You’ll find the combined three parts of our short story collaboration ‘The Pact’ below, based on the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. Thanks, first and foremost, to all the contributing writers. You’ll find their bios and contact details at the end of the post. Thank you especially to Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who lent a supportive hand on the editing. Jess also pulled together the image you see here. Hope you enjoy it.
Nillu Nasser Stelter
He slept in a room full of colour and familiar objects, but the silence crept under the door and touched his face. A blue-black curtain of darkness still hung in the sky. Unease gripped him. He rolled out of bed to look for his mother.
The door handle spun easily in his hand as he padded out into the hallway. The house was dark and didn’t look much like his house at all. Shadows followed him as he stole past closed doors to his mother’s room, expecting to hear the rumble of her snore. Instead, he found her bed empty except for a pair of socks. She didn’t even wear socks.
That she was not there worried him. As a small child he had wept with passion when his mother had left him unattended. Now, even though he was almost grown, she still told him where she was and when to expect her. She had left the older woman in charge then, the one who lived with them and who they said was his grandmother though he had never quite believed it. He had sucked sherbet lollies while she was gone. The instinct was still there. The sugar left his teeth grainy and his mind alert. He was glad. He was never one to trust strangers, and there was something about Granny that sat all wrong.
A man-boy yearning for his mother’s comfort in the dead of the night was not someone who won at life. For a moment he wondered whether to search the remainder of the house for her. But though he was a clever boy, he was not a very brave one. Instead he retreated back to his bedroom and hid underneath the covers until the sun came up. He did not notice the grey cat with amber eyes watching him from behind a pile of discarded clothes.
J. Edward Paul
Will woke to a petrol sunrise, toes curled against the chill of morning. Scrubbing sleep from his face with dry hands, he levered himself off the old mattress and into a pile of dirty laundry. A brief search produced a pair of jeans and a Superman t-shirt that smelled of three-day old cologne.
Silence still held the house hostage, but it seemed less ominous in the light. TV fire burned in the still dark living room, casting technicolour shadows over empty furniture. Uneaten oatmeal sat warm on the sideboard in the kitchen and the orange juice was out.
“Mum?” Will called. “Mum, I’m running late for class. Can I take the car?”
No response came. He knew he should check her room, but his professor did not take kindly to tardiness. Grabbing the keys off a hook in the foyer, Will opened the porch door. It would take him hours to realise it had been left unlocked.
Frosted air nipped at his bare arms. Once in the car, Will rummaged through a pile of greasy bags and discarded Styrofoam cups, coming away with a thin jacket more dirt than fabric. Slipping one arm into a cold sleeve, he used the other to turn the ignition. Manic clicks sent a flock of sparrows scattering toward the town centre. The car was dead.
Will lay his forehead on the steering wheel. “Why today?”
Suddenly, a grey cat landed on the hood with a thud. Will jumped and then nearly scrambled into the torn passenger seat when something moved in his peripheral vision. His grandmother, wide and still, slowly turned toward sunrise.
“You scared the shit out of me, Granny,” Will said as he climbed out of the car.
“They came again,” the old woman whispered.
“What?” Will frowned, exasperated by his grandmother’s cryptic words. “I don’t have time for this, Granny.” He jerked. “I need to—“
“They came last night.”
He stopped. The flimsy jacket still dangled from his left arm. A gust of wind tossed a swirl of snow across Will’s face and he blinked. Had his grandmother suddenly become translucent? Her words penetrated the morning fog in his mind and he looked back at the house, remembering something about socks…
Will ran past his grandmother into the house, dropping the jacket behind him. The entryway was suddenly grey and cold, and he realised there was an emptiness to the house he hadn’t observed when he first got up. The porch door swung shut with a bang behind him, and he jumped. Cold fingers of fear slid through him. He moved towards the kitchen in the back of the house.
“Mum?” His voice wavered slightly as he called out. Where was she? “Mum, where are you?” He searched the refrigerator for a message, a note, something. She always left a note. Always.
“Mum!” Panic laced the word. He turned away from the refrigerator and almost pissed his pants. Granny was standing at the kitchen island, staring at Will. He hadn’t heard her come in.
“Granny. Who came last night? Where’s Mum?”
“They will come again.”
Will felt like punching her, but she still looked transparent, almost as if she wasn’t there. Would his arm go straight through her if he tried? Fear made his voice squeaky, his words terse. “What’s wrong with you? Tell me where Mum is. I…I have to get to college.”
“We must prepare.” The old woman, now shimmering slightly, moved towards the ottoman in the family room. “Come.”
She lifted the lid.
He didn’t want to follow her, fearful of what he might see within the bowels of his once favourite climbing toy.
“Wh-what’s in there? What’s happened to my mum? Who ARE you?”
Granny snarled, exasperation written across her face. “Come, you idiot boy.” She reached down and Will nearly fainted, frightened of what she might show him. Her hands came up again, clutching…papers?
Papers? That was it? No ancient voodoo doll, no cracked human skull, no secret book of spells? He sighed in disappointment as he walked over to her. Mum always told him he had an overactive imagination.
“What are they?” He wished he had a lolly, or maybe some of that oatmeal over on the counter. He’d forgotten to eat breakfast and he was hungry.
“Evidence,” Granny whispered, her eyes darting around the room, as if expecting someone to be lurking in the corners.
“Evidence? Of what?” He took the top sheet in his hand. “It looks like gobbedly-gook to me, just a bunch of numbers.” His eyes widened as he noted the drawing at the bottom. “Is this an -”
“Invisibility cloak? Yeah,” Granny broke in, impatience lacing her words. “Obviously in beta, which is why you can still see me.”
Granny scooped up the rest of the papers and came toward him. “You think all the woman did was cut the crusts off your bread? This—this—is her true life’s work. Not you, you ungrateful idiot.”
The cat slinked into the room, its amber eyes fixed on both of them.
“Take these and go quickly,” said Granny, thrusting the papers into his arms. He stared, bewildered, as she bent down to the cat and began to whisper in an indecipherable tongue.
“It’s ok, he’s not in today.”
A sense of relief and shame washed over Will as the lecture hall slowly filled, like a gentle incoming tide. Even Todd, his closest friend, now felt the need to tiptoe around him. To handle him like a fragile ornament.
“Randy MacGuffin.” Todd spat out the syllables and left them, rotting, on the sticky carpet. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”
Everyone did though. Blessed with the supreme confidence of someone who habitually relieved the local store of soda cans and chocolate bars, Randy was the figurehead of the year, a larger than life character through whom all events were channeled. He was an opinion piece and a newsreader in one cocky swagger, and now his top scoop featured ‘Weird Willy’ and his papers. And his grandmother, and the cat.
“Just so you know, I don’t laugh at the incest jokes about you and your mum.”
Todd had a knack of comforting you in a barbed wire blanket.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether he is here or not,” lied Will, as students turned away from the huge screen towards him. He tried to maintain eye contact with some but their smiles grew, eyes twinkling with malevolence.
The room fell silent as an officer walked in, furtively whispering to the lecturer. The two sets of eyes locked on Will. The rest of the room followed the gaze. A ripple of astonishment hovered over the collective heads, incredulous that the rumours might be true.
Minutes later Will learned about Randy’s corpse and that his engraved pen knife had been found jammed deep into the dead boy’s neck.
The police car wound through town, Will trembling in the back and Todd tense beside him. To Will’s surprise they didn’t turn up the High Street towards the police station.
“Hey, where are you going?” The policeman in the passenger seat was astounded. The driver made no answer, but Will knew. They were going home.
Granny was waiting at the door, the papers he had dropped that morning in one hand. She approached the car and pulled Will from the back seat. He flinched at her touch. Her hands were cold, cold as her voice when she spoke to the officers.
“You have seen nothing. You will remember nothing.”
Todd scrambled out and stood beside Will as the police car moved away and disappeared round the corner.
Will could hear the panic in his own voice. “So where’s Randy?”
Granny turned into the hallway and the boys followed her through into the front room. There on the floor was the blood-soaked corpse of Will’s tormentor, flies already gathering in the wound under his jawbone.
“Not a very nice boy, dear,” said Granny. “He knew rather too much, I’m afraid.”
“You killed him?”
The cat slid into the room and stood behind Will’s grandmother, its tail swinging from side to side and its eyes fixed on Will. And all at once there was a perfume in the air, a faint but unmistakable whiff: his mother’s perfume.
“Of course not. That was the others. Poor fool you are. You’ll understand tomorrow.”
She wheeled round, but the cat had vanished. Will looked at Todd. Tomorrow was his eighteenth birthday, but why would he understand then?
“I think you should go, Todd. You might not be safe here.”
“Of course he can’t go!” snapped Granny. “Why do you think I made the boys in blue bring him back here? He’s the witness.”
“What if I said no?” Will fidgeted under Granny’s glare.
Todd inched over closer to him, nudging Will’s arm with an elbow.
Her eyes narrowed. “I know what you’re thinking. If you run,” she gestured to Randy’s corpse on the living room floor, “your friend will end up like this young man.”
Will felt the shudder that ran through Todd, but to his friend’s credit, he held his ground.
“Who’s to say I won’t end up like that anyway?” Todd straightened to his full height. Though he was tall, he was also lanky. He didn’t exactly strike an intimidating figure. “Some weird shit’s going down, and you need to give us some answers.”
“Yeah,” Will said.
Grey, bushy brows rose high above Granny’s hazel eyes.
Still bolstered from Todd’s speech, Will spoke the words her glare had previously silenced. “And it seems like you need us more than we need you.”
Granny smiled and shook her head. She tilted it to one side as she appraised him. “I never thought you’d have the guts.”
Her smile struck Will as malevolent and proud at once, as though she were examining prey that had turned into a worthy opponent. Her features shifted to a blank expression as she lifted her hands. When Granny turned her palms up, lightening arced outward, shattering every bulb in the room. With one palm facing the window, she curled her fingers into claws.
The glass cracked and shattered.
With her other hand, she drained all colour from the room.
Peach walls and beige carpets bled out, leaving them black. The colours melted and burned midair, turning into a thick, dark syrup.
Granny guided the liquid into the shards of glass, the pane now a crackled black barrier against the light and life outside.
Todd tried to pry the door open, kicking the wall for leverage. He tested the locks, but the door refused to carry out its function. Todd examined the crack. Molten glass had bled over the threshold.
“We’re fused in,” Todd tried to phone emergency services, “and it looks like that black stuff is killing my cell reception.”
Will couldn’t look away from his classmate’s corpse, “I’m more concerned about what happens when this smell starts circulating.”
Todd turned to Granny, knitting on the couch, confident her display of power had gotten the message across. The cat rubbed figure eights around Todd’s ankles, putting him in his place.
“What am I here to witness?”
Granny winked at the feline avatar, “The completion of a transaction. On the eighteenth birthday of the first son, the shadow lenders will collect payment.”
Todd shook his head, “Right, they’re malicious, but they won’t mess with minors, huh?”
Will threw a blanket over Randy’s body. “What do you mean, payment?”
Granny stretched her design to reveal a spiral symbol from some ancient alchemy stitched into the yarn. “Your mother sought benefactors for her invisibility cloak. They required a return on their investment. When the clock strikes midnight, they will come.”
Will scoffed. “She’s full of shit. I was born in the late afternoon. I was a fat fetus, took all day to deliver. Mum never tires of telling the story because she loves me. She would never offer me as payment to anyone.”
Granny nodded. “That was part of the deal. They wanted her to mother you, keep you nice and sweet. They have refined tastes.”
Will balled his hands to fists.
“Ha!” Todd tapped his phone. “The WiFi’s still up. Looks like she doesn’t have dominion over all the utilities, yet.”
Amira K. Makansi
While Todd frantically typed in a message to the local police via Facebook, Will stared between Granny and the grey cat, unsure whether the two were allies, enemies, or something in between. The courage he’d sought all his life seemed to hover before him, ready to snatch out of the air if he so chose. But between his mum missing, the strange cat, his Granny’s witchcraft, and the body buzzing with flies in front of him, Will wasn’t sure he wanted that courage.
“So where is my mum, then?” He asked innocently. He glanced at the cat for effect, inquiring if she was the cat, but Granny just smiled, peeling back her lips to reveal a perfect set of pearly whites.
“You guys are so loony,” Todd muttered.
In a blur of teeth, claws, and fur, the cat leapt past Will and latched itself onto Todd’s chest, clawing and biting with the fervour of a demon.
“I’d watch what you say, young man” Granny shouted above the clamour of the cat’s yowls and Todd’s shrieks of pain. “Tempers are frayed enough already!”
Will jumped to his friend’s defence, trying to pry the cat from Todd’s chest and neck, but was only rewarded with a sharp bite. For a moment it continued like that – Todd howling, Will scrabbling at the frenetic cat, and Granny watching the encounter with narrowed eyes.
Then, quite abruptly, she barked out several words in an alien language, whose sounds could only be described as ghoulish. The cat calmed, releasing Todd and dropping to the floor, cleaning its face as if nothing had ever happened. While Todd whimpered and surveyed his wounds, Will stared at his Granny.
“You’re not even on my side in this,” he said. “For God’s sake, Gran, what are you?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m not. I’m not your grandmother, but you always suspected as much didn’t you?”
Will stood unflinching at the news.
“Go on. I’m listening. I mean, it’s not like I have a choice, now you have us captive here.” He gestured to the sealed door.
“That was a necessity,” the old woman snapped. “I told you when you found those papers that we must prepare, but would you listen?” She rose from the couch and glided over to Will. “It’s not easy to explain, but I am on your side. We hoped never to have to explain all this to you, but your mother’s work on that invisibility cloak remains incomplete and now they will make her pay.”
Will saw a look of sorrow cross her wizened features.
“Goodness knows I’ve done everything to protect her from this day!” She suddenly threw up her hands and, turning from Will, took a deep breath. “My name is Scareesha.” Her voice softened. “I am a Protector. There are many of my kind and our Order work against The Shadow Lenders. I was sent to protect your mother after she became embroiled with them.”
From behind the couch amber eyes flickered.
“He was one of us.” She motioned to the body on the floor. “An immature, foolish Protector who got himself killed by them for meddling in matters beyond his comprehension, but a Protector nevertheless.”
“I wish you could lay an invisibility cloak on him.” Will balked at the stench emitting from the lifeless mass.
Scareesha considered the corpse for a moment, nodded, then stepped back. She raised a hand as before and a lightning bolt shot across the room. In a split second the body and blanket disintegrated into dust leaving no trace of Randy MacGuffin.
“I gotta say,” Will said, “I’m kinda relieved you’re not my granny.”
Scareesha’s mouth twisted.
“You wouldn’t want my blood. You’ve enough problems with your own.” Opening her hands, she sent the knitted symbol into the air, where it hung cobweb-thin in the pooling blue light. Todd had curled into himself, silent and still; his phone lay upturned on the carpet, full of a half-finished message. He moved wet-dark fingers over his neck. Glaring at the couch, Will knelt, shuffling towards his friend on hands and knees. The cat blinked, a slow burn of amber, and stayed where it was.
Scareesha snorted. “You’ve more important things to worry about than a bleeding fool.”
“So you keep telling me. And everything else, while locking me in to wait for people who’re coming after me.” His back stiffened as the cat made a noise, but Scareesha only raised a hand. The phone flickered and died as the webbed symbol turned, slow-and-slow, growing in the air. Will held his breath. Numbers and letters threaded themselves through the yarn, collecting like rain in the faded skin and eyes of the old woman.
She watched his face. “You’ve no one else to trust. Be sensible.”
Thick warmth touched his hand. Will flinched, glancing down. Todd’s eyes were wide and dark; he smelled of iron.
“Just keep that thing away from me. I don’t care about the rest.” His friend licked his lips. “Whatever she’s on about, I won’t look. I won’t watch.”
A low laugh. Scareesha’s hand trembled as it traced shapes on the air, mapping the room in digit loops that found the clock and the mirror. Will felt the old woman’s fear as snow underfoot, burning and cold.
Soundless, the cat peeled away from the wall. It stalked the revolving symbol,
which slurped down the alphanumeric strings like spaghetti. She shimmied her rear into a pouncing position.
The numbers zipped past Will’s face in barely legible streaks, but he was able to pick out a pattern. 3278…1893…990…423… A countdown sequence. Something important was about to happen very soon.
The strings reached their flailing ends. The symbol swallowed each one in quick succession, burping out the zeros.
Scareesha’s shoulders relaxed in the ensuing darkness. “The cosmic addresses have been resolved.” She gestured to the room’s remaining source of light, the symbol, which had morphed into a floating zero no bigger than a thumbprint. “Now for the tricky part. I want you to stick your finger into this hole.”
Will gave his hands a stupefied stare, as if suddenly forced to bid farewell to a dear friend.
“Don’t be a baby. I just need your boyish brawn.”
Will took an uneasy breath and approached the arcane zero at the slowest pace he could muster without moving in reverse. He hoped the easily frustrated old woman would rescind her order, but her glare did not budge.
The zero pulsed slightly as Will extended his chubby digit towards it. The edge of the ring emitted a brilliant blue light, but the center was a black void. A portal, he realized with a flash of panic. That meant anything could be lurking on the other side. A meat grinder. An alien with a pair of scissors. Or the vacuum of space—a much more likely and equally calamitous fate. Will’s finger trembled at the grim possibilities.
“Oh, do hurry up!” Scareesha moaned. “If you were in bed with a woman, she would have slapped your finger away and done the deed herself.”
Will’s eyes narrowed at the slight, and he plunged his finger through the opening.
Paula Reed Nancarrow
And then it was his body on the other side, and his finger wiggled through the opening backwards, as if chiding the naughtiness of the world outside the naught. The fused glass formed a wall in front of him, one that cleared and grew luminous. Elsewhere there were only shadows, twitching like flames, or the tail of the cat.
Gradually in the glass wall he saw things. He saw himself sleeping in a room full of colour and familiar objects; saw the sun rise in petrol hues. There was the old woman, translucent, telling him his mum had a “life’s work,” shaming him about bread crusts. There was Todd, not laughing at incest jokes, and bloody Randy, no longer making them.
He saw Granny – no, Scareesha – shoot lightening from her palms, heard the light bulbs shatter, and Todd invoke the god of WiFi; saw the cat attack Todd, and Scareesha calm the cat, assert herself as a Protector, throw her knitted alchemical cobweb into the air. He saw the cat stalking the revolving symbol, which danced on the wall like the point of a laser, till it rested on the hole his finger plugged.
“The cosmic addresses have been resolved,” he heard again. “Now for the tricky part.”
The scenes had a certain disconnected quality to them, like a jumpy, much-spliced reel of film. This is not the sort of story I would write about myself, he thought. Not the sort of play I would want to be in either. In his literature class they had been reading Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. What would it take, he thought for a moment, to author oneself?
“I’m glad you asked that question,” said a familiar voice behind him. And there she was. His mum.
Her feline form stretched and grew, limbs twisting and elongating, bones cracking, until the mother he recognised stood before him. She looked older, based strictly on the lines framing her face and the silver dappling her hair, but touched with a serenity that made her seem much younger, as if to her, the world was full of promise and opportunity waiting to be plucked like newly ripened apples.
Will stumbled. “Mum, what’s going on? I don’t–”
“Understand?” she finished for him. She shared a smile with Scareesha. “They never do, do they?” Will felt his own mouth warp into a dumbstruck simper as he watched his mother cross the room – a mirror image of their own – and seat herself next to the peculiar old witch.
“So few people ever reach this point, Will,” she said, in a voice part-lullaby, part-warm milk. So soothing. “Everyone is born with the potential, but most choose to ignore it. They are content to let fate author their lives for them, instead of grasping the chance to take charge of their own destiny. It’s about far more than just deciding to pursue a career, or a partner. It’s about seizing the very fabric of life itself and knitting it into the pattern that you choose.” Scareesha nodded agreement.
Will sank to the ottoman. His mother reached out and took hold of his hand. “I remember how scared I was when it was my turn, my son. I didn’t want to believe it either. But I need you to trust me now. Can you make this leap? Will you come with us?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” erupted a voice from behind. Will wheeled to see Todd, his form skewing and splintering into shards of pure darkness. It took no great leap, given what he’d learned, to surmise what his friend really was.
A Shadow Lender.
“Well,” his mother purred. “It’s about time.”
“We promised midnight,” Darkness seeped between Todd’s teeth. “But we didn’t say which one. Ever used Twitter? It’s always midnight somewhere. Time to pay up, sweetie.”
Will stood. “You’ll have to go through me first.”
Todd’s smile broadened. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
He raised his hands, thorny vines of blackness unrolling from his fingertips to encircle Will’s throat. Will tried to scream, but the spiked tendrils had already begun to squeeze.
Through a haze of pain, he saw his mum and Scareesha moving to flank Todd, and felt an icy current of fear run through him. Fear… and understanding.
The Shadow Lender had sprung his trap. But as the first sparks of lightning danced around Scareesha’s fingertips, Will understood whose trap this really was. In his mother’s hand Will saw a page of symbols, like the ones from the ottoman.
Todd had seen the page, too. His black eyes widened. Will felt the vines begin to withdraw. Scareesha shrieked, those strange indecipherable words, and a hundred blazing arcs leapt from her fingers. Todd screamed too, but whereas Scareesha’s cry had been triumphant, his was undiluted terror.
The lightning unravelled Todd, somehow. His body scattered like ashes, but something from the core of him was thrown across the room. It splattered across the paper that Will’s mother held, like some strange inkblot. The last of Todd’s body swirled into embers and was gone.
Will blinked, and found himself in the living room again. The real living room. Scareesha watched approvingly as his mother folded the sheet with the inky essence imprinted upon it.
“The cloak’s final ingredient,” she said. “The one they want to keep secret. A Shadow Lender’s soul.”
Will’s mother smiled at him. Her eyes were amber, slitted like a cat’s, but the smile was all her own.