Wakeful Children - Excerpt - introductory passage
S P Oldham
Warning - Content Advisory - Violence and Gore/Frequent Use of Explicit Language
1. Joe Gallows
His real name was lost to all memory, his own included; the locals called him Joe Gallows. He had no idea where the ‘Joe’ came from; the ‘Gallows’ he understood absolutely.
He had a need for a very particular kind of slaughter. Using a slingshot, Gallows hunted down small prey; over time variously killing foxes, weasel, stoat, rats, birds and even once a small, crippled badger. He was careful only to stun them at first. When they began to show signs of recovery he would pull tighter on the noose he had slipped around their necks. It fascinated him, the way their eyes showed at first confusion, quickly becoming fear, then sheer panic before the light inside them slowly faded, extinguished into nothing more than sightless, glossy mirrors reflecting his image.
The next part was the real thrill; stringing them up, three, four, even ten at a time, like macabre tinsel, from tree to tree, post to post, for the world to admire his skill.
He had started small, draping a string of corpses across a road sign, only to find it impossible to gauge people’s reactions as they sped by in their cars. For all he knew they had not even spotted his work. One day, he dared to venture further into the village.
Little more than two streets in he had come across a section of security fencing around a house extension in progress; perfect. Better still, there was a defunct bus shelter just across the road.
Gallows reached into his back-pack and pulled out a loop of pre-strung animals, tying their shared noose into the security fence and fastening it securely. He spared only the briefest moment to admire his handiwork before retreating to a spot behind the shelter.
At last, as he had anticipated, the front door to the house opened. Two teenage girls emerged, picking their way carefully around stacks of paving slabs and rows of glossy new piping. They were so preoccupied with buttoning up coats against the chill that it took an age before one of them finally looked up.
The girl stopped fiddling with her coat and Gallows heard her breathe, “Tasha, what the hell is that?”
Tasha shrugged off-handedly, “What’s what Mel?”
“That!” Mel hissed, pointing at the fence.
Tasha peered, “I don’t know,” she said “Let’s go a bit closer.”
“I don’t think I want to. I think we should go in and get dad.”
“To tell him what? That there’s something on the fence, we don’t know what, but could he get up early on his one day off and come and look because we’re too scared to?”
“Okay, let’s get mum then,”
“Don’t be such a baby! It’s just some old rags or something. Come on,” she urged, “we’ll look together.”
It had only taken a few more steps. Tasha was the first to comprehend what she was looking at. Her hand flew to her mouth and she gagged as if about to vomit. Mel stopped dead in her tracks and even from his hiding place, Gallows could see her complexion pale suddenly. She emitted a small shriek, like a muted scream, apparently unable either to move or to tear her gaze away from the communal hanging on the fence before her. Tasha was also the first to recover; she began running, pulling her shocked sister awkwardly along behind her, both of them stumbling and tripping in their haste to escape the sight.
Gallows stood up arthritically slowly, rubbing his back and shuffling out into the road as if he was merely a tramp waking stiffly to another cold day. He paused long enough to see the front door open to the girls’ frenzied pounding. He couldn’t have asked for a better response.
He fed off the memory of that morning for days. The urge to repeat it became irresistible. He redoubled his efforts, his work becoming infamous locally. Village wide, people were finding strings of slaughtered animals adorning walls, hedgerows, gates; anywhere Gallows deemed worthy of his attentions.
He thought he had planned his decoration of the school well.
This was the riskiest one yet; he just hoped the rewards would be worth it. Checking he was unobserved as best he could, Gallows broke cover from the neat row of trees that lined the car park to loop the readily prepared line of cold, dead animals along the railings.
The fence was higher than he had reckoned with and he spent a few moments straining to reach the top in order to hang his trophies. Feeling the thrilling pressure of time, he finally succeeded and stepped back briefly to survey his work.
This was a row of stiff little bodies; tiny paws and tails rigid in death. Gallows stuffed the now empty sack into the folds of his coat and made for the cover of the trees once again. He had an escape route onto the street, the broken wire fence behind him held down with rocks to allow for a quick escape. Confident, excitement mounting, he waited.
He heard approaching voices; a cacophony of ‘hellos’ and snippets of mundane conversation as children and parents approached the school grounds. He relished the familiar dark frisson of thrill when he heard the first exclamations of horror.
On the pathway a man began waving his arms wildly, shouting for everyone to stop, to go back, but for some school-goers it was too late. Several children began to cry, though Gallows noted with satisfaction that others seemed more curious than upset.
The man had stopped waving and had moved to stand in front of the hangings, attempting to block them from view with outstretched arms. Someone else ran into the school building to alert the powers within.
Barely a minute later, a bespectacled man in an expensive looking suit came hurrying out, his face pale with concern. A second man clad in khaki overalls ran alongside him. He was pulling on rubber gloves and carrying a thick black bag, his expression grim. It was obvious these two intended to take his trophies down. Gallows had seen enough; he turned to leave.
Two men waited for him as he stepped out onto the street behind the pinned down fencing. Their expressions were mixtures of contempt and hostility. There was a large woman with them, her weathered face contorted with disgust, meaty arms folded across her ample chest. Her voice trembled as she spoke, “You low-life piece of shit! How dare you? How dare you do something like that in a school? A fucking school?”
Gallows grimaced, for once caught unawares.
“Don’t you smile at me,” The woman took a step closer, her fists clenched.
One of the men caught her elbow, “Leave off Debs, I want a word with him.” He pulled Debs aside and seized Gallows by his tattered jacket, slamming him hard against a parked car. He leaned in to deliver a threat, then reeled back, repulsed by Gallows’ putrid breath.
“Jesus Christ! He stinks!” He heaved and retched violently.
“He probably eats road-kill,” the other man eyed Gallows contemptuously; “You ever eat your road kill weirdo?”
The man holding Gallows recovered, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, being careful now to keep Gallows at arm’s length, “You won’t do this shit around here anymore, will you Joe Gallows? Oh yeah, we all know it’s you leaving your sorry little calling cards all over the place.”
Despite his discomfort at such close human contact, Gallows felt a swell of pride at the recognition. He made a wet, purring noise deep in his throat. Immediately wary, the man’s grip tightened.
“Don’t even fucking think about spitting on me. I’ll give you such a kicking, there won’t be enough of you left to hang up anywhere, you understand me?” He stared into Gallows’ amber eyes intending to force his point home, but was immediately caught by the strange light he saw there. It held him bound and for a moment he almost forgot his purpose. He looked down at the ragged coat still bunched in his own fists as if surprised to find he was gripping it.
Gallows stared mutely back, an ooze of saliva tracing its slow way down his stubbly chin. Sickened and seemingly imbued with fresh anger, the man pulled Gallows in close and then shoved him away hard.
Gallows smashed against the parked car, twisting mid fall. His face hit the front tyre, sending blunt shafts of pain into his forehead and leaving a tarry black smudge across the bridge of his nose. The road beneath was unforgiving; small, stinging shards of gravel embedded themselves spitefully into his palms and his knees throbbed with pain, yet he did not attempt to rise until his tormentors had moved off.
They appeared oddly subdued as they went, the man who had shoved him pushing his hands deep into his pockets, Debs arms folded about herself as if seeking reassurance. She turned to look back once, hurrying onwards as fast as her ample frame could carry her when she saw Gallows was watching.
Gallows had forgotten the second man; he didn’t see the kick to his stomach coming as he finally tried to stand. The blow drove the air from his lungs, winding him. Waves of agony rippled the length of his body, rendering him paralysed. A second kick followed, pitching him heavily forwards. He saw his precious slingshot tumble from his pocket and skitter away. He saw it snapped beneath the deliberate weight of his attacker.
Then his forehead connected with the road too, becoming as pitted with stones as his hands were; it felt like a thousand rodent teeth trying to burrow into his brain.
His eyes were streaming, his kidneys aching beyond comprehension, his stomach cramping. It felt like an eternity that he lay wedged between the kerb and the car, willing the white waves of agony to end.
They subsided at last, allowing him to sit cautiously back on his knees; he could tolerate the pain now, but the damage to his sling-shot was devastating; snapped in two places and dangling like a broken limb from a stretched and useless tendon when he crawled over to it and picked it up.
Gallows moaned; the grief of this loss worse than the physical pain. It didn’t matter that he could always make another. This was his; his belonging, his possession; the man might as well have stolen it from him.
He was fighting this keen wave of loss when a strange new sensation overcame him. A wetness began to spread over his back; a shower of warm liquid spattering him from above, speckling his filthy coat. Confused, Gallows tried to work out where it was coming from.
There was a small, strident sound as the man zipped up his jeans, “Piss on you, sicko!” He sneered, swaggering away, his demeanour defiant, nothing lost of his earlier aggression.
Still cradling the broken catapult as if he might somehow bring it back to life, Gallows stayed where he was in the gutter and watched him go.
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