Arthur is about to discover a World that Never Was and his life will never be the same.
|He slept, softly slumbering whilst tiny snores slipped past his lips. Every now and then his body would twitch and then return straight back to his serene sleep. Large red and gold luscious sheets enveloped his body and his head lay on a pillow stuffed with the finest feathers found. Outside, the sounds of the night whispered and stirred- then went silent. Inside the room, the shadows started to bend and sway and from them a scaly, calloused hand, as black as night and as cold as ice reached out. A rasping, grating breath suddenly filled the room, making the man toss and turn, his slumber becoming disturbed and fretful. The wretched hand moved with the shadows, bending them to its purpose, until it rested just above the man’s head. His teeth were now grinding furiously back and forth; a cold sweat had broken out on his forehead. The man’s eyes fluttered half open, disturbed by this new, dark presence in the room. Above him he saw the arm, adorned with long black fingernails that were sharpened to a point and glistening in the moonlight. The shadows parted and a face, smooth with eyes as black as its soul and a lipless mouth lined with razor sharp teeth, menacingly glared down at the man. His heart quickened and a heavy presence fell over his arms. From the darkness underneath the bed, two more hands had crept up, as vile and putrid as the one that was now clenching his throat, and constricted his hands. The man could hear his heartbeat, quickened and frantic. He made to speak, to cry, to shout out for help, but his mouth was filled with shadows. Then, with a sickened sound, the man was flung from the bed, into the shadows, and disappeared.
The sun was beginning to set on the small two-bedroom apartment Arthur Ellington lived in with his mother and little grey and white cat, Pepper. Small pot plants sat outside the front door, their petals wrapped around their buds, shivering in the cool breeze of the evening. Cold wind whipped across the brown waist-height grass on the front lawn and assaulted the brick veneer of the small apartment building. All in all, there were thirteen different apartments in this particular block and of those thirteen, Arthur almost knew one person, Mr. Jenkins, who lived two floors down. Every morning Arthur went out onto the balcony and watched as Mr. Jenkins, hunched over and wearing the same red and gold bathrobe as every other morning, strolled out onto the run down front veranda of the apartment building and looked for his morning paper, which was never there. Arthur, hidden by the wooden slats of the balcony barrier, would laugh as he watched Mr. Jenkins curse the empty morning air and shake his fist at whoever was stealing his paper.
“Damn kids, there are security cameras around here. I’ll find out who you are and, when I do, it’s straight to the police with you,” Mr. Jenkins would grumble to the empty street before he turned around and walked back inside, all the while his cheeks blubbering. Arthur didn’t know who was taking the old man’s paper every morning but he found it funny none the less. Apart from Mr. Jenkins, Arthur thought there was a businesswoman living somewhere inside the building. He always saw a svelte, well dressed woman rushing in and out, wearing a business suit and talking to herself on what Arthur could only assume was a Bluetooth headset. There were young children somewhere as well, younger than Arthur by many years and they were always crying in the middle of the night, waking everybody up. Even though Arthur didn’t know exactly what apartment they lived in, he knew they made a lot of unfortunate noise. As for Arthur himself, he lived in apartment 13A on the third floor of Constance Apartments in Little Rock, Bedford. Bedford was a small town to most, but a large one to Arthur who struggled to make it around on foot and would often wish that there were more public transport. The only other way for Arthur to get around Bedford was by bus, which his Mother, Laurie Ellington, simply would not allow.
“You have no idea what type of people ride that dirty thing. The last thing we need is for you to disappear. No, for now you can just walk, it’s good exercise for you,” she would cry every time Arthur would ask permission to take the bus.
Laurie Ellington meant the best and since her husband left, Arthur was all she really had. She was a middle-aged woman living in a small apartment with her teenage son who she loved very much and a cat; it was far from where she pictured herself being as a young girl. Arthur would use his own age, thirteen, to work out that his mother would have to be at least forty-three this year. Even though Arthur thought she was still pretty he would often watch her apply too much make-up or fuss over her hair for hours before going out whilst telling her she didn’t need it. On this particular Saturday night Laurie was being particularly particular about how her hair sat and the amount of eyeliner she put on. Arthur, not taking much notice at all, was sitting in front of the television, his dinner balancing precariously on his lap.
“And you’re sure you’ll be alright alone tonight Arthur?” Laurie shouted from the bathroom.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Arthur plunged a spoonful of mashed potatoes in his mouth and swirled them around, licking his lips.
“And I won’t be home late but I want that television off by ten ‘o’ clock at the latest. Is that understood?”
Arthur’s eyes rolled around in their sockets. His mom was always like this, worrisome and slightly overbearing. Once, when he was much younger, she had found him out on the balcony. He couldn’t remember what he was doing but what he did know is that the next day she installed a security lock to make sure he never wandered out there alone again. In fact, it was only this year that she removed it.
“Is that understood?” Laurie shouted again. Her head poked out from the bathroom door. Dark eyeliner traced her eyes and heavy foundation masked the bags that normally hung underneath them. Curlers were still wrapped in her hair and she was wearing a long, flowing black dress that hugged her at the sides, outlining her slender figure.
“If I come home and you’re still up watching television, I’ll have to ask Mr. Jenkin’s to babysit you next time,” she added.
Arthur thought about Mr. Jenkin’s and how he would hobble out onto the steps of Constance Apartments every morning in his red robe with gold trimmings and shake his fist at whoever was stealing his paper. Surely he wouldn’t be a good babysitter.
“Television off by ten ‘o’ clock, not a problem,” Arthur smiled at her, “you look very nice.”
Arthur couldn’t really tell the difference, after all, she was his mother and would always look the same to him but he said it nonetheless because he thought it would make her feel better. When she smiled back at him and disappeared into the bathroom he knew he had said the right thing and felt proud, just for a second. At that exact moment there was a knock on the door. It was strong and firm, and almost made Arthur drop his plate of food. Pepper, whom Arthur had forgotten was sleeping next to him all this time, stretched out and jumped off the couch, he landed without a sound and slunk off into another room to resume his nap. There was another strong knock on the door and Arthur could hear his mother emphatically using words she punished him for using in the bathroom. Her head popped out once more and she looked strained and flushed with a pasty red colour. The curlers were out and her hair flopped wavily over her shoulders.
“Oh no, he’s here. Arthur, can you please get that for me and tell him I’ll be right there. I just need another moment or so.”
She did not wait for Arthur to reply. Her head flew straight back into the bathroom and she slammed the door with a loud thud that nearly rattled the windows. If Arthur told himself he looked forward to seeing who was on the other side of that door he would be lying. It wasn’t the dates that Arthur minded. Laurie needed to find someone new to keep her company and Arthur realised this. When she found the right person he would be happy for her. What Arthur really didn’t like was the way all the men treated him. Every man that knocked on his door, looking for his mother, would always go through the same routine, as if they learnt it at a Single Mother’s Dating Club. First, the prospective date would shake Arthur’s hand and introduce them. Then, straight away the new man would ask him what football team he went for, but when Arthur told him he didn’t follow football, they would sit awkwardly for a few moments until finally, the men would all ask the same weird question, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Arthur would never know how to respond to this and would just shake his head ‘no’ and keep his mouth shut while dreading the thought of getting relationship advice from a man that was probably only here because it was a blind date. Even though he really didn’t want to, Arthur opened the door. A tall man with salt and pepper hair and wearing a suit leaned slyly on the doorway. His hand was suspended in mid air, about to knock again and he was quick to wipe a surprised look off his face.
“Hey sport, names Mark,” the man said. He extended his right hand for Arthur to shake.
“Arthur,” Arthur replied as he shook the man’s hand.
A feeling of despair filled Arthur as he realised this man was the same as the others. He didn’t know Laurie had a child and, now that he did, he would go through the same questions as everybody else. He wouldn’t be back.
“So, is your mom around?” Mark asked. He moved his head around to try and see into the apartment.
“She’s just getting ready. Would you like to come in?” Arthur asked. He stepped aside and Mark walked in and closed the door behind him.
“So, how old are you?” Mark asked.
Arthur walked back over to the couch and sat down.
“I’m turning thirteen in a few months. How old are you?” Arthur said as he picked up his plate and continued to eat his dinner.
Mark sat down next to him and laughed. Arthur had never heard a more fake laugh.
“A lot older than you,” Mark paused and Arthur peeked up at him. Gears were turning slowly in the man’s head as he tried to think about something to talk about.
“So, what football team do you go for?” Mark finally predictably asked.
“I don’t really follow it,” and at that point, Arthur gobbled up the rest of his dinner and stood up.
“Mom, Mark is waiting,” he impatiently called out.
Sure, he could have continued to make small talk with the man but he knew where it would head, towards another awkward silence, so this time instead of waiting for it he made the decision to force it. Arthur stood up and shook the man’s hand another time before quietly walking out of the room. Mark stayed on the couch and decided to play on his phone.
Silently, Arthur snuck into the bathroom where he knew his mother was still primping and preening so she could look her best for Mark.
“Do you really need to go out with him?” He asked.
Arthur made a special point to emphasis the ‘him’ bit as if the word burned his tongue. Laurie looked at her son, affection gleaming in her eyes. She knew all Arthur really wanted was for her to be happy, after all, he really was a good boy and so she decided to reply with a new kind of sensitivity.
“Mark is a very nice man. In fact, he’s a doctor and he told me that he loves kids,” she smiled.
Arthur always thought his mother’s smile was the best thing about her, wide and toothy with gleaming white teeth. Arthur imagined it being similar to an angel’s smile.
Laurie put another layer of lipstick on and smacked her lips together. Arthur rolled his eyes at her perfectionism and fretting and looked at his mother. She was beautiful, although he could never tell her this out loud because it would be far too embarrassing.
“I still don’t like him,” he said as he shifted his weight onto his back foot and leaned against the door, “you’d better get out there. I’m sure he’d be getting bored of playing with his phone by now.”
“When you get to know him, I’m sure you’ll like him,” Laurie was smiling and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. Lipstick rings lingered and stained his skin even after her lips left.
“What time do you have to be in bed?”
Even though Arthur knew the answer, ten ‘o’ clock, he wasn’t happy about the man sitting in the living room and decided he would have some fun with his mum. So, with a big smile on his face, he looked her straight in the eye.
“I can wait up for you,” Arthur beamed.
Laurie, keen to the game her son was playing smiled back, “ten ‘o’ clock, and you know that.”
One more kiss before she left, this time on the forehead and once again, another lip stick smudge that Arthur detested before she opened the door, smiled once more, and went to greet Mark.
All alone now and the apartment seemed different to Arthur. It was as if the shadows had taken on a life of their own and were now joyously dancing and merrily singing their way around the darkness. Feet weighed down with trepidation tiptoed into the bleak, dark kitchen. A small slither of light from a close by street lamp illuminated a small streak of light in the middle of the room. Arthur could feel his breath getting heavy and his heart quicken. He felt Pepper brush up against his legs and he shivered.
“Nothing to be scared of boy,” he said, lacking conviction.
Pepper nonchalantly pranced into, through, and back out of the room.
“You’re right,” and Arthur stepped into the darkness of the kitchen.
As soon as his feet touched the cold tiles of the kitchen, he shivered again. An unsettling cold slithered over his body, entering his nostrils and slipping out past his lips. He started walking and had reached half way when he heard a rasping, burdened breath from somewhere behind him. His heart stopped, his blood ran cold and he felt faint. A cold, scaly hand covered in callouses and boils reached out from the shadows. The small streak of light reflected off of shark like teeth and gnarled fingernails. Arthur froze, his senses filled with an eerie blackness. The hand curled backwards, and with a daft silence, it sliced through the air, aimed at the back of Arthur’s head. Its long fingernails extended outwards, seeking the jugular. Arthur tried to run but his legs had stopped working. The killing blow was only inches from the boy’s head when Pepper, letting out a defiant hiss, leapt forward and clenched his teeth and claws into the arm. The thing in the shadows let out a shrill cry that was immediately wrapped in shadows and strangled the sound from the air. As the arm wildly thrashed back and forth, Pepper refused to let go until, finally, the scaly, gnarled arm retreated back into the shadows, and Pepper dropping back to floor.
Throughout all of this, Arthur had stood motionless, too scared to turn around. Now that the cold darkness had given way to the darkness Arthur was used to, he bent down and picked up Pepper, giving him the biggest hug he could.
“Thank you,” he choked, still unaware of what exactly had happened, as he quickly crossed the room and flipped on the light switch.
With the lights all on and the sounds of the television to keep him company, Arthur finally relaxed and sat back down on the couch. Arthur and Laurie’s apartment wasn’t big, but neither was it small. The living room, where Arthur was sitting now, was attached to the kitchen, which was attached to the laundry, which led out to a little courtyard where Laurie would hang their washing on warm days. If you walked in the other direction, you would stroll down a short corridor where a door on the left would lead to the bathroom and shower and two doors on the right to the two bedrooms. Even though it was modest, it was all Arthur ever needed and he knew it was all his mom could provide. Maybe that was the reason he had never complained or argued.
Arthur changed through the channels on the television quicker than ever, trying desperately to find something to watch. When he looked at the clock dangling on the painted brick wall, he realised it was only 7:30pm. This of course meant he still had two and a half hours of what was shaping up to be boredom until he had to go to bed. A man appeared on the television, wearing a clean cut suit and sitting behind a desk. Arthur immediately recognised it as the nightly news and, for a change, decided to see what was happening in the world outside of Belmont. Outside the wind had picked up and started to smash violently against the windows as it begged and pleaded to be let in from the cold. Pepper, Arthur’s little white and grey cat, slunk across the coach and nestled into Arthur’s chest, letting out a soft purr and falling back asleep.
“Tonight we have severe wind warnings for the South-East and Northern suburbs Peter. Wind’s up to 110 kilometres per hour are expected and SES emergency crews have been put on standby,” the newscaster read as he pointed to a map.
“So you would be suggesting everybody to stay indoors and make sure everything outside is tied down?” asked an older looking man who Arthur was able to identify as the lead newscaster.
The camera panned back to the first man.
“Definitely, if you do have any emergencies notify the SES and they will do their best to get someone out to you.”
Arthur stood up from the couch and looked outside. Storm clouds had rolled in from over the city skyline and, almost like clockwork, slivers of lightning and rollicking thunder illuminated the sky. Arthur knew he was safe, but his mother was out there, somewhere in the rain and the thunder and the wind. He just hoped that she would be alright.
The news finished and Arthur turned the television off. For five long minutes he sat on the couch, in silence, just listening to the sound of Pepper purring on his stomach and the wind slapping the glass windows. Arthur had a secret, something he only liked to do when nobody, especially his mother, was around because he thought it would make her feel guilty. As he slowly moved Pepper off his stomach and rested his floppy form on the couch next to him, Arthur stood up and looked around. He stood like that, just listening and waiting, for a good minute or so further, as if somebody was about to burst through the door and his dastardly act would be revealed. Finally appeased in the silence he slowly crept, one trembling foot after the other, into his mother’s bedroom. Laurie’s bedroom wasn’t big but wasn’t small, it was just simply ordinary. She did have a Queen Size bed, although Arthur knew it was more for him and those nights when he heard noises or sounds. Growing up he would do that a lot. Late at night something, whether it was a creak or a groan, would wake him and he would lie silently in bed. Some nights he would be able to coax himself back to sleep, but most times he was simply too scared. On those nights, he would creep slowly and silently down the short stretch of corridor separating the two bedrooms and silently swing his mother’s door open. Without making a sound he would tip toe to her bedside and gently nudge her until finally, she would roll over and he would get in. Laurie, ever the good mother, would roll over the next morning and look at her son and say the same thing. With sparkling eyes and a big smile she would look him in the eye and say, “I’m glad you came in last night. I heard some sounds and, honestly, I was a little scared.”
That always made Arthur feel better, even though he knew his mother wasn’t really scared, he liked the thought of it just the same. Now, alone in the house and alone in his mother’s room, he felt like he was betraying her. She had done so much to raise him as a single mother and he loved her for it, although he would never admit it out loud, which is why the feelings of curiosity tormented him. Laurie and Arthur talked about everything. After all, she had to be the mother and the father. They discussed everything from the mundane and normal, such as what to have for dinner, to the deep and meaningful, like puberty and growing up. After Arthur asked out his first love, Rosaline Reader, and she said no, it was Laurie who took him out for ice cream and to the movies on a date of her own. Later that night she sat him down and explained that, in her words, “there were plenty of fish in the sea and that he had plenty of time to find the right one.”
Still, what Arthur was about to do was something he had done at least once a week, when he was alone because his mother had gone out or was still on her way home from work. He was still troubled by what he was about to do but he crept over to her wardrobe and slowly opened it, just so a sliver of light could creep inside. Arthur knew where it was, Laurie never moved it and he was always very careful to put it right back where he found it so that she would never know he knew about it. He needed some added height so he pulled over a small step stool and hoisted himself up onto it. From there he could see the contents of her top shelf and, sure enough, sitting there on top of a stack of old, folded sweaters that he had never seen his mother wear, was a bright red photo album with a gold spine and the word ‘Photos’ obscured by dust. A floorboard creaked somewhere outside the bedroom and Arthur froze mid-grab and waited. His heart started to race and he could feel a small bead of sweat materialise on his forehead. For thirteen long seconds his trembling hand hovered over the photo album, just waiting to get in trouble. But nothing, nobody came in, nobody screamed at him and nobody told him that he was a bad son and he would get what was coming to him. Feeling a little rattled Arthur quickly snatched the album and collapsed onto his mother’s bed.
Arthur used his index finger to trace the lines of the word ‘Photos’ and even though he had seen the word and the album many times before it still twisted a knife in his stomach. Of course, it wasn’t so much the word ‘Photos’ but rather what the photos were of that always made Arthur wish for something he knew he shouldn’t wish for. Carefully and methodically, for he didn’t want to rip or tear any pages, he opened to the first page. There, on a faded, glossy 6x4 inch photo was a man. Not just any man though, his hair was as blonde as the summer sun and his eyes as blue as the deepest ocean. He had a big smile on his face, a smile that Arthur imagined to be infectious to everybody around him, and in his strong, tender arms was a blanket and inside that blanket Arthur knew it was him as a baby. Arthur figured he had looked at that photo a thousand times, or at least that was how it felt, but the effect was always the same. Before he could stop it, a small tear pooled in the corner of his eye and slowly wriggled loose, slipping down his cheek until finally, tearing away at his chin and splashing onto the bed sheets. Arthur’s father looked happy, and Arthur realised a long time ago that the happiness was because of the baby. To some, that may have been a consolation but to Arthur, it just left more questions. He turned the page again and another picture stared back at him. He recognised his mother, father and himself in a little rickety blue pram standing outside a house that wasn’t the cramped apartment he lived in now. With a tiled roof, wooden veneer and little porch complete with a swing, he wondered for the hundredth time what had happened to it and why they didn’t live there now? Arthur puffed out a sigh of discontentment and moaned to himself as his mind drifted to a life he could have had. One more turn of the page and he stopped cold when he saw the picture. He was sitting at the kitchen table, a table he didn’t recognise in a house he didn’t know he’d been in with his smiling father over his shoulder and a cake in front of him. Three shining candles were about to be blown out in a memory Arthur wished he could remember.
“What happened to you dad?” Arthur asked the smiling man in the photo, “Why did you have to leave?”
It was a question he desperately wanted to know the answer to but he couldn’t ask his mother, because he didn’t want his mother to think she was doing a bad job. Arthur turned the page one more time and the smiling man was gone. Time permitted, Arthur would have looked at that photo album all night, even slept with it next to him in hopes that he would wake up with a new answer. Unfortunately, time had played a cruel trick on him and another hour had mysteriously vanished meaning it was almost time for bed unless he wanted to get into trouble. With increasingly heavy eyes Arthur closed the album, popped up onto the stool and put the album back. Before he got down and buried the memory for another week he asked once more, to nobody in particular, “what happened to you?” As his eyes started to sting he jumped down, closed his mother’s wardrobe and walked down the corridor towards his room.
No sooner had Arthur closed his mother’s door did clothes start to mysteriously shift and sway around the room, almost as if my magic.
“Get outta the way you lubnuck,” a voice grunted.
“You get outta my way you lubnuck,” a second voice grunted back.
From under Laurie’s bed crawled two little men, no taller than a man’s knee but wider than two combined and with thick necks and stubby workers hands. Their faces were old and grizzled with many crease lines covering their foreheads. One had a big red beard, the other a bushy white one and both had eye brows and long bridles of hair that almost touched the back of their knees to match. Both wore brown cargo type pants with white shirts and plain but heavy jackets meant to keep out the cold.
“Damn shame ain’t it?” asked the red bearded man. His voice was hoarse and gravelly.
“You’re a damn shame, you know that. Always lookin’ for th’ lost cause ain’t you. Boy’ll be jus’ fine. Laurie’s done a right, good job raisin’ that tyke,” mumbled the white beared man. He was gruff and tough and knocked about the room as he spoke.
Both of them started to pick up discarded tops and dirty pants and sort them into clean and dirty piles. They folded what was clean and gently tucked it away where it belonged, and, from nowhere, both produced white linen bags and shovelled the dirty washing into them. Clumping and stomping around, the two strange little men tirelessly picked up everything off of the floor until there was nothing but clean carpet.
“I ain’t never say nothin’ bout Laurie not raisin’ him good like. Be nice though, for the boy to know his father, considerin’ everythin’ and all,” shrugged the red bearded man.
All the white beared man did was shake his head slowly, “you jus’ lookin’ for a lost cause. Quiet and clean we don’t got too long, Laurie don’t mind us cleanin’ but she be right pissed off if she catch’s us up ‘ere.”
A big smile crept onto the face of the red beared man, “we can play wit’ the kitty if we finish?”
Without looking up, the white beared man pointed on top of the bed at Pepper, curled up watching the two men clean, “you hurry ‘n clean ‘n if we got time sure, don’t see no harm in it.”
“Kitty,” the red bearded man smiled as he tossed a handful of dirty underwear into his knapsack.