I looked down at the town below us. The wind atop the hill was bitter, numbing my face and hands and freezing the rest of my body down to the bone. Pecklow was an old mining town founded upon a series of hills which jutted out of the tumultuous rivers below; a mountainous island upon which only the hardiest weeds grew. The name of the town had originally meant Low Peak, but had become bastardised and corrupted over time. The bridge joining Pecklow to the mainland was an old industrial revolution era bridge of riveted iron, which once had a train track running across it from the days when Pecklow was mined for its rich coal reserves beneath the earth.
After mining had become unprofitable, the train lines had been pulled up and the town had become a remote and desolate hub of the unemployed and the apathetic. Many left after the mines had closed, but those who stayed behind never seemed to leave the town.
As I sat on the roof of the car, looking up at the seemingly permanent cloud which hung over Pecklow, my friend handed me a bottle of whisky, which I began to drink with great fervour. With enough alcohol, I could smash my thoughts apart, preventing them from consolidating and attacking me.
“We did the right thing,” Ricky spoke, “and we did it the right way.”
I nodded, “He pushed us. We pushed back. He knew the rules.” I stood up on the roof of the car, “We all know the rules.” I said, locking eyes with my friends individually.
I inhaled the cold air, noticing a slight metallic redolence in the wind. A storm was coming.
I looked down at Ricky, “Here comes the storm. We weather it together, or we all fall apart. Nobody leaves.”
Ricky turned suddenly, as a wailing sound, followed by a huge crunching sound echoed throughout the hills. The sky lit up as burning meteors fell from the heavens, crashing about Pecklow and the surrounding hills.
“The heavens are alive!” I cried out, spreading my arms wide and swigging deeply from the whisky bottle.
The sunlight burned my eyes as it crept in through the windscreen of the car. My head throbbed as I sat up, kicking the empty bottle across the car as I started the engine.
As I drove down through the hills towards the town, I noticed that small smoking craters punctuated the entire landscape; dissipating smoke through the hills.
I arrived at my house, a dilapidated old Victorian building which had fallen to decay. Most of the windows were broken or boarded up, and the back door was always open. I looked around the house, my father had been away for days now, probably in a drunken stupor somewhere, or gambling his dole money away like the useless fuck he always had been.
I walked up to my room, opening the door, which hung from its hinges after being kicked through by my father in a drunken rage. The smell of smoke hit me immediately. The window had been smashed, and the smouldering remnants of a meteorite burned a hole in my mattress.
I looked down at the meteorite; that one was meant for me. I’d avoided Satan’s hammer.
An image of a charred corpse flashed onto the bed, bones and flesh blackened by smouldering embers and the kiss of flames. I recoiled in horror as I looked upon the burnt corpse, and realised it was my own. I blinked rapidly, and the image disappeared.
We stood before the crater in the field, looking down at the embers below. The smoke attacked our eyes, but the warmth was a welcome change from the usual bitter cold. I looked around at my friends; Ricky Enma -the most vicious piece of shit I’d ever met- he’d joined our group after beating seven shades of shit out of one of our group; John Nergal. After watching Nergal take a beating, I’d decided it was better to have Ricky with us, rather than against us.
John Nergal was an animal; a filthy hedonistic dog-with-two-dicks. He was the kind of chain-wanking pervert that probably jacked it to Marquis du Sade.
Rory Sheol stumbled about as he always did. I’d very rarely seen Rory sober; there was always something intoxicating in his bloodstream that caused him to slur his words, roll his eyes, sweat, scream and fall down.
Holding an arm around him was Francis Amon, the biggest thief in Pecklow. Francis often did this to Rory, held him up with one arm whilst picking his pocket with the other. He’d gotten so good at it that he’d often take his money and slip the empty wallet back in his pocket before Rory even realised.
Andy Iblis looked at me with a face like a slapped arse; his seething resentment towards me stemmed from the fact that he wanted to be like me. I often teased Andy for his failings, his inability to fight, his short stature or his generally forgettable presence.
And then there was me -Jake Verto- The leader of the group. I hated this town as much as anyone else did, but like my parents before me, I’d never left. Sometimes I dreamt of fleeing across the bridge as this bitter little island -this shit stained rock we called home- sank into the ocean behind me.
“Did you hear?” Rory slurred, “Meteors hit the quarry, the fire caught on to the old coal stream.”
I looked down at the pit below, the winds reanimating the embers, cracking and splintering the dry dirt around it.
“Pecklow is crumbling from below.” I muttered.
Rory stepped forwards, as Francis slipped his wallet from his pocket and into his own.
“Jake,” he said, handing me a small bag of powder, “Do what you do.”
I sat on the ground next to the fire, motioning for John to hand me the bottle of whisky.
“It’s potion time boys,” I grinned, unscrewing the cap and pouring the powder into the bottle. The white powder separated as the bad chemicals sunk to the bottom and the good ones floated to the top. I recapped the bottle and shook it up, before opening it once more. The whisky had taken on a pale amber hue.
“Andy!” I spat, “Where’s the rest of it?”
Andy stepped forwards, ruffling through his pockets and pulling out two sachets.
“This better be the good stuff, not that imitation crap you bought last time.”
Andy sneered, “You know it’s the good stuff Jake.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” I said looking up, “Well are you going to open them or what?”
Andy tore off the top of one of the sachets and handed it to me. I emptied it into the bottle, which began to fizz wildly. I let the bottle sit between my legs, as the bubbles rose up the neck of the bottle, eventually dying down. I poured the second sachet into the bottle and watched the process again. As the bubbles died down, I shook the bottle one last time and took a swig. The taste was bitter, metallic and saccharine, but I’d come to tolerate it -and sometimes- enjoy it.
Even after the first swig, I could feel the effects of the potion, as it lifted me from my sober state, and gave me the feeling that I was in free fall. Sometimes, the effects made you feel like you were flying, soaring across the sky in euphoria. Other times, it made you feel like you were falling down at a rapid and increasing speed.
I handed the bottle to Ricky, who took several mouthfuls before capping it and throwing it at John’s chest.
“Ah, you fucker!” He spat as the bottle hit him, “That hurt!”
Ricky grimaced at John, as he unscrewed the bottle and took a swig.
“I’m not drinking that thing after John’s had some.” Francis said, “He’s probably infected it with dyslexia or whatever disease he’s got.”
Rory stumbled forwards with heavy footsteps and snatched the bottle from John, taking several deep mouthfuls of the liquid before handing it to Francis, who began wiping the neck of the bottle with his sleeve.
“Save some for me you greedy fuck,” Andy nudged Francis as he drank from the bottle.
Andy snatched the bottle and took two mouthfuls before wretching and coughing, spitting some of the excess liquid into the pit, which exploded on contact with the embers, burning brightly.
“Whoa!” Andy said, “Did you see that?”
At once, he threw the entire bottle into the pit, which erupted in a bright explosion, throwing shards of glass all over us.
I ran forward, gripping Andy by the collar, “What the fuck did you do that for?” I barked.
“It was funny.” Andy said in defence, “It was a joke.”
“It’s not funny,” I said throwing Andy to the floor, “That was all of our drink, what else are we supposed to do tonight?”
Andy looked up at me, his eyes wide and his jaw askew. I felt a pillar of rage rise up from my stomach, causing my right arm to flick out involuntarily and strike him in the face. I pulled the stunned Andy to his feet.
“You better get some more!” I ordered.
“Fuck you Jake!” He said, spitting blood at me, “I’m not getting shit.”
“Then get in the pit and lick it up,” I said, shoving Andy roughly.
At once, Andy stumbled backwards, falling into the pit. Embers took flight, rising up as he writhed in the pit, screaming in agony. The group stepped backwards in shock, before leaning forwards and reaching down to help. I looked down at Andy as his clothes caught fire, rising to his feet and desperately trying to escape. Francis reached for Andy’s hand.
“No!” I ordered, “Leave him! He’s burning; he’ll pull you down too!”
At once, Francis withdrew is hand, looking away and covering his ears as Andy’s agonized wails rung out through the air. One by one, each of the other members of the group turned their faces away, almost as if nothing was happening. I kept my eyes on Andy, as the flames consumed him. With charred hands, he reached up out of the pit, trying to pull himself up.
I stepped forwards, placed my foot against his face and kicked him sharply into the pit.
We were silent as we filled the pit with fresh earth and rocks. Soon enough, the pit had disappeared, and Andy along with it. We walked across the hills in silence, before sitting at the edge of town and continuing our night as though nothing had occurred.
“Let’s get another bottle.” Rory broke the silence, “tonight is getting boring.”
I shook my head, “It’s too late.”
Rory’s head fell into his lap apathetically.
I inhaled the smoky air, “It was the right thing to do.”
Ricky nodded, “Yeah. There was no saving him.”
Francis shook his head lightly, “We could have tried.”
“Tried what?” I asked, “He was badly burned as soon as he jumped in there. If we’d have tried to pull him out, we could have gone up in flames too, or he might have pulled us in. Even if he’d escaped, he would have died from his burns and we’d all be facing a murder charge.”
I looked around the group, keeping my eye on their faces for any signs of dissent.
“We’ve done this before. We survived without punishment because we followed the rules. We all know the rules.”
I stood next to the rock which concealed the burial place of Mickey “Chunky” Jinn. It had taken us hours to roll it into place, but now it looked as though it had been there since time immemorial.
“How are you old friend?” I spoke to myself, “Feeling better than the last time I saw you, I hope.”
I patted the rock, “I guess you already know, Andy’s down there with you now.”
I swung my legs up onto the rock and let my legs hang off the edge, “I do feel a little remorseful for the way things ended between us Chunky.” I said, “But you knew the rules; we all have to follow the rules. We couldn’t let you leave, nobody leaves. No exit, no exceptions. You could have ratted us all out, and then what? It was all for the greater good. I guess I admire that you tried to fight your way out. But you couldn’t take us all out -you know that- and let’s not forget that you stabbed me first.” I said, patting the rock below me once more.
I looked out at the horizon; the smoke had become thicker, hanging in the air like smog. The only light that broke through it came from the glowing fissures in the earth.
“My wound has mostly healed now,” I said, “I hope that with your burial, we can bury the hatchet.”
At once, the rock began to tremble, as the earth beneath it started to give way. I leapt from the rock as a huge glowing fissure appeared beneath the earth and the smell of burning flesh invaded my nostrils. I looked back at Chunky’s memorial rock, as it began to sink into the crumbling earth.
I awoke to the smell of thick smoke. With many windows missing, the house was at the mercy of the advancing smoke. My father was still away.
I left the house and began to walk through the town. The smoke was getting thicker, spiralling into the sky and fusing with the clouds, blocking out the sunlight and leaving Pecklow in a state of perpetual twilight. The roads had begun to crumble, as the fires beneath the town had begun to melt the tarmac and eat away at the earth beneath them. Pockets of earth were disappearing into fiery sinkholes, as though the whole town might fall away into the sea below.
I walked around, looking at the blank, apathetic faces of the townsfolk. I walked to the town centre, looking up at the central feature; a miner hacking into the earth with a pickaxe. I looked up at the face of the statue, which seemed to stare back at me with a demonic visage.
I walked away from the town centre and made my way to the old train station. I went to platform seven, looking down at the overgrown shrubbery, which had begun to turn brown. A man stood at the platform’s edge, looking vacantly into the ether.
I approached him, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Trains stopped running here forty years ago.” I said.
At once, the man turned to face me; his face was distorted, necrotic and wild.
“The train is coming!” he screamed in a shrill voice, “The train is coming to take me away!”
I stumbled backwards, falling to the floor, before scrambling to my feet and fleeing from the man.
I took a breath. I could do it. I had to do it. This place was burning up, and I wouldn’t be consumed by the flames.
The bridge was barred off with signs warning of the dangers of crossing the bridge. The meteors had struck it, severely damaging the integrity of the bridge, leaving nothing but a thin strip of iron connecting one side to the other.
I looked down at the raging waters below. Many Pecklow residents had fallen from the bridge and been swallowed up by the currents and broken up against the rocks.
The bridge rattled as I climbed over the barrier and took the first step. I clung to the iron railing, as I took another step onto the bridge, listening to the sound of the metal twisting and groaning, as though it resented my presence. I clung tightly to the railing, shimmying along the side of the bridge, until I reached the centre point. The metal plates had fallen away, leaving nothing but a thin iron rod to carry me to the other side. I held on to the railing, stepping on the iron rod, trying to ignore the groaning of the metal and sound of the thunderous waters below. I continued to walk along the rod, squeezing the iron railing until my knuckles became white. With a loud crack, the iron rod fell away, disappearing into the waters below. I hung from the railing, trying desperately to pull myself back up. My hands began to sweat, loosening my grip on the railing. My fingers gave way, and I looked down at the raging waters below as I fell towards them to be submerged forever.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
I opened my eyes, letting my vision adjust to the dim hospital lights. The monitor beeped with every beat of my heart. I reached up to my head, feeling the bandages which wrapped my head. Even in the hospital, the smell of smoke was potent. As my vision cleared, I looked around at the faces of the four people whom surrounded my bed, their faces smiling eagerly.
“You’re back.” Ricky grinned.
I croaked, trying to vocalise my hazy thoughts.
“We thought you were trying to leave us.” Rory slurred.
“You fell from the bridge,” John’s eyes lit up, “Where were you going Jake?”
“You know the rules,” said Francis.
At once, their grins became stretched and distorted, as the skin fell from their faces, leaving behind necrotic, skeletal features, full of joyful malice.
“We all know the rules.” Ricky said, through jarred teeth.
I recoiled in horror at the dead faces of my friends, and at once I remembered the fight I’d had with Mickey Jinn all those weeks ago. After we caught him trying to escape, we’d dragged him to the hills. He’d stabbed me in the stomach, and I’d stabbed him back seven times before burying him and placing a rock over his grave. As I’d sat against the rock, the blood stopped flowing from my stomach, and for a moment I’d felt euphoric.
I looked out at the rising embers outside of the window, as the smoke thickened, and the skeletal faces of my friends advanced on me. There would be no rest for me; no salvation, no escape. Trapped in Pecklow until the ground gave way to the fires below and swallowed us all whole.
The skeletal faces leaned towards mine.
© JC Axe 2017