Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Embers

They had known that the pillbox was in the woods, but for some reason they’d never got around to visiting it. Andy thought maybe it was because the older kids went there sometimes, smoking cigarettes and drinking cider and, so rumour had it, getting blowjobs from Mandy Sullivan. He wasn’t entirely sure what a blowjob was—though his older brother Nick seemed to think it was something to do with sticking your tongue into your cheek—but those ideas were enough to keep the pillbox out of bounds.

Usually.

“We should go there,” Joe said. “The old kids won’t be hanging around this time of day. Just to see.”

“To see what?” Andy asked, trying to sound cool but feeling scared.

“See what it’s all about,” Kai said.

“Yeah, that,” Joe agreed. “Come on. Race you to the stream.”

Joe went off quickly, Kai followed, and Andy pelted after them, sprinting through the blazing summer sunlight, legs thrashing through long grasses and raising clouds of tiny flies, dandelion seeds, and dust. It was the middle of a long hot summer, and school had finished a week before. Days of potential lay before them, and evenings of barbeques and bike rides around the village. His mum and dad had already told him that they’d give him a bit more freedom this summer.

The day rested heavily across the fields between village and woodland. The air was still, as if exhausted from the heat, and everything to Andy seemed large, wide, almost endless—the sun, the humidity, the fields and woodlands that were his playground, and the school holiday that was to last all summer. He whooped and hollered as he ran, overtaking Kai and closing on Joe. Just as they reached the stream he and Joe were neck and neck, and they leapt the old wooden fence together.

The timber rail beneath Joe collapsed, sending him sprawling into a thicket of stinging nettles. He yelped and rolled out, scratching all over, grinning from ear to ear.

“I am victorious!” Andy yelled, leaping into the stream and almost slipping on the slick rocks beneath the surface. Cold water hushed over his shoes and past his ankles, and he was tempted to throw himself in head-first.

“Only because I had an accident.”

“Sore loser.”

“No, I’m just saying, I fell into the nettles, my race-scars are better than yours.” Joe reckoned that scars made girls like you more. He was scratching like crazy, his face tensed with the unpleasant tingling that would last for hours.

“Rematch?” Andy smirked.

“Screw you.”

Kai arrived at the fence, panting. He leaned on the section just along from the collapsed rail and it broke too, spilling him to the ground.

“Fat bastard!” Joe shouted. Andy smiled but didn’t join in. Kai was fat, and it didn’t feel right taking the piss. Joe didn’t care. He rarely did, and though there wasn’t anything really mean about him, sometimes he was too brash for his own good. He was Andy’s best mate. Kai had just begun hanging around with them, and Andy was growing to like the shy, overweight kid. It was only now that his parents were letting him out to play.

Andy loved the woods. There were streams to jump and dam, fallen trees to break apart and use to build dens, waist-high wood ants’ nests to prod and throw caterpillars in, places to hide, trees to climb, and animals to watch. It was a well-trodden woodland, but the paths were worn in by use, not formed artificially. There were still places in there that felt wild.

Andy, Joe, and Kai played war all the way in, hiding behind trees and performing forward rolls to dodge each other’s bullets. Kai was shot first, then Andy, and Joe declared himself the winner of the battle. That’s just the way it was, invisible bullets obeying an unconscious social ranking. Andy’s dad often commented that Joe would probably be in the SAS when he was older, and Andy wasn’t quite sure whether he meant that in a good or bad way.

They played on the concrete bridge over the stream for a while, daring each other to crawl through the wide, twenty-feet-long pipes that carried water underneath, and as always failing to do so. There were stories of a kid getting trapped in there thirty years before and drowning when a heavy storm brought a flash-flood down from the local hills. It was the sort of tale Andy never asked his parents about because a deep part of him wanted it to remain true. Such stories peopled the landscape with ghosts. And ghosts were cool.

Time passed, with the same oppressive heat resting over the woodland. Adventures were had. Eventually they found themselves close to the pillbox at the wood’s far edge.

One of many built in the area during World War II, it was part of a defensive line stretching past the village, intended to interrupt any German advance should an invasion have occurred. Andy knew of a couple of others in the area—one on Mr. Eddles’ farm, roofless and used for storing bags of fertiliser; another close to the local football club, its entrance and gun slots bricked up—but this one in the woods was the most complete. It was built of bricks laid around a shell of concrete, raised rapidly and made thick and heavy to withstand anything but a direct hit from a tank. It was square, with two gun slots in each face, and overgrown with ferns and brambles like waves of green fire.

“There’s no way we’ll get in there!” Kai whined.

“Yeah, we will,” Joe said. “The older kids do.”

“How?” Andy asked. He meant it. He couldn’t see any sign of an easy approach to the squat building. Brambles grew higher than him in places. Their thorns promised pain.

“I don’t like it, anyway,” Kai said. “I’m going home.”

“On your own? Through the woods?” Joe knew how to pick at his fears.

“Let’s do a circuit,” Andy said. He was excited, nervousness prickling his skin with a thousand pins. He wasn’t even sure why. He paced left and Joe right, leaving Kai standing and staring after both of them.

“No!” Joe shouted. “Nothing!”

“Nor here!” Andy called back.

“No!”

“Nope!”

“Oh my God!” Joe screamed.

“What is it?” Kai yelled, but Andy already knew the tone of his friend’s voice. Hidden around the other side of the building and undergrowth, Joe started laughing and Kai cursed softly.

That was when Andy saw the path. Beaten into the brambles, the route quickly jigged right, almost hidden from view. He was about to tell the other boys, but then had a better idea.

He followed the path. Turned right, then left again, circling around a tree trunk, then it stopped at the pillbox entrance. He’d already been stung on his bare legs by nettles, and pricked up and down his arms by thorns. But it would be worth it.

“No!” Joe called. “Still nothing.”

Andy chuckled and wormed inside the building. It was cool in there and stank of piss. It was also filled with rubbish—cans, bottles, sweet wrappers, takeaway packaging—and a couple of old seat cushions propped against the wall.

“Andy?” Joe’s voice sounded distant, swallowed by the walls. Only those gun slots and the rough doorway let in a hazy green light, and inside was almost completely silent.

“Whoa,” Andy breathed. There was plenty of evidence of older kids using this place to drink and do Bad Things, but he could only see Home Guard soldiers hunkered down with their rifles, firing through the gun slots as Germans advanced along the edge of the woodland towards the village. The sounds of bullets hitting the walls would be deafening. And one lucky shot would cause ricocheting carnage.

“I’m inside,” he said.

“Andy?” Joe called again.

He moved to one of the slots and fired his voice outside. “I’m in here! Come around, there’s a path hidden away. And it’s so cool!”

Soon the other two were in there with him. Kai stood near the door wide-eyed, looking around and knowing they shouldn’t be there. Joe kicked stuff around. Cans rattled, and a glass bottle smashed against one wall.

“Watch it!” Andy said.

“Why?”

“Well . . .” He wasn’t really sure why. Equally, now that they were inside the pillbox he couldn’t really remember why they’d wanted to come here at all. It was dirty and smelly, and now scattered with dangerous smashed glass. There was much more fun out there in the woods. He still had a couple of hours until he had to be home for tea—

“Wow, look!” Joe said. He bent down and picked something up, approaching one of the gun slots to see the object more clearly. A thin metal can, its end was topped with a narrow plastic spout.

“What’s that?” Kai asked.

Joe started squirting something over one of the walls from the can.

“Joe, that stinks,” Andy said.

“Pussy.”

“No, I mean it’s, like, petrol isn’t it?”

“Lighter fuel,” he muttered. “Look around for some matches.”

“What? No way! I’m not setting fires, that’s stupid.”

“Why?” Joe asked. He continued squirting. Andy felt a splash of fluid across his hand and he shook it, backing away into Kai. Kai yelped and squeezed outside, yelping again when he lumbered into a bank of stingies.

“Joe, seriously, don’t be stupid,” Andy said.

Joe threw the can down and started kicking at the floor, sighing. Andy closed his eyes in relief. Maybe his mate would sulk for a bit, but he didn’t care about that, he just didn’t want—

“Yes!” Joe said.

In the shadows, Andy couldn’t quite make out the object his mate bent to pick up. But after the scratch and spark it was no longer dark, and then he could see nothing at all.

• • • •

Andy sighed at the startlingly fresh memories and turned at the sound of kids playing in the street behind him. There were six of them, ranging from maybe seven to ten years old, scooting around the estate on a homemade go-kart and laughing as if the summer would never end. I remember when all this was fields, Andy thought, feeling so very old. He was only middle-aged. Forty-six . . . or was it forty-seven? Sometimes he had to pause to think about it, and he wasn’t certain whether that was cheery or depressing.

His memory of those childhood times was still clear and fresh, even though so much had changed. Two of the three fields between the village and woods had been developed, with boxy brick houses struggling to find character and barely succeeding. The access roads curved gracefully, plots were set in artful disarray, yet the whole place still stank of new. The high fence between estate and the final field was attractive yet functional, the single gate prominently marked with “Public Footpath” signs and intended to guide walkers directly across the hard-packed path into the woods. Even from here Andy could see the beginnings of the paths that had been cast between the trees. They were breaks in the beauty, designed to provide easy access but taking away something of the wild, any sense of discovery. Part of him wanted to pass through the gate and walk on, but he knew it would feel too safe.

It was no longer the same place. Maybe tomorrow.

Sighing again, he turned his back on that last remaining field and the woodland it bordered and walked back through the estate. He shrugged the rucksack higher on his back and looked around, wondering if he’d see anyone he recognised but knowing that was unlikely. He hadn’t lived here for decades.

Climbing the gentle hill towards the heart of the old village, it was a relief when he left the last of the new houses behind and passed between the old. Some of the houses were picture-postcard old, with whitewashed stone walls, deformed glazing, lush gardens filled with wild birds, and oaken doors. There were even a couple around the village square that were thatched. Andy remembered Joe telling him about how they’d used to build a cat into the thatch to keep mice at bay, and he’d spent long nights afterwards imagining a still-living feline scratching its way through village roofs in search of prey.

He passed the church. He paid more attention to passers-by, thinking that if there were people he knew he’d see them here. But though he passed some old faces, and swapped a few smiles, none of them lit his memory.

He stopped in the village square and bought a coffee. The coffee shop was new, occupying the space that had once been the village bakery, but their coffee was good and the barista attractive and smiling, so he could barely complain. He sat outside and felt himself starting to relax. He’d arrived early and parked, deciding to walk around his old village before checking in to the little guest house. His meeting tomorrow in the nearby town would be boring and hopefully over quickly, but he’d leapt at the opportunity to come. Gone for over thirty years, in a strange way it felt like coming home.

“Old face,” a voice said.

Andy glanced to the left. An old chap was sitting at another pavement table, a pot of tea before him. He had wispy gray hair yellowed by cigarette smoke, a long thin face, and wore a shirt and tie and tweed jacket, even in the heat. It was nice to see an old man dressed like one, and Andy smiled.

“How do you mean?”

“Yours,” the man said. “Old face from the village.”

Andy squinted against the sun, struggling to strip thirty years from the old guy. Huh, old, he thought, laughing silently. Thirty years ago he would have been around my age. A sparkle of recognition teased him, dancing like a name on the end of his tongue.

“Yeah, I left when I was a nipper,” Andy said.

“You that Joe Blake?”

“No,” he said, frowning. “He was my mate. I’m Andy Randall.”

The old guy frowned and stared across the square at the old church. It was twelfth century, apparently, founded by the Normans. Andy remembered going in there one evening with Joe and Kai and finding a grave dug for a funeral the next day. Joe jumped in first, Andy climbed in after some persuading, Kai ran home. Hierarchy maintained.

“Andy Randall,” the old man said, almost to himself.

“From Oak Lane?”

“Huh.” He looked at Andy again, smiling. Tapped his head. “Memory’s gone to shit, sorry, son.”

Andy smiled at being called son. “Aren’t you Alf?”

“That’s me,” the man said. “Oh dear, now I’m wondering why the hell you remember me.”

Cutting his lawns and pruning rose bushes: Andy always remembered that, because his mother had loved roses so much. Cycling to and from the village centre. Shouting at kids when their football bounced from the rec into his garden. Shouting at kids even when their footballs didn’t. Shaking his fist if you rode by his place talking too loudly, laughing too much. Miserable old bastard, Joe had said once, shocking Andy with his use of the “B” word.

“Still living out by the rec?”

“Yep, and still using that.” He pointed at a telegraph pole across the road, a bike leaning against it.

“No way,” Andy said.

“Same bike.”

Andy laughed. So did Alf. They talked some more, had another drink each and some cake, and chatting about village life from thirty years before was almost like being there. Andy’s memories were sharp and vivid, and the older man’s contributions carried less nostalgia and more simple recollection. Maybe because he still lived there, or perhaps because as you got older there were more memories than hopes for the future.

Andy enjoyed it, but all the way through there was something not quite right. A note of confusion in Alf’s voice, a flicker of doubt in his eyes. He can’t remember me, Andy thought, and that shouldn’t have surprised him. Joe was the one his age that people would remember—lively, daring, cheeky, sometimes outright naughty. Alf had even thought he was Joe. Maybe they’d started to look more like each other as they’d grown older. He didn’t know; he hadn’t seen Joe for almost thirty years.

But when Alf stood, holding his knees and groaning but actually looking fit and lithe, he frowned at Andy, shielding his eyes from the blazing sun. For a while he just stared at him, looking him over as if trying to match him with a mental facial composite.

“Andy,” Alf said, nodding slowly. “Nice to see you.”

“You too, Alf. I’m here til late tomorrow, maybe we’ll chat again.”

“Maybe,” Alf said, and he crossed the road, mounted his bike, and pedalled away without once looking back.

Left alone, Andy leaned back in his seat and looked around the village square, but it suddenly seemed like a strange place. He saw more of the new than the old, and he was sad at the changes rather than nostalgic for the places and features he knew. He finished his second coffee and stood, ready to walk across the village to the guest house on the outskirts. It was the old station house. Trains no longer stopped in Tall Stennington.

As he walked he started to sweat. The afternoon sun skimmed over the rooftops and probed beneath the trees overhanging the road. Houses became more occasional, and he waved at a couple of people working in their gardens. One waved back.

The skin of his face and balding scalp was tight, sore to the touch, and hot. He’d never learn. Should have used sun cream. He always seemed to burn more easily since that time in the pillbox.

Walking home through the woods, he’d been more afraid of being told off than he was worried about the damage to himself. Joe had held his arm and guided him along the paths, and Kai had kept his distance, staring at the boys wide-eyed. It’s the shock, Joe had said, trying to explain why the two of them weren’t screaming. And it’s not that bad. Like sunburn.

Close to the edge of the village, about to turn right into Station Road, he saw someone further along the road, a man seeming to intentionally match his pace. When Andy stopped, so did he.

A flush of recognition filled him, and he felt inexplicably nervous.

“Joe,” he said. “Joe?” Louder.

The man turned around. From this distance it was impossible to tell whether or not it was Joe, because age might have changed him so much. But the brash burn scar across the side of his face and head was obvious.

His image shimmered in heat haze, almost there, almost not.

Andy opened his mouth again but could not speak. The man stepped into a pathway between bushes and disappeared. “Joe,” Andy breathed, but he doubted it had been him at all. He blinked, feeling suddenly dizzied from the sun. Blood roared in his ears like flames. He would get to his guest house, take a drink, and indulge in a long cool shower.

• • • •

Andy must have been sitting outside the coffee shop for longer than he’d remembered. The sunburn across his scalp and face was uneven, brighter on the right cheek and side of his nose, his right ear blazing red. He was angry at himself. After all this time he should know better.

Standing naked in front of the big bathroom mirror, his burned bits looked blood-red in the late afternoon light, the rest of his body so pale it was almost translucent. He looked after himself, and considering his age he’d held up well. Had a bit of a pot, and small love-handles, but he was wide across the shoulders and his chest was firm and muscled. Women should love him. He could hardly remember the last time he’d been with one.

He dressed in a fresh T-shirt and jeans and slipped on his walking boots. It was early evening now, and he had a meal booked at the Farmer’s Arms at eight o’clock. Still over an hour to kill, and he was bored of sitting in the room on his own.

Really, he knew where he was going even as his feet took him there. He walked back through the village, past the square and church and towards the new estate on the other side. The air was heavy and still with summer heat, and sound didn’t seem to carry far. A few cars and vans passed along the road, pedestrians plodded lethargically around the village, but Andy felt very much alone.

Memories leapt out like teasing friends trying to startle him.

Joe and him playing with magnets outside the small industrial estate, rolling up iron filings and making patterns with them across the metal-clad gates.

Throwing knives at the big oak at the edge of the cricket field, trying to get them to stick. Joe had cut his thumb open with one throw, but his knife had quivered in the trunk, and he’d talked about how his blood would always be in the middle of the tree.

Mrs Chambers leaning from her front window and shouting at them when they’d fired their water pistols at the cat bathing in her front garden. Andy had fired a daring shot across the garden at her, to Joe’s gasp of delight, but lucky for him it hadn’t found its target.

Falling off his bike on the tight bend outside the village shop, skinning his knees, going home crying and watching his mum picking out grit with tweezers.

Letting off a smoke bomb by the bridge over the small stream.

Mandy Bucknall smiling at him as she rode by on her pony. She had been his first crush, their two-year age gap an eternity.

By the time he reached the new estate, he was awash in childhood memories, and he jogged through to the field and woodland beyond so that he did not lose them.

Approaching the woods, he saw movement ahead of him, beneath the trees and away from the new path that had been formed. A shadow shifted. He shielded his eyes against the sun burning low above the treeline, squinted, and saw the figure again. It was moving further away from the path and deeper into the woodland, and just as it passed out of sight, it turned to look back at him.

“Joe!” Andy called. “Wait! It’s me, Andy!”

Joe or not, he did not wait. Moments later the movement ceased, and even though Andy ran the last hundred metres and stood at the new wooden fence between field and woods, there was no sign of anyone beyond.

“Damn it,” he muttered. It troubled him that Joe didn’t want to speak. Or maybe it wasn’t Joe at all. But the burns, he thought, remembering the pink burn scar he’d seen across that guy’s face earlier. It must have been Joe. Mustn’t it?

He entered the woods through the new gate and walked along the path, and soon he was keen to get off the beaten track. He didn’t recognise anything about the place now that it had been tamed, and he wanted to get in among the trees, where the bluebells were just fading away and his shoes would get covered in dust. Most of all, he didn’t want to meet anyone coming the other way. This was his time, his memory, and he wanted to live it mostly alone.

Mostly. Because he also wanted to look for Joe. His old friend must have seen him earlier, and again just now, and if that were the case then perhaps he was following him. Could someone walking ahead be following? Andy didn’t know, but the coincidence was too great.

He pushed through a bank of ferns and emerged into a shaded part of the woods that he remembered well. A dried pool was soft with a carpet of lush green moss, and he walked slowly in case there was still any water or deep mud there. It was only during the summer that this pool dried up completely, and it had been a hot one.

Really hot. Sweat dribbled down his sides and back. His sunburn hurt, even in the shade beneath the trees, and he wondered whether he should have used some moisturiser.

“Joe,” he said, pausing, surprising himself with the utterance. Even hearing the name spoken aloud provoked memories that brought tears to his eyes. He walked onwards, avoiding places where he could see new pathways cut through the woodland like pale scars on a rugged face. Some places were so familiar that he had to stop and stare. Time had worked on the woods in the three decades since he had last been here—many trees had fallen, and new ones grown in their place—but he still knew the place so well. The woods were timeless, and thirty years were barely the flutter of the last leaf to fall before winter.

Eventually he found the pillbox. It was buried even deeper beneath undergrowth. Someone must have planted rose bushes around it some time ago, and they had gone wild, twisting and merging with the forest’s natural plant life to form a thorny tangle. Though he circled it several times he saw no easy way through. He had mixed feelings about that. It was good because it meant that local kids didn’t use it anymore. But that also saddened him, because coming in here and having adventures, exploring places like this, was what kids should be doing. Now it was all computer games and TV.

He was also disappointed because he thought that perhaps he’d have liked to have gone inside.

Joe was watching him through the trees. Andy caught sight of him and held his breath. He was like a tree himself, motionless and expressionless, staring across at Andy as if he had no real thoughts in his mind, no words on the tip of his tongue.

“Joe!” Andy called. His old friend was a hundred metres away, visible between trunks because he wanted to make himself so. His image shimmered in the afternoon heat. “Wait there, I’ll come and . . .” Andy hurried away from the pillbox, but as he left he felt a vicious burning sensation across his arms and neck, his face, his scalp, like the memory of flame. It scorched. He gasped, and when he wiped his hands across his face and head, his skin was tight and hot.

He smeared sweat, surprised at how much he was perspiring.

Looking back he saw that he’d shoved past a bulge of nettles growing beside the pillbox. He smiled through the tingling, burning pain, remembering when Joe had fallen into the stingies that day. The last day they had been together.

Joe was gone. Where he’d been standing Andy now saw only the pale trunk of a silver birch. Maybe he’d never been there at all.

Wincing against the pain from the nettles and the pulsing ache of sunburn, he started to make his way back out of the woods. He was hungry. It would be dark soon. And suddenly, he no longer wanted to be there when shadows began to grow.

Just ahead of him, visible several times through the tree, the shape that might be Joe. Why his old friend was doing this, Andy couldn’t figure out. Didn’t he want to speak to him? Or perhaps he was as much a joker now as he had been back then, and he was just attempting to spook him.

The pain of the stings and sunburn continued to trouble him, and now and then it made him feel sick. He moaned against it, as if noise might drive it away. Blood pulsed in his ears, and then roared, blurring his vision with dancing shapes that twisted trees and bushes, catching the sun and concentrating it in flaming arcs that seemed to hang like giant spider webs all around. He reached out to lean against a tree, but drew his arm back, afraid that he might set it on fire.

“Joe!” he shouted. “Joe, help me! It hurts!” He’d screamed the same all those years ago when the lighter fuel ignited, or thought he had.

Andy tripped and hoped he was falling into a stream. But it was the green flow of more brambles and nettles that caught him, piercing skin, speckling mild poison that added to the fire. He dragged himself upright. What was happening to him?

“What’s happening to me?” he screamed. Through his swimming, burning vision he saw that shape again, closer than it had ever been and gesturing him forward. He followed because he could think of nothing else to do. Why weren’t his clothes burning beneath such intense heat?

It’s just the sunburn and the stings, he thought, an allergic reaction. But he didn’t want to collapse out here, not alone, and not when he’d done his best to avoid the paths that people would undoubtedly stick to.

He staggered through the undergrowth and kicked against a wood ants’ nest, backing away quickly even as he felt the first few acid stings on his lower legs. The shape—

“Joe? Joe? Joe?”

—waved its arm furiously and moved ahead of him. Andy followed, gasping against the fire that seemed to be deep within him now, singeing his organs, set deep in his bones where it might burn forever. And when he saw where the shape was taking him, the first glimmer of calm touched his skin.

The pillbox was no longer overgrown and inaccessible. Even with his senses reeling he was able to find that path beaten into the brambles, turned left and right to hide it from the casual observer. He wasn’t sure whether or not that shape had gone ahead of him, but just as the entrance came into view, he saw a shimmer of movement as something passed inside.

As Andy stepped over the threshold and entered the pillbox, the blinding pain of fire seemed to lift from his body and seed itself inside.

Small flames flickered over the floor, walls and ceiling, following the swirled lines where Joe had squirted lighter fluid. Andy could smell the tang of burning material and hear the gentle pop-pop of discarded litter shrivelling beneath the heat.

“Joe?” he said. But though there was a vague shape in the opposite corner, turned to face the junction of two walls as if ashamed at what it had done, Andy no longer wished to see its face.

As the heat inside him dissipated to nothing and the fires began to grow, he wondered whether he had ever left that pillbox, or if he had spent his life nightmaring about it.

If he kept the flames at bay, he would never have to find out.

Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon is a New York Times-bestselling writer with almost thirty novels published to date, as well as dozens of novellas and hundreds of short stories. Recent releases include Coldbrook, Into the Void: Dawn of the Jedi (Star Wars), Reaper’s Legacy, and Alien: Out of the Shadows. Titan published The Silence this April in the UK and USA. He has won four British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Scribe Award, and been shortlisted for World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards. Fox2000 acquired film rights to The Secret Journeys of Jack London series (with Christopher Golden), and several other novels and stories are in development for screen. Learn more at timlebbon.net.