2011 Shortlist: Black Hooks by Ruth Ingamells
This is a shortlisted story for the 2011 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
The car was on the edge of the city when her waters broke, dusk was imminent.
“We need to find shelter,” said the man.
“Then find it!” she snapped.
They sped down a deserted street, searching through the fatigue to get somewhere safe. The car thudded over body and bone with ease, lining the streets with blood and mud. The girl, sickening with pale pain, writhed rigidly with little consciousness or sense. Bloody bubbles popped onto the seat fabric, soaking deeper into a stain. White panic was building, puckered and manic, knuckles bleached and bleeding. The car stopped.
“How close?” he said.
“I don’t know, I’m trying,” she said.
“Can you stand?”
He parked the car near the house he had chosen, squat and suburban, got out and helped the woman out of the car, supporting her up the driveway before breaking inside. He had only a few minutes before darkness. Leaving her there he hurried to the boot of the car and pulled out several containers full of chemicals and splashed them over the top and onto the tyres and followed the tracks of blood up the road about a hundred metres spreading the fluid as he went, washing away their scent. He then sprinted back to the house, poured the remainder of the fluid onto the porch and then pushed the door closed.
It was dark now but he dared not light a fire. He hoped the house was empty.
He helped the woman up the stairs and into the bedroom, barring the door behind them and closing the shutters on the house. They did not speak. Bleak blurs of furniture scattered the room and the bed lay dusty. It would do.
“Is this a good idea?” she asked.
“We can’t move now,” he said.
“I know, but perhaps we should check the house?” she said.
“Best not to leave the room.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, the contractions aren’t as bad now, I should be able to sleep,” she lied, ignoring the pain that had spread from her abdomen to her lower back.
The silence outside was unsettling, it rendered the space vacuous and breathless. The woman lay awake in darkness until the pain exhausted her body and eventually sleep stole her. They were deaf to the scuttling rustles that only a keen listener would have heard. Few but distinct sounds in the road and around the car outside; little clicks barely audible.
In the early morning unwelcome consciousness forced them awake. Neither hurried to get up, they relished the rest but pushing noon they knew they had to move. The man pushed open the front door and waited. Nothing stirred, even with the hot sun reflecting off the broken windows in the house opposite, the feeling of darkness remained. They hurried to the car and got in, the seat was still wet with blood and the woman winced as it seeped into her but made no complaint. He put his seatbelt on.
“Where are we going? There’s no one here,” she asked.
“We need to find somewhere safe to get that thing out of you,” he said.
“I don’t know, away from here,” he said.
Passing through the moulding streets they watched for any sign of life. Nothing. Cinema signs dated films several months ago and the smell of rotting meat and vegetation permeated the air. The man negotiated the car around the debris but when he reached the road leading across the bridge they saw it was blocked. A children’s bus stretched across the gap and cars piled up behind it, a massive middle finger of metal directed at them. The car stopped, engine still running and a winded silence issued between them.
The woman got out of the car. “What are you doing?” demanded the man.
She ignored him and strode towards the pile, gritty with anger and kicked the bus screaming profanities, struggling around the swollen bulge that leeched off her. He waited. She returned eventually, wilted, and folded back into the car.
“Feel better?” he said.
“No,” she answered.
“Alright,” he said.
“Where do we go now?”
“There’s another way out across town.”
They returned back down the main street in blacker moods, bleakly aware of the swollen danger, gravely greyer. Meandering down shady streets, creeping to grasp the road that reached around the lip of the city. The car wheeled over curb and crust, deep and gritty, with little mindful direction. Nausea was the constant feeling, a bleary queasy sickness, not only from the smell but from the intense fear that held them. But after days of eating little more than scraps even the nausea was overcome.
Food was scarce but luckily not all the tins in the myriad of malls had been looted. It was pushing early evening when they found any worth opening but as he pierced the lid with his army knife they clustered around the meagre meal and etiquette abandoned them. They paid no heed to the settling sun.
“We need to move,” he said suddenly.
“Wait -” she hunched over.
“What? What’s wrong?” he said.
“Contractions,” she managed.
His chest tightened. Not now. Not here. He was stupid to bring her to this place, stupid and irresponsible.
“We need to move now!” He hauled her towards the car.
She was bleeding again, fumbling at her dress, weakly mumbling for water and comfort which he couldn’t provide. Somehow he got her to the car and put it in gear, ploughing through the traffic that stood static. They were close to the railway station frantically looking for somewhere to hide, craning to look into all the nooks. Without warning the car hit something unidentified, he turned his head to the windscreen to see a face stare back. She was pressed against the glass, face bleeding, splintered and splayed. Shades of reds misted the glass, her face printed in lipstick and blood. He had hit someone. Screaming he slammed on the brakes throwing the corpse off and the woman next to him forward. He heard her arm break. They halted, the engine gurned. The woman beside him was crumpled, cuts down her face and arms, whimpering stickily. She had been thrown about the car as it skidded and the blood was no longer localised to her thighs but all around her face and body. They had thought they were alone in the husk of a city. They had been wrong.
He pulled her from the wreckage and began stumbling towards the station. “It’s coming,” she choked.
He saw in his periphery a large metal container used to shift goods and with new hope he wrenched the door open and pushed her inside. As dusk swamped he managed to spread some chemicals before locking them inside.
There was no light, darkness diffused into their skin, sinking through their eyes, a dye that tainted. She was groaning deliriously by this point, squirming in the dirt, he pulled off his shirt and dabbed the blood dribbling. She was drained.
“It’s coming!” she sobbed. He took out his knife.
“I’m here,” he said quietly and felt around her inner thighs, he could feel it pushing through.
“I have to push! I’m sorry,” she said.
“I’ll get it ok? Do it now!” he hissed.
Something soft and slimy pressed into his hands and as he tightened them around it, it squirmed, smelling of low tide. He felt it thrash in his grip, six legs trying to fight but he held on. “Kill it!” she wailed.
Quickly he trapped it between his knees and stabbed downward into the thing, slashing and hatching until it ceased to move. He felt the warm fluid dribble, ripped skin ripple and shred. They sat in the tepid gunge, and he pressed his shirt in her thighs until the bleeding stopped and they could breathe again.
“How do we get away from here?” she said.
“There will be a way, there must be a way,” he said. “are you alright?”
“I don’t know,” she said, fading into unconsciousness.
“Sleep, we will do something tomorrow,” he said.
Only silence answered him.
Light diffused in through the many pin-prick holes in the side of the container. He shook her awake and opened the door. The sun was embracing. Her arm was clearly broken but he splinted and slung it as best he could.
“Can you walk?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
They left the body of the thing mangled in the container, deflated and deformed. The box that had served as a safe house the night before now looked haunting in the light, a tomb left cold and skeletal, a brittle Kohl grave.
They walked through the city, heading to the coast where the second bridge would be. When the port was sighted they saw a ferry there waiting and small throng of people, huddled and hiding from the jigsaw buildings behind them. Perhaps the city was not forgotten. They ran towards the port, hopelessly happy for company. The crowd flinched from sight of more people and as the two joined them they wordlessly frisked them for food or water which neither could offer. Everyone had a wild wheezing mien. All the women were pregnant.
“Where is it going?” the man asked another.
“Mainland,” said the other shortly.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Where else? Both bridges are blocked.
“Last night,” he said.
He returned to the woman who was helping one of the more pregnant women move up the ramp and onto the boat.
“We should go,” he said. “With them?” she said. “Yes,” he answered.
She nodded, flocking with the others onto the ferry, leaving behind the city. A city wearied by the unwanted, riddled with danger and anger, soon to die from its parasite and remain a ruin. As the ferry left the city the people began to relax, lying down or resting dry eyes. They sat close in a cold corner.
“Are we going somewhere safe?” she asked tiredly.
“Yes,” he said.
“I would love a bed.”
“You’ll get one.”
They sat, mute.
“Do you think Mum and Dad are alive?” she asked. “I doubt it,” he said quietly.
They sat again. “My arm hurts.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
It was dark inside the ferry, and as it moved further out to sea, clouds formed and cast shadows, draining the little warmth that the sun gave. The inside of the ferry was lines with wooden panels, storage space for luggage. They were nearly rotten, etched with scratch marks and freckled with holes. A rank stench began to rise, smelling like poisoned water and rotten salt grappling their senses. As the waters deepened the stench of low tide rose high. As the people rested these panels began to shake, not violently at first but as it exceeded the vibration of the engine people began to notice. As the wood began to split everyone huddled in the centre of the ferry, fraught limbs taut with frantic panic hitting and clawing. Out of the ferry poured hundreds of little black bodies armoured in black exoskeletons, skull-sized, four legs and two at the front with a hook on each designed to drag. Emaciated hollow faces ridged pulp. Black creatures that knew you were there.
Screams erupted in high pitched terror and every woman on seeing the things clutched their bellies going into early labour. In the panic no one noticed them collapse and moan, unable to run or fight. Out of them came more of the black organisms, shelless but animated and scuttled to join their kind. Placenta followed shortly after, creating a viscous film on the floor.
Brother and sister headed for the edge of the ferry, as did many others not paralysed with dry fear. The cold water was preferable.
“I can’t swim!” cried the woman, lifting her broken arm,
“You’ll have to try!” he yelled.
In their hesitation the dark crabs pierced their ankles, hooking and dragging through skin and tendon. The man fell forward and hit his head, hard, on the railing. He blacked out. Around him people were falling, their faces enveloped by a black body until knocked unconscious. The woman in her fatigue and exhaustion felt darkness dribble into her mind unbidden and unprovoked.
She woke up in a cell, surrounded by bodies piled on bodies, blood soaking the metal floor, ceiling high and dripping and iron walls that had bloody fingernails dug into the metal.
“How… where are we?” she mumbled.
There was a movement behind her and she flinched – it was her brother.
“You’re awake,” he said, “I don’t know where we are, but they caught us in the end. There was no crew on the ferry, did you notice?”
“No,” she answered.
The floor shifted.
“I think we’re on the sea,” he said.
“Yes, I think we’re on a boat or island or something. Something they made.”
“How? How could they make anything,” she said.
“We underestimated them,” he said.
In her own words:
"I currently study english at Queen Mary University of London, having always loved both reading and writing fiction. In writing "Black Hooks" I was influenced by writers such as Pratchett, Atwood, Joyce, and Woolf. It was originally a vivid nightmare I once had, which presented itself as colourful and coherent, and in which I was not present. This made it perfectly adaptable to the medium of a short story. It was my first attempt at writing for an audience and I'm very pleased to have gotten so far with it. I hope you enjoy it."