squealed David, pulling his shirt cuff over his fingers, “Ow!” he howled.

“You dick,” Will said, “Henry didn’t chop off their hands, he chopped off their heads.

“Don’t call him a dick.” Snapped Alan, “You’re a dick.”

“No, you’re a dick.”

Alan and Will partook of some shoving and pushing until they slid on the dewy grass, falling on top of each other in a fit of the giggles.

“Sorry, Will. I didn’t know.” David mumbled.

“S’okay, squirt.” Will knuckled the smaller lad’s head, “You don’t understand history.” He turned about to face the semi-derelict structure. “Wonder if we can get inside.” He mused.

The boys searched for a place of ingress, whilst excitedly chattering about telling their friends at school the next day, that they had spent the night in the priory ruins. They would be famous.

When Will had passed around a corner, David tugged on his brother’s sweater.

“Alan, what’ll mum say?” David sucked on his bottom lip. A sign Alan recognized.

“She won’t, Davey. She’s probably still in the pub. We aren’t staying all night. Just an hour or two.”

“Then can we play Duck Apple?”

“Come here.” Will smiled. He pulled his brother into a tight, brief hug. But David wouldn’t let go.

Alan knelt before him, “Davey, we can’t hold hands. Not in front of Will, he’d tell everyone and they’d all laugh at us.” He looked into his brother’s huge eyes, heaving a sigh. “I’ve got an idea.”

Alan stood, and removing his school tie, he fastened one end around David’s wrist and made a loop at the other end.

“There.” He said, “Now we’re kind of holding hands. We can tell Will that you’re my prisoner. Okay?”

David seemed cheered by this and swiftly wiped his cheeks with his shirt cuff. He followed behind on the end of the school tie. When they rounded the corner, they found themselves in what appeared to be a graveyard.

“Why are some of the stones lying down Alan?” David whispered.

“Dunno.” Alan replied absently, “Where’s Will?” They scanned around for their friend. “Will?” Alan said. A little louder, “Will?”

“Where is he, Alan?” David whispered.

“Probably hiding, knowing Will.”

From a deep recess a few feet off the ground, a dark figure leapt. “Yaa!” Will grabbed at Alan, who fell beneath Will’s weight, pulling David down with him.

“Will! You dick!” Alan shouted, but laughed all the same.

Will laughed as he rolled on the grassy graves. David was sniffling. “You baby,” Will said, sitting up and holding his ankles. “It was only a laugh.”

Alan, trying to cover for his brother’s fright said, “We’re tied together. He hurt his wrist, you…damn you, Will!”

David gasped. Will stared. Alan was glad of the darkening sky; they wouldn’t see him blush. Then Will burst out laughing, pointing at Alan and rocking back and forth.

“You said damn.”

David pointed at Will, his mouth an even bigger ‘O’. After a bout of everyone saying damn, they calmed down. Will struggled to his feet,

“Come and see what I found.” He clumped to a darkened corner.

There, Will showed a door set into an arched surround. He shoved against it. “Look, it isn’t locked. Just heavy. C’mon lads, lend a hand.” Will pushed, “Wait till we tell ‘em at school that we spent Halloween night in the old priory!”

They shoved together, pressing the swollen wood into the darkness beyond. The most complete part of the priory was the Chapter House.

“Mr. White said there used to be a manor house next door.” Alan panted.

“Mr. White’s an old fart. What does he know.” Will grunted. “Too old to be a teacher. That’s what my dad says.”

They finally got a reasonable gap to pass through. It was wider than necessary, but the unspoken agreement was, to leave it wide enough – just in case. Alan felt David’s fingers creep into his palm.

The gloom was punctuated by grey slats of light from breaks in the roof, missing brickwork high up and narrow windows clogged with brambles and weeds. Alan, with David in hand, followed Will into the center of the space, it wasn’t that large and the floor space was scattered with lumps of masonry; some ornate, and dust filled shelving. The niches and archways held a particular dread. Young imaginings of stationary monks from long ago, lying in wait for children. The boys crept as one being, around unidentifiable mounds and furniture.

“Looks like workmen have been here,” Will said.

“How d’you know?” asked Alan.

“Concrete.” Will sniffed at a pale bag that stood like a squat ghost against one wall, “And there are shovels and I saw a pile of bricks around the back.”

“Maybe it’s treasure hunters.” Whispered David.

In the grey gloom, two faces peered at the younger boy. David tucked his chin in, waiting for the laugh or snide remark from Will.

“Hey!” Will said, “You could be right there, squirt.”

David gave a tentative smile as relief filled him.

“Treasure hunters! Looking for the monk’s hidden treasure.” Will said, running with the idea.

“Why would monks have treasure?” Alan asked.

Will spun around so that Alan bumped into him.

“Monks always have treasure. Well known fact. Look at all that stuff in the museum that was found in religious places.” Will advanced, crouched with one hand raised as if holding a lantern. “Follow me, chaps,” he put on what he imagined was a posh accent, “We’ll be the first men to find the lost treasure of the old priory monks.”

They climbed over a diverse jumble of crates, building materials, masonry and dust-grey mounds of unidentifiable stuff. Emerging into a long gallery with still-standing columns, high ceiling and regular window openings that allowed hesitant scraps of light to permeate, the boys looked around curious.

“What’s this place?” Alan said.

Will pulled himself up into a stately posture, “Gentlemen,” he stuck his thumbs under his braces, “We are now standing in the center of operations. This is where the monks would count their treasure and-”

“It looks like a dining room.” Interrupted Alan.

“Shut up!” Will scowled, “You’re ruining it.”

“Oh, sorry.” Alan stood, attentive.

David, standing close to his brother, gazed about. He watched as specks of white drifted along the lines of light, to the pale patches on the boards, like puddles of moonlight. Feeling braver, David left Alan to Will’s speech and bent to draw a line in the fine covering on a nearby table. It was a long table, he thought it was probably very old, it was like the dining tables at school, you could fit a lot of people around this one. Amidst the chalky dust, the finger line stood out black. David turned the line into a letter d. Then added the rest of the letters that spelled his name.

“It should be a capital.”

David twitched. He hadn’t heard Alan approach. Alan leant over him and made the correction. Now the name was messy. When Alan wandered away again, David rubbed out the writing, leaving a black, ragged hole on the grey surface.

“Hey!” Alan shouted, “Hey, you two, come and see what I found.”

David and Will went to where Alan beckoned.

“Wow. A secret staircase.” Will said.

“Well, not that secret.” Said Alan. There was no door; only the newel post at the foot of the stairs. “And look,” he rubbed at a sign attached to the wall close-by, “Scrip-tori-um. Scriptorium!”

“What else Alan?” asked David.

Alan scrubbed at the plate with his sleeve. “Says it was built in 1375. There were only five monks in the priory.”

“Five?” Will said scornfully. He shoved Alan aside, “Me first!”

As Will placed his foot on the first step, there was a sound from above. Will froze. He turned his head slowly, looking over his shoulder at Alan, his eyes round as confessional wafers. Will silently mouthed What was that? Alan shrugged, David shoved both his thumbs into his mouth and bit. Alan pulled Will close and whispered.

“Probably birds.”

“So, why are you whispering?” Whispered Will.

They burst out into nervous laughter. Something fluttered above. In the newly moved air, specks of dirt and small feathers spiraled down. David forced laughter from his tense lungs. It sounded loud, it didn’t echo, but seemed to fall flat at the foot of the stairs. Will ascended the sturdy steps to the next floor, closely followed by Alan and David.

“Wow,” Will said.

The ceiling was of the vaulted kind and, to the boys, added a certain mystique and wonder to the room. It was larger than the room below, so, suggested Will, it surely covered the whole of the ground floor rooms. Smooth pillars, ranged in two rows of six, grew like massive, pale flower stems, from the floor. Spreading their tops to join the arched ceiling. The many slim windows had crooked leaded lights; some of the diamond pieces of glass long gone. Whilst Will and Alan wandered around, David stayed close to the walls. He crept along, his shoulder rubbing against the coarse sandstone until he came up against a protuberance he had to skirt. It appeared to have been a fireplace; either side of it supported by broad, square pillars. David peeked into the blackness.

“Alan!” He shrieked.

Alan and Will came running and sliding between defunct furniture. Pigeons had risen in panic and sent dust and filth spattering every which way.

“What?” Alan said, grasping his brother’s hand. “Are you alright Davey? What happened?”

David had his eyes squeezed tight. “There’s someone in the fireplace.” He squeaked.

Will snorted derisively and stuck his head in. “Coo. It’s big, isn’t it? Nothing there, squirt.” He said.

“I want to go home, Alan.” Davey whimpered.

“In a minute. I promise.” Alan sighed, “Me and Will won’t be long. Look. Why don’t you sit down here?” Will settled David on the floor in the angle of the fire mantle and wall, “And we’ll be back, soon.”

“Honest?” David looked into his brother’s eyes.

“Honest.” Said Alan.

“You won’t leave me?”

“I won’t leave you.”

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

Will crossed his forefinger over his chest, spat sideways, “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

“Come on, Alan.” Will tugged at his friend’s jumper.

David pulled his knees up under his chin and began a quiet chant, “The grand old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men…” Then halted. Had he heard another voice? About to call for his brother, he decided it was probably an echo from the open hole of the old fireplace. Besides, Will would call him an idiot. He hummed quietly and rocked.

The grand old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men.” Came the whisper.

David ceased his humming and rocking. There was another voice. Soft and far away. Yet close. On his hands and knees, David crawled to the edge of the pillar and peered around into the sooty hole.

How do you, Davey?” Whispered the boy in the dark.

David felt his heart trying to leap from his chest. He clenched his fingers so that his nails dug into the soft wood of the ancient floor. David’s world shook as he attempted to flee and scream, but could only gape as the form, stepped forwards. Somewhere in David’s brain thoughts ran and tumbled. This boy should not fit in the fireplace. He should not be able to stand up in this space. Did he really walk through solid stone? But the lad’s appearance and speech puzzled David more.

“Wh-who are you?” David asked in hushed tones. He sat back on his haunches looking up at the boy.

“I am Robert of Poole. Will you help me this night?”

“I, er, what do you want?” was all David could manage.

The strange boy knelt. David shivered and pulled back into his corner. The air around the boy was chilly; like the bedroom when mother had forgotten to light the fire. As if a door had opened onto a chill October night. David ducked his head, peering at the oddly attired lad from beneath his fringe. He tried to call his brother’s name, but all his lips would do was to tremble and fumble the sound.

The boy called Robert regarded David. “How many years have you?”

David did not understand the question. Robert repeated himself, adding, “I have ten summers. Ten years I am.”

“Six.” Whispered David.

Then the boy Robert became animated. “Davey. Ye take a piece of this stone,” Here he indicated the fire bricks, “Put it in your pocket and take me with you.” David frowned. “I am trapped you see.”

“Trapped?” David’s voice was a squeak.

“I cannot leave this place, Davey. I beseech thee.”

“Alan?” David squeaked.

“Davey. Assist me.” The boy Robert leant closer. “Or you could stay.”

David turned his head and scrunched up his eyes. For the boy, Robert’s eyes seemed as dark as the fireplace he had emerged from. Like the opening to Mrs. Grindley’s coal cellar, when his mother had asked him and Alan to help her bring up coal last winter. David had stood trembling on the steps whilst his brother had gone down alone, emerging sooty and relieved.

“Alan!” David raised his voice.

“Davey!” Robert hissed.

“Davey?” came Alan’s return.

“Alan! Tell him to leave me alone!” David wailed, burying his head in his arms and squeezing back into the corner as far as his spine would let him.

A hand grabbed David’s arm. He jumped and yelped in fear.

“Davey.” Alan knelt before him. “What’s wrong?”

David threw his arms around his brother’s neck and held on tight. He was trying to talk, but the crying made his words unintelligible.

“Davey. Davey?” Alan tried prying his brother’s arms free, to no avail.

“He’s peed his pants!” Alan looked up at Will, who was pointing, with a big grin on his face.

“What?!” Alan snapped.

“Pissy pants! Pissy pants!” Will sang.

Davey mumbled something.

“What?” said Alan. “Shut up, Will!” Alan tried to stand, heaving his brother upright. “Davey, let go. Davey, I can’t understand you.”

“Pissy pants! Pissy pants!”

“Will! Shut up! Davey, let go!” Alan pulled roughly at his brother’s hands. David’s hands slid free of Alan’s neck, immediately circling his waist.

“I want to go home.” David cried. “There’s a boy…he wants me to take him…lives in the fireplace…” he managed between sobs.

“Come on, we’re going,” Alan stated.

“Oh, come on.” Griped Will, “We’ve only just got going. There could be-”

“There’s nothing here, Will!” Alan snapped. “Davey’s scared. I’m taking him home.” He put a protective arm around his brother’s shoulders, “Stay if you want, but we’re going.”

“Scaredy cat.” Will sulked.

“I’m not scared.” Alan squared up to the taller boy. “But something scared Davey. I’m taking him home.”

“A boy,” David said between breaths.

“A boy? In the fireplace?” Will scoffed. “You’re a barmpot Davey Gamlin.”

“He is not!” Alan shouted.

“And I’m going to tell everyone at school.”

“You dare, Will Cartwright, and I’ll…I’ll…”

Alan froze. His eyes darted about, seeking. David had caught hold of his hand and was holding on tight.

“What?” said Will.

“Didn’t you hear that?” whispered Alan.

“No,” Will said.

“Just then, it was like-”

There was a sound, as of someone chuckling. The three boys stood motionless. The air seemed to strain about them. Alan and Will, still standing inches apart, stared each into the others round eyes.

Will moved first, he dashed for the stairs. Alan tugged his little brother along. David seemed like lead. His feet shuffled on the waste and feather smeared boards.

“Where’s the stairs?” shouted Will as Alan approached.

“There.” Alan pointed.

“No. They’re not. The stairs aren’t there, Alan!” Will’s voice rose tremulously.

“We’re in the wrong place,” Alan said, and worked his way along through the furniture debris. He could feel Will close behind him, his heavy breathing, the panic in each breath.

“Come on, Alan.” Will snapped.

Thray blind mice. Thray blind mice. See how they run. See how they run.” Came a sing-song voice.

Alan stopped. “What’s that?” he whispered.

“Robert. It’s Robert.” Came David’s muffled voice. “He’s in the fireplace.”

“There’s someone else here,” Will whispered to Alan. “Got to be. I bet John Whelan and his cronies followed us.” Then to the surroundings in general, he shouted, “Get lost, Whelan!” though his voice was not steady.

There was something off-kilter about the soft sniggering. Alan and Will reached out to grasp each other’s arms. It seemed like the scriptorium were tilting. David whimpered like an injured pup. A draft danced across the boards, lifting dust and debris, to rise in a gentle spiral. Swaying and twirling, it approached the static trio.

“Run!” yelled Alan.

The boys ran. Staggering and tripping over each other and the abandoned furnishings.

“This way!” They turned.

Over here!”

“No, that way!”

Alan bumped into Will, dragging David to a halt.

“This is stupid!” Alan shouted. “We can’t have gone the wrong way, it’s not that big.” Pulling David around with him, Alan turned and turned about, trying to get his bearings. “There! That’s the desk Davey drew on.” He pointed. “There’s the fireplace, and there’s where we went, Will. Will?”

Alan looked at his friend. Will remained motionless.

“We’re never gonna get out,” Will muttered.

Grey light, from one window, highlighted his wet cheeks. Alan gave a start.

“Will.” He grasped his friend’s arm and shook it. “Will, look at me. We stick together. Okay? We just made a wrong turn. I bet it is Whelan. I bet he’s havin’ a right good laugh at us. C’mon, Will, don’t let me down now.”

Take me with you, Davey.” Came the plea.

“Leave him alone!” shouted Alan.

T’aint much to ask.” The voice was beseeching. “Davey?”

Will and Alan stood close, with David pressed between. Staring and staring into the moonlight punctuated gloom. Alan bit his lip, then called out.

“Who are you?”

Will gripped his arm, “What are you doing’?” his voice a hissed whisper.

I am Robert of Poole.” Came the reply from all around.

“What do you want with us?” Alan said.

A transparent shape formed some ten feet away, shifting closer, solidifying with each stride and word, “I want my freedom!Snarled the boy who now stood less than two feet away.

Will, Alan, and David clung so tightly to each other, they were one creature. Trembling and straining back, their unified feet, rooted. Only their eyes moved and rolled like drowning horses.

“Give me my freedom!” demanded Robert of Poole, “I do swear, that if you do not grant it, I shall be at thy side forever more!”

The Will, Alan, David being, trembled and whimpered. Quivering nostrils running and weeping. Robert of Poole looked them over. He walked around the tight cluster, frowning and squinting, curling his lip and reaching, to hover before their faces, without making contact. Alan Will David felt the chill of autumns past. Alan spoke, but the words were dried crusts that fell soundlessly.

The face of Robert of Poole pressed close. “What speak ye?”

Alan’s vision was filled with the boy’s face. They were, he noted, the same height, but this boy had hair like a girl, clothes like something from a history book and eyes filled with hate. Alan had never seen such hatred before. It burned and froze at the same time. It made his eyes water.

“H-how? How d-do we g-give you your f-freedom?”

Robert of Poole’s eyes raced around, taking in the whole of Alan’s features.

“Take a stone from the fireplace.” His breath was not warm and smelt of damp ashes.

Alan swallowed, “A-and that is all?”

Robert of Poole straightened and stepped away. He barely inclined his head. “Take a stone.” He held out a hand towards the fireplace. Inviting.

Alan shuffled forwards; bringing Will and David with him. Regarding the fire surround, he saw the stones were large, solid, some places where the mortar had fallen away had smaller chunks pressed in-between. He reached out his hand and took hold and pulled. It would not move.

“Try harder.” Robert of Poole said into his ear.

Alan shrank away from the cold breath. Suddenly, with a wordless roar, Will tore himself away from the huddle, grabbed something from the floor and bashed and stabbed at the pillar. Alan saw Robert of Poole smiling, evidently pleased.

Will hammered and smashed; yelling and crying as he did so. Mortar crumbled, pieces flew, stones fell. Alan joined in, dust-laden tears layered his cheeks as hysteria drove him on. All the while, David clung to his jumper, dragged and shaken under the force of his brother’s movements. Something groaned,

“Look out!” Alan shouted, pulling Will away at the last moment.

Stones tumbled, striking their shoulders and shins. The boys fell back beneath the shower of sandstone and dust. A hole yawned before them, no solid structure this. The scriptorium dimmed as a cloud passed over the moon. And when its light returned, and the dirt cloud had settled, the boys could see what lay within. They stood open-mouthed, their tongues collecting the ancient air from within the pillar. No-one spoke for a long while, as they took in the contents.

Alan noticed a pain in his hand. David was holding on so tight it hurt. Alan breathed out.

The grey figure stood, or half slumped against the pillar interior. Hands held up before it, frozen forever into claws, the skull tipped backward with the lower jaw dropped in a never ending, silent scream.

“What is it?” Will demanded. His voice too loud, too high. “What is it?”

Robert of Poole came to stand alongside. He tipped his head looking at Will.

“It is I, Will Cartwright.”

“But…but…you’re…”

“Not alone anymore.” Replied the ancient boy.

“Stay with me.” Came the voice of David.

Alan looked down. David had released his hand. He took a step away.

“Stay with me, here.”

It was David’s voice, but not. Will stared in horrid fascination.

“Leave him alone!” shrieked Alan, rage chasing the fear aside. “Davey. Come here.”

“He is remaining with me.” Said David in his shared voice. “He desires it. You can too.”

“No!” Alan wept. “No.” Softer. “Davey, come here, come. We’ll go home now, I promise. Mum will be waiting for us.”

David took a step towards Robert of Poole.

“Will, do something!” Alan cried.

As Robert of Poole raised a hand to place on David’s shoulder, Will dashed forwards, swinging the wooden bar he had used to smash the wall. Alan dashed to grab his brother. They both touched nothing. Robert of Poole and David were no longer before them.

Both boys spun around, frantically searching about.

“Davey!” they yelled, “Davey.”

Both Alan and Will sobbed. Dribbling snot filled their mouths, dust lined their eyes and ears. Alan’s throat became raw from calling his brother’s name. He stopped abruptly.

“Take me!” Alan shouted, spinning on the spot, “Take me instead. Leave my brother.” He twisted and searched, “Please.” He added softly.

Two figures materialized in the air before him.

“You would do that?” said Robert of Poole, his hand resting on David’s shoulder.

David was crying, his thumbs stuck in his mouth. Alan felt a twist inside, watching his little brother shake and sob beside this creature.

“I would,” Alan said. All his fight drained away.

“You will stay here with me?” Alan nodded. “Forever?” nod. “Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

*****

At the police station, neither Sergeant Crossly, Mrs. Cartwright or Mrs. Gamlin could get any explanation or sense from the boys. Sergeant Crossly had initially berated them, but their smeared faces spoke of something more serious than high jinx. A female constable had taken Will and David into a quiet room for cups of cocoa. Mrs. Gamlin sniffed and sobbed as she had held her boy close. She rocked and kissed and hugged and begged, but he remained obstinately silent and inert as the stones of the old priory

Alexandra Peel is a visual artist turned author. She has a Degree in Fine Art, Sculpture and has been a freelance community artist, painter, graphics tutor and book seller; she currently works as a Learning Support Practitioner in a F.E/H. E college.

She is the author of ‘Sticks & Stones’; a collection of nine short stories about witches, and ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’; a pirate adventure for children. She has several short stories published including, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, which appears in the horror anthology Game Over by Snowbooks. ‘Spinning Jenny’, in The Singularity magazine and ‘ZIP’, in Rambunctious Ramblings. She has also created a series of Steampunk/Penny Dreadful style stories under the heading, ‘The Life and Crimes of Lockhart & Doppler’, about a pair of miscreant treasure hunters.

Born and raised in Liverpool, Alexandra came to live on the Wirral after five years spent in Staffordshire, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. She is a member of Wirral Writers and can be found at the following assorted locations:

Twitter: @alexandrapeel

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