THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT
by DF Lewis
The town centre was near empty of shoppers. Its covered walkways echoed with the cold steps of no more than a few others.
Fitful waste paper, in all shapes and consistencies of stickiness, had managed, piecemeal, to climb from the wire containers … and this, despite the wind, if anything, having dropped along the funnels of the precinct.
Trails of quarter-inch proud footsteps, bearing the cross-hatch pattern of heavy boot-soles, were avoided by end-of-day shoppers, gingerly picking their way between them towards the exits.
Darkness, even in these shop-windowed cloisters, crept relentlessly towards the last late-night shopper. And there always was a last shopper, who provided the only bait for monsters born from the common-law marriage of bestiality and sundown.
Today’s last shopper on a spree was a teenage girl. She screamed before she saw any monster. She had read her big brother’s horror books, Stephen Kings, Clive Barkers, Ramsey Campbells, even H.P. Lovecrafts. She had not understood all the words, but the fear in them had stood out nevertheless and borne the test of childhood’s endless past.
The man whom she had passed appeared to her to be a designer antique lamp-standard, so popular in shopping-centres. She did not know that his bones, lusting after flesh to cushion them, were putting out feelers, as they simultaneously planted tapering, crackling roots through the boot-leather, even through the upper crust of civilisation’s concrete veneer – heading towards their own mindless version of the Earth’s core where unadulterated, unwritten horror flourished with the craving jaws of its own jump-leads.
Not understanding, she did not even realise that the figure she passed was a man at all.
Her elder brother had said the shops stayed open so late on certain nights of the week, you could never find them shut. So, she had taken the last bus to town, in search of her mother’s birthday present which she had uncharacteristically forgotten. Maybe she was growing up, just old enough to be relatively independent … despite the media-led dangers of the world. The concerns of such fledgling adults tended to obliterate earlier, more innocent preoccupations – like remembering birthdays, playing pass-the-parcel or hunt-the-thimble, reading Enid Blyton, Capt. W.E. Johns, Richmal Crompton … Wurzel Gummidge the scarecrow…
She looked back. The darkness stained the shop windows with moving lines of soldier words, in strict spit-and-polish. Other shadows moved closer, taunting her with a brother’s typical back-chat. “Go away!” she screeched, thinking he had followed to frighten his little sister.
She suspected the shops had always been shut and never properly opened – the glorious sunlight only seeping in from the outside as some celebrity had snipped the ceremonial opening-tape with heavy-duty snicker-snackers, clacking, clacking blades, the tape being made of some alien fibrous stuff that could never be cut.
She shook her head vigorously as if to clear it of something. She had been fed too much pap at teenage “slumber parties” – all night films in Dutch Elm Street, the images of splatter flickering over the huddled shapes upon the settees, petting heavily but falling short of humping, desperately seeking carnal secrets amid the concert crescendo of screams from the screen which had no erotic context but pain.
She tried to shake herself free of all this.
Could her brother have tricked her here to test out some outlandish theory of horror which had been bugging and buzzing in his head ever since the fast-forward, sharp-zagged trails of the Evil Dead. Even when he realised that true horror could only be found in books – not videos – the neat straight lines of print merely wound, coiled, rippled tantalisingly towards meaninglessness.
She panted. She was determined not to scream again. That would only tell the monsters where she was. The shop-window dummies stared in disbelief. Many were undressed. She had often wondered why they had such small heads and stylised black-and-white bodies. The nippleless breasts moved as if hands were feeling them from within glove puppets. Flecks of pulsing blood-light stained the inner thighs. The glass between them and her drained the light from the now slow-flashing Coca Cola sign.
The upbedded patterns of the footprints surrounded her like hour-glass cowpats. There never were invisible monsters in Stephen King, she thought. This was more like an old black-and-white B movie. But she had never seen one and could not draw the comparisons which life left clues about at every turn of its pages.
The waste paper, like discarded manuscripts for stories, crawled back to its bins, scaling the wire meshes with the aid of lolly-sticks and can-tabs. They had yearned for the rubbish frights of low budget colour-gore, not the shadowing subtleties of Cat People, Mannequins and Ghosts, all good value at double the cost.
The roots shrunk back, as she suddenly smiled.
Her brother’s eyes stared at her from behind the impenetrable shop-front glass where he had found himself trapped inside a dummy, in a dream worse than any of his nightmares.
The invisible monsters took up their print-marks and placed then towards the squally night outside the precinct – where all was boarded up for the night, even the bedrooms.
The lamp-standard man eventually stepped free, his bony roots fully withdrawn from the ground. The man indeed knew that she had forgotten her mother’s birthday present – but the best possible present now would be the daughter’s return next morning after a night away. He took the girl’s hand and chuckled at his own good will.
He did not hear the rattling fingertips on glass somewhere behind, frantic though they were. Nor did the girl.