A few months ago I came across a short story collaboration in The New Yorker based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. This inspired the short story ‘The Pact’, written in collaboration with other writers. Essentially, the deal was fifteen writers, three hundred words each, no discussions and minimal editing. Follow the links to read part one and part two. Here, at last, it the third and final part of the story. A big thanks to the writers involved and I hope you enjoy it. Stop by the comments to let us know what you think and merry Christmas everyone.
“I gotta say,” Will said, “I’m kinda relieved you’re not my granny.”
Scareesha’s mouth twisted.
“You wouldn’t want my blood. You’ve enough problems with your own.” Opening her hands, she sent the knitted symbol into the air, where it hung cobweb-thin in the pooling blue light. Todd had curled into himself, silent and still; his phone lay upturned on the carpet, full of a half-finished message. He moved wet-dark fingers over his neck. Glaring at the couch, Will knelt, shuffling towards his friend on hands and knees. The cat blinked, a slow burn of amber, and stayed where it was.
Scareesha snorted. “You’ve more important things to worry about than a bleeding fool.”
“So you keep telling me. And everything else, while locking me in to wait for people who’re coming after me.” His back stiffened as the cat made a noise, but Scareesha only raised a hand. The phone flickered and died as the webbed symbol turned, slow-and-slow, growing in the air. Will held his breath. Numbers and letters threaded themselves through the yarn, collecting like rain in the faded skin and eyes of the old woman.
She watched his face. “You’ve no one else to trust. Be sensible.”
Thick warmth touched his hand. Will flinched, glancing down. Todd’s eyes were wide and dark; he smelled of iron.
“Just keep that thing away from me. I don’t care about the rest.” His friend licked his lips. “Whatever she’s on about, I won’t look. I won’t watch.”
A low laugh. Scareesha’s hand trembled as it traced shapes on the air, mapping the room in digit loops that found the clock and the mirror. Will felt the old woman’s fear as snow underfoot, burning and cold.
Soundless, the cat peeled away from the wall. It stalked the revolving symbol,
which slurped down the alphanumeric strings like spaghetti. She shimmied her rear into a pouncing position.
The numbers zipped past Will’s face in barely legible streaks, but he was able to pick out a pattern. 3278…1893…990…423… A countdown sequence. Something important was about to happen very soon.
The strings reached their flailing ends. The symbol swallowed each one in quick succession, burping out the zeros.
Scareesha’s shoulders relaxed in the ensuing darkness. “The cosmic addresses have been resolved.” She gestured to the room’s remaining source of light, the symbol, which had morphed into a floating zero no bigger than a thumbprint. “Now for the tricky part. I want you to stick your finger into this hole.”
Will gave his hands a stupefied stare, as if suddenly forced to bid farewell to a dear friend.
“Don’t be a baby. I just need your boyish brawn.”
Will took an uneasy breath and approached the arcane zero at the slowest pace he could muster without moving in reverse. He hoped the easily frustrated old woman would rescind her order, but her glare did not budge.
The zero pulsed slightly as Will extended his chubby digit towards it. The edge of the ring emitted a brilliant blue light, but the center was a black void. A portal, he realized with a flash of panic. That meant anything could be lurking on the other side. A meat grinder. An alien with a pair of scissors. Or the vacuum of space—a much more likely and equally calamitous fate. Will’s finger trembled at the grim possibilities.
“Oh, do hurry up!” Scareesha moaned. “If you were in bed with a woman, she would have slapped your finger away and done the deed herself.”
Will’s eyes narrowed at the slight, and he plunged his finger through the opening.
Paula Reed Nancarrow
And then it was his body on the other side, and his finger wiggled through the opening backwards, as if chiding the naughtiness of the world outside the naught. The fused glass formed a wall in front of him, one that cleared and grew luminous. Elsewhere there were only shadows, twitching like flames, or the tail of the cat.
Gradually in the glass wall he saw things. He saw himself sleeping in a room full of colour and familiar objects; saw the sun rise in petrol hues. There was the old woman, translucent, telling him his mum had a “life’s work,” shaming him about bread crusts. There was Todd, not laughing at incest jokes, and bloody Randy, no longer making them.
He saw Granny – no, Scareesha – shoot lightening from her palms, heard the light bulbs shatter, and Todd invoke the god of WiFi; saw the cat attack Todd, and Scareesha calm the cat, assert herself as a Protector, throw her knitted alchemical cobweb into the air. He saw the cat stalking the revolving symbol, which danced on the wall like the point of a laser, till it rested on the hole his finger plugged.
“The cosmic addresses have been resolved,” he heard again. “Now for the tricky part.”
The scenes had a certain disconnected quality to them, like a jumpy, much-spliced reel of film. This is not the sort of story I would write about myself, he thought. Not the sort of play I would want to be in either. In his literature class they had been reading Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. What would it take, he thought for a moment, to author oneself?
“I’m glad you asked that question,” said a familiar voice behind him. And there she was. His mum.
Her feline form stretched and grew, limbs twisting and elongating, bones cracking, until the mother he recognised stood before him. She looked older, based strictly on the lines framing her face and the silver dappling her hair, but touched with a serenity that made her seem much younger, as if to her, the world was full of promise and opportunity waiting to be plucked like newly ripened apples.
Will stumbled. “Mum, what’s going on? I don’t–”
“Understand?” she finished for him. She shared a smile with Scareesha. “They never do, do they?” Will felt his own mouth warp into a dumbstruck simper as he watched his mother cross the room – a mirror image of their own – and seat herself next to the peculiar old witch.
“So few people ever reach this point, Will,” she said, in a voice part-lullaby, part-warm milk. So soothing. “Everyone is born with the potential, but most choose to ignore it. They are content to let fate author their lives for them, instead of grasping the chance to take charge of their own destiny. It’s about far more than just deciding to pursue a career, or a partner. It’s about seizing the very fabric of life itself and knitting it into the pattern that you choose.” Scareesha nodded agreement.
Will sank to the ottoman. His mother reached out and took hold of his hand. “I remember how scared I was when it was my turn, my son. I didn’t want to believe it either. But I need you to trust me now. Can you make this leap? Will you come with us?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” erupted a voice from behind. Will wheeled to see Todd, his form skewing and splintering into shards of pure darkness. It took no great leap, given what he’d learned, to surmise what his friend really was.
A Shadow Lender.
“Well,” his mother purred. “It’s about time.”
“We promised midnight,” Darkness seeped between Todd’s teeth. “But we didn’t say which one. Ever used Twitter? It’s always midnight somewhere. Time to pay up, sweetie.”
Will stood. “You’ll have to go through me first.”
Todd’s smile broadened. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
He raised his hands, thorny vines of blackness unrolling from his fingertips to encircle Will’s throat. Will tried to scream, but the spiked tendrils had already begun to squeeze.
Through a haze of pain, he saw his mum and Scareesha moving to flank Todd, and felt an icy current of fear run through him. Fear… and understanding.
The Shadow Lender had sprung his trap. But as the first sparks of lightning danced around Scareesha’s fingertips, Will understood whose trap this really was. In his mother’s hand Will saw a page of symbols, like the ones from the ottoman.
Todd had seen the page, too. His black eyes widened. Will felt the vines begin to withdraw. Scareesha shrieked, those strange indecipherable words, and a hundred blazing arcs leapt from her fingers. Todd screamed too, but whereas Scareesha’s cry had been triumphant, his was undiluted terror.
The lightning unravelled Todd, somehow. His body scattered like ashes, but something from the core of him was thrown across the room. It splattered across the paper that Will’s mother held, like some strange inkblot. The last of Todd’s body swirled into embers and was gone.
Will blinked, and found himself in the living room again. The real living room. Scareesha watched approvingly as his mother folded the sheet with the inky essence imprinted upon it.
“The cloak’s final ingredient,” she said. “The one they want to keep secret. A Shadow Lender’s soul.”
Will’s mother smiled at him. Her eyes were amber, slitted like a cat’s, but the smile was all her own.