Sunset Is Just The Beginning
"Eternity to the godly is a day that has no sunset; eternity to the wicked is a night that has no sunrise." – Thomas Watson
West Norwood, South London
Rows of blazered backs hunched over their desks suited Theo just fine. As far as he was concerned, his classmates could use a little fun, whether they asked for it or not. He himself already had what he needed, including the element of surprise.
He reached gingerly into his pocket and plucked out a small, clear plastic envelope, holding it by its corner. Aquascutum had provided each of their suits with a re-sealable envelope of spare buttons in sartorial ignorance, not knowing what use the young Papakostas would put one to. Far too little time spent reading his books and too much time spent rifling through his dad’s wardrobe and trying on his clothes when Papakostas Senior was out with friends. And this was how Theo had found the clear plastic envelope and the buttons he had tossed aside – as well as the spider he had placed securely inside in their stead.
A glance at the clock told Theo it was a few minutes shy of a quarter to four. Some of his classmates had already begun the universal fidget of preparing to go home: bags drawn out from beneath chairs, pens and books stashed back in their desks. Every row and column of seated students gradually gave attention away from Mr. Harrow gesturing at the chalkboard to thoughts of escape.
He cocked his head, sizing up André at the desk in front. The kid was a scaredy-cat, afraid of everything, including his own shadow. No wonder. André would have to eat non-stop for a year just to get skinny.
He weighed the enveloped spider in his hand, thoughtfully. “Hey, André!” he whispered.
André looked around, his eyes wide with curiosity.
Theo tossed the envelope and André caught it with ease. Seconds later, André registered what he had cupped his palms around, tossed it away, and scooted back in his chair, screeching along the wooden floor and jolting his desk in the process. The envelope in question flew past the girl one desk ahead and to the right, who gave a justified yelp of alarm. Commotion ensued throughout the classroom as heads turned toward the disturbance and the closer students backed away from their desks, but not too far; after all, there was still a disturbance to bear witness to. Mr. Harrow, an athletic spiky-haired thirty-something, made his way to the corona of desks and children cleared in the fracas. The spider, oblivious to the attention it garnered, skittered uselessly in its envelope next to the leg of a nearby desk. Hands pushed into his trouser pockets, Mr. Harrow bit his lip as if reigning in his amusement.
“Would anyone care to tell me what this arachnid is doing here?”
“Theo threw it at me!” André glared at Theo.
“Ah, come on, what would I want with that ugly thing? Don’t you think I’ve got better things to do, apart from putting creepy crawlies in an envelope?”
The two boys faced off against each other, moving in closer as their spectators followed suit. Theo bit back a smile. What he didn’t need wasn’t just for Mr. Harrow to see him kick André’s skinny black ass, but for Mr. Harrow to see him enjoy kicking André’s skinny –
“Ah-ah-ah,” Mr. Harrow said, a gentle yet firm hand placed on the shoulders of both Theo and his prey. “I think that’s enough excitement for one day. Class dismissed.”
The class, including André, began to file out. Theo made to follow, but the firm hand on his shoulder failed to budge. “Aww, Sir!” Mr. Harrow, Theo decided, was a cocksucker.
“Theo, this is where I could use your help.” Mr. Harrow beamed with despicable good cheer. “I know you’re a young man of strong character, and I’m well aware that many people are scared of spiders. Are you?”
“No sir,” he mumbled.
“Good! Then what I’d like to happen is for you to retrieve and release the unfortunate arachnid – perhaps that’s a new word for you – and be ready for a day of joyous learning tomorrow.” He leaned in closer, bringing a fine layer of stubble on his cheeks into focus. “A day without mischief.” Mr. Harrow’s smile dimmed. “Yes?”
Theo dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now you’re dismissed.”
Within fifteen minutes, Theo had disposed of the spider (even though he wanted to save it for another day), swallowed some of his pride, and exited the school grounds. Slowing as he reached through the keystone arch of West Norwood Cemetery, he paused only for a moment, lamenting his erstwhile prey, before deciding on a different route home. He entered the grounds, his face creased in a sneer at unbidden memories of that afternoon. The mere fact that Mr. Harrow saw fit to detain him and let everyone else go on time was just the beginning. Mr. Harrow would never going to come out and be straight with Theo, to tell him to behave. Oh, no. Mr. Harrow liked subtlety.
Mr. Harrow was such a cocksucker.
Theo stopped and looked back. He stood several yards within the cemetery now, an old couple passing him as they exited the grounds. The woman’s eyes creased behind horn-rimmed glasses: a smile not needing the mouth to complete it. Theo, eleven years of age and a novice in the nuances of adults, merely affected a look of wide-eyed innocence. The man smiled back before leading his lady out to the main road and then out of sight.
Theo turned back to the path. Never having set foot in a cemetery before, he had no idea what to expect – his only knowledge of graveyards having come from Scooby Doo cartoons and Hammer House Of Horror films that his dad would watch with him on a Saturday night. This cemetery appeared to be a far cry from any such fiction: an ornate arch of grey-green granite that a double-decker bus could easily pass under was just the beginning. Manicured lawns and clipped trees and bushes bordered the broad brick path on which he stood. Nothing like the forced silence of the classroom, the tranquility and greenery of his surroundings stirred his sense of wonder. He paused as a brief smile crept across his face.
He walked further in, passing a Ford saloon on his left parked near a granite chapel the same shade as the arch, a newer building of barely faded red-brick on his right, and the graveyard stretching before him.
Theo frowned as he straightened his tie – an unconscious gesture, but one consciously and continually drummed into him by his father to instil a sense of dignity and class. The cemetery held no fear for him, the sun only just beginning to set, but as everyone else appeared to have left, would his mere presence be disrespectful? He hoped not. He started forward into the grounds, barely noticing when the path had changed from brick to gravel. Entranced by the sea of multi-hued headstones and kerb sets in the grass as he meandered through the grounds, he noted that only a handful were black. Minutes later, he noted one with gold lettering, and he picked his way through a line of tilted headstones to reach it. The kerb set gleamed, its black polished surface inscribed with the heading “In Loving Memory”. The name and dates barely registered. Theo read on, mouthing silently as he did so, lingering on the last line: “Soon we shall see you again.”
Theo sat back on his haunches and exhaled, his brow knitting. What would make someone write something so sick on somebody’s grave? Did people actually look forward to coming here? The notion of looking forward to death as if it were a holiday in Hawaii –
An arm slipped around his neck and pulled hard, the blazer sleeve rough against the skin of his neck. “My turn, you shit! Shithead!”
Gagging, Theo tried to pry his attacker’s arm from his throat, but the other boy had a better grip and a better position. The assailant dragged Theo backward, negating any effort the bigger boy made to gain leverage and break free of the chokehold.
“Where’s your spider now? Shithead!” The voice was louder now, choked with tears. The forearm at his neck pressed harder as the other forearm came into play, forcing his head forward. Thinking he would suffocate, Theo groped desperately along the arm for where his opponent’s fingers would be as he himself began to lose consciousness.
Wind blew across the back of his neck, raising goose bumps in its wake as it ruffled his hair and Theo stirred, rising to consciousness like a party balloon clipped of its mooring. Scents of grass and cool, dry earth flooded his nostrils as his senses returned to waking clarity. Lying behind a line of tombstones, Theo pushed to his hands and knees, stray blades of grass falling from his blazer. His mouth felt dry and he swallowed, wincing at a knot of pain above his Adam’s apple.
Fucking André. Another cocksucker.
Clapping a hand on top of the nearest tombstone, Theo pulled himself to his feet and took in his surroundings. Twin furrows, faint in the grass wove a path from near his feet to several yards away where the kerb set with the weird inscription lay. Theo scanned the cemetery, his eyes widening as his heart lurched in alarm. As far as he could tell, the arch he’d entered through was distant enough to be out of sight, the terrain sloping more the deeper one progressed into the cemetery. Beyond that, the setting sun, not visible itself, but the faintest trace of amber glowing in the horizon slowly subdued by increasing shades of indigo from the night sky. Which meant the caretaker would have long since locked up the grounds for the night.
Turning on his heel, Theo continued to venture deeper into the cemetery, hoping to find a way to exit at the other end and slowing when he had passed the last row of gravestones. Coarse unkempt shrubbery as high as his chest spanned the last few yards to the cemetery wall, a thick and steep stone wall encircling the grounds. Panic crept through him in long vines at the sight. He bit his lip, his breath coming in short, shallow exhalations. The wall appeared to be a good ten feet tall, with wrought iron spikes mounted at the top. Minutes passed as he stood impotently, muttering agitated curses to himself before he resigned himself to trek back through to the cemetery’s entrance. By the time he reached the kerb set that boasted the weird inscription, the sky’s indigo blue had deepened. He leaned against a nearby tombstone and let out a shaky sigh.
And yards ahead of him, a sigh came floating back.
Numbed by alarm, Theo collapsed, landing heavily on his ass. He stared ahead, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. As far as he could tell, the cemetery stood deserted, apart from him. He strained his ears, trying to pick up the slightest sound, from a snatch of birdsong to a rustle in the grass nearby. Nothing. He sat stone still, hands braced behind him, fingers in the rough grass, a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his face.
The sigh came again, unmistakeable, drifting up from the earth between headstones yards away. Theo’s pulse began to thud in his temples. In the growing darkness, a swatch of earth by one of the further tombstones began to lift, like the gentle ripple of a current at sea.
He retreated on his ass and hands, groping backward past unyielding stone edges, not caring about the dirt and grass soiling his school uniform. He backed away until he could no longer see the pulsing patch of earth. What stopped him was when he heard a showering of debris and dirt and a much louder sigh… an open-mouthed breathing.
Theo bit his lip, trying to work up the courage to investigate. Silence greeted him.
A sidelong glance revealed a crawl path through the tombstones that would carry him deeper into the cemetery and nearer to the shrubbery-fronted wall. While he knew he had more size and strength than many of his classmates (his blazer sleeves were already tight over his upper arms), Theo also knew strength alone wouldn’t be enough in unfamiliar terrain. Straining to maintain silence of movement, he slowly eased his ass off the ground, repositioning himself a few inches back, before following suit on his heels and splayed fingers. And again. And again, until he built up a rhythm. And again, starting to pick up –
“Where are you going?” the voice rasped.
Theo flinched, his eyes screwed shut. Alarm clutched at him with long spindly fingers, and he trembled. In facing an escalating fear, his control weakened and his bladder let go, flooding his trouser leg with warm urine. More seeped through the fabric, soaking into the ground.
An inhalation, as if a wine enthusiast had smelled the first scent from a newly opened bottle. “I can hear you and smell you quite well. Why would you seek to disturb my sleep, only to flee when I rise?” The voice sounded like wind blowing through dead leaves.
Anxiety twanged within him, fight warring with flight. He slid his tongue along his lower lip.
He scrambled to his feet and ran further into the cemetery. Behind him came the sound of footfalls. Footfalls growing closer… and a momentary silence followed by a rush of air overhead before a pale white form dropped behind one of the farther tombstones. Theo skidded to a halt, stumbled, and fell, his hands slapping the earth, one of them pressing heavily on a sharp stone. As he pushed to his feet, ignoring the pain in his palm, a naked form rose slowly and deliberately, its back to him. The thing stood over six feet tall, almost skeletally thin with a large bulbous head atop a skinny neck. Theo stared as it turned with excruciating slowness to look over its shoulder at him. Lidless yellow eyes with pinprick pupils fixed on him and beneath the nostril slits, the lips parted in a grin of filthy, pointed teeth. Viscous saliva dripped from the corner of its mouth.
“I imagine you must find me quite terrifying, child.”
Theo back-pedalled until the unyielding surface of another tombstone halted him. The creature crept closer, grasping its way around headstones as it did so. With each step it took came awful revelation: the smell of earth atop a stink like rotting fish, thick talons at the ends of the fingers and toes. It came to a stop inches away from him, its gaze inscrutable.
A bony hand shot forward and clasped the top of Theo’s head. He shut his eyes at the feel of the cold, hard fingers, and fresh tears ran down his cheeks. An inhalation sounded close to his ear.
“Too long and too often have I had none for company, save the corpses around me. Fitting meals, but lacking in majesty,” the voice said. “Tonight, I shall not only forgive you your trespass, I shall also thank you for it – for you have brought me something new this night. Do you know what that is?”
Restrained by the grip, Theo barely managed to shake his head.
“Answer me, child.” The fingers tightened, the talons dimpling his scalp.
“No,” he sobbed. “I don’t know, honestly, I don’t. I just… want to go home.”
“Fear.” The word came on an exhalation of clammy, fetid air, before something thick and wet slid across his neck, leaving a trickling trail of moisture on his skin. “Delicious fear.”
“Please… let me go.”
Theo collapsed in a heap, the unexpected movement freeing him from the creature’s grasp. He opened his eyes and saw the pale legs in front of him, the tip of a long, pale penis dangling before him.
“These grounds are rich in carrion. Flesh much older than you. Why should I dine on cold carcasses when there is the chance of a warm one before me?” The creature stooped. “Be thankful you will be dead before I begin to feast.”
Theo recoiled from the sight of the grinning thing, his lower lip trembling.
“André,” he blubbered, “it should be you, it should be shithead you, you shithead –”
“Who is this André?”
A hard point dug into his neck, stopping short of drawing blood. “I grow weary,” the voice rasped. “Answer quickly and truthfully or I will peel the skin from you. Who is this André?”
“He…” Theo swallowed, the sharp pressure at his neck not relenting. “He jumped me, he… he left me here.”
Every occasion that Theo had been called back by a teacher, scolded by his mother, beaten by his father – all those moments of truth now paled in comparison to his current predicament. His gut tightened, as if drawn taut like high-octave piano wire. Glancing in the direction of the discomfort, he saw the creature glaring at him, the mouth set in a hard and humourless line. The outstretched arm never trembled, never wavered.
“I scared him,” he whispered.
“A spider?” The voice held derision. “Such a lowly creature is of no consequence and hardly enough for a mouthful. Continue.”
Theo licked his dry lips and swallowed, cursing inwardly at the discomfort against his neck. “I threw a spider at him.”
And that was the question for which no answer was justifiable, the stark and ugly truth that may have cost Theodore Papakostas his life, simply because he would do things without thinking. Stupid things.
He began to cry again, mucus beginning to run in his nostrils. “To… scare him.”
“This gave you pleasure?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“I see.” Silence, punctuated only by Theo’s sobbing and sniffling. Then a sibilant gasp, accompanied by a rank breath of air. “He left you here to frighten you in return?”
What? Did he? Unsure of himself and of his very life, Theo nodded as if his chin were signalling Morse code.
“Very well. Look at me.”
Eyes hot and wet with tears, Theo obeyed.
With its talon still against Theo’s neck, the creature shuffled closer until Theo could see faded spots and blemishes in its skin. “Snivelling child. Your presence alone is an affront to me. Were it not for your confession of malice toward another, I would kill you now.” The yellow eyes fixed on him, the mouth grim and unsmiling. “For now, you shall live.”
Long, bony fingers clutched the lapels of his blazer and yanked him forward with obscene strength. Rising to its full height, the creature hefted him easily. It strode deeper into the cemetery, through the myriad tombstones, and waded through the deep, dense shrubbery with ease before coming to the wall. Digging its talons into crevices in the brickwork, the monster scaled the wall with Theo in one hand before swinging him over the wrought iron spikes and dangling him above the ground. Theo clutched at the slimy arm holding him aloft, his legs pinwheeling in mid-air. The creature shook him once, hard, and Theo immediately stilled himself.
“Heed me, child. You sought to bring fear to another. Yet you brought misfortune upon yourself. Is that not so?”
“Y-yes,” he stammered. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“Silence. You shall survive this night… but you shall carry your fear with you.”
The creature smiled, yellow eyes seemingly bulging larger. “Oh yes.” It drew him closer, flicking its long tongue at his chin through the iron spikes and Theo recoiled. “Your scent and your fear are delicious. Go. Feed and cultivate your fear. Tell stories of me that none shall believe.”
The creature dangled and dropped him, and Theo hit the ground hard. Despite landing on the balls of his feet as Mr. Worrell had always told him in P.E., the height was too great, and the landing jarred his knee, collapsing him in agony. Clutching his injured leg, he looked up at the top of the wall.
“You have survived me this night. Make no mistake: when next we meet, you will not.” The creature’s face pressed against the iron spikes as the tongue flicked across the mouth, aping the anticipation of a sumptuous banquet.
The hideous face grinned before disappearing behind the wall, leaving nothing behind but a terrified child cowering alone on the pavement.